Surprised, ambushed and carried off by God

Sermon preached at St Peter’s Church, Clifton, Bristol – date unknown, but sometime in the 1990s

Thursday week ago, I attended a day retreat for Bristol church leaders. It was held just over the Suspension Bridge, in Leigh Woods parish church. I left Henleaze straight after celebrating the 10.30am mid-week communion and found myself, on arrival, catapulted pretty quickly into a worship experience which was dramatically different to what we take for regular or normal here at St Peter’s. Among those present were our own Bishop Mike, the Bishop of Bristol, and about twenty Bristol clergy that I recognised from the Anglican church. But the other 80 or so were from the large number of free and community churches meeting throughout the city. The flavour of the worship was clearly evangelical.

Our own neighbour, Tim Dobson, from Henleaze and Westbury Community Church, had organised the day, invited the leaders and introduced this period of worship. He started by saying he wasn’t quite sure what would happen, but suggested that we began with a period of music and singing and followed this by prayer – and if anyone felt the Lord speaking to them with something they would like to share, please feel free to come to the front and share it.

So, with everyone on their feet, the music started, words appeared via PowerPoint on a large screen to the side at the front and we sang songs generally centring on the majesty of Jesus – songs which led some, but not everyone, to extend their hands in praise ‘towards God’. The period of song, some of which I knew and some I didn’t, lasted for the next twenty minutes. The time of prayer then started and, after a while, some of those present, especially those of us towards the back, sat down. People around the church voiced their prayers when they felt moved to: at other times there were short periods of quiet. Occasionally over the next half an hour people took it in turns to come to the front and share with all present the prophecy, the vision or the special word they felt God had placed in their heart.

At the first mention of the word ‘prophecy’ I have to admit I felt my eyebrows rise.

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The second coming – and the first

Sermon preached at St Paul’s Church, Bristol (presumably the St Paul’s in Clifton), 15 December 1996

I have sixty-two video tapes on my bookshelf. Some of them I’ve seen. Many of them I recorded because I was out, but I haven’t actually got round to looking at them. Why did I bother? Because I didn’t want to miss the programme, of course. But they stand there patiently in line until I summon my attendance at the video.

An event is captured in real time, and lies suspended until I put the tape into the machine. I cannot say I am reliving the happening because I haven’t seen it before, but when I start to watch I am in two times: the recorded programme’s time which is as linear as the one to which I am recalled, in a shock, say, if the phone rings in the middle of the exciting bits. You can’t be physically in two places at once, but in this model you can be a two-timer; and each offers its own world view.

The world view of John the Baptist was that Jesus would be the expected man of fire, the Messiah purging Israel of her enemies. Their moral teachings were very similar. Matthew saw in John the promised supernatural return of Elijah, whose appearing would announce the Messiah’s coming. But clearly Jesus’s activity was not that which the firebrand John might have been awaiting. Hence his own disciples came to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one, or do we have to look for another?”

Now, Matthew is very fond of Old Testament resources. His Gospel is littered with references to present the expected Messiah in the person of Jesus and one who would inaugurate the expected Golden Age. But Matthew has a trick up his sleeve. The firebrand that John expected (and the Jewish nation too) turns out to be an enigmatic figure: and not one of unlimited power, which must have been a shock to many.

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The lost sheep and the lost coin

Sermon preached at unknown location – but the manuscript is appended ‘Swindon’; exact date unknown, but headed “Trinity 5” so likely to be in July.

You’re on the bus. Suddenly you find that you are one penny short of the fare. You look in your pockets. You turn out your purse. Very embarrassing. All the people behind you in the queue are becoming more impatient. That one penny becomes the most important; all the others just aren’t enough, however many you may have. Then at last, you find one under some old toffee papers. Oh, the relief! Oh, the joy! You can sit down and enjoy the journey. How important is one penny.

People are important, too. Let’s suppose you’ve had a row with your teenage daughter. She has stormed out of the house at eleven o’clock at night, promising never to come back. Do you go to bed? Do you say to yourself, “oh, she’ll come back. There’s nothing for me to do”? No. You wait up, worried and anxious. Perhaps you go out into the dark streets and call her. You do this, because you love her.

But what about people you don’t like? Can you do the same for them? The outcast is hardest to love. We all have to deal with unpleasant and difficult people. Their nastiness is often a silent plea for love – but often the heart is closed. A horrid man is often one who has never learned nor been able to love himself. Never having received love, he cannot give it to others.

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The diversity of the one

Sermon preached at St Michael’s Church, Clifton, Bristol, 13 July 1997

[Apologies for the sporadic updating of this blog – work being carried on at my house has disrupted my home office facilities. – SJC]

When my boys were small, my brother and I used to make films with them. Recently he sent me a video copy of the old days, called Turn Back the Years. Very odd it is to see how we were then. And this reminds me, if you turn back your years, can you remember a school group photograph? There you were, all lined up in rows, and possibly in three tiers (the tallest at the back, of course) and your class teacher, either benign or severe, being always on the edge of the photograph.

Perhaps you were in school uniform – all caps or berets or badges looking the same. School uniform. Why did we ever have a school uniform? So that we would appear as a unit, a mark of our solidarity; we had a group identity.

Sure, an individual may flourish within and contribute to the whole, but such contributions would not be allowed to be paraded beyond the solid core. That seems to be at the base of school rules, and certainly those of the armed forces. No individualism. Don’t use your initiative, but just obey orders.

This really is a mess. And St Paul’s words in the second reading* try to point this out. [*1 Corinthians 12:12-30 – SJC]

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Sermon preached at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Bristol, 3 November 1991

[The manuscript is marked “at LMC”, but I am not sure which church or service this refers to.* Nor do I have any idea who C.J. Hopes is or was. It may also be worth noting that my father was himself the oldest brother of all his siblings…

*I’m grateful to Richard’s widow Christine, who has informed me that it probably refers to the Lord Mayor’s Chapel, where Richard was priest in charge for a few years in the 1990s.- SJC]

I have found that once you get accustomed to committing murder it’s very hard to give it up. I am still trying to cure myself of the habit. If you are avidly collecting the current Rice Krispies tokens, you may have some sympathy for me. When I’ve collected eight I’ll have enough to send away for ‘The Zapper’ – an ingenious and innocent-looking instrument which includes a death ray and a machine gun which I can turn on all my enemies (like Skoda drivers and Jeremy Beadle) and blast them all out of existence! Everybody is going to want one, because there ain’t no one who hasn’t at some time felt that great aggression towards people who screw you up. Some of you may be feeling that C.J. Hopes had better watch his back from now on!

Such feelings are nothing new. They go right back. They feature in the story from the Genesis reading this morning. The first Biblical murder.Read More »


[This photo shows Richard in the back garden of the house I grew up in, in Bristol. For many years it was dominated by an apple tree which would have been out of shot to the left; this tree was brought down by the fierce storms which affected the country in 1987 – I remember returning home to find the tree had fallen across the garden at such an angle that it had missed the side of the house by inches. Divine intervention? No one can say. – SJC]


Elgar at Midnight

You were the music-maker,

And I the dreamer of dreams;

You were the heart’s dilator,

And I the provider of themes.


You have become an enigma,

And a hapless nimrod I;

You recoil, alarmed at my ardour,

And my hope’s exiled to the sky.