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Ash Wednesday

For tonight’s Ash Wednesday service I wrote a monologue, retelling the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) from the perspective of one of her accusers.  I admit that I have embellished some of the details of the story (such as knowing what Jesus wrote) but I don’t feel any guilt about that!

~~~

I didn’t know her personally, you know, but I knew who she was.  I knew about the rumours, the reputation.  I knew what she’d done. What they said she’d done anyway.

I knew about him too, but he was a well respected public figure so we tried to keep his name out of it.  It wouldn’t go down well if he got caught up in the scandal.

It just makes me sick, you know, when people do things that are so patently wrong.  The law is clear, you don’t do it!  The punishment is clear too.  None of us enjoy this part of the job, it’s brutal, but someone has to do it and for now that’s us.

We got the tip-off from a neighbour early that morning.  Said she’d seen her sneaking in late at night but not out again so we knew she was likely to still be there.

As we entered the house I caught a glimpse of his face.  He looked at her with such tenderness, such love in his eyes.  But as soon as he spotted us that love turned to anger and he thrust her in our direction, “get this woman out of here” he shouted.

So that’s what we did.  We’d caught her in the act so there was no question that she was guilty.  You could see it in her eyes, she knew what she’d done, she knew what was coming.

We got to the temple just as the sun was beginning to creep over the hills, its golden light shone on the pale walls and scattered off the healing pools.

There would be no healing here today though, not for her.  This was the end of the road – the law had been broken and the punishment was death.

As we arrived in our little corner of the temple – out of the way so the tourists didn’t get put off – we tied her up and began to look around for suitable stones, not too big, not too small.  But as we turned back towards her we saw that she was not alone.

Someone was actually bending down and talking to her!  Perhaps it was one of the pilgrims who didn’t know what was going on but no, he looked like a Rabbi – surely he couldn’t misread a situation like this?

As he stood up and turned towards us I recognised his face, this was that new hotshot rabbi that everyone was talking about, the one who’d been making waves all through the countryside.  

Not the most popular chap around here if I’m honest, everyone wanted to be the one to get the better of him, to outwit him with some clever theological argument.  So far no-one had managed it. 

As we looked at each other we realised that maybe this could be our chance.  There was no loophole here, she’d committed the crime, been caught in the act, and the punishment was clear.  He couldn’t wriggle out of this one surely?

“Teacher”, our boss said to him, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now, what do you say?”  Seemed like a pretty watertight argument to me!

We all waited with baited breath see what he would say, would he step aside and let us stone her?  Seemed unlikely given what we knew about him.  But surely he wouldn’t contradict Moses’ teaching?  Not here in the temple with dozens of witnesses?

For a moment he looked at us with such deep sadness in his eyes then, glancing back at the terrified woman behind him, he knelt down and started writing in the dust with his finger.

It took a moment to work out what he was writing, it wasn’t easy to make out, but I think it was a verse from the Torah,

You are dust, and to dust you shall return” 

What did that mean?  He didn’t seem to be in any rush to answer our question and and after a while it seemed like he was just stalling for time so we kept pressing him.

“Come on Rabbi, what do you say?”

Slowly he stood up, brushed the dust off his hands and looked each of us in the eye.

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her

It took a moment to sink in, but when it did it was like I’d been struck by the rock I was holding.  Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

I looked at the woman again, really looked this time.  I saw the blood trickling down her cheek were we’d struck her.  I saw her hands, delicate fingers hardened by a life of hard work.  Through a rip in her dress I saw the stretch marks from a past pregnancy.  I didn’t know she had children, what would happen to them now?  I no longer saw the guilt, I saw the person.

And then I looked back at Jesus, and his eyes were like a mirror into my own soul.

I saw the bitterness I’d kept bottled up from all those times I didn’t get my own way.  I saw the fear that masqueraded as zealousness for God.  I saw the lack of compassion, of understanding, for anyone who didn’t agree with me.

I saw all those mistakes I’d made, mistakes I’d written off as ‘character flaws’, and suddenly I could see how others had been hurt by them.

As this washed over me in a flood of regret and sorrow, the stone in my hand felt like it weighed as much as one of the huge blocks that made up the temple wall.

I looked back towards the woman, but I couldn’t look her in the eye.  The guilt and shame I felt was so overwhelming I just turned and walked away.

As I walked the stone slipped from my hand and with it went the weight I’d been carrying around for so, so long.  The burden of guilt that had built up inside was suddenly washed away.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

And from that day on that is what I tried to do, each day.  Of course I still made mistakes, who doesn’t.  But in acknowledging them, and repenting of them, they don’t weigh on me as heavily as they once did.

I even went to see the woman again, to try and put things right there.  But when I saw her from a distance, playing with her daughter, she looked so happy, like Jesus had given her a second chance in life. So I didn’t go any closer.  

I knew exactly how she felt.
© Rich Clarkson 2017

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Crib Service poem

For this evening’s Crib Services (1,000 people across 2 services) I wrote a poem with responses for everyone to join in with.  I looked up rhymes for “amazing” and 4 of the suggestions were “grazing”, “stargazing”, “praising” and “self-raising”, after that the poem pretty much wrote itself!

Responses:

Mary – “Mamma-mia!” (Women)

Joseph – “Knock knock” (Men)

Jesus/baby – “shh…” (Children)

Angel – “hallelujah!” (balcony + choir)

Shepherds – “come-bye” (Left hand side)

Wise men – “wow!” (right hand side)

I want You – “who, me?” (Everyone)

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Part 1. Journey to Bethlehem

A long time ago an ordinary girl called Mary (Mamma Mia!) was asleep

when God sent an angel (hallelujah) to wake her with a message that nearly made her weep:

He said I want you (who, me?)

Yes you to follow me

I’m going to do something amazing

I want you (who, me?)

Yes you for you see

that bun in your oven is self-raising!

Mary (Mamma Mia) woke Joseph (knock knock) who’d heard the same thing so, with a yawn,

They headed to Bethlehem where, in a crowded room, Jesus (shhh…) “God with us” was born.

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Part 2. Shepherds and angels

Later that night some shepherds (come bye) were out on the hills with their sheep

when God sent some angels (hallelujah!) with a message that woke them right up from their sleep:

They said I want you (who, me?)

Yes you to follow me

In Bethlehem there’s something amazing

I want you (who, me?)

Yes you, come and see:

God is with us! leave your sheep to their grazing.

So the Shepherds (come bye) went down into town and found Mary (Mamma Mia) and Joe (knock knock)

Then when they saw the Lord Jesus (shh…) fast asleep they praised God before heading back home.

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Part 3. Wise Men
A long way away some wise men (wow!) watched the skies in a far off land

So God sent a comet to blaze night and day. A message that they could understand:

It said I want you (who, me?)

Yes you to follow me

over there there’s something amazing

I want you (who, me?)

Yes you, and you’ll see

the king prophesied by your stargazing

So the wise men (wow!) packed and got on their way, and found the baby (shh…) who was also a kkin

Gave Mary (Mamma Mia) and Joseph (knock knock) the gifts they’d remembered to bring!

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Part 4. Talk

In this church, in this town, on this Christmas Eve God is speaking to his people again

through Mary (Mamma Mia) and Joseph (knock knock) and Jesus (shh…) and Shepherds (come bye) and Wise men (wow!)

God says I want you (who, me?)

Yes you to follow me

This Christmas do something amazing

I want you (who, me?)

Yes you come and be

like the angels (hallelujah!) with your whole life God praising.

So in this season of peace and goodwill there’s a choice that each one of us here ought to ponder

God is not just for Christmas, he’s for our whole lives. God is with us, are you with him, I wonder?

Je Suis Prêtre

Behind the altar candles gently burn.
A wisp of smoke dances then fades away
as Father Jacques, too old for dancing, pauses.
Another morning Mass, another day.

For many years this man of peace has stood here
in service of his people and his Lord.
In joy and pain, in sorrow and in rapture,
a constant beacon in a darkening world.

But as he scans the faces of the faithful
two unfamiliar visitors appear
and, in those final moments at the altar,
he knows that perfect love which drives out fear.

Your service ended, Ite Missa Est.
Faithful servant enter now your rest.

 

*  *  *

 

Pere Jacques Hamel

“The Acts of Luke!”

Posted on

I wrote and performed this sketch at Church this morning.  The readings were Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-29.

~ ~ ~

Setup: dressed as hiker, big backpack, walking boots, shorts, fleece, hat, map, notebook (with script in!)
walk in from back of church…

Hi there, hi, hi, hiya, has anyone seen Paul? You know, Paul? Big celebrity preacher guy?
Used to be a baddie, now he’s a goodie? Road to Damascus and all that?
Paul? Anyone seen him? (ad lib to front)
This is Phillipi, right? I’m sure he’s here somewhere (hunt around choir stalls etc.)

Sorry, so rude of me, not introducing myself – I’m Luke.
I’m a doctor by trade but since they started throwing any of us who refused to work an 8 day week to the lions I decided it was time to pack it in.

I’m a writer now. I’m onto my second book already – you might have heard of the first one, I called it “the gospel of Luke”. Not bad for a first effort if I do say so myself, would have been a real hit too if those other guys hadn’t pinched my idea.

I mean I don’t mind them writing about Jesus too, everyone’s doing it these days – but did they have to be so blatant about pinching my title? The gospel of Matthew…the gospel of Mark…the gospel of John – I’ll bet we just get lumped together as “the gospels” and everyone will think we were working together.

Anyway I’m onto my second book now – thought I’d cash in on writing a sequel before those other guys do. The Acts of Luke, I’m planning on calling it – although my publisher reckons “the Acts of the Apostles” is a bit catchier. Nice alliteration and all that.
So I’ve been following Paul around for a while, doing a bit of investigative journalism, you know the sort – an in-depth exposee on the man behind the myth. Problem is he keeps disappearing off all over the place!

Seriously, one minute he’s in Troas, talking to the church there, then you nip out to buy a kebab and when you come back he’s apparently had a dream, hopped on a boat, and sailed off to Macedonia!

So I followed him to Samothrace – beautiful island that – trying to catch up but by the time I’d got there he’d sailed on to Neapolis.
These aren’t easy waters to sail on either, you might have seen pictures of people on the news fleeing for their lives, trying to cross over these very waters from Turkey into Greece in these shabby little boats. It’s a nightmare.

Anyway thankfully I’m not fleeing for my life but it’s still not much fun. So I had to wait to catch a ferry to Neapolis and when I got there I heard that he’d been and gone – headed straight off to Phillipi, not even waited for me. Phillipi’s sort of the capital city around here so hopefully he’ll stay there for a while and I can catch up.

It’s not the first time he’s done this sort of thing, dashing from one place to another with no warning. I asked him once why he does it and he said he’s just following the Holy Spirit.

I said, What’s that then? And he said that when Jesus left us he promised that the Father would send his ‘Holy Spirit’ to be with us always, to teach us and to guide us and to help us follow him.

He said that in the olden days God only sent his Spirit on a few people at particular times for particular reasons, but now he’s given her to everyone who follows him – young or old, boy or girl.
He also said that the Spirit would give us peace. Well I have to admit I’m not feeling all that peaceful right now, chasing after him halfway round the empire.

I would say something but he’s very fond of quoting Jesus when he said “The spirit blows where she pleases” – that’s not even from my gospel – I think he does it on purpose!

It’s quite exciting when you think about it though, God’s spirit is in each and every one of us! Helping us make good decisions, reminding us of the things that Jesus said.

Sometimes she speaks to people in dreams, other times by drawing our attention to something we might have missed – a verse in the Bible or a beautiful flower or a comment from a friend.

Sometimes she’s like a voice in the back of our head or an invisible rope pulling us in a particular direction even though we don’t know why we feel like we should go there.

Sometimes she helps us say the right thing when we’re lost for words or reminds us of a person we haven’t thought about for ages.

And we can choose to ignore her, drown out the voice of the Spirit with our own busyness, but she never really goes away, just lurks there like a satnav quietly saying “turn around where possible…turn around where possible…”

Well Paul never seems to have that trouble – he’s always off following the Spirit’s call, hopping from one country to the next setting up churches and moving on. I just hope he’s stuck around in Phillipi for a while.
What’s that? He’s gone to Lydia’s house? She’s leading the Church there is she? Excellent. Right well I’d better be on my way before the Holy Spirit has chance to give Paul any new directions!
See you later!

 

Megan’s story

Here is something I produced for our Christingle service this year – based on this from the Children’s Society: Megan’s Story (PDF)

Thanks to Lynn, Charlotte and the children from the junior school for their voices!

Evensong

I

As I arrive in church the warden is pottering about lighting candles. A glass of water is placed beside the priest’s stall. From the vestry comes the gentle hum of the choir finding robes, hymnbooks, space. The church is lit but the side aisle lights are off and it feels like the edges of the church are blurring into the darkness outside.

The congregation arrive quietly in ones and twos. Some need help getting to their seats, others help them without prompting. This is a well rehearsed routine. The timelessness of this night is palpable, even before we begin.

The choir begins to assemble under the west gallery. Many years ago they would have been up above, heard but not seen, now they gather beneath, ready for their procession. The microphone clicks, subtly relocating us into the modern era, as the priest, hidden amidst the choir, welcomes the scattered congregation and introduces the opening hymn.

The first few chords on the organ fill the previously still air with life as the congregation, huddled in their coats, haul themselves to their feet. As the first verse begins the crucifer leads the choir down the aisle, deftly swerving to avoid knocking the chandelier with the cross – one Sunday, so the story goes, he hit it on the way up and on the way back. The choir, resplendent in their robes and academic hoods, file into their stalls as the hymn reaches its climax. The priest turns to face the congregation and begins those familiar words.

Dearly beloved brethren, the scripture moveth us in sundry places…”

II

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end.

By now the service is well underway with a minimum of fuss.

The Psalm for the day has been chanted by a perfectly synchronous choir, the congregation joining in as best they can. Monk, Turle, Stanford. For some these are old friends, for others they are passing acquaintances, colleagues in the search for truth, hope, solace.

Someone slips out of their pew and takes their place behind the large wooden eagle which dwarfs its passenger and seems to speak the words from the Old Testament itself.

Then the much loved Magnificat.

He hath scatter’d the próud, • in the imagi- | nation | of their | hearts.

A reading from the New Testament leads us into the Nunc Dimittis and eyes are filled with tears as minds are filled with memories of a much loved chorister.

Turning in unison to face the altar gives time for eyes to dry. The apostles creed offers its own comfort in the promise of the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

The clear, calm voice of the priest calls the people to prayer. Some kneel, some know they would not make it back up if they tried.

Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.

These words, this service, flows like water down a granite stream-bed, carved deep by centuries of gentle repetition.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end.

III

In Quires and Places where they sing here followeth the Anthem”

As the music floats upwards eyes wander, pausing on a familiar image in the stained glass, or a flick of smoke from a candle, or a vase of flowers, always new yet always there. In this moment it seems as if the whole earth is holding its breath, waiting to see what God will do. In the half-light, the stillness, the deep, deep peace, this is where God is to be found for those who wish to seek him.

And here, as if it knows it has played its part, the prayer book fades away and our eyes are turned upwards and outwards in intercession.

As the names resound through the near empty church, it does not seem so empty. The shadows of those who have passed through in the week, those who have left names of loved ones, those who remain silent, they join with us as we pray.

And then the organ, silent for so long, calls us back to earth.

As we sing the candles are extinguished, marking the close of the prayer book’s work and setting us up to hear God speak in new words once more.

After the sermon, preached almost in the round, the plate is passed from pew to pew as we sing once more and the priest follows the centre line up to the altar to receive the gifts and to bless the people.

One final hymn, accompanied by the receding swish of choir robes and the day is done. Some depart in silence, some stay to talk, or pray, or listen to the organist as he plays on.

Then we fade away into the night with a song on our lips and peace in our hearts.

Feeding of the 5,000 – a sketch

‘Erman the ‘ermit is a recurring character of mine, he tries to escape from the crowds but somehow they always seem to find him!  He is usually seen wearing a camp blanket and silly hat…

~ ~ ~

 

Hello,
My name’s ‘erman. ‘erman the ‘ermit.
This is my ‘ill. I like my ‘ill, it’s nice and peaceful like. Quiet.
Can I tell you a story ’bout something that ‘appened ‘ere the other day?

I were sat ‘ere on my ‘ill, enjoyin’ the peace and quiet when this bloke comes up the side of me ‘ill and sits down over there.
Well I could see he were ‘ere for the peace and quiet too so I left ‘im alone like. Didn’t want to interrupt.

‘E were clearly upset, like ‘e’d ‘ad some bad news or sommat. You know that look, gazin’ off into the distance.
That said, it’s a reet nice view from me ‘ill so you never know, ‘e might have just been gazin’ off into the distance!

Anyway, where was I?
Oh yes, so we was sat on me ‘ill, just the two of us like, enjoyin’ the peace and quiet when this huge crowd of people comes stompin’ up, chattin’ and laughin’, makin’ a right rumpus.

Well I know I ‘ad that letter published in t’ Galilee Times which ruffled a few feathers like, so I thought they was comin’ to see me about it, this bein’ my ‘ill and all, but no!
They went right past me as if I wasn’t ‘ere, straight up to the other bloke.

Turns out ‘e was some teacher or sommat, and they all wanted to ‘ear what he had to say for ‘imself.
‘e were clearly a bit miffed as ‘e’d come up ‘ere for a bit of peace a quiet like, but he stood up anyway and started tellin’ ’em all these stories. Wonderful things, all about, what was it ‘e called it? Oh aye, the Kingdom of ‘eaven. ‘ow it were a place of peace and beauty.

Well I felt like shoutin’ out that my ‘ill were a place of peace and beauty before this lot came tramplin’ all over it!
But I didn’t. ‘e seemed like such a nice lad I didn’t want to spoil it for ‘im.

After e’d been goin’ for a while another crowd made it up me ‘ill. They’d clearly ‘ad a rough time of it as they was all covered in bandages and the like. But it turned out that they was all sick and poorly and they wanted this Jesus lad to ‘eal ’em.

And you know what? ‘e did! Every last one of ’em, better just like that! Then he carries on talkin’ about this Kingdom of ‘eaven, ‘ow it’s a place where nobody is sick, or dyin’ or even ‘ungry.
Well by this point I were getting’ a bit peckish so I shouts out, “’ave you got some food as well then?”
He stops, looks at me, then turns to ‘is mates and says “Give ’em something to eat then”
Well ‘is mates didn’t like that at all, there was so many people up ‘ere that they’d never be able to feed us all.

I tried countin’ everyone but the kids was all runnin’ about as kids do, and the women was all chasin’ the kids about as they do, fortunately the men was sat there oblivious so I could count ’em fairly simple like. I reckon there must ‘ave been five thousand of ’em at least! ‘ow the ‘eck were we all goin’ to eat up ‘ere on me ‘ill? I mean, I knows the bilberries are quite nice this time of year but that’s not exactly what you’d call a proper meal is it!

While I were countin’, they’d managed to rustle up a few bits of barley loaf and a couple of sardines. Nice idea but not quite enough fer a crowd like this after a long hot day.

Well this Jesus didn’t seem worried, ‘e took the bread, lifted it up over ‘is ‘ead, and prayed a lovely prayer. I can’t quite remember it now, I wish I’d written it down really but I don’t normally ‘ave much need for takin’ notes, what with bein’ an ‘ermit and all.

Anyways, after ‘e’d done this he gave it to ‘is mates and told ’em to start passin’ it round the crowd. I were about ‘alf way back so I weren’t reckonin’ on getting’ much but when they got to me I get a big chunk of bread and nearly ‘alf a fish! And I weren’t the only one!
It were amazin’ really. When we’d all ‘ad enough there were a dozen whackin’ great baskets all full of crumbs left over. I tell you what I didn’t envy whoever ‘ad to carry them back down me ‘ill.

But it got me thinkin’ like. What if this Kingdom of ‘eaven thing really is real? I mean I’d seen it with me own eyes, people bein’ ‘ealed, the ‘ungry bein’ fed.
It reminded me of old Prophet Isaiah.
I do like them prophets, miserable lot most of the time but they ‘ave their moments, much like us ‘ermits really.

Anyways there’s this bit where ‘e says
“Everyone who’s thirsty, come to the water,
And you that’s got no money, come buy and eat,
Come buy wine and milk without money and without price”

Aye, it seems to me that if that’s what the kingdom of ‘eaven is like then I want in.
So I goes up to Jesus afterwards, just as the crowds are goin’, and I asks ‘im what I should do about it, and ‘e says:
“Love God, and love your neighbour”
I said lovin’ God I can do, but love me neighbour? That’s a bit tricky bein’ an ‘ermit, we don’t really ‘ave neighbours!
But ‘e just chuckled, gave me a wink, and wandered off to join ‘is mates.

I sat there in the peace and quiet like, and I suddenly felt a bit lonely.
So I made meself a promise that next time someone came up me ‘ill I’d give ’em a bite to eat. And if they ‘urt themselves on the way down I’d look after them. And if they asked why I were doin’ all that I’d tell ’em about Jesus, about the kingdom of ‘eaven, and ‘ow it weren’t just some distant land but that it were about what we do ‘ere and now to make our world more like God wants it.

Anyways, I’d better get on, this sittin’ quietly doesn’t ‘appen by itself you know. And I think you lot ‘ave got an Hymn to sing, so you’d better stand up and get on with it.