9th January - The Baptism of Christ
I thought that I would start this morning by conducting a brief survey amongst those of us here in church. If you don’t want to take part, there’s no pressure. I am going to read out four statements, and I would just like you to put up your hand when I read out the one which applies to you. Here goes:
Statement one – I was baptised as a baby
Statement two – I was baptised as an adult
Statement three – I have not been baptised
Statement four – I don’t know if I have been baptised or not
The responses are pretty much as I expected: that most of us here are baptised – and most of us here were baptised as a baby.
Let me ask you another question. This time, I am not expecting a response. Just something for you to think about as I speak, and for you to reflect on in the days to come.
What does baptism mean to you? What difference does it make to you that you are baptised?
Our two readings this morning both focus on baptism, but the baptisms to which they refer are actually quite different.
Our reading from Luke refers to the baptism of God’s people by John the Baptist, before Jesus’ ministry, and of course to the baptism of Jesus himself.
At the time of Jesus, baptism was not an official part of Judaism, and you cannot find the word baptism anywhere in the Old Testament, but it was practised unofficially by some Jewish people in the century before and after Jesus' birth. It was seen as a simple sign of general repentance, and as such could be repeated. Around the same time, ritual baths for purification became more common among Jews in urban areas, and, if you go to the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem today, you can see houses with ritual baths dating back almost 20 centuries. This is the context for the baptism of God’s people by John the Baptist in this passage.
Jesus, of course, as God’s son, is sinless, and there is no need for him to repent, or to receive forgiveness, in the way that the people do. In Matthew’s account of the baptism, in fact, John tries to refuse to baptise him saying that it is he, John, who should instead be baptised by Jesus. It is however important for Jesus to be baptised, so that he can become like one of us – Emmanuel – God with us. It is a symbol of his great humility, and he sets an example for his followers. His baptism is also an opportunity for God to show Jesus’ divine authority with the words: You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Our reading from Acts on the other hand refers to the baptism of new believers by the apostles in the early church.
It has been a very difficult time for Christian believers. One of their leaders, Stephen, has been stoned to death by the mob whilst preaching the gospel. This has been followed by severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and most of the church members have fled to the countryside of Judea and Samaria. However, finding themselves amongst people who have not heard the gospel, they take the opportunity to talk about Jesus, and many come to faith. The tragedy of the death of Stephen has therefore in fact been the catalyst for the spread of the message in the wider community.
Slightly earlier in this chapter, we are told that the people have believed, and are baptised, by Philip, both men and women. Then, here in verse 14, we are told that Peter and John go down and pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, and then they lay their hands on them. This seems to suggest that the way in which Philip was baptising people was only a first step, and the new believers also needed the laying on of hands by the apostles as a final step in coming to faith.
These are controversial verses, because no-one is really quite sure what they actually mean. There are lots of different explanations, and, if you want to look into this further, I can point you in the right direction. I usually try specifically to disentangle the tricky verses in a Bible reading, but, this morning, it’s not a discussion which I want to get bogged down in, because I want to concentrate instead on what baptism means to us.
So what does baptism mean to you?
When I talk to parents who have asked me to baptise their child, I ask them this very question. They tell me that it is a chance to give thanks for the safe arrival of their baby, and a chance to celebrate with friends and family. They also however have the feeling that it is something which they need to do for their child. This is partly because it is seen as a traditional rite of passage, but it is more than this, I think. A new baby is a miraculous gift, which gives them a sense of wonder and awe, and sets them thinking more deeply about life and creation, and about God.
And within the Christian church itself there are a range of possible answers to this question. A range which is probably represented here in church this morning, in terms of your own experience, and what you believe.
Most Christians would agree that baptism is a sacrament. That is to say an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace – a sign of God’s unconditional love at work in and through us. Most Christians would also agree that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of those who are baptised. The Holy Spirit of course plays a part in the accounts of baptism in both our Bible readings too.
There is less agreement however on the role of the sacrament of baptism in our lives. Does the baptism bring with it forgiveness of sins, or does it simply signify that forgiveness has already taken place? Putting it another way, is baptism as an essential act, a saving act, through which a person becomes a Christian, and is put right with God? And without which a person is not a Christian? Or is it an important, but non-essential act, which is merely symbolic of what is essential, that is the sincere belief and commitment in the heart, the soul and the mind of the person, which puts that person right with God, and makes them a Christian?
I asked you at the beginning if you were baptised as a baby or as an adult.
If you were baptised as a baby, it would have been in a church tradition which believes that it is the sacrament of baptism which brings us into a relationship with God. That church therefore practises baptism for children who are unable themselves to make a personal commitment, but whose parents are able to do so on their behalf. Within this tradition, a baby which is very ill would be baptised as a matter of urgency, often in hospital. In the Roman Catholic church and most of the Anglican church for example infant baptism is the norm.
If you were baptised as adult, it would either have been because you had just become a Christian, or because you were part of a church tradition which believes that baptism is symbolic of a faith commitment in the heart, the soul and the mind of the person. That church therefore only practises baptism for people who are old enough to believe and make a personal commitment, that is adults and older children. A believer’s baptism, as it is known, takes in place in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, and some Anglican churches, and it of course follows the example of what happened in the early church, as our reading from Acts reminds us.
So, as I asked you earlier, what does baptism mean to you? What difference does it make to you that you are baptised?
Clearly only you can answer that question.
And let me say at this point that, if there is anyone here who has not been baptised, and would like to be, please do speak to one of us this morning, and we would very pleased to talk to you about it.
For now, let me share with you three images which come to mind for me – amongst many possible images - around what baptism means to me, and what difference it makes to me.
When I was at school, I had a friend called Rebecca, who was a Baptist, and she invited me to attend her baptism. It was something I will never forget. She was baptised by total immersion in a long white dress. Just before she was baptised, she gave her testimony, speaking passionately about the difference which being a Christian made in her life, and, after each person was baptised, and climbed back out of the pool, we all sang the chorus of that wonderful Easter hymn “Low in the grave he lay” (which we will sing in a few minutes)
Up from the grave He arose
With a mighty triumph o'er His foes
He arose a Victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign
He arose! (He arose)
He arose! (He arose)
Hallelujah! Christ arose!
It was so different from anything I had seen in the churches I normally attended. I was blown away by the power of the symbolism, and by the sincerity of the testimonies of those who were baptised. This was believer’s baptism at its best.
I trained for ordination alongside another Rebecca. Becky had never been baptised, as a baby or as an adult, and, you have to be baptised in order to be ordained. During our four years of training, the group of ordinands had become very close-knit and supportive, and so it was a wonderful moment on Maundy Thursday 2014 at our Easter School when Becky was baptised from amongst us.
And finally – my own baptism. For me it has always been something which I feel connects me with people. It connects me with people all over the world, and with people going back in time.
I was baptised as a baby in the Methodist Church. When I came to be ordained, I found that, although my mother had kept all my certificates, including my one for swimming a width, she hadn’t for some reason kept my baptism certificate, and I needed it. I contacted the current minister at the church in south east London where I was baptised, and I received a lovely covering letter back. The minister said that there were still people there who remembered my parents, and who sent me their good wishes.
I was baptised in this beautiful silk christening robe, which was made by hand by my maternal grandmother. My mother was baptised in it, as was my sister, and our two sons. I myself baptised my two granddaughters, but sadly, with them living abroad, they had grown too big to fit into it by the time we were able to arrange the baptism.
My baptism connects me then with those who have gone before me, but it is also very precious because it connects me with Christians from other traditions and other parts of the world. Despite all the differences between different traditions in the Christian church, we all recognise each other’s baptisms. We all recognise baptism as the invisible indelible mark that someone is a Christian.
I leave you with these powerful words from the Common Worship baptism service.
As the minister makes the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead, he or she says
Christ claims you for his own
Receive the sign of his cross
Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified
To which we all add
Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ
Against sin, the world and the devil
And remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life
Go home today with those words ringing in your ears.
Be encouraged by them.
Be challenged by them.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/19dTszeAGk8
Christmas Eve - Midnight
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Last week some gas engineers dug up a road. A small boy who lived in the road was fascinated by their machinery and the large hole they created. He asked if they were digging for treasure. When he came home from school there was a parcel on the doorstep – it contained a bag of gold chocolate coins. There was note – “We found the treasure” – signed by the gas men.
That story was on the internet, so it must be true. But true or not the fact that it was upvoted to the front page meant that it made a connection with a lot of people.
Another story, much older, but absolutely true.
A prison chaplain was visiting an inmate for a service of Holy Communion. Such visits were only permitted once every six months and were strictly supervised by a prison guard. When they reached the Peace the prisoner stopped the service and went over to the guard who was supervising.
He addressed the guard by name – “Brand, are you a Christian?” The guard replied that he was. “Well then, you must take off your cap, and join us around this table. You cannot sit apart. This is Holy Communion, and we must share and receive it together.”
To the chaplain’s astonishment the guard meekly removed his cap, joined the circle, and received Communion.
The chaplain’s name was Harry Wiggett. The guard was Christo Brand. The prisoner was Nelson Mandela.
It was a small act – to address another person by their name, to see in them a fellow human being, to invite them to belong.
It was a small act – yet it bridged huge differences. The guard held all the power, represented all the authority. The prisoner had nothing, nothing except respect for a fellow human being - and an absolute refusal to allow history to determine the future.
It was a small act – but with hindsight we can see in it the process by which change was made possible. Change in individuals, change in a nation, change that has echoed around our world. By countless such small acts is our future crafted. Small acts often connect with people’s lives. They give us hope, and this is a time of hope.
The refusal to give up on others is at the heart of Christmas, simply because God refuses to give up on us. This is another small act – the birth of a child. In individual lives of course each birth is momentous. Yet viewed over the entirety of human history one single birth, long ago, far away, hardly registers. There were many births that night, most of them have no relevance for us today.
Yet we claim that this birth is relevant, that this child, these parents, are connected to our lives. This child – this small act of human fragility – makes a difference. If human destiny is crafted by countless small acts, then here it is radically reshaped.
In prison Nelson Mandela faced the reality of choice – how people on opposite sides of conflict determine each other’s response and reactions. He, and others, came to realise that good news has to be good news for everyone, or it is good news for no-one.
We live in a world which contains much that makes us anxious and fearful. I sometimes think that you hardly dare turn on the news or open the paper for fear of whatever new tragedy might confront us. We can only take so much bad news – the cynicism which pervades British culture is a symptom of a people who are weary of disappointment. It suggests we have given up on hope, worse still, we have given up on ourselves. We need to be reminded that God does not give up on us.
There are those who suspect that Christmas is nothing more than sentimental escapism, wishful thinking for how our world might be. As Alan Sugar says to Father Christmas, it’s a nice idea, but it’s not a business plan. Or is it?
There was question asked on the same internet forum last week – “Are you really happy or just really comfortable?” It’s an interesting question. Are you really happy, or just really comfortable? The comments in response were rather sad – most people said they’d settle for whatever comfort they could get. They’d given up on happiness, echoed in a comment I believe is attributed to Pope Francis, our “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy”
Christmas is a time of big expectations, many we know to be unrealistic, many will give up on hoping for too much. Yet maybe we need to learn to hope for more.
Don’t believe all you read on the internet, but all the same, if you listen to what people are saying there is still a message to be heard. We may live in a cynical and disbelieving world, but stories of hope still connect. And usually it is the small acts that connect the most. There’s something important going on in small acts.
At our crib service earlier this evening everyone was given a coloured glow stick, the type you snap and shake and they glow different colours. Seeing the church in darkness filled with people waving multi-coloured glowsticks I am always reminded of Desmond Tutu’s message that we are a Rainbow People of God.
He was of course a hugely important part of the fight against apartheid, but more importantly, his integrity, humility and authority made him a key part bringing reconciliation to a deeply divided people. Where most expected civil war to ensue he chaired South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission.
When he was asked what was his most life changing moment Desmond Tutu remembered that when he was a small boy, about nine, he was walking with his mother to her work as a domestic servant. They met a white priest, a tall white priest wearing a black cassock and a hat – the priest stopped – and doffed his hat to Desmond’s mother. Tutu said it was mind blowing – that a white man should doff his hat to a black servant was “the biggest defining moment in my life.” The priest was Trevor Huddleston, whose fierce passion for justice Tutu himself emulated.
Small acts, seemingly so insignificant, can change a life, can change a nation, can change history. We know this to be true, therefore there is hope. There is always hope. God never gives up on us.
Christmas is at the turn of the year, when we are past the shortest day and the longest night, and we start to push back the darkness. We look to the future, and we wonder.
It will not be an easy future, we know this to be true, but we can change its course – we can make a difference. Small acts – ordinary people. That’s where things important can happen. If there is one thing you take with you from this night, let it be a determination to believe in small acts, because small acts are possible, and they work miracles.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/eQrtTw5Q-Ew
Fourth Sunday of Advent
I wonder if you can work out what these three popular songs have in common?
Lucy in the sky with diamonds by the Beatles
Waterloo by Abba
God only knows by the Beach Boys
Well, they have all at some time been banned from being played on the radio.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds for what were considered blatant references to drug use; Waterloo during the Gulf War due to its connotations with armed conflict; and God only knows because back in 1966 simply using the word God in a pop song was deemed to be blasphemous.
And if you think that is all a bit over the top, listen to these assessments of another very well-known song.
E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist preacher and scholar, called it "the most revolutionary document in the history of the world." William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, instructed missionaries to poverty-stricken India never to mention the words of this song in public because it could incite riots in the streets. And Baptist writer, William Shurden, said that, when you read the lyrics of this song, you "sniff the powder of dynamite."
What song am I talking about?
Well, it’s the Magnificat – Mary’s song – which you heard just now in our reading from Luke’s gospel. The Magnificat is so-named, of course, because magnificat is the first word – meaning magnify – in Latin version of this song. This song is sung by an unmarried teenage peasant girl who has just found out she is pregnant, a girl we know as Mary. And Mary is a very special person chosen by God for a very special role in his plan for the salvation of the world.
Step for moment with me inside these ancient words, and hear the voice of this young mother as she announces that a new day has dawned, both for her and for us. She glorifies God as she sings of what he is going to do for the world through her.
This song – like much of what we read in the Bible – is both a comfort for us and a challenge to us. You can divide the song into two sections. The first section – verses 46-50 – brings us comfort, and the second section - verses 51-55 – challenges us. You might want to look at the text on your service sheet.
We could call the first section “The gift of God’s grace”. This is the comfort.
In verses 46-50, we see something wonderful and true about God: He loves the underdog, the disqualified, and the unimpressive. Mary stands before the Lord just as we do - needy, flawed, with nothing to merit his favour, nothing to earn but judgment. She is amazed at a God who knows her so well and chooses her anyway.
That all sounds fairly uncontroversial, I hear you say. Why all those warnings? Nothing so revolutionary in that.
But hold on. The second part is coming. This is where Mary turns her attention to world and its systems, and interprets the meaning of Christ's coming for this earth. We could call this section “God’s transforming power”. This is the challenge.
In v. 51-55, Mary sings of radical reversals of what our world values, shifting everything in order to bring God's justice for his people. Three groups of people will be impacted we are told: the helpless, the humble and the hungry.
Firstly, in verse 51, we learn that God will rescue the helpless.
He has shown strength with His arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
Mary is just a young girl, not a political analyst. She is standing in the living room of an older relative in the hill country of Judea, singing this song. But she sees it all coming. Her boy-child will up-end all the centres of power humans have established on this earth. This baby is God's signal to power-brokers in every strata of society: the end of human self-centred ambition is at hand.
Secondly, in verse 52, God will exalt the humble.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
Mary's song means we need to reverse our ambitions if we want to flourish in God's world. We need to stop buying into the idea that if we're going to get anywhere in life, we've got to be assertive and stand up for our rights! There's a higher law at work than the "law of the jungle." Jesus gives it to us in Luke 14: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Thirdly, in verse 53, God will fill the hungry.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
Mary’s words here do refer to the physically needy of this world, to those without food, but they also refer to the spiritually needy, to those who are conscious of the God-shaped hole in their lives. Hungry people have one focus—where to find food. Deep inside them humans also have the sense that whatever else in life they have, they must know God?
So, in this song – this revolutionary song - Mary announces that a new day has dawned, both for her and for us. She glorifies God as she sings of what he is going to do for the world through her.
What we need to understand is that these promises are come in two stages.
There is the promise of the new heaven and the new earth at the end of time, when God will make all things new in his kingdom. This is the hope which we share with all those who follow Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
But there is also the promise of a foretaste of his kingdom here and now, and, as I said earlier, there is in this promise for us both comfort and challenge.
We receive the blessings and encouragement of being God’s people and this brings us comfort.
Personally, Mary stands before the Lord just as we do. We too are needy, flawed, with nothing to merit His favour, nothing to earn but judgment, but her words remind us that the church of Jesus Christ is for people who feel their own emptiness. Here's a gift you won't find under any tree this Christmas - the gift of God's grace – his unconditional love - in Jesus Christ, who has come for each and every one of us.
Looking at the big picture, we also need to remember that God loves everyone else in this world too. We are therefore also called to be his agents of change in offering his blessing and his comfort and his encouragement to those around us – to a needy world.
God loves the forgotten and the passed over. He shows mercy to those who don't deserve it. He chooses the lowly over the proud, and he finds the hungry and fills them. God is on the side of those who can't take care of themselves. And he calls on us to play our part. He calls on us to seek humility, not glory. To labour for the Lord, not ourselves. To stop caring who gets the credit. To give without expecting anything in return.
This is the challenge. What are we doing for the forgotten and the passed over, for those who cannot take care of themselves? What are we going to do to be God’s agents of change in our world today?
Are you now beginning to sniff the powder of dynamite in this message? I hope so.
There are so many areas of our life today where those who cannot speak up for themselves are finding it increasing difficult to cope, or even survive. Health and social care. The benefits system. Housing. Training and employment. The divisions between different groups in society and between different parts of the country. And the pandemic has just made things even worse.
What can we do?
We can write to our MP. Some MPs are more proactive than others, but they do take notice when their constituents lobby them about particular issues.
Let me give you one small example. Our local MP Mike Amesbury tabled his school uniforms bill in February last year after winning a Private Members' bill ballot, and as a result of lobbying from his constituents. The bill will help families across England struggling with uniform costs, because schools must now keep rules regarding branded clothing items to a minimum, and uniform suppliers must give the highest priority to cost and value for money. This bill has just become law.
We can also give financial or practical support to charities which are looking to change the world we live in.
Again, let me give you a small example. Crisis is a national charity for people experiencing homelessness. It offers year-round education, employment, housing and well-being services. It also campaigns to end homelessness for good, by suggesting possible solutions, including how long it will take and how much it will cost. This is just one of hundreds of charities which can give us the opportunity to make a difference, and to become agents of change for God.
And what about discussing these issues with friends and family, and especially with children and grandchildren? They are the leaders and influencers of tomorrow.
Above all, let me suggest that if the message which we preach, and the actions which we take, in our world in 2021, do not sound revolutionary, do not upset those with power and influence, do not bring into question the existing structures, then perhaps we are not simply not radical enough. And if there isn’t a sniff of the powder of dynamite – why not?
Oscar Romero was Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970s, during a time of great political and social turmoil in his country. He spoke out courageously against violence, and supported the demands of the poor for economic and social justice. He became increasingly unpopular with the authorities, but, despite receiving threats, he refused to be silenced. On 24 March 1980, he was assassinated in his cathedral whilst presiding at mass.
Let me finish with some words of his:
he essence of the church lies in its mission of service to the world, in its mission to save the world from in its totality, and of saving it in history, here and now. The church exists to act in solidarity with the hopes and joys, the anxieties and sorrows, of men and women. Like Jesus, the church is sent to ‘bring good news to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart, to seek and save what is lost’,
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/zzG6j6djhWc
Third Sunday of Advent
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
I was watching an article on YouTube about a used car salesman. As a small boy he’d been fascinated by cars. As a teenager he’d bought some cheap old cars, done them up and sold them for a small profit. Over time he bought better cars and more of them. Eventually he found himself renting a plot of land and setting up his own business.
He still loved working with cars, especially quirky British models most other dealers wouldn’t touch. The cars were great, it was his customers that drove him mad.
Anyone who has worked face to face with the public will have some sympathy with the car dealer, and also John the Baptist when he says to the crowd – You brood of vipers. I can think of a few teachers who might like to use that phrase at a parents’ evening. But we’re not meant to go round upsetting people so sometimes what needs to be said doesn’t get said.
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
Let’s take another look at that verse. Firstly – rejoice. Today is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin, rejoice ye. We light the rose coloured candle in our Advent ring because rose is the liturgical colour for joy.
Advent is a tough season. We are watching, waiting, preparing. It is a time for self-examination and in former times for fasting. By the third week of a fast people were weakened. Gaudete is a sign of God’s grace, the fast is relaxed, we draw close to the birth of Christ. This is a day to rejoice at hope that is entering our world.
And then gentleness – let your gentleness be known to everyone. We tend to think of gentleness as tenderness or kindness, as a mother is gentle with her child. But in ancient use gentleness had another meaning, in the Psalms for example it means loving correction. So when a parent disciplines a child, and takes the tough responsibility for guiding a child through the complexities of life, that also is gentleness.
It is the same loving correction we hear in the voice of prophecy, the voice of a loving parent reaching out to rebellious and disobedient children. A voice that is often ignored, and often resented, but a voice that speaks in love and will not give up.
I often find myself saying to parents preparing for baptism, if you’re doing parenting right then at some stage you will be the worst parents in the world. The meanest, the most strict, the ones who set a curfew when everyone else is allowed to stay out all hours. That is the price you pay for gentleness. But in the long run you also reap the rewards.
John the Baptist saw the need for change. As I said last week the unpopular word ‘repentance’ means to go beyond the mind you have, to think better of yourself, to think better of others, to see new possibilities. But change is hard.
The used car dealer said that 60% of his customers were fine. Many of them came back and bought more cars from him. But 40% were bonkers. They lied about faults on cars they were trading in. They’d buy a £500 banger and then expect the same warranty as a brand new car. They’d be late for appointments, promise to view a car which had to then be prepared and got ready and then they’d never turn up.
Ha! I thought, you want to try being a vicar mate.
Some of John’s crowd got the message – then what should we do? I suspect it wasn’t 60%, just a few, but they understood the need for change.
His advice was very practical and down to earth, share a spare coat, share food, don’t cheat, don’t abuse power to extract money out of others, don’t trade in a car with a broken gearbox (no I made that one up, John didn’t say that.)
But think about it – we know things in our world aren’t as they should be. I was reading a new report on Afghanistan, the desperate poverty affecting millions, and with the Taliban in power what can we do?
As a school governor I read the report that says when children have to self-isolate due to Covid that absence counts against the school’s attendance records. So are teachers meant to encourage children with Covid to attend? It doesn’t make sense to me. What can I do?
We know there are families locally fearful of winter heating bills, or struggling to put food on the table. Is that something we can make a difference about?
I read of a teacher in Uganda, a man with 20 years experience, earning £30 a month, who has had to give up teaching to run a farm to feed his family. How will his children get an education?
Same question as the crowd asked – then what should we do?
About Afghanistan, I don’t know. I suspect there isn’t much I can do other than be aware and pray and watch for when things might change. We need to discern what we can change and what we can’t. Don’t let one prevent us from doing the other.
About school attendance – well I have a good track record of asking awkward questions to those who make silly policies.
About local families – well we have our Foodbank and we know that works.
About Ugandan children’s education – well our Christmas card present aid gifts can make a difference. So far we can send some chickens, a nanny goat, a sewing machine, some cocoa saplings, pay for schooling, cover the cost of antibiotics, and provide clean water.
There are some things we can’t change. There are others we can. At a wide range of levels we know things could be, ought to be different. We know change is needed.
These point of unease are important. They are the moments when the prophetic voice within us is awakened. They are Advent moments, times when we experience the otherness of God’s kingdom. A different reality draws closer.
Therefore rejoice, even though we are still in the fast God’s graciousness is glimpsed. John’s message is to value those moments of awakening. They lead to the question – what should we do? And that makes it possible for us to be part of a different future.
The Youtube linke is https://youtu.be/2v_dq8L9Nh4
Second Sunday of Advent
“And did those feet in ancient time?”
My text is a question mark. Not any old question mark, but specifically the question mark from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem. Billy Bragg once said that when you sing that hymn you have to sing the question marks, they make a difference.
Hubert Parry set the words of Blake’s poem to music to support a 1918 rally campaigning for Votes for Women. He recognized in Blake’s words a vision of England, not as it is, but as it might be. When you include the question marks Jerusalem become aspirational - it is about what might be, if we have the will and the determination to make it so.
Aspirations do not come cheap, the metaphorical Jerusalem comes at a price. Blake writes of weapons, the bow of burning gold, the chariot of fire, the sword that will not sleep. And of courageous resilience, the mental fight with which this new land is forged.
1918 was of course a time when the nations had been put through the furnace, and what had emerged was still being shaped. The future was being written - and we are still living through the consequences of those days. We also write the future. It is said that the final cost of the economic meltdown presented by Covid will be paid for by our children, and quite possibly by our grandchildren.
New lands, new visions, are built by people. To change our land, and our future, begins by changing ourselves. The unknown 14th century writer of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “It is not what you are or what you have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.”
Not what you are or what you have been…., but what you desire to be.”
John the Baptist stands at the heart of our Advent journey. When Luke speaks of him he begins with those who held power at the time, Tiberius, Pilate, Herod and Philip, Annas and Caiaphas. Between them they embodied political, military, economic, social and religious authority. They were the big players, the movers and shakers, they made policy and they wrote the rules. The future surely lay in their hands.
Yet when change came it came not through them, but by John son of Zechariah, living in the wilderness. And his message was of repentance.
It’s not a word we use too much today. People associate repentance with guilt, repentance means religious people telling everyone else how to live, repentance implies accusation. But if that’s how we think about repentance then it’s like singing Jerusalem without the question marks. We get it wrong, because the meaning is something else entirely.
To repent means quite literally “to go beyond the mind you have.” To enlarge the scope of what you think possible. To believe more of yourself, and of others, and for others. Repentance is aspirational, because it dares to believe things might be better.
The powerful often think far too small. Their power makes them fearful. They have too much to lose to hope for better things. And of course, as history shows, and shows time and time again, by their power they have lost everything.
But not John - John who had nothing to lose gained everything, and his message endures - and what a message.
I cannot help but come back to his burning passion for the words of Isaiah - Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill laid low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
Blake and John would get on well together. Because John’s proclamation has a fiery message if you read between the lines. His world was dominated by the Roman roads. Straight, smooth and level they pointed to Rome, seat of imperial might. They were symbolic, and more - because the roads enabled troops to swiftly descend on anyone who stepped out of line.
The roads were a sign - the Romans couldn’t control so vast an empire with the limited troops they had, so they built their roads. The roads spoke of who was in charge, and where power was held and what would happen to anyone who dared to think differently. So when John quoted Isaiah you can almost hear him saying - it is God who holds authority, and the Lord who wields power, and not the Emperor, and not Pilate and not Herod. And the future is in God’s hands, not theirs.
Repentance is about being set free, free to think beyond, free to think better, free to hope more.
Now this week - it may not be the best idea to go into work tomorrow and invite everyone to repent. It’s not a line which will appeal to many down the pub. We may be wiser to begin with ourselves, and ask - as do Blake’s question marks - what stands in the way of my best aspirations,
what makes me doubt God’s best hopes for me;
what prevents me from seeing myself as God sees me, not as I am, nor as what I have been, but as what I desire to be.
If repentance is about going beyond the mind that we have, to enlarge our hopes, to believe more of ourselves and others, then John’s message is just as relevant today as it was then. It is, as David Adams prays, to dare to stand before God, and to catch a glimpse of glory.
Holy God, we look for you, we long for you.
Let us see that you are come among us;
make us aware of your presence
and grant us a glimpse of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/L9h1sZmvYbo
Christ the King
Christ the King John 18: 33 -37.
Once again we arrive at the last Sunday of the Churches year, next week, Advent Sunday, begins our new year and our preparation to celebrate again greeting Jesus into our world.
This last Sunday of the Churches year is known by many as the celebration of Christ the King. In Christian terms it is a fairly recent innovation only starting to be celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 and being accepted into the Anglican lectionary in 1970, over 50 years ago I know, but in church time very recent.
Prior to that, and still in some churches, today is known as stir up Sunday due to the collect or post communion prayer which begins; stir up we beseech the O Lord.
Many think it is so called because today you should stir in all the ingredients of the Christmas pudding, but now I guess most come from M & S or similar, if there are any on the shelves this year.
In fact it is a call to stir up the hearts of all faithful people to worship our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Christ the King.
One of the most difficult concepts to preach on, or for any of us to understand, is that of the Holy Trinity, One in Three and three in one. Father Son and Holy Spirit, all God and yet all different in form.
And it is that part of the Trinity we call the Son, Christ, who we also call King.
I know that at times we talk of our God and King, not least in that great hymn, but today is designated as Christ the King which I think is much more accurate and helpful.
What do you think of when you hear the word King?
The most important piece on a chess board, the king in each suit in a pack of playing cards, King Street which occurs in many cities and towns.
I used to get the subway at King and Bathurst in Toronto when I first lived there. You may think of Elvis Presley, known by many as The King. There was a hurricane King in Florida in 1950 which caused massive damage.
The word King appears in so many different ways in our usage but probably most of us think of a male Monarch when we hear the word King.
A supreme or absolute head of a state and government, either in reality or symbolically. A monarch is normally not elected but usually comes to power by right of birth and holds the title and post for life.
So a King is not just a name for things, but someone who is real, someone who we can see and hear, now or in the past, just as we see and hear each other.
God is the supreme being the creator of everything but who we cannot see, even Moses hid his face in the presence of God.
But, as we will celebrate again in just a few weeks, Christ was sent by God to be with us in human form, to be real.
In his trial and at His crucifixion many called Him mockingly King of the Jews, but He was and is King over all creation.
This is referred to in our reading from John's Gospel when Pilot questions Jesus. Jesus, a King but not an earthly one.
And that is what we celebrate today, Christ who was real and in human form and is now still real but returned to the father and sits at His right hand.
He came to us not only to show us the way to eternal life.
Christ came to us, to all of creation, to make clear the power and the love of God for all His creation and so it is right that we call Him King, supreme and absolute head of our church and of our lives.
He also came to teach us and to show us how God wants us to live in His creation, how to be good stewards of our world and how to live together with each other, however different we may be.
But although today we celebrate Christ the King we cannot separate Him from God the Father or the Holy Spirit, as all are one, part of the Holy and eternal Trinity which has the ultimate authority over everything.
I believe it is good to remind ourselves of these things before we get carried away with our celebrations of the birth of Christ and all that goes with the celebration of Christmas.
In our reading we saw a questioning Pilot, he did not understand what was going on, I doubt he understood the reply Jesus gave to him. He was a man of the world and understood the power a King could wield and yet in front of him was an ordinary man who did not even claim greatness.
There is nothing wrong in not understanding everything, even in having doubts about our faith or aspects of it, we are in good company, then and now. Remember not long after his appointment even our Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby admitted to having doubts from time to time.
Perhaps the most common cause for doubt is the question I was often asked by those I met in the hospice, patients or their relatives or by those grieving when I meet to discuss funeral arrangements.
Why does God allow suffering? So and so went to church regularly was a good person and yet why are they suffering now or did suffer.
There have been over the centuries many answers given to this question, I would suggest that many of them have been the cause of even greater pain and suffering by loading guilt on to pain by trying to say that suffering is a punishment for sin. Or that if we still suffer even though we pray that is because our faith which is not strong enough.
I do not accept either of those ideas.
Others have tried to say that it is through suffering and dealing with it that we grow, the no pain no gain approach. Again I do not accept that.
Still others say that suffering is what allows God to show his love for us. Sorry, again that does not strike me how the God I know would behave.
So what is the answer, and this is where I admit to having a real problem, I don’t have one.
Suffering, pain, does exist, I have seen it affecting many people who I know had a strong faith, who I know had tried their very best to lead a good life, never hurting anyone or causing suffering to others. And yet still they suffered.
I am absolutely convinced that God does not impose suffering on us nor is it a result of our own sin or actions. Although I do accept that there are lifestyle issues which can bring pain and suffering on ourselves at times.
In the end I think we have to make a choice, to accept our great limitations, that there is so much we do not understand and put our trust in God to guide us, wherever it may lead knowing he is always with us whatever happens. Or we can blame God for everything and be constantly angry.
It is perhaps summed up well in the prayer by Reinhold Neiburh the American Theologian. You probably recognise the first part often paraphrased, but I would like to read it all as it was written.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/3GiyQHrI31U
The start of our ‘First Thursday Café’ was welcomed by 20+ visitors who enjoyed coffee, tea and cake along with friendly conversation. This was a tremendous opportunity for some to catch up after a long period of isolation due to the pandemic.
We look forward to seeing everyone again at 10.30am on the 2nd December. Don’t forget everyone is welcome so please bring a friend or neighbour.
It’s 1861. 160 years ago. The Americans are in the midst of a civil war. Italy is united for the first time under King Victor Emmanuele II. In Russia Tsar Alexander II has just freed the serfs. Nearer to home, Queen Victoria is on the throne. Thomas Cook is organising the first ever package holiday from London to Paris. The first ever full census of the population is taking place. And somewhere in the backstreets of London a silversmith is crafting something of beauty in his workshop. Let me show it to you.
When I was staying with my sister in Cambridge a few weeks ago, we went into an antique shop, and came across this. It is a communion set with a chalice and a paten, in silver, made in London in 1861 specifically for home communions. It is still in its original travelling case, lined with red velvet. It is well-used and well-loved.
And this started me thinking. Thinking about whom this communion set might have belonged to. Who he was (and in 1861 it was inevitably a man). Where he lived and worked. Thinking also about the people who had received communion from him. In their own homes. Because they were too ill or infirm to go to church. Thinking about how they would have felt. Encouraged. Reassured. Cared for.
Today is All Saints. The day when we remember especially all those faithful Christians who have gone before us. Not just those who have been recognised by the church as saints. St Mary. St Thomas. But also our parents. Our grandparents. Those who worshipped in this church in times gone by. Those we know only through the stories of their lives or the books they wrote. And the previous owner of this communion set and his parishioners.
In Hebrews chapter 12 verse 1 we read this
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Yes, as we sit in church here in this morning, we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. In other words, by all those who like us followed Jesus as Lord and Saviour, and who, as our Christian brothers and sisters, can still today encourage us to persevere in the faith. And we give thanks for them.
I wonder who comes into your mind?
For me there is Brian. A quiet reflective man. With an enormous hug and the strongest ever handshake. Brian who never had very much money, and only possessed two items of footwear: a pair of sandals and a pair of wellingtons.
For me there is Norman. A caring schoolmaster. But so caring and concerned about other people, that, when he became a headmaster, the demands of the job were so great that he took refuge in alcohol.
For me there is Joanna. A dynamic colleague and someone with great emotional intelligence. Who sat talking with me for literally hours during my ordination training.
And then there is C.S. Lewis, whom I only know through his writings of course. Converted to Christianity from atheism as an adult. For me someone who explains the Christian faith probably better than any other person.
Who is in your mind at this moment? Whom do you especially give thanks for this morning?
Come back with me again to 1861. As the silversmith is crafting the communion set in one part of London, the Revd Edward Hayes Plumptre, aged 40, and chaplain and Professor of Theology at King’s College London, is walking the streets of the capital, before going back to his lodgings to write hymns. And it is Edward Plumptre who wrote our last hymn this morning. Would you like to turn to it? It is 814 in your hymn books.
In this hymn, Edward Plumptre above all wants to emphasise Christian unity. The importance of the faith we share with others in our own day and down the ages. A faith which is bigger and greater and stronger than the things which divide us.
And in order to emphasise this, he reminds us of God’s faithfulness to each successive generation, and of our responsibility to recall this and talk about it. In verse 1, we sing
Our forebears owned thy goodness
And we their deeds record;
And both of this bear witness:
One church, one faith, one Lord.
He reminds us however that being a Christian has never been easy. In verse 3, he speaks of many a day of darkness and many a scene of strife.
In our own personal lives, there have undoubtedly been dark times, when perhaps we have even questioned our faith and questioned God, just as Mary in our gospel reading questions Jesus with the words: Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Certainly, as we think back to the lives of Christians who have gone before us, there have been many times when the faithful few [have] fought bravely, and continued to share the good news, the gospel of redemption, sin pardoned, hope restored, against overwhelming odds, and in the face of persecution. And we remember that we are part of a world-wide church of well over 2 billion believers, where many still fight for the freedom to follow Jesus, and to preach the gospel.
Verse 4 of our hymn follows up on this with a challenge. The stories of these faithful people can inspire and encourage us, in the words of that verse from Hebrews, to run with perseverance the race marked out for us, but it often feels as if we too are part of the faithful few, in a world which is increasingly secular, and where traditional Christianity seems to have lost its appeal to most people. The challenge then to us is this. In our time and our place, are we going to evade the conflict and cast away our crown? Are our hearts going to fail and our hands hang down?
The answer in this hymn comes back loud and clear: NOT SO! We will hold our nerve unflinching. And we will do this because, as verse 5 tells us, we are not in this alone. God’s mercy will not fail us. His right hand (his strong hand) will help us. He is with us every step of the way.
On this All Saints Sunday, as we give thanks for those who have gone before us, we remember that we are all working together for the same goal, that is the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world and in all creation. This is the moment which St John describes in our first reading from Revelation 21. And this is also the moment which is described so beautifully in that most well-loved hymn ‘For all the saints’ which we sang earlier. As I close, listen again to those encouraging words:
From earth’s wide bounds
From ocean’s farthest coast
Through gates of pearl
Streams in the countless host
Singing to Father
Son and Holy Ghost
Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen
The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever. Psalm 19:9
The fear of the Lord, what does that mean to you? Are we here to put the fear of God into people? Are we here to put the fear of God into ourselves?
Fear is something we do not like. It is a negative word. Why would we associate ‘fear’ with God?
But in the Bible fear is not always to be avoided. In the book of Proverbs for example, chapter 9, verse 10, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is something different, something positive, something to be sought after.
The Bible is full of surprises, surprises we often miss because we don’t read it often enough or carefully enough. For example, I was at our Deanery Synod meeting last Wednesday. The topic was our environment, something naturally on our minds as we near the global summit of world leaders. So let me ask you a question, in the Bible who is your neighbour?
Who is your neighbour? Any ideas?
Our first answer is that our neighbour is people. But let me point you to the Bible Jesus grew up with, what we call the Old Testament. In Leviticus 19: 18-20. Verse 18 says, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. OK – that’s fine, but then come three examples of who your neighbour is.
Firstly – your animals. You must look after them properly.
Secondly – your fields. You must tend them wisely.
Thirdly – people. You must treat them with respect.
So when God says love your neighbour he is not just talking about human beings. He is also talking about your animals, your cattle, sheep, elephants, giraffes, penguins, fish, birds. The loss of each species is the death of your neighbour. God takes it seriously.
God is equally serious about your fields, how they are ploughed, how they are fertilised, how chemicals are used, how crops are engineered, how hedgerows are maintained, how land is drained. Jeremy Clarkson may not sound like an angel but his series on farming tells us that what we ask of our farmers is unsustainable. The National Farmers Union voted him Farming Champion of the Year. A voice for the land is a voice for our neighbour.
Finally you get to people. The animals and the fields come first. Your neighbour is your animals, your fields, and then people.
The fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom – because the first step towards life is knowing that God is different to us.
Take our reading from Isaiah. There are three paragraphs, three sections. Take the middle one first – verses 6-9.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your way my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Remember the story of Adam and Eve, where did they go wrong? Well obviously an apple was involved. But what was the intention? It wasn’t because they were hungry, nowhere does it say that they ate the apple to survive, they had plenty to eat.
No, listen to the words of the serpent, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” See that’s where humanity goes wrong, when we think we can be like God. When we think that over there are the animals and the birds and the insects, and the fields and seas and the air. Those are over there, they are things. And we are over here, we’re like God. All those things belong to us and we can do whatever we want with them.
But then we read Leviticus. Look after your neighbour. And your neighbour is first of all your animals and your fields. People are included, but they are not separate and they do not come first.
In other words – you are not like God. You are not God. You are part of creation. God is different. God is not like us, and we are not like God. We are not over here with God, we are over here with the animals and the land, we are part of creation, not separate from it.
My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. God is different. That’s the fear of the Lord, the beginning of Wisdom. Knowing God is different.
Then we look at the first paragraph in Isaiah, verses 1-5. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”
Jane referred to this a couple of weeks ago, the energy we expend seeking happiness in all the wrong places, all the wrong things. We see this all around us, a society never healthier, never richer, never safer, never better educated, yet beset by anxiety and unease. We look for meaning in all the wrong things.
God says – life, the fullness of life, is abundant, it is without money, and without price. Incline your ear to me, listen, so that you may live.
But we don’t listen, so we don’t live. At least we do not live as God offers. We have not heard that our self-sufficiency is a myth. We still think we are over here, godlike and in control. Not over here, part of a complex and incredible world. But also a fragile and broken world.
So what can God do about this? What does he do about it? The third part of Isaiah, verses 10-11. “
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return until they have watered the earth – so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
Rain cannot fall without watering the earth. God’s Word cannot be given without making God’s will known.
We meet because we have heard this Word. The Word made flesh, that dwelt amongst us. And his Spirit, sent to those who listen. To remind us that we are not like God, God is different from us, that is the fear of the Lord. It is the beginning of Wisdom because when you know God is different, God is not like us, you can begin to understand that God’s will is for us to be like him. And to see his creation as gift and abundance, and to be part of it joyfully, thankfully, reverently and carefully.
God is not like us – but he wills us to be like him. Which is why humanity is given choice. Know that God’s way is different, and choose to follow it.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/YeZiM3QPhtA
Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
In the verses just before our reading from Mark, Jesus gives his final and most detailed prediction of his trial, suffering, death, and resurrection. He is about to enter Jerusalem and confront the temple-based authorities.
So James and John seem to think this is an appropriate time, perhaps their last chance, to request privileged places for themselves to Jesus’ right and left.
In doing so, the sons of Zebedee appear to have misunderstood almost everything Jesus has said and done, except perhaps for the transfiguration. They recognised that glorification awaited Jesus. They expected that the authority Jesus had exhibited in his ministry would lead to something big, perhaps to a royal rule, and they wanted a special place in that.
When Jesus gently chastises them for their ignorance and speaks about “the cup” he must drink and “the baptism” he must undergo, he reiterates that violence and death await him in Jerusalem.
Although James and John affirm their willingness to endure suffering with Jesus, he waits until later to explain that they will fail to do so in the immediate future. Instead he addresses their desire for power and prestige. He comments on the nature of human power–the kind of power that will soon crush him in the political spectacle of his trial and execution–and on the meaning of his death. He puts his life and death, along with the lives and sufferings of his followers, in complete opposition to such expressions of power, the power which seemed more normal, even to his disciples.
James and John are not the only disciples enticed by visions of a triumphant reign, we hear that the rest of the Twelve fume over the brothers’ bid to outflank them in prominence. Jesus corrects their vision by holding up the behaviour of the Roman authorities as negative examples. They regularly “overpower” and “tyrannise” others. They rely on coercion and control to maintain their dominance and position.
In absolute contrast, greatness among Jesus’ followers is measured by their ability to live as servants and slaves, even if that life means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield earthly power.
Jesus has spoken in similar terms, where he compares himself to a child, an image of powerlessness and vulnerability.
Jesus’ final line — “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” — connects to his preceding words about service and enslavement, indicating that his death will be just as much an example for them as was his way of living.
At the same time, Jesus’ mention of a “ransom” indicates that his death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system.
The word used in Greek, lytron indicates that his death does something; it secures a release.
The context in which this statement appears is about power and servitude, not the problem of sin or the need to secure forgiveness.
Furthermore, the Old Testament usage of lytron, while sometimes referring to a redemption or purchased freedom, just as frequently refers to God’s acting to deliver people. A lytron is a liberation wrought by divine strength, not by payment such as the examples of lytron found in Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 15:15; 2 Samuel 7:23; Psalm 69:18; Isaiah 43:14.
Jesus therefore declares (without stopping to clarify precisely how) that God, through Jesus’ death, will free people from oppression and captivity, restoring them to membership in the community that corresponds to God’s reign.
All this to me raises some questions:
From whom or what does Jesus’ death deliver people? According to the immediate context, it delivers those who believe from the accepted norms of social and political power that human beings concoct to control each other. According to the story of the passion and resurrection, God defeats the power of death itself.
What about sin and forgiveness? The Gospel of Mark promises forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness are part of Jesus’ proclamation and ministry. But Mark presents these topics as subordinate pieces in a more comprehensive apocalyptic showdown that sees the cosmos and human existence transformed by God’s reign and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Who benefits? The mention of Jesus as a ransom on behalf of many emphasises the contrast between many and the one who acts on their behalf. Here, “many” has the sense of “all” or “everyone,” which is in keeping with the cosmic scope of Mark’s apocalyptic drama.
The latter verses from Mark describe Jesus as a servant, an example which he instructs his disciples to follow. It could be assumed that Jesus acts as he does so we do not have to do so, but I do not believe that is how it is presented here.
The idea of a vicarious atonement — Jesus as a sinless sacrifice carrying the full burden of human sin to satisfy God or cosmic justice and therefore release us all from any responsibility is a nice thought, but I suggest not what it intended.
So what does it mean for the church, for congregations, and for individual Christians to imitate Jesus, who submits to the designs of his powerful enemies? And how do we, when and where we live, experience the realities of the liberation that God has accomplished for us through the death of Jesus Christ, and not through our own success or failure at adopting the role of a servant to others?
I’m not sure that I can give you an easy and adequate answer to
That question but Perhaps Kipling sums it up in his poem Mary’s
If you stop to find out what your wages will be
And how they will clothe and feed you.
Willie, my son, don’t you go to the sea,
For the sea will never need you.
If you ask for the reason for every command,
And argue you with people about you,
Willie, my son, don’t you go on the land,
For the land will be better without you.
If you stop to consider the work that you’ve done,
And to boast what your labour is worth dear,
Angels may come for you, Willie my son
But you’ll never be wanted on earth dear.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/LYTnKhvh9Rs
Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
Let’s set the scene – this is part of the Exodus story. The people of Israel had been held as slaves in Egypt. Life had been hard, Pharaoh was a harsh taskmaster. They laboured in sweltering heat day after day, every aspect of their lives was under someone else’s control.
But God heard their cry, he had called Moses, perhaps a most unlikely choice and certainly someone who felt he wasn’t up to the task. Moses was a reluctant leader.
We know the story, how Moses, who had himself fled from Egypt, went back and challenged Pharaoh – let my people go.
Then came the plagues, the escape into the desert, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the years in the wilderness.
Life in the wilderness was hard. Far harder it seemed than life back in Egypt. The people remembered the food, they forgot the suffering. As someone said this week, when we look back it is through rose tinted glasses.
In his Rule St Benedict told his community to take their past seriously, and not through rose tinted glasses. We need to be honest.
Listen readily to holy reading, and devote yourself often to prayer. Every day with tears and sighs confess your sins to God in prayer and change from these evil ways in the future.
The ancient world saw the gift of tears as a sign of God’s grace. If we are able to face that which has distorted life in the past then we can avoid the making same mistakes in the future. This is not a popular concept in modern culture, but perhaps it needs to be. Joan Chittister writes, “Life, Benedict implies, is a tapestry woven daily from yesterday’s threads. The colours don’t change, only the shapes we give them. Without the past to guide us, the future itself may succumb to it.”
The past couple of years have taken us into a new wilderness. Much that we took for granted has gone, we have a choice before us how we look to the future.
There will be some who hanker for things as they were before. There will be others who will wish everything to be different. There is a Christian path of being realistic about the past, being realistic about ourselves, that can help us shape what comes next.
Our church councils, for example, have looked at things we have done before, things we see good in and wish to do again, but things we know we need to do differently this time round. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
At St Peter’s our Monday Knit and Natter has become a Wednesday Coffee and Chat. What’s the difference? Maybe not a lot. It is a morning rather than an afternoon. It is twice a month rather than once. It moved days to be avoid clashes with other events, so it is open to a wider range of people. It is one small step to create a time and a place where people can meet just to be together. As such it is something we can do to help break down social isolation which we know affects too many people.
At St Mary’s we have looked at our village fair, something that is important as a fundraising event, but that’s not what people talk about. What they talk about is the friendship and working together, the sense of community and a shared commitment to celebrate life. Those who have led it in the past have been courageously realistic about how we need to do it differently in the future. And that relies on a wider range of people taking leadership.
When the wilderness seemed overwhelming Moses complained to God. This task is just too difficult. These people are just too awkward. And what did God do?
What he didn’t do is to ask more of Moses. Quite the opposite. Go find seventy others, share this task with them. Of course, then, as now, having tasted the responsibility many didn’t continue, but some did. And they did it differently.
When Eldad and Medad remained in the camp and prophesied the former leadership felt threatened. Joshua, Moses’ assistant – for which read, next leader in waiting – pleaded with Moses to stop them.
But that isn’t God’s way. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.” Moses wasn’t afraid of different people doing things in a different way.
Jesus had the same confrontation with his disciples. When they tried to stop a man acting in Jesus’ name because he wasn’t one of them he rebuked them. Anyone who does good in my name will inherit their reward.
If you go to the Cross outside St Peter’s in Chester you may meet the Town Crier. Wearing his red robe and tricorn hat, ringing his bell, he is popular with tourists. An American couple asked him if it is true you can walk all the way round the city on the Roman walls.
Oh yes, said the Crier, you can go this way round, or that way round, all the way, and you’ll end up back here.
Gee, that’s amazing, they said, which way’s shortest?
There are different ways to discover God’s will. There are different paths towards God. There are different journeys to build his kingdom. But there are no short cuts.
Our readings today are difficult. Both point to letting go of the past, letting go of power, letting go of self-sufficiency. Both suggest we need to work with others, perhaps others we don’t yet know, who may be different from us, and do things differently to us. And that will be hard. It was hard in Moses’ time. It was hard in Jesus’ time. We have no reason to think it will be any different today.
Like Moses we may feel we’re not up to the task. Like Moses we may be reluctant to take up a new direction. Like Joshua, or the disciples, we may mistrust those different from us.
Benedict advises us to listen readily to holy reading and devote ourselves often to prayer. In a recent survey younger people, those aged 18-34, are shown to pray twice as often as older people, that’s those aged 55 and over. In term of attending worship the younger age group are three times more likely to participate.
Maybe that isn’t church as we know it, maybe we need to listen again to Moses’ words - “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/6-Fa40swizs
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
When I was first introduced to preaching, almost 30 years ago now, I was given the advice that I should try to limit any sermon to covering just three points.
Sometimes that works, sometimes it would be less than helpful and miss many of the things which are important for us to hear.
There are also times when one point is so important that including anything else would diminish it.
Sometimes it is difficult to know what points we should want to make, or in fact what if the preacher is merely putting forward their own view of the world.
When you have the privilege to stand up here and preach, usually without being challenged, you have the responsibility to be careful to remember that all we are, or should be trying to do, is make what we hear and read from scripture more accessible and understandable.
At least to those able to stay awake.
The Gospel we heard this morning has very much given a situation which helps me make three over arching points and thus follow the initial advice I was given. At least I hope so.
It seems to me that what we heard from Mark is about three things, about Jesus, about being human and about the outlook we need to have to be a follower of Jesus.
What do I mean by this?
In the first couple of verses we hear Jesus explain to his disciples what is to happen to him, his death and resurrection, which is fundamental to who he is.
As we know Jesus is an excellent teacher and leader but to me in this period of his ministry he is acting more like a coach of his particular chosen team. We hear that he has taken them away from the crowds to talk to them directly and discretely.
I don’t think it’s a secret that I am a great fan of rugby union, I used to play and still have a keen interest watching Sale Sharks whenever I get the chance, on TV or live. In fact if there is a game on TV I will try to watch whoever it is, Saracens beating Bristol Bears on Friday night for instance.
What Jesus is doing with his disciples is very much how a good coach works. First they select the right people, not all the same, not all with the same set of skills or personalities, but all who have one aim which unifies them as a Group.
The coach then has to work with each of them to develop their individual skills, in a professional rugby club the coach gets help here from assistant coaches with specialist skills for each different position on the field.
The head coach then has to bring all these things together by making sure that each member of the team knows how their skills fit into the game plan the coach has put together to try to defeat the opposition.
They also have to learn how they can each support their team mates for the good of the team not just going out for their own glory.
Jesus wanted his disciples to know what their opposition was going to be like and how they might work to spread the message he had brought to them, supporting each other.
But as we move on we get to see the human traits coming out.
They did not find it easy to understand what Jesus really meant, what he was saying seemed alien to them, they wanted to understand but we are told they were afraid to ask him what he meant.
I’m sure we can understand that, it may have been that they did not know what they wanted to ask, what he was saying was so outside their experience of life up to then.
They tried to get what he said to fit into their understanding, they were used to having some people be in charge and be more important than others so they applied this to their group.
We all like to think we are more important than the average, that there is something special about us which sets us apart. But the reality is we are all the same.
We are all born unable to do very much of anything other than eat sleep and in very simple ways let whoever is around us know when we need something.
It is as we grow and find the influences of our environment that we start to feel if we have a particular place within it.
Modern life with all the instant communication of social media platforms where influencers tell us what is good and what is not and how we should feel and behave, these make life much more complicated.
In the news recently we have heard about Emma Raducanu who at eighteen and in only her second major tennis tournament won the US open going through from the qualifying rounds to win the final without dropping a set.
The stuff of movies, the stuff of dreams. In the media much has been made of how this will motivate others to do the same.
Yes that is possible, but I would suggest highly unlikely.
Mainly as most of us don’t have the innate talent and abilities that she has and probably don’t have the single mindedness and discipline required either.
But we do all have our own skills which to us may seem to be very little but which to others are often something they cannot attain.
I have never been able to draw or paint, my grandad could, he was very good, in trying to help me he used to say, just draw what you see, it never worked for me though.
If we don’t win some major prize or reach a high position or become a pop star, does that mean we have failed. Social media might imply that but I am sure that is not a view Jesus would subscribe to, and nor should we.
If anyone wishes to be first he must be last and the servant of all.
A hard message to hear, and an even harder one to live by, especially in our modern age where we tend to think we are measured by our wealth or our possessions.
That constant conflict is with us all as human beings and why we need to keep looking to Christ not only for what we should do but also for the strength to help us do it.
And so we come to the last two verses where Jesus makes it clear what he expects of us.
I said earlier that we are born unable to do much, we need the help of others, particularly our parents, to help us get through each day and to grow and develop.
What Jesus is suggesting is that we approach everyone with a view to how we can help them, how we can reposed to their needs, not look to how they can help us.
That doesn’t mean that we should treat others a though they are children and we know what is best for them.
But it does mean that we should value them, allow them to grow and develop, and try to recognise and respond to their needs as best we can, but also help them to know the love and support which is there for them in Christ Jesus.
So three main points to take from this passage;
Jesus is the son of God who came to show us God’s love and what he expects of us and also that death is not the end.
That we are all human and get things wrong at times, but that there is hope for us all.
And that being important is not important, knowing the love of God and helping others come to know that too is what is really important.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/RfBMRuGE97Q
Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
I wonder how many Christians feel their heart sink when they hear those words? These are hard words. We know we don’t live up to them.
Faith is not easy. It never has been. Isaiah identifies the hallmarks of God’s servant:
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
Christians have long identified the suffering servant of Isaiah with Jesus of Nazareth. This was hard to understand. How could God’s own Son be rejected? How could God fail? How could the Messiah suffer and die? Which, as I have said before, is why Mark wrote his Gospel. To explain that God’s way is often the hard way. Those who choose to follow it choose a life that is not comfortable.
Jesus makes this clear. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Last Sunday was rather bizarre. After our morning services I was at Chester Cathedral for the installation of our new bishops, Julie and Sam. It was the Church of England being the Church of England.
There were processions of Lord Lieutenants, Mayors and other civic dignitaries. The Canons had our own procession and proceeded to our named stalls. Everybody bowed to everyone else. Bishop Mark read out the charge which quoted both the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the regulations of Canon Law. The organ played, the choir sang. The Cathedral remained open for visitors who could watch through the rood screen – you see in their eyes that this was all completely bonkers and baffling.
From the Cathedral I went up the M56 to a Bikers’ Church service held in a Methodist Church east of Warrington. Two blokes with guitars provided the music. A lady in red Ducati leathers led the service. People wandered in and out with cups of tea. The speaker was a mental health chaplain from Chorley. He introduced himself as the Chorley Chaplain.
He spoke on the letter of James, chapter 1, verse 2 – Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials. He held this verse alongside the story of Job – Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Reciting those words in Hebrew to a bunch of bikers wasn’t what I had expected. But you could tell he hit home. Many of those present had endured trials, loss, grief, anxiety, sickness, mourning. His message was that being a Christian isn’t about avoiding the trials, it is how we respond to them that matters.
At the Cathedral I fell into conversation with our Archdeacon and Diocesan Secretary – it is good to have two new bishops, but the year ahead will be the most testing we have known.
Being a church is going to be harder than ever before. We are short of money. We are very short of people. Not just people who attend, but people who make things happen. So many of those who do the thousand and one tasks of the kingdom have stepped back during the pandemic – many of them, so far, are not coming back.
As a church face a time of trial, the speaker at Biker Church reminds us, how we respond is what matters.
St Benedict was no stranger to holding a community together during difficult times. One of the extracts of the Rule for this week is this:
Now that we have asked God who will dwell in the holy tent, we have heard the instruction for dwelling in it, but only if we fulfil the obligations of those who live there. We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to God’s instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Holy One to supply by the help of grace.
In that short passage Benedict sets out a lifetime of wisdom. Firstly, if we choose to dwell in the holy tent we accept there are obligations involved. If we are citizens of the Kingdom of God then citizenship comes with responsibilities.
Secondly, this will be a battle of holy obedience. The choices set before us won’t be easy, if our instinct is for safety and comfort, avoiding the difficult things, then we will not be obedient.
Thirdly, what is not possible by nature, let us ask God to supply by the help of grace. Benedict knew none of us would find this easy. We cannot do it by ourselves. We can only do it if we consciously seek God’s grace and rely upon it.
Jesus asks us to take the hardest path, to deny ourselves, to take up the cross, to follow him – but he does not expect us to do it alone.
Last Sunday was bizarre. At the Installation of Bishops there was the Church of England at it most splendid. Formal processions of the great and the good. Wonderful music from the organ and choir. Everything done with perfect rehearsal and in accordance with ecclesiastical tradition.
At biker church it got started when everyone wandered in having found a cup of tea. There was no order of service. The vestments were mostly leather jackets with a cross on the back. Someone’s dog got loose.
But in both those who wandered in were found a seat. Both worshipped God as our only source of hope and strength in difficult times. Both were places where prayer was valid and strangers were joined in common purpose.
Both were moments when people put Jesus first – and accepted the consequences of following his way.
When Benedict reminds us that we cannot win the battle of holy obedience without God’s grace he reminds us also that it is in community where we find such grace. Whether that is the formality of a great cathedral, or the organised chaos of a Biker Church, God’s grace is with us. And we do not take up this cross alone.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/sDFo66UhoFU
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
I wonder if you know what one of these is. If you have children or grandchildren of a certain age, you may recognise it. It’s a toy which you can change from, in this case, a car to a robot and back. It can be two different things. Yes. It is a transformer.
The dictionary defines a transformation as a change in the appearance or character of something or someone, and then adds especially so that that thing or person is improved.
Well, the theme of transformation – in our lives and in the world around us – and especially the idea of positive change, which brings with it an improvement or a benefit - is very much at the heart of our two readings today. The first is an extract of one of the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, from the book of Isaiah. And the second is two stories from the ministry of Jesus from the gospel of Mark. The one then predicting the coming of Jesus. The other telling us what actually happened when he finally came. But both make the same fundamental point – that transformation at all levels in our lives and in our world is the work of God. God the creator at work in and with his creation.
So let’s spend a few minutes this morning thinking about the theme of transformation with the help of these readings.
At a basic level, transformation is physical.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the physical change in someone when their bodies are transformed, when a blind person is able to see, a deaf person able to hear, or a person who was unable to walk suddenly finds they can. And Mark too, in our gospel reading, tells the story of a deaf man with a speech impediment, whose ears are opened and whose tongue is released. This man’s life is transformed.
In 2014, when Kelly Thomas was 19, she lost control of her truck on her way home. The truck rolled over, and her head hit the roof. The impact severely compressed her spine, causing complete paralysis of her lower body. Her surgeon told her she had maybe a 1% chance of ever walking again. However, a pioneering spinal implant was installed just below the site of her injury, and the electrodes were then connected to a spinal cord stimulator surgically implanted in her abdominal wall. Only 3 ½ months later, she was able to walk with no assistance other than a walker, and she is now flourishing in her new freedom. Kelly’s life has been transformed. She can walk again.
The prophet Isaiah also speaks of physical changes which take place in the natural world. He speaks of water which breaks forth in the wilderness, of streams in the desert, of burning sand which becomes a pool, and of springs on the thirsty ground.
We see that in our world too. Amazing natural phenomena. Here is just one example.
The Atacama desert in northern Chile is one of the driest places in the world, but, every five to seven years, there is intense rainfall, which causes buried seeds to germinate and flower. More than 200 species of plants have in fact been found to grow in the area. The normally barren landscape is transformed into a carpet of white and yellow and purple flowers.
Now these physical transformations can take place through surgery or medication or other advances in medicine. They can take place through the natural healing processes of the human body or the natural restorative processes in nature. And sometimes there is really no way of accounting for them other than seeing them as miraculous, as in the stories from Mark’s gospel. One way or another, it is God the creator who brings about the transformation of course.
I wonder what examples you can think of such a transformation in your own lives, or in the lives of people you know?
So, the transformation might be physical – in our bodies or the natural world. But it might also a transformation in our minds, in our mental state, in our attitudes or opinions or thought processes. In that sense, we need to read the words of Isaiah not only literally but also metaphorically.
There are many times in our lives when we are blind, or deaf, or speechless, or unable to act, not because of any physical problem, but because of the sort of people we are. If we then begin to understand ourselves and other people better, we see things more clearly, and we listen more attentively to other people. We are able to express our thoughts and feelings more coherently, and we are able to make wise judgements about what to do or not to do. This is about self-awareness and self-acceptance, and an emotional intelligence, which helps us to empathise with those around us.
In this transformation too, it is God who brings it about. The Holy Spirit, working in our lives through the experiences we have, the people we meet, the music we listen to, the books we read – including the Bible of course, transforms us and the people we are. Let me give you one small example from my life.
As a child I was very shy and didn’t like to socialise very much with other children. Over time I learnt how to cope in social situations, but I always found it very hard. I thought this was a fault in me. Something which I needed to fight against and get rid of. And then in my 50s, as part of my ministry training, I learnt about the difference between introverts and extroverts. That introverts get their strength from being alone whereas extroverts get their strength from being with other people. Introverts then need recovery time whereas extroverts don’t. It was a light-bulb moment. There was nothing wrong with me, nothing odd about me. I was just an introvert. It transformed both my view of myself and the world around me. And this transformation came through the Holy Spirit at work in my ministry training course.
Has God transformed you, or someone you know, in the way you think about things? Something to reflect on.
But there is still another – and arguably the most important - sort of transformation which can take place in our lives – and that is a spiritual transformation, a transformation in our relationship with God. Isaiah refers to it briefly in verse 4 when he tells his listeners that God will come and save them. And the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 is as much about her own spiritual needs, about a spiritual transformation, as it is about the healing of her daughter. Let me explain.
The slightly odd discussion between the woman and Jesus about throwing the children’s food to the dogs is actually about whether she can be put right with God or not, whether the salvation which Isaiah refers to, through belief in Jesus, is on offer to her. She is a gentile, a non-Jew, symbolised by the dogs in this discussion, and the children to which Jesus refers are the Jews. The good news of the coming of the Messiah comes first to the Jews, but is then shared with the gentiles. The children are fed first, in this metaphor, but then the dogs also get to eat the food too. As St Paul writes in Romans 1:16 : I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
And it is the woman’s understanding of this important truth, when she says even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs, which shows her faith in Jesus as her saviour, and then results in her daughter being healed.
In my sermon in early August, I quoted from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal who wrote about our relationship with God, and our spiritual needs. He said this, you may remember:
What does our craving, and our helplessness, tell us? It tells us that we once had true happiness, but that now all we are left with is an empty print and trace? We try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us, looking for help in these things, but nothing can help, because this endless emptiness can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.
In Luke 4, when Jesus stands up in his home synagogue, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, this time from Isaiah 61 saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[f]
Yes, Jesus is talking here about social justice and about physical healing and freedom, he is talking about our mental and psychological state, but he is talking also about much more than that. The good news is the promise of a restored relationship with God. The acknowledgement of the God-shaped hole which each of us has. The recognition of our longing to fill that endless emptiness refers in our lives to which Pascal with God himself. This is about a spiritual transformation, which makes a positive difference in our lives. It is not about a one-off moment, about a moment of conversion to faith in Jesus if you like. It is about a day-to-day ongoing transformation of our lives.
But what does that transformation feel like? How do we recognise it for what it is?
Well, to go back to Pascal, it is when we no longer try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us. It is about changed priorities and perspectives. It is about a new sense of peace and well-being which helps us to flourish and grow.
A couple of examples.
Many of you will know the story of John Newton – who wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ – but for those who don’t .. John Newton went to sea at a young age and worked up to being a captain of slave ships. After becoming a Christian, he was ordained into the Church of England and became a prominent campaigner against the slave trade. Newton lived to see the British Empire’s abolition of the African slave trade in 1807, just months before his death. John Newton’s priorities changed completely and his life was transformed by his Christian faith.
And nearer to home … something which I imagine we can all relate to …
During the pandemic, we have been deprived of many of those things from the world around us which Pascal talks about, and with which we fill our lives. We haven’t been able to go to the cinema or a restaurant. We haven’t been able to travel far from our homes. We have been restricted in which shops we can go to. We haven’t been able to socialise or entertain in our own home.
In some ways, all this has left us bereft. We have all really missed seeing family and friends. Many of us have also missed the excitement of travelling around in this country and abroad, but we have rediscovered, or even discovered for the first time, an inner strength, and a certain sense of peace in a simpler way of life. The pandemic has brought much suffering and heartache, of course it has, but it has also transformed our world and our lives in lots of different ways. I wonder if you have also found that it has in some way or other changed your relationship with God?
God then is a God of transformation at so many different levels. He transforms our physical bodies, he transforms the natural world we live in, he transforms our minds and the sort of people we are, and, above all, he transforms our relationship with him, filling forever that endless emptiness, that God-shaped hole.
And of course we need to remember that there is more to come.
These transformations are but a foretaste of the transformation which will take place in the new heaven and the new earth which we read about in the book of Revelation. As I close, listen again to the words of St John as he describes his vision in Revelation 21. I am going to read it in a different version from the one you are probably used to. I find that sometimes a different version of a familiar passage can give us a fresh perspective. So I am reading from The Message.
I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. 2 I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. 3-5 I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighbourhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.”
Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
“For it is from within, from the human heart…..”
Do you know the story of the car that didn’t like vanilla ice-cream?
The story goes that in the early 1970’s General Motors received a letter from a customer who claimed his car didn’t like vanilla ice-cream. They thought it was crazy so they ignored it. But the customer wrote again.
“I know this sounds crazy but it’s true. My new Pontiac doesn’t like vanilla ice cream. It is a family tradition to have ice-cream each evening, so I drive down to the store to buy it. If I buy vanilla the car won’t start. If I buy anything else it is fine.”
The board of General Motors still thought it was crazy but they sent an engineer to investigate. The engineer accompanied the owner to the store, he bought vanilla ice-cream. The car wouldn’t start.
The next night the engineer went again. The owner bought chocolate ice-cream, the car started perfectly. The next night it was mint, the car started fine. The next night vanilla, the car refused to start.
The engineer explored things further. He accompanied the owner into the store. When he bought chocolate ice-cream, or mint, raspberry ripple, the storekeeper went into the back of the store to fetch the flavour for that evening. But when it was vanilla, the most common flavour chosen, the ice-cream was kept in a freezer right by the counter.
You will have course seen what the issue was?
The vanilla ice-cream was kept by the counter, all the other flavours were in a freezer in the back store room. It took longer to get the flavoured ice-creams than the vanilla. The car’s fuel pipe was slightly too close to the exhaust, so with a hot exhaust the fuel in the pipe formed a vapour lock and the car wouldn’t start. With a slightly longer wait the exhaust was cooler, no vapour lock, so the car started perfectly.
That story is told in many settings to do with management, customer service, and looking after personnel – because it is about attitude. The engineer didn’t dismiss the car owner’s problem. It sounded crazy but it wasn’t. He looked and he listened, and he solved the problem. Approach people with the right attitude and better outcomes ensue.
This is pretty much the same thing as Jesus is saying when he speaks of what comes from within. Our capacity for good or bad, our treatment of others, our view of ourselves, comes from within. We have to take responsibility for it.
When I was at college we were invited to the Ministry of Defence as part of a course we were following. We were ushered into a room where to our surprise we found ourselves face to face with Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for Defence. It was quite late in the day and his aide told us he had an important engagement so we wouldn’t get long.
He proved to be a most gracious and charming host and listened far more than he spoke. The meeting went on and the aide was making increasingly frantic gestures that the Secretary of State had somewhere far more important to be.
Eventually he played the ultimate card – he leant over and said in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear – “Sir, you wife is on the phone.” To which Michael Heseltine replied – “Thank you. Please let her know I’m in a very important meeting and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
And then he gave us full attention for a further half an hour. We left with a very clear impression that here was a man of integrity and honour, a public servant who could be trusted to put the national interest before personal ambition. It came from within. Some would say he’s the best Prime Ministers this country never had.
We might be tempted to be critical of the Pharisees and Scribes for nit picking rules, but then rules which say you should wash your hands after shopping, or wash cooking utensils carefully, are not entirely silly.
Nor is the concept that sometimes rules need to be enforced for people’s own good. The rules about not working on the Sabbath protected a day when people could not be at work. Many of those working from home during lockdown have found the boundaries between work and personal time have been difficult to manage. Many have struggled with mental health as a result of never switching off.
The French have laws that forbid sending emails out of work hours. These laws have the same intention as enforcing the Sabbath. Setting clear boundaries that make people take time off is a sensible thing to do. I have scolded more than one bishop for setting a bad example by failing to take a regular day off. I am pleased our new bishop has a hobby, he rides motorbikes, and tomorrow, with the Bishop of Hereford we’re riding from Chester Cathedral to Hereford Cathedral. You may want to avoid the A49.
Rules aren’t the problem. The problem is how we use them, and that primarily depends on what comes from within. One of the sad things during lockdown was how many people took the rules and turned themselves into tinpot dictators. Do you remember people walking being pursued by drones, or the lady who had a coffee being charged by police for holding a picnic? And churches weren’t immune from such silliness, funeral directors have told me how badly they have seen people treated trying to mourn under such difficult circumstances.
We’ve all encountered people who have taken a sensible precaution and then used it to boost their own power and ego. That also comes from within.
One of the Psalm set for this day is Psalm 45, which begins, “My heart is astir with gracious words.”
The mark of a faithful person is their heart, whether it be gracious, kind, generous, resilient, or judgemental, harsh, or mean.
If someone tells you their car doesn’t like vanilla ice-cream you may jump to the conclusion they are crazy, a person not worth listening to, a problem to be avoided. Or your heart may be astir with gracious words, and a problem can be fixed.
In the week ahead, be ready to listen, be aware of what comes from within.
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
“Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”
When I was a scout our Group Scout Leader, George, smoked a pipe. If you asked him a question he would fish out his pipe, find his pipe knife, scrape the old ash out of the bowl, blow through it a few times, suck on it experimentally, then find his tobacco pouch, pinch off some baccy, finger it into the bowl, tap it down, suck on it, dig it out again, then press it back, then find his matches, light his pipe, puff on it a few times, and then answer your question.
You never got a quick answer, but you always got a good answer.
We live in an age of instant gratification. We want and we want it now. We don’t save up any more, we buy things on credit. We don’t make an appointment to see the bank manager, it’s all handled at a 24/7 call centre. We don’t browse in bookshops, we click on Amazon and download to a Kindle.
Not everything however can be instant.
We are here today because we choose to answer the invitation to become companions with Jesus through bread and wine. Jesus spoke of himself as the bread of life, his life nourishes our life, but only if we have a hunger for him, and a patience for him. If we are filled with other priorities and satisfied with material wellbeing, then there is no space in us to receive him.
I want to remind you that our gospel has a wider context. John chapter 6 begins with the feeding of the five thousand - a narrative so important that it is the only miracle story found in all four gospels. John tells us what happens next -
The people were delighted with free food. Their hunger had been satisfied, they have been given what they wanted. This was pretty wonderful. You might, of course, suspect such a preacher to be buying people’s affections. If we put a sign outside church saying free beer and cakes perhaps the congregation might grow.
(And if not in numbers then at least in waist size!)
But Jesus wasn’t buying their affections. When he moved on they sought him out - when they found him they were shocked because he had hard words for them - he recognized what they were after. “Truly I say to you - you seek me not because you saw signs, but because you had your fill.”
And he went on to make clear the point of the feeding was not that it filled their bellies, but that it is a sign of something far more life changing. What he offers is a different set of rules, and alternative set of values, a new way of living.
But it has to be chosen, it has to be accepted. And most people choose not to accept.
The life of faith, though joyful, is at the same time sacrificial and hard. The fullness of life offered is found through obedience and service. The rewards are not instant, nor are they easy. Like George with his pipe - you don’t get a quick answer, and often not an easy answer.
Predictably, then as now, these words are hard. Even the disciples protested - “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Many didn’t, and they knew it. It is one thing to follow a leader who everyone wants to be with. It something quite different to follow a man who makes people turn away.
The task of the church is not to be popular, nor to count success as growth through numbers. The first task of the church is offer worship, through which relationship and companionship are formed. And not formed quickly. It takes time, patience, and hunger.
The task of the church is to be transformational. You don’t need me to repeat the diagnosis that despite our standard of living, our technology, our health care, despite all the good things we enjoy, there remains a deep longing for happiness.
I read of a sign outside a pub - ‘Had a rough week. Tired. Exhausted. Bored. Come to our Happy Hour and experience the attitude alteration hour. Come and leave with a new perspective on life.
The pub trade is pretty desperate, but no-one really thinks a Happy Hour will make anything better. The crowd had had their happy hour - free food - yet still they were searching. They might be full, but they sensed their emptiness.
There is no happy hour - but there is a choice that alters attitudes and creates a new perspective. It was not an easy choice then and it not and easy choice now.
The prophet Isaiah said, “He who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and labour for that which does not satisfy”
Most of the time most of the people seek satisfaction in the wrong place. Isaiah speaks of that which is without price, but which is worth everything. It was famously said of Margaret Thatcher that she knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. I think that describes a great many people these days.
The choice Jesus offers goes against the grain. It is not easy, we ought to be surprised that when the gospel is proclaimed those who proclaim it do not have the biggest fan club.
Christians today know we are in the minority - and some people think this is a bad thing. I am reminded of George messing about with his pipe - always refusing a quick answer, and always coming up with a good answer.
The crowd left. Jesus said to his friends, “Do you also wish to go away?” How we answer that question is rather important.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/j8KilToT6I4
The Blessed Virgin Mary
This day 24 years ago is a day which I will never forget.
I was driving our Renault Espace car on the A6 motorway in France, just south of the city of Troyes. Andrew was in the back with his knee in a leg brace, having smashed his kneecap on holiday in Switzerland, and spent a week in hospital. So things were already not going well. Then suddenly all the warning lights on the car started to flash at once. I had no choice but to pull off at the next exit. The fan belt had snapped, and we weren’t going anywhere. To make matters worse, absolutely nothing was open, and all the hotels were full. Thanks however to the kindness of a wonderful French mechanic, we did eventually find somewhere for the night, and get back on the road just 24 hours later.
It was 15th August, which, in the Roman Catholic tradition, even in secular France, is widely celebrated as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a public holiday. In our Anglican tradition, we don’t recognise the Assumption of Mary as such, and we have no public holiday, of course, but 15th August, remains a special day, when we remember Mary the Mother of our Lord, and that is why our readings today focus in particular on Mary, and on her place in the Christian story.
So what is your view of Mary? Of the Blessed Virgin Mary? To whom of course the church here/at Whitegate is dedicated. And how would you assess her place and her importance in the Christian story?
At a fundamental level, there is the simple view of Mary as a young homemaker from Nazareth, who is called by God to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah; who is the only person who is present both at his birth and at his death; who sees him arrive as her baby son, and watches him die a painful and humiliating death on the cross. This image portrays her as an example of faithful obedience to God’s will, and as someone whose life shows us that God’s plans often involve extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. The key verse which expresses this is perhaps Luke 1 verse 38 when Mary says to the angel who visits her:
I am the Lord’s Servant. May it be to me as you have said.
This simple view of Mary is based on what we learn about her from our reading of the Bible, and it probably fits quite well with your own view of her. It is a view widely shared by all Christian traditions.
I could have preached a sermon this morning something along these lines. It would have been uncontroversial and safe, but it would also have been very similar to many other sermons which you have heard about the Virgin Mary, and, more importantly perhaps, it would have ignored the enormous elephant in the room, that is that fact that the figure of Mary in Christianity is not quite as straightforward as this simple view would have us think.
So I am not going to play safe, and I am going to acknowledge the elephant in the room, in other words the complicated issues raised by the figure of Mary within the Christian church.
However, I am also going to tread carefully this morning, because Mary has (through no fault of her own, I have to say) often been a controversial figure, who has divided Christians, and down the centuries led to much persecution and suffering, and I don’t want to make matters worse.
Well, as I am sure that you are aware, there are other views of Mary, not derived from what we read in the Bible, which form an important part of some Christian traditions, in particular the Roman Catholic tradition. The observance of 15th August as the Feast of the Assumption is just one example.
In those traditions, there are in fact perhaps 4 main doctrines which I will mention briefly. There is the doctrine that Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus – that is of her perpetual virginity. It is also believed that she was so favoured by God’s grace that from birth she was free from original sin. That is know as the Immaculate Conception. There is then the view that she is a partner with Jesus in the work of salvation, including interceding in heaven on behalf of the faithful. It is this doctrine of course which is at the heart of that most popular of prayers to Mary – the Ave Maria, or the Hail Mary – with the words
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
And finally there is the doctrine that after death Mary’s body was assumed into heaven - the Assumption – which I have already mentioned.
So what are we to make of these doctrines? They clearly have no biblical origins. So where do they come from?
Well, for what it’s worth, my take on the situation is that they are all an attempt to make Mary a more important and influential figure within Christianity than she would normally be. And why try to do that? Well for two main reasons, I would suggest.
Firstly, the Christian story is dominated by powerful male figures, and, although there some significant women both in the gospels and the early church, there are no women of the stature of St Peter or St Paul for example. These additional doctrines about Mary turn her into a more prominent female figure, which God’s faithful people, and particularly other women, can relate to and connect with.
Secondly, we need to remember that down the ages there have been pagan religions with significant female figures, goddesses, whom people have worshipped. When converts flooded into the early Christian church, they brought with them the cultural influences of these other religions, including devotion to these female figures, and then gradually over time the church assimilated, and ‘Christianised’, if you like, these figures. One such figure was the Egyptian goddess, Isis, who was in some ways assimilated into Christianity in the person of the Virgin Mary. There are statues of Isis holding the Egyptian God Horus which have actually been physically altered and reused as icons of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. The desire then to ‘Christianise’ female pagan deities may therefore in part account for the doctrines which give more importance to the figure of Mary.
So there we have it. That is the elephant in the room. There is a view of the Virgin Mary, which adds to and elaborates on the image of the Virgin Mary as we know her from the biblical account. I have to say that personally find quite difficult accept this view, but I also realise that this view is a significant part of the faith of millions of our Christian brothers and sisters. How should I react? What should I do or say? Especially when I know how divisive and damaging this has been over the centuries.
Well, let me suggest a way through this. A way which I have found helpful. It is a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, I go back to Acts 2:21 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. My brothers and sisters from other church traditions who do not always believe exactly what I believe, or who believe things which I find hard to accept, are followers of Jesus just like me. They like me call on the name of Lord. We all share one church, one faith, one Lord as we sing in that well-known hymn. For me, although I cannot entirely agree with what my Christian brothers and sisters believe about the Virgin Mary, it is not a deal-breaker.
And secondly, I always look at other church traditions, and see whether there are things which I can learn from them. Different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking, which might help me in my walk with God. This is true in terms of the different approaches to the Virgin Mary I might come across in different church traditions.
Let me give you two examples.
I myself first came across another view of Mary on a family holiday in Portugal when I was 12. I was brought up in the Methodist church, and so I had at that time very little idea of the importance of Mary beyond the stories in the Bible. During that holiday, however, I found myself really drawn to the story of Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared to three Portuguese shepherd children in 1917, leading to the growth of the Portuguese town of Fatima as a place of pilgrimage. I was fascinated. And here is the wooden statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which I bought at the time, aged 12, and have treasured ever since.
What was it then that fascinated me about Our Lady of Fatima? I was sceptical, and I remain sceptical, about what those children actually saw, and whether or not they really saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, but I was introduced, through this story, for the first time, to the idea of visions and miracles as part of my faith, to the possibility of a supernatural element within Christianity.
And I think that is what continues to be the appeal of this aspect of the Christian faith for many people: a sense of the transcendent, a sense that our relationship with God is more than our rational brains can grasp and understand, a sense that it defies analysis and logic. For me, this is not incompatible with a belief in the authority of the Bible. The Bible itself after all is full of visions and miracles and supernatural events, not least, of course, the resurrection itself.
My next close encounter with a different view of the Virgin Mary, came when I was at university, where I got to know an Irish Roman Catholic priest, called rather inevitably Father Pat, who worked at Westminster Cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral in central London, just down the road from Westminster Abbey. On one of my visits to the cathedral, I remember coming across a small group of mostly elderly ladies praying in a side chapel one evening. They were reciting the rosary, traditionally the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria, and of course a number of Hail Marys. These ladies then were asking Mary to intercede on their behalf. They believed that she had a special relationship with God, as the Mother of Jesus, and that she would therefore be able to help them to communicate more directly with God himself.
Again, I was fascinated. I was unsure, and I remain unsure, about this view of Mary, about her role as an intermediary between God and his people. In 1 Timothy 2 verse 5 St Paul writes For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, and this is a view I share. I was however fascinated at two levels. I was fascinated on the one hand by the prayerful quiet dedication of that small group of ladies, and on the other hand by the way in which they used their rosary beads to help them focus on what the prayers they were saying.
When I applied to be considered for ordination, I had to attend what is called a BAP a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, and as part of the assessment process you have to give a talk. I decided to give my talk on using the rosary beads in private prayer. This was a risky choice, because, as I have just explained, the rosary beads are so closely associated with certain beliefs about the Virgin Mary, but the talk went down well. It is in fact possible to use rosary beads as a means of focusing on any sequence of prayers, and I am happy to point you in the right direction if you are interested in exploring this idea further.
Where does all that leave us?
As I said earlier, I do not believe that the difference between what I believe about the Virgin Mary, and what someone else from a different tradition might believe, is a deal-breaker. We are both share the same faith and the same Lord. I would also argue that there is always something which we can learn from Christians from other traditions which will help us to grow in our faith and our relationship with God. And most of all I believe that we should welcome and listen to Christians from other traditions, not with suspicion and distrust, but graciously and with love. And so, in this spirit of openness and graciousness towards all our Christian brothers and sisters, even though we don’t always agree with them, I have asked Andrew to play the Ave Maria, as set to the music of Franz Schubert, during our time of reflection. But first a prayer.
Let us pray
On the day before you died
you prayed that your disciples might be one just as you are one with the Father.
Forgive our unfaithfulness.
Give us the honesty to acknowledge and reject our mistrust of each other and our intolerance.
Make us one in heart and mind, that, bound together in love,
we may bear witness to your grace in the world
According to your will and to the glory of your name.
Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Before our younger son Ben went to university, he spent 6 months teaching in a boarding school in India, and it was a very formative period of his life. I remember him telling me, when he came home, that his time in India had taught him that there is a big difference between the things which we as humans need and the things which we want. He had developed a clearer idea of what his priorities in life should be, and how to make the right choices.
So what is it that humans really need?
Some of you may be familiar with Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, which is a five-tier model of human needs in the form of a pyramid. You can see a simplified version of the model on your service sheet. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic needs – food, water, rest, warmth and safety. As humans, this is what we need to survive. Without these, we will die.
In many cultures, including both our own, and the middle-eastern culture of Jesus’ day, it is bread which in part fulfils our basic need for food. Bread is a staple food, something which most people eat pretty much every day. As those of you who have travelled to France will know, there is a boulangerie on every street corner, and someone in a French family will go out every morning to buy fresh bread – aller au pain. In some parts of Morocco, there are still communal bread ovens, where they bake the loaves of bread for the people living in the surrounding streets. And I remember when we were walking in the mountains in Switzerland that we didn’t take a complicated packed lunch with us – just plenty of bread and cheese. That was all we needed.
Bread then has always been, and still is, an important part of the diet of many people all over world, and so it is not surprising that the image of bread is one which Jesus chooses when he is teaching his disciples.
He refers them back first to the story in Exodus 16 of the Israelites in the wilderness, on their way to the promised land, and facing starvation. God miraculously provides food for them in the form of manna. It is a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground, we are told, like coriander seed and it tastes like wafers made with honey. The fact about manna however is that, as Jesus reminds them, although it is a miraculous food sent by God to save his people from starvation, it not only goes mouldy like any other food, but it is just that – food – nothing more. It makes no difference to the people’s relationship with God, and to their part in his plan for the salvation of the world.
The point which Jesus is trying to make of course, is that life is about more than our physical need for food, or a baguette from a French boulangerie.
Have another look for a moment at the pyramid on your service sheet. Maslow recognises that, as humans, we also have psychological and personal needs which go far beyond the basic need to survive. We need to love and to be loved, and we need a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. Maslow is of course a psychologist, speaking in a secular context, and so it is perhaps not surprising that he makes no mention of any spiritual needs which we might have. I would like to suggest however that our spiritual needs, and in particular our need for God, are really fundamental to our lives, and deserve a place well towards the base of the pyramid.
In 1670, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal published his Pensées, as a defence of Christianity. In that book, he says this:
“What does our craving, and our helplessness, tell us? It tells us that we once had true happiness, but that now all we are left with is an empty print and trace? We try to fill this emptiness with things from the world around us, looking for help in these things, but nothing can help, because this endless emptiness can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.”
There are certain questions which I have been asked regularly over the years. The questions go a bit like this.
Am I a good Christian? Am I even a Christian at all?
Am I good enough for God? What does God think about me?
I have made such a mess of my life – God won’t be interested in me, will he?
What is interesting is that I am very often asked these questions by people who are on the face of it not part of the church, and who appear to have no particular connections with Christianity. It has always seemed to me that these people are asking me these questions because they have a sense of something missing in their lives. In an inarticulate and muddled way they are expressing their need for God. They expressing this endless emptiness. I believe, as Pascal did, that all humans have then in them what you could call a ‘God-shaped hole’. We are created by God, to be in a relationship with him. There is therefore a part of ourselves which needs God, which craves God, just as a starving person craves food, and which will only be satisfied by a relationship with him.
This then is what Jesus means in our gospel reading when he says
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
It sounds simple enough doesn’t it …
Absorbing and accepting what this means, that is believing in Jesus, and following him, is actually not easy, nor is it easy to understand our relationship with God, and his plan for our lives. We still always have a lot of questions about what it means for us to be a Christian. Those same questions are still there:
Am I a good Christian? Am I even a Christian at all?
Am I good enough for God? What does God think about me?
I have made such a mess of my life – God won’t be interested in me, will he?
So that brings us to our epistle passage this morning. In this passage, St Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus to help them to answer these questions – to understand about their relationship with God, and his plan for their lives, to understand what it means to come to [Jesus].
On first reading, St Paul might seem to be giving us a long list of rules and regulations, of things which we have to do in order to be good Christians. He might seem to suggest that we need to tell the truth, to avoid anger and bitterness and arguing, to be kind and tender hearted and so on … in order to be good enough for God.
Now, if we go with that interpretation, there is a danger of us using this passage to convince ourselves that our relationship with God depends on what we do or don’t do, that we are saved – that is put right with God – because of the sort of people we are. In theological terms, this is called salvation through works.
Over the last few sermons, however, I have spoken a lot about our relationship with God, and about the fact that we are not saved through anything which we ourselves do, but instead through his unconditional love for us. As I have said many times, God is just like the father in the story of the prodigal son, watching and waiting and longing for his son to come home. This is salvation through grace.
What then is the correct interpretation of this passage? What is St Paul actually saying to the Christian believers in the early church in Ephesus about being a Christian?
Well, as is often the case in the Bible, the context is really important. At the beginning of the chapter St Paul says this I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. And then in verse 30, he reminds the Ephesians that they are marked with a seal for the day of redemption. They have been put right with God, through their faith in Jesus. That comes first. That is the first step. Salvation comes first – the new way of life comes second. It is not the other way round. It is not a case of being better behaved, if you like, in order to earn their salvation.
I’ll not spend too long on the details in the passage from Ephesians, You have it there in front of you on your service sheet, and it is fairly self-explanatory. Perhaps take it home and read it through quietly later. Pick out all the negative behaviours which St Paul lists, and ask yourself whether there is one of these which you are more prone to. Anger perhaps? Or bitterness? And then focus on the positive behaviours, and think how you can be more kind and tender-hearted and forgiving.
There is however one piece of advice which jumps out of the page for me, a piece of advice which is a much-used, although I wonder how many people know that it comes from the Bible: Do not let the sun go down on your anger. What good advice! It is all about reconciliation and healing. It is about building bridges not bearing grudges. It is about working hard to make our relationships work. An important message, don’t you think? And a message which is at the heart of our Christian faith.
So let’s draw the threads together a bit as I close.
We are created by God to be in a relationship with him. We each have a ‘God-shaped hole’ deep in our being, and without God to fill that hole we have a sense of endless emptiness. At the same time, God our creator loves each and every one of us, with an unconditional love, and he welcomes us back time and time again, no matter what we do. It is through believing in Jesus, and following him, that we are put right with God, and our craving for God in our lives is satisfied. It then follows that, once we have this restored relationship with God. once we have been marked with [his]seal, the next step is for us to reflect this change in our lives and in the way we behave towards each other.
Listen again to the words of Jesus:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
This is the good news which sustains us as Christian believers, and which influences the way we live our lives. This is the good news which we are called to share with others. This is the good news in these words from a much-loved hymn
Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land
I am weak but Thou art mighty
Hold me with thy powerful hand
Bread of heaven - Bread of heaven
Feed me now and evermore - Feed me now and evermore
James the Apostle
“We have this treasure in clay jars…”
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God.”
The more I read about holy people the more I become aware that they are people who are deeply flawed, and profoundly fragile. For example, during Lent I read Gandhi’s autobiography which reveals him to be a person with a great many faults. His treatment of his family was harsh. At times you wonder how such a self-opinionated bighead could become the man so revered by many.
Those who were close to Mother Teresa found her very difficult to get on with. Holiness is often attractive at a distance, but pretty hard to live with close up. As those who met Jesus found out.
Today we are meant to be celebrating St James the Apostle. Yet our gospel story is hardly flattering. In St Mark it is James and John who seek glory. Matthew, writing some time later – by which time James and John were revered – makes a slight alteration to the story. Here it is not the brothers who ask, but their mother. However you tell it – neither version is flattering.
Jesus himself gave James and John the nickname – Sons of Thunder, perhaps remembering the time they wanted to call down lighting to destroy unfriendly villagers.
As Paul reminds us, the treasure is in clay jars, to make it clear that the extraordinary belongs to God. Or as Edward King would say, in the saints we see not extraordinary people, but ordinary people through whom God does extraordinary things.
Elsewhere Paul makes another comment about clay, the potter can refashion the clay. When a pot goes wonky the potter can reshape the clay and make a new start.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Simon Parke. He was a vicar who felt he’d lost his way so resigned from the church and went to work in a local supermarket. He wrote a book called Shelf Life telling of the characters he met whilst stacking shelves, people through whom he rediscovered what life and faith is all about.
We invited him to lead a parish weekend, one of the themes he kept coming back to was of our need to be dismantled. To have our self-importance, self-reliance, self-seeking, undone.
Do you remember the BBC2 comedy Rev? Following the various mishaps of the Revd Adam Smallbone as he begins a new ministry in an inner city parish. The dialogue and the storylines might offend some, but what I rejoice in are the times when Adam says his prayers. Sometimes kneeling in his gloomy and empty church, sometimes whilst washing the dishes. But he tries to keep in touch with God.
In one episode Adam was tempted by the apparent success of a former friend. A man he trained with was now a regular contributor to Thought for the Day, and often appeared on television. Everyone thought him witty, clever, and tipped for promotion. By contrast, ministering to a small inner city congregation seemed rather unglamorous.
The Archdeacon didn’t help. He encouraged Adam to want to get on, but there was painful fact – there are 10,000 vicars in the Church of England and only 350 top jobs. Promotion, he said, was a likely as becoming a General in the Chinese Army.
I think the script writers got that bit only half right – what they are doing is what Simon called a bit of dismantling. But the truth is that there are 350 bishops and archdeacons – and 10,000 top jobs.
In the end Adam’s successful friend was revealed to be an empty, lonely, desperate man. All his fame and success was an attempt to fill a void – it was he who envied Adam, in whose day to day life of little tasks the real glory was present.
I used to take groups of children on tours of our church. One day I received a letter from a child saying how much they had enjoyed their visit. I was rather chuffed, but then I read on. Their favourite bit wasn’t ringing the bell, dressing up in the robes, gazing at the glorious stained glass, or the vicar’s witty explanation of the various parts of the church.
No, their favourite bit was the font. Because when you pulled the plug out and the water swirled down the drain it made an incredibly rude and funny noise.
Letters like that mean the world. The delight and laughter of children are of immense value. This is treasure - in clay jars. Remember the clay jars – but take very seriously the treasure within.
We honour James the Apostle – and what do we know of him? We know he was a fisherman. We know he was probably closely related to Jesus. We know that he and his brother were sometimes impetuous. We know that at significant moments the two of them were often present as part of a very small group. We know that they, like the other disciples, had designs on promotion when the new kingdom dawned.
None of those are reasons to honour him. Why we honour James is because at the end of the day he allowed Jesus to take apart all his ambitions and hopes and misconceptions. He went through the betrayal and the desertion and the despair. He went through the loss of faith. He went through all that might, and undoubtedly did, turn others away – and at the end he came back.
We honour James because he is no saint – just a man – but a man who in the end remained loyal, in end trusted, in the end understood.
During Covid much of our lives has been dismantled, much of our church has been dismantled. St James reminds us that when God dismantles it is so he can reshape, as the potter refashions the clay. What emerges is different, unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable.
The wonky clay may be reshaped – it will only ever be clay – ordinary and fragile – yet clay may hold treasure, and the ordinary may be used to contain the extraordinary.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/BMUukzbEUFc
Seventh Sunday after Trinity
“Graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion,”
The Collect for this week:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same.
Increase in us true religion. What does that look like?
Appearances can be deceptive. A letter published in the Times on 27th May 2014.
Sir, Enoch Powell once attended a country fete and was amused to see an ‘Enoch Powell lookalike’ competition. On the spur of the moment (and having a much greater sense of humour than he was usually credited with) he entered, incognito. He came third.
Things aren’t always what they seem to be. Increase in us true religion – so how do we recognise it? How do we do it?
Let us come at it from a different direction. Someone who used to train people for ministry asked a question; What is the biggest problem facing the church today?
How would you answer that question? What is the biggest problem facing the church today?
What answers might we suggest?
The answer has never changed, it is the same answer today as it was when Jesus had compassion on the crowds. It is the same answer as when Jeremiah spoke of God shepherding his people. The greatest problem religious people face is the overwhelming abundance of God.
God is always, has always, and will always, offer more than we can dare imagine. The greatest problem for the church today is coping with God’s generosity.
Increase in us true religion – is about living with the overwhelming abundance of God.
St Benedict took seriously a community that lived with overwhelming abundance. That didn’t mean that individual members of the community had more than they needed – far from it, what it did mean is that every person received the things they needed.
St Benedict’s rule is powerfully against private ownership within the community. Things, Benedict says, distract us from God’s overwhelming abundance. If we live with the delusion of self-sufficiency we are blinded to the generosity of God. But Benedict knows people need things, and he is equally powerfully in insisting that every person is given what they need.
There is no sense here of everyone being treated the same, we are all different, we have different needs. Pianists need pianos. Writers need computers. Artists need paint. Farmers need tractors. Those who manage need time for meeting with others. People with bad backs need the right kind of beds. Those working with others need time to be alone.
In a Benedictine community nobody counted what they needed, they looked to what others needed, and if it was more than they had themselves then they thanked God their own needs were less of a burden.
There’s the first sign of true religion – living with God’s overwhelming abundance.
True religion might also be described a rhythm of life. Being in the presence of God for others. Being in the presence of others for God. Benedict taught people to pray not because the words themselves mattered, but because the discipline of prayer and the words used, shaped a relationship with God alongside others.
Being with God for others, being with others for God. It is why worship matters. It is the rhythm which balances us. There’s another mark of true religion. A life with a rhythm, between God and others.
True religion takes what we need seriously. Take a look at our Gospel reading this morning, from Mark chapter 6, look at verse 31. Jesus said to his friends, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” He knew their needs.
The context of that is that they had be sent out two by two to walk the roads, visit towns and villagers, to tell of God’s love and spend time with those who would listen. They came back exhausted, but as Mark tells us the crowds wouldn’t leave them alone. The demands were unrelenting.
You probably know the story of the two foresters who went into the trees with their saws. The first worked tirelessly. He rarely took a break, from dawn to dusk he cut timber. The second was different. Every half hour he stopped for ten minutes, without fail he cut for 30 minutes, then stopped for 10.
At the end of the day the first forester noticed that his friend’s woodpile was much bigger than his. “How can that be”, he asked, “you kept stopping every half hour?”
His friend replied – “Yes, I kept stopping to sharpen my saw.”
True religion accepts we have needs, and accepts these are met in God’s overwhelming abundance. Looking after others means also looking after ourselves.
Increase in us true religion. How do we recognise it in every task of every day? I suggest those two marks are a guide – to live in the abundance of God, and to live with a rhythm of life. That way we can keep in touch with what really matters.
There is a story of three stonemasons. Each was shaping a block of stone. A traveller asked the first – What are you doing? He replied – I am shaping this stone.
He asked the second. I am preparing a foundation.
He asked the third. I am building a cathedral.
We are builders of a new kingdom, we do it one small task at a time.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/x9WNrYmMN9A
Sixth Sunday of Trinity
I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.
Last week Jane spoke of prophecy, prophets can be anyone. An organist dressed up as Yasser Arafat, a lady with a mobile phone, a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic. Anyone and everyone may speak with God’s voice. But I hope Jane won’t mind me saying that there was one kind of prophet she didn’t mention, and that is the false prophet. Amos says, I am no prophet, or a prophet’s son. I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.
I am no prophet - Amos was distancing himself from the most common form of prophet of his day. The yes men. The hired lackeys who tell the king what he wants to hear. The professionals who know which side of their bread is buttered. False prophets.
Those who say what the powerful want to hear were there then and they’re still here today. Only when they fall from grace do you hear what they really think.
Some context might help. In Amos’ day, about 750 years before Jesus was born, Israel had attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity never seen before. The country had a strong army and enjoyed economic affluence. People believed this was a sign of God’s favour, gained not least through their extravagant support of the official shrines. Shrines run by the professional prophets who made sure the king heard what he wanted to hear.
Into that complacency stepped Amos, speaking harsh words to a smooth season. He denounced the injustice and corruption of the elite, he spoke of God’s anger that the rich were getting richer and the poor getting poorer. He raged against hypocrisy and false dealing. He reserved a special hatred for the false religion that was self-serving and seduced by power.
His vision of the plumb line is effective. You use a plumb line to show what is straight and true, whether you’re hanging wallpaper or building a wall, the plumb line is a tool that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. This is straight and true – revealing that Israel’s life was bent and crooked.
So Amos rages against the high places, the official religion that favoured the rich, the false prophets who spoke smooth words to the powerful. Amos wasn’t one of them. He was an ordinary bloke, doing an ordinary job, and God chose him to speak for truth.
The true voice of prophecy usually goes against the grain. So it was with John the Baptist. If anything reveals his authority and credentials as a prophet it is the opposition he aroused. And the price he paid.
So it is also with the prophet from Nazareth – no stranger to hostility and rejection.
I remember when I had been a Vicar for just a few months. The parish had been vacant for a very long time. Most people had worked with generosity and grace and the church had thrived. But there was one person who was a bully. They used the time to build their own little empire and everyone learned that resistance was futile.
One day it became clear that there needed to be a showdown and the post service coffee turned into the gunfight at the OK corral. It ended with a set of keys being thrown to the floor, keys the person wasn’t meant to have had in the first place, and a slammed door – which didn’t quite work because it had an automatic closer on it.
A few weeks later I was at a gathering of new vicars. Those in their first parishes. A wise old Roman Catholic priest asked us a question – in your first six months, he asked, who has had a row with someone? I rather shamefacedly raised my hand. I was the only one. “Good,” he said, “if you haven’t upset someone in your first six months you’re probably not doing your job.”
He didn’t mean it was a good thing to generally upset people for the sake of it, what he meant was that if you are being prophetic then you will find yourself challenging people. You will find yourself asking difficult questions. You will find yourself saying hard things to situations which need to change. You will find a voice which some will reject.
As Jesus said, blessed are you when men (and women) revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The voice of prophecy, which is a voice every Christian must sometimes speak with, is a voice that goes against the grain.
Prophecy has two directions. The first is to hold the plumb line – to check how things are, to know if things are straight and true, to read the signs of the times, to understand what is going on. The second is see where the present takes us. So Amos predicted that a corrupt, self-satisfied and unjust society would implode. And he was right.
It is a message repeated over and over again generation after generation. In the Bible the voice of the prophets is always unpopular, always rejected, always ignored. And it is always, always right.
The irony is that the lesson is never learned. Listen to the hard words. Hear the message that is uncomfortable. Stick with the voice you don’t want to listen to. Because the voice of prophecy is essential to our well-being and happiness.
That might seem strange to say because the voice of prophecy is uncompromising and uncomfortable. But who would you rather go to – the doctor that tells you all is well and there’s nothing to worry about, or the doctor who tells you the truth and what can be done?
Smooth words that do not disturb might be nice, but the truth is better for us.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/kqhm2RN2Gmc
Fifth Sunday of Trinity
What is a prophet? What does a prophet look like? How do you imagine a prophet?
A bit like this? Male. Long flowing robes and headdress? Perhaps with a stick for walking long distances in the desert?
Or like this? Female. Smartly dressed? With a mobile phone in her hand?
Yes. What is a prophet? What does a prophet look like? How do you imagine a prophet?
Wikipedia tells us that a prophet is an individual who is regarded as being in contact with a divine being and is said to speak on behalf of that being, serving as an intermediary with humanity by delivering messages or teachings from the supernatural source to other people.
And what does the Bible say?
Well, every time there is Morning Prayer we say the words of the Benedictus, which actually come from Luke 1. They are the words of Zechariah at the time of the circumcision of his son, John, as he looks forward to what God has in store for him. He says this:
And you child will be called the prophet of the most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
So John the Baptist, as his baby son went on to become, was called by God to prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people.
Can we perhaps use that as a Biblical definition of a prophet – someone who is called by God to prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people?
Have you noticed that, nowhere in these definitions, either in Wikipedia or the Bible, does it say that a prophet needs to be of a certain gender or age, or to have certain qualifications, or to wear certain clothing or carry other items in order to be a prophet?
So who can be a prophet?
Well …. in my recent sermons, I have spoken about a lot about God’s grace, about his unconditional love for us. There was Acts 2:21 which reminded us that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, and there was the message of John 3:17 that God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. As I said at the time, both of these passages are really challenging, because they are not simply intended to make us feel comfortable and self-satisfied about our relationship with God. These passages are also intended to remind us of our calling to live lives which bring glory to God and reflect his gracious love for us, by in turn showing our unconditional love to everyone.
With that in mind … let me suggest to you this morning that, in our own ways, all of us, each and every one of us, is a prophet of the most High. Yes, we are all called prepare the way of the Lord and to give knowledge of salvation to his people.
What a scary thought, don’t you think? What is your immediate reaction? Really? Even me? I wouldn’t know what to do or say. No-one would listen to me. I’m not good at that sort of thing. All sorts of self-doubts come into our minds. This is quite natural, because we are well aware that being prophet brings with it many responsibilities and challenges, and that those responsibilities and challenges are enormous and very daunting.
And I have to say that our two Bible readings this morning don’t at first glance seem to do anything to make us any less daunted by the enormity of the task ahead, but let’s all the same have a look at them now, and see if we can perhaps derive comfort or strength or encouragement from them for us on the way ahead as prophets of the most High.
In our Old Testament reading, we hear the words of God as he calls the prophet Ezekiel, and sends him out to speak to the people of Israel.
First of all, in verse 1, God tells Ezekiel to stand up on [his] feet, and then, in verse 2, we are told that a spirit entered into [him] and set [him] on his feet. It sounds to me as if Ezekiel found it quite hard to stand up on his own – and that he needed God’s help, through the spirit, to find the strength to do it. This is not just about standing up rather than sitting down of course. This is surely an image which reminds us of how difficult it can be for all of us at times to motivate ourselves to do something, especially something as challenging or scary as speaking out about what we believe, and how we often cannot do it in our strength alone.
In verses 3 and 4, God then speaks to Ezekiel of the challenge ahead, of the sort of people God is sending him amongst. The people have rebelled against [God], and transgressed, we are told. They are impudent and stubborn. They have clearly not only turned away from God, but also become very set in their ways, unwilling to listen to God’s message. God doesn’t paint an attractive picture of these people, and we can imagine Ezekiel’s heart sinking as he realises the enormity of his task. Ezekiel lived in the 6th century BC, but the world in which we live today is not that very different from the one he knew. The people of our day are also mostly very set in their ways, and unwilling to listen to the message of God’s love for them.
So perhaps we also need to listen to God’s words of advice to Ezekiel in verse 5 when he tells him that whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. God is calling on Ezekiel to make his mark, to make sure that he makes an impression, to make sure that the people get a chance to hear his message, even if they choose not to listen to what he has to say.
As Christians here in Mid-Cheshire in 2021, we too are called to make our mark, to make sure that people get a chance to hear the message, even if they seem to reject it. We, like Ezekiel, are simply sowing the seed. We may well never know whether it takes root and flourishes or not, but we can make sure that they know that there has been a prophet among them.
The message of this passage is surely just the sort of encouragement which we were looking for? It will not be easy – we knew that of course - but we don’t have to do it in our own strength, because we have the Holy Spirit alongside us every step of the way, and then all we have to do is sow the seed, and leave the rest to God.
And what about our New Testament reading?
Well, in our gospel reading from Mark 6, we hear firstly about the ministry of Jesus himself and then about his instructions to his disciples as he sends them out to teach among the villages.
In verses 1-5, we follow Jesus as he returns to Nazareth, and preaches in his home synagogue. Again, Jesus’ experience reminds us that it will not be easy. His friends and neighbours, who have known him since he was a boy, growing up as the son of Joseph the carpenter, are astounded, we are told, to hear him preaching to them, and they take offence. Not only do they not recognise him for who he is, the Son of God, the Messiah, but neither are they prepared to listen to what he has to say, because they see him as an arrogant upstart, who has gone up in the world, and become too big for his boots.
This reaction seems to take even Jesus by surprise, because we are told that he is amazed at their unbelief, although St Mark, as the narrator, seems less shocked, as he reflects on how difficult it often is to get true recognition from those closest to you, saying that prophets are not without honour, except in their home town.
This is certainly something which we need to hear and to understand, as we think about our calling to be prophets of the most High. Our best opportunities to talk about our faith, and the good news of gospel, are going to be with the people whom we come into contact with the most – our families and our neighbours and our work colleagues – and yet we could, like Jesus himself, be amazed at their reaction, because they could, like the people of Nazareth, be astounded and take offence, wondering who we think we are. This is something which we need to be prepared for.
Then, in verses 7-11, Jesus sends out his disciples into the surrounding villages with his message of repentance and reconciliation with God. It is interesting to note that he sends them out in pairs. In some ways, it would have been more efficient to send them out alone, so that they could cover a wider area, but Jesus knows that they may well face rejection and opposition. By travelling together, they will be able to strengthen and encourage each other. We too, as we set out to talk to people about the gospel, may face rejection and opposition - we have already thought about that – but we can look to our Christian brothers and sisters for support and encouragement. We can work as a team, sharing experiences, both good and bad, and offering advice and reassurance when it is needed. As we serve God, there is no need for us to try to go it alone.
So what does being a prophet in 21st century mid-Cheshire look like? It’s certainly not about wandering from village to village wearing sandals and carrying a staff. For most of us, neither is it about standing up in church and preaching to large groups of people. We are simply called to give people the message about God’s love for them, and to prepare the way for him to come and work in their lives.
There are so many ways of communicating with people these days. If you want to write to someone, there are emails and text messages and Facebook posts and tweets on Twitter, as well as letters and cards, and if you want to speak to someone there is Facetime and Zoom and such like, although you can’t beat a chat with your neighbour over the back fence, or amongst the fruit and vegetables in Sainsburys.
And then there is all the non-verbal communication. Actions speak louder than words they say, don’t they? The kind gift of a freshly-cooked meal to someone who has been recently bereaved, a few hours baby-sitting to allow an exhausted single parent to get break, a lift in the car to a hospital appointment. And there are many more possibilities of course.
So yes, it will not always be easy to be a prophet – it never has been – and there will discouraging moments, and criticism, and setbacks, but, as our reading from Ezekiel reminds us, God gives us strength for the task, both through the Holy Spirit, and our fellow Christians, and he merely calls us to make sure that they know that there has been a prophet among them. He will do the rest.
Listen to the words of Isaiah 6, paraphrased into a well-known modern hymn by Dan Schutte.
I, The Lord Of Sea And Sky,
I Have Heard My People Cry.
All Who Dwell In Dark And Sin,
My Hand Will Save.
I Who Made The Stars Of Night,
I Will Make Their Darkness Bright.
Who Will Bear My Light To Them?
Whom Shall I Send?
Here I Am Lord, Is It I, Lord?
I Have Heard You Calling In The Night.
I Will Go Lord, If You Lead Me.
I Will Hold Your People In My Heart.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/lw3msAtyjb0
Fourth Sunday of Trinity
When he saw him he fell at his feet.
Jeremy Clarkson was recently interviewed by Farmers’ Weekly. Clarkson bought a farm in 2008 which was managed by a local farmer. When the farmer retired Clarkson asked himself a typical Top Gear question – “How hard can it be?” So he decided to run the farm himself.
The consequences are revealed in a series running on Amazon and needless to say Clarkson makes a mess of things. He buys himself a tractor – a Lamborghini with 270 horse power. It is far too big, it won’t fit into his barns and demolishes all the gate posts. No surprises there then.
But there is another side to Clarkson’s farming. If you look at his fields he leave 20 to 30 feet of wild flowers around the edges, he creates a wetland area to encourage wildlife, he keeps bees, he ploughs paths through his crops to enable insects to spread across the fields. If you watch his tractor pulling a cultivator it is followed by flocks of birds. The soil is clearly rich with worms and bugs.
When I was a lad I can remember tractors were always followed by flocks of birds. Not any more. The earth has paid a price.
As a result of his experiences Farmer’s Weekly interviewed Clarkson. How hard can it be? Well as it turns out, very hard. Clarkson admits farming is virtually impossible. One of things he cannot understand is how his farm can grow produce in their own soil, pick it with their own hands, sell it in their own farm shop, and still find that supermarkets can do it cheaper. How can that be right?
Behind the TV bluster and stunts there’s a serious question. What price are we paying? What price for food if the earth is worked to destruction? What price for cheap milk, carrots, wheat, when farmers cannot make ends meet? What price for a way of living which takes and takes but never asks if this is sustainable?
Which brings me to our gospel for today. It’s a typical supermarket bargain. Two for the price of one. Two healings in one story. And there’s a price.
Or rather there are several prices. I’ll tell you three of them.
Consider the leader of the synagogue whose daughter is ill. We are told she is twelve. In Jewish tradition a girl becomes a woman when she is twelve years and one day old. This girl is on the brink of womanhood. She has her whole life ahead of her. But she is ill, desperately ill.
The leader of the synagogue was an important person. He bore serious responsibilities, he was a significant person within the community, people looked up to him, he would be respected and honoured.
Yet he goes to Jesus for help. A man regarded as a troublemaker and a rebel. A man who stirred up trouble and upset respectable people. A man who kept bad company and caused offence. There is a price to pay if you got to someone like that for help.
And more than that, this leader of the community throws himself at Jesus’ feet. He was throwing everything away for the sake of his daughter. Love has a price.
And then there is the woman in the crowd. We are not told her name. She is never heard of again. Yet in this brief moment her story is exposed to history. Her illness would have made her an outcast. An issue of blood made her unclean. She would have been excluded from society, forbidden to be with others. Her illness did not just cause physical suffering, it also condemned her to a life of loneliness and rejection. We would recognise today the emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma she endured.
She paid a price, not even daring to ask Jesus for help. No Jewish man would converse with an unknown woman, certainly not one marked by an issue of blood. She cannot come to him, she cannot speak to him, she cannot throw herself at Jesus’ feet. All she can do is to reach out in desperation and touch his clothes.
Which is all God needs. Her faith was costly. And it is all God needs.
But there’s another price as well. This isn’t a something for nothing event. God doesn’t do things for cheap. Jesus pays a price. The moment she touches him he knows the cost has been paid, her faith costs him. It is a price he is willing to pay.
Whatever happens next in our community will involve a price, more than one, the cost of what comes next won’t come cheap. This is something we know. We know that things that matter don’t come cheap. We know that building relationships costs. We know that sustaining commitment costs. We know that nurturing a community, a society, that treats people decently has a price.
Jeremy Clarkson is right, and I never thought I’d be saying that from a pulpit. It isn’t easy growing things. The something for nothing society can’t last. It empties people and it puts nothing back. We can’t keep having more and more for less and less.
This story is about people looking for things to be different. And they can be. But there is a price. There is always a price. Usually it is paid by someone else, the unseen farmer, the unseen seafarer, the unseen factory worker, the unseen person who loses their job.
Change for the better can only happen when we recognise the price, and are willing to pay our fair share of it.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/5DEkJIZDOtU
Third Sunday of Trinity
‘Let us go across to the other side’
On Monday I took part in an online conference discussing the Church of England report, Living in Love and Faith. Such reports are usually pretty turgid reading, this one is over 400 pages. But Living in Love and Faith is different. It is not really a report, it is an invitation, an invitation for all of us to learn about someone different.
A few years back the bishops issued the Pilling Report on human sexuality. When it was presented to General Synod they didn’t just reject it, they refused to receive it in the first place. It was thrown out lock, stock and barrel. The bishops were told – you have to do better. We have to do better.
Living in love and faith is a process by which we are invited the listen, to hear the stories of people who experience of life, of love, of themselves and others, is different from our own.
You can read the book if you want to, but far more accessible, and interesting, are the series of videos in which people tell their own stories. Humanity is seems, is not always neat and tidy. You can find the details on the CofE website.
God, we are told, created humanity as community, male and female, in the image of God. Just as God created the light and the dark, the day and the night, but also the dawn and the dusk – the twilight times which blend and merge. Things aren’t always so clear cut.
‘Let us go across to the other side’
Mark doesn’t waste words. This is not just about Jesus stilling a storm, though Mark uses this to emphasis who Jesus is and that he has authority, even the wind and sea obey him. ‘The other side’ means more than just crossing the lake. Physically Jesus crossed the lake, from the shore where he was at home amongst friends, to the other side where the people were different. But crossing to the other side had deeper significance. On the other side he would not be welcome or greeted by large crowds. If you read on you’d find that when Jesus reaches the far shore he is met by a madman possessed by demons. Far from stilling a storm Jesus is steering straight into one – going towards people who are different.
Mark tells this story the best. You get it in other gospels as well, but Mark tells it best. Jesus is exhausted, he is drained, he’s been surrounded by people all day and he just needs five minutes peace and quiet. So he gets into a boat and falls asleep.
I don’t know about you but when I’m tired I don’t take too kindly to people waking me up. Especially not when they’re rude. Mark tells us how the disciples woke him – “Do you not care we are perishing?” That’s pretty rude.
Matthew & Luke change it into a more polite plea for help – Master, save us. In Mark – don’t you care?
So I can imagine a grumpy Jesus at this point, he was certainly cross with his friends. He rebukes them and the wind.
Notice that word – rebuke. It is used deliberately. Jesus rebukes the wind. Just as he rebukes his friends for their lack of faith. Just as he will rebuke the demon when he comes to the other side. Just as he rebukes those who cheat the poor, he rebukes those lay heavy burdens upon the weak, he rebukes people who count themselves righteous and look down on others. When Jesus rebukes we need to listen.
He rebuked the wind – this isn’t just about power to control nature. The sudden storm was viewed in the same way as the man with the unclean spirits. In the gospel stories the words used are the same – it is the power of evil that Jesus rebukes. And it respects his authority.
One of my roles in our sailing club is to drive the rescue boat. One blustery evening a group of youngsters were out in single handers, whizzing about in a powerful wind. At times the gusts overwhelmed them and their boats capsized.
As we worked with each of them one by one, following their boat around the course, sailing all points of the wind, the instructor always said the same thing – when the wind comes, steer into it – when the wind comes, steer into it.
The temptation is steer away from the storm, a good sailor steers into it. The turbulence that can overturn a boat has a similarity to the storms that disrupt our lives. Our instinct is to steer clear, in reality we do better when we steer towards such storms, when we cross towards difficult situations, difficult people.
Mark tells the story of Jesus as it happened. His teaching of God’s kingdom – and his conflict with the powers of this world. And always, Jesus steers into the storm.
Jesus has power and authority, but he does not use them to avoid the hard things, the difficult moments, the difficult people. He seeks out the lost, the different, the rejected, the sick, the mixed-up, the mad, and the bad.
When we encounter life’s storms the same advice holds true – steer into it. Face it with courage, believe God’s power to prevail – even when disaster seems certain.
Living in love and faith is about listening to people who are different from us. It involves us going across to the other side. The place where we are not at home and things are different. It means listening to people whose stories aren’t the same as ours. It means steering into the storm, meeting head on those times when people not like us are rejected, ignored, discounted, and sometimes attacked.
This goes against our instinct, but we need to remember the words of that instructor teaching young people to steer. When the wind comes, steer into it.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/FJbwFoH9uNE
Second Sunday of Trinity
The Kingdom of God is like…
We know that as soon as we hear this phrase Jesus is sharing a
parable. We know as soon as we hear this phrase that Jesus is trying
to take the mysterious, mystifying nature of the Kingdom of God
and try to explain it words that His audience will understand.
The Kingdom of God is like a sower scattering seeds…I think we all
understand this image, but what I find is more difficult is that is all
he does, the sower scatters the seeds.
We don!t get reports that he checked the acidity of the soil before
he sowed his seeds.
We don!t get reports that he watered the seeds daily.
We don!t get reports that he went out into fields each day to check
All that Mark reports Jesus as saying is that the Kingdom of God is
like a sower scattering seeds. He scatters them in the field, and
then goes on with his life. He gets up in the morning and goes to
bed each night. Then later, when the harvest is ripe, he goes out
into the field and brings in the crop.
And after reading this parable, it left me with a number of questions…
What did the sower do to prepare the fields? What did the sower do
to guarantee that the seeds that he sowed would grow? Surely he
did something. Surely, he worked daily with this crop. Surely, the
work of the sower helped somehow to make the seeds grow.
Mark does, however, give us one more important detail in this parable:
"The seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth
produces of itself.”
What it seems to me is that:
Mark is telling us that the sower can’t make the seeds grow faster.
Mark is telling us that the sower can’t guarantee that all the seeds
that he sows will actually grow at all.
Mark is telling is that all the sower knows is that he has the hope
that the seeds that he scatters will grow into a huge harvest and
that the sower trusts the process.
And, I would suggest, the same is for us as people of faith.
We can’t know if the acts of kindness that we do for our fellow humankind
will be understood by them. We can’t know if a gesture or
a kind word can help change someone!s life. We can’t know if an
invitation to church may allow someone to experience God!s lifetransforming
love for the first time.
There are no guarantees. There are no magic formulas.
The Kingdom of God is mysterious. The Kingdom of God is mystifying.
The Kingdom of God holds us in tension as people of faith because
we are called to live out the Kingdom of God here on earth while
waiting for it to come at some point in the future.
And we don!t know all the answers to the questions that we have
about the Kingdom of God.
We just know and trust in the promises that Jesus gave us as his
followers that some day the Kingdom of God will come.
We hold to the promises that Jesus gave us that God will use the
seeds that we scatter to help bring about the Kingdom of God here
We hold on to the promises that Jesus gave us that God is in control.
The good news and the bad news about this life of faith that we
lead is that we can’t know how many of the seeds we scatter will
come to fruition.
The good news and the bad news about this life of faith that we
lead is that we can’t make the Kingdom of God come faster here on
earth through our actions.
Just like sower, all we can do is to hold on to the hope that the
seeds that we scatter will grow and bear fruit.
All we can do is to hold onto the hope that eventually these tiny
seeds that we scatter will become great shrubs to provide shelter
and security for others.
All we can do is to trust that the Kingdom of God will come here on
earth and that all will experience God!s life-changing love.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that what this parable offers is frustrating.
We might think what!s the point? If what I do doesn!t matter or bring
on the Kingdom of God faster here on earth?
What this parable does tell us is that we will never know if or how
our actions may help to bring about the Kingdom of God.
So in a sense we could say that this parable frees us as people of
This parable stops us from putting so much pressure on ourselves
to do so much, be so much, and allows us to simply enjoy and
share the blessings that fill our lives.
This parable reminds us that it is not up to us to bring about the
Kingdom of God.
This parable reminds us that God is in control.
But this parable also reminds us that we have been extended an invitation
to participate in and experience God!s grace in our lives.
This parable reminds us that the Kingdom of God does not depend
on you or me or our actions, but we might be able to help a bit.
Because we are invited to participate in the process, to help by
scattering seeds here on earth.
Yes this parable probably reminds us that we are called to a life of
faith that will be full of questions, that will have disappointing moments,
that will have moments of us wondering what the point is.
But this parable also reminds us that we are invited to a life of faith
where we can catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God coming to
fruition, that we are invited to participate in the mysterious and mystifying
Kingdom of God, that we are invited to be a part of the life
transforming experience that is God!s grace.
We can’t control the process through our actions. But we can participate
in the process and know that God will use our seemingly
small words and actions and turn them into huge life-changing, lifetransforming
We can’t guarantee that all the seeds that we scatter will grow.
The Kingdom of God is full of mystery and it is mystifying even for
us as people of faith.
But it is through our faith and trust that we see God at work in the
world…and in our churches.”
We are called to participate in our own small way, and we do experience
the gift of God!s grace in our lives by doing so.
May we always trust that God is in the process with us as we scatter
our seeds here on earth, and have the patience to wait for the
moment when God brings in the harvest. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/4V8AQiqKmGs
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
One wet playtime a teacher gave her class paper and crayons and told them to draw whatever they wanted. Some fiddled with their crayons, others gazed out of the window looking for inspiration. One small girl was head down scribbling away.
After a while the teacher wandered over – “What are you drawing Mary?”
Mary looked up. “I’m drawing God” she said.
“But no-one know what God looks like,” the teacher replied.
“Well they will when I’ve finished this.”
It’s an amusing story, but there’s a catch. There is firstly the problem that lots of people think they know what God is like, that their picture of God is all everyone else needs, and that if anyone draws a different picture of God then they are wrong.
And there’s another problem as well. That God is beyond human understanding, God is unknowable and transcendent. How can mortal humanity even begin to imagine the eternal divinity?
You see that in Isaiah’s vision in the Temple. God is enthroned, high and lofty, surrounded by heavenly creatures. Isaiah’s glimpse of God only serves to recall his own wretchedness.
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Jane mentioned last week that Jews avoid speaking the name of God. We know that both Jews and Muslims avoid any representation of God. That is partly an acknowledgement that God is transcendent and utterly beyond human comprehension.
So my first point this morning is to remind us of God’s transcendence. And that matters because if God is unknowable then the first thing we need is humility. My glimpse of God cannot be the whole picture. Your glimpse of God will be different. We can all take our paper and crayons and scribble away, and none of the pictures will be the same. When we speak of God we need Isaiah’s humility.
But God also has other ideas. God chooses to be known as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Father, Son and Spirit. Just when you think you begin to understand you discover that God has other ideas. In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Mr Beaver says of Aslan, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
In love God becomes human, born to a teenage girl, walked this earth, ate, drank, made friends, and enemies, suffered death and was buried.
Martyn Percy writes that Jesus is the ‘Verb’ of God. We learnt at school that a verb is a ‘doing word’. The Verb of God means that what Jesus does God is.
David Jenkins, when asked to explain what he really believed, spoke eleven words, “God is, as he is in Jesus, so there is hope.”
Your average sermon is about a thousand words. The books written about God run into hundreds of millions of words. But really all you need is just these eleven. “God is, as he is in Jesus, so there is hope.”
What does this mean for people? What does it mean for you and me? What does it mean for the people we meet day by day?
It is about relationship. We know God as relationship, Father, Son, Spirit – a community of persons. Look right back to the story of creation, it is truth conveyed in poetry. When God creates humanity we read --
“Let us make humanity in our image” Not ‘let me make humanity in my image’ but ‘us’ and ‘our’. Humanity is made as a social creature, male and female, interdependent and created to be in relationship. As Thomas Traherne said, “You are as prone to love as the sun is to shine.” We are made in love, to love and to be loved. God is made known through others.
There is a story of a rabbi asked to comment on the book of Genesis. He thought for a moment then said that when God had created the heavens and the earth, light and dark, water and land, living creatures and plants, at the end of each day God looked as said that it was good. But on the sixth day, when God created man and woman there is no pronouncement that humanity is good.
In the Hebrew the word translated as ‘good’ is ‘tov’. Tov really means complete or finished. The heavens and the earth are complete. The water and the land are complete, the animals and plants are complete. But humanity is not – we are a work in progress. God has not finished with us yet, the story of our relationship with God is still being written.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
This relationship begins in God’s love. It is restored in God’s love. It is sustained in God’s love. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Father, Son, Spirit.
This relationship can grow – if we will but accept that we are loved by God.
I come back to Narnia, this time Prince Caspian. Lucy encounters her old friend Aslan, and finds him to be somehow bigger than she remembered.
“Aslan, you’re bigger.
That is because you are old, little one.
Not because you are?
I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
The more you walk with God the more you find yet to discover. God is, as he is in Jesus, so there is hope.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/OOxJn8xbEhA
John 15:26-27 / John 16:4-15
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Acts 2:21
For me, this is one of the most important verses in all Scripture, and one which I quote perhaps more often than any other verse. For me it is both enormously encouraging and enormously challenging. Let me tell you why.
For most of us, in our 21st century computer-dominated age, when we say that we have saved something, we mean that we have put it in a file somewhere on our computer so that we can find it again when we need it. In this context, saved is merely the opposite of deleted.
But the word saved has of course long had a much wider and more powerful meaning referring as it does to having kept someone or something safe, or having rescued them. And it is pretty much always followed by the word from. A brief search on Google under ‘saved from’ brings up references to animals being saved from extinction, to an episode of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ when Edward is saved from being scrapped, and to a 1912 silent movie about a woman who was saved from the Titanic, to name just a few.
So, in our Bible reading, what do the prophet Joel, and Peter when he quotes him, mean when they use this word, when they say that everyone will be saved, and what do they imagine that people need to be saved from?
The Bible teaches that the core problem which we as humans have is sin. God created us to be like him, but, when we live contrary to his standards, we sin. Ever since the Garden of Eden, humans have been disobeying God, and that disobedience – our sin - separates us from God. This separation is symbolised by Adam and Eve being thrown out from the Garden of Eden, and therefore from their close relationship with God. St Paul in Romans 3 reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
A little bit further on his letter to the Romans, in Romans 6, St Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. in other words, that there is a clear penalty for sin, and that penalty is death. Death here means not just the termination of life and consciousness at the end of our earthly lives, but also total alienation from God for all eternity.
When the prophet Joel, and Peter quoting him, say that everyone will be saved, they mean that everyone will be saved from the consequences of their disobedience against God, that is from total alienation from God for all eternity.
And then how is it that are people saved from this, from the consequences of their sin and their disobedience towards God?
Well, the answer is summed up in one of the most famous verses in the Bible – John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus was born a man so he could suffer the kind of death that all sinners really deserve. His death was accepted by God as full payment for all our disobedience and sin. In theological terms, this is referred to as the atonement. The word atonement can be broken down as at-one-ment. In other words, through Jesus’ death on the cross, we are now at one with God, and we have been saved from the separation and alienation which should by rights be a consequence of our sin.
Furthermore, in the words of Joel, as quoted by Peter, all we need to do to be saved, in other words to receive this gift from God of reconciliation with him, is call on the name of the Lord.
Our God’s love is unconditional. All we need to do is to accept Jesus for who he is – the son of God – and commit our hearts and lives to him. Our God is also the God of Second Chances. However we have messed up in our lives, it is not too late to be put right with him, to be reconciled to him. We are never too far from God. He never gives up on us. Just as the father in the story of the prodigal son was watching and waiting and longing for his son to come home, so God is just watching and waiting and longing for us to take that one simple step of faith and commitment.
Furthermore, to help us on that journey back home to him, God promises that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth Jesus refers to in our gospel reading, the advocate, the comforter, will guide [us] into all the truth. So, on this day of Pentecost, we remember again the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and into our lives. In a few moments, Emma will sing Litany to the Holy Spirit by Peter Hurford, which emphasises particularly the comfort which the Holy Spirit can give to us when temptations or doubts or sorrow seem
more than we can bear, when we are sick in heart and sick in head.
This is the gospel – the good news which is at the heart of the Christian faith.
This is why this verse so enormously encouraging, but, as I said at the start, however, this verse is also enormously challenging, and the challenge is in the first word – in the apparently innocent word everyone.
Everyone? Who is everyone?
Well, everyone is everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. That is everyone one who believes in Jesus as the Son of God and commits their hearts and lives to him. That is all someone has to do to be saved – to call on the name of the Lord. That is all that matters -a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.
So, in order for someone to be saved, it doesn’t matter about the colour of their skin, their age, their nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation, their qualifications, the church which they attend, what they believe about the place of women in ministry or the theology of the eucharist, or the myriad of other issues which from time to time seem to become so important. The truth is that none of those issues really matters at all in the whole scheme of things, but sadly the Christian church has found it, and still finds it, very hard to understand that.
Down the centuries, and still today, there are many issues have served to divide and weaken the Christian church. We have come a long way in this country in terms of religious tolerance. We no longer burn people at the stake because we don’t agree with their version of the Christian faith, as we did in Tudor times. There are those who do however still refer to other members of the Christian church as unsound or in error, and refuse to associate with them. Issues around human sexuality and women in ministry and the theology of the eucharist are still battle grounds where Christians come into conflict. There are still many who find it hard to accept the truth of this verse from Acts 2, who find it hard to accept that those from other traditions within the church, with different ideas and ways of doing things, are just as likely to be part of God’s kingdom, as those from their own tradition. As humans, we are prone to a self-satisfied tribalism which makes us feel comfortable and safe. People from other church traditions, with different ideas and ways of doing things, can threaten and bring into question our comfortable safe way of life and we don’t like it.
And this lack of understanding of the truth of this verse from Acts 2 has serious consequences of course. Firstly it causes enormous pain and suffering within the body of the church, when certain groups of people are rejected or ostracised or even persecuted. But secondly, and arguably more seriously, it weakens the power of the gospel message which we are trying to preach. Those outside the church see the petty squabbling and the listen to the at times vitriolic comments made by Christians about each other, and they quite rightly conclude that Christians are hypocrites – who preach about love and forgiveness, but whose lives are far from being loving or forgiving.
Acts 2:21 is then an enormously encouraging verse, reminding us as it does of God’s grace, of his unconditional love for us. It is however also an enormously challenging verse, reminding us as it does of our calling to live lives which bring glory to God and reflect his gracious love for us, by in turn showing our unconditional love to everyone.
Tertullian lived in the 2nd century AD in Carthage in North Africa. He was a Christian convert, raised in a pagan family, who went on to be become a priest and an influential theologian. In 197 AD he wrote a letter to the Roman authorities to plead for justice for the church and to stand up for the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of cruel opposition. In this letter he describes the attitude of the unbelievers towards their Christian neighbours saying
But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how these Christians love one another. See how they are ready even to die for one another.
We like Tertullian live in world where we are surrounded by people who do not share our Christian faith. Are they looking at us and saying the same? Are they looking at us and saying see how these Christians love one another? I fear that that is not always the case.
Let me leave you with the words of Jesus himself from John 13:34, when he says:
Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for another.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/y8Y_EZUDHe8
Seventh Sunday of Easter
John 17: 6 - 19.
As with many passages in the bible this passage from John’s Gospel may seem rather strange to us, but it would not have been at all strange to those who heard it at the time.
Jesus was giving a explanation of the work that he did while with us here on earth. He says to God: "I have made your name known.”
To us that might seem that he had simply told people of God but there are two significant ideas here, both of which would have been quite clear to those who heard this for the first time, but might not be immediately clear to us.
There is an idea which is an essential and characteristic idea common in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament ‘name’ is often used in a very special way. It does not mean simply the name by which a person is called; it means the whole character of the person in so far as it can be known. The Psalmist says: "Those who know your name put their trust in you" ( Psalms 9:10 ).
Clearly that does not mean that those who know what God is called will trust Him; it means that those who know what God is like, those who know his character and nature will be glad to put their trust in Him.
The psalmist says: "Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God" ( Psalms 20:7 ). This means that he can trust God because he knows what he is like. The Psalmist also says: "I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters" ( Psalms 22:22 ). This was a psalm which the Jews believed to be a prophecy of the Messiah and of the work that he would do; and it means that the Messiah's work would be to declare to all people what God is like.
It is the vision that was given to Isaiah that in the new age, "My people shall know my name" ( Isaiah 52:6 ). That is to say that in the golden days all will know fully and truly what God is like.
So when Jesus says: "I have made your name known," he is saying: "I have enabled men to see what the real nature of God is like."
It is in fact another way of saying, as Jesus says to Peter recorded in John 14: 9, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father". It is Jesus' supreme claim that in Him men see the mind, the character, the heart of God.
But there is another idea here. In those times when the Jews spoke of the name of God they meant the sacred four-letter symbol, the tetragrammaton as it is called, IHWH. That name was held to be so sacred that it was never spoken, except by the High Priest when he went into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.
Now this does get a bit complicated, rather like line of duty if you watched it where the letter H was also significant.
These four letters IHWH stand for the name Yahweh which we sometimes translate as Jehova, or sometimes Elohim, I have seen it suggested that in fact there are 72 different names which have been used for God.
In the Hebrew alphabet there were no vowels. Later the vowel sounds were shown by little signs put above and below the consonants. But the four letters IHWH were so sacred and should not be spoken so the vowels of ‘Adonai, meaning Lord, were put below them, so that when a reader came to IHWH they would read, not Yahweh, but 'Adonai.
That is to say, in the time of Jesus the name of God was so sacred that ordinary people were not even supposed to know it, far less to speak it. God was the remote, invisible king, whose name was not for ordinary people to speak.
So Jesus is saying: "I have told you God's name; that name which is so sacred can be spoken now because of what I have done. I have brought the remote, invisible God so close that even the simplest of people can speak to him and take his name upon their lips."
It is Jesus' great claim that he showed to men the true nature and the true character of God; and that he brought Him so close that even the humblest Christian can speak his name.
A massive thing from that small phrase,
"I have made your name known.”
This passage also tells us much more about Jesus and why God sent him to us here on earth as a disciple of God.
What does that mean, a disciple of God?
It means that through Jesus the Spirit of God can move our hearts to respond to him.
The glory of God has come to us through Jesus.
The patient whom he has cured brings honour to the doctor; the scholar whom he has taught brings honour to the teacher; the athlete whom he has trained brings honour to his trainer. Those who Jesus has brought to know God honour Him.
But it goes further the disciple is the man who is commissioned to a task. As God sent out Jesus, just as Jesus sends out His disciples.
And here we have yet another difficult passage. Jesus begins by saying that he does not pray for the world; and yet he came because God so loved the world.
As we have seen in other parts of John's gospel the world can be seen as "human society organising itself without God."
What Jesus does for the world is to send his disciples into it, to make the world aware of God in order to lead it back to God. He prays for his disciples in order that they may win the world for God.
Further, this passage tells us that Jesus offered his disciples two things.
He offered them his joy. All he was saying to them was designed to bring them joy.
But he also offered them warning. He told them that they were different from the world, and that they could not expect anything else but hatred from it.
Their values and standards were different from the world's.
This is not the only time where Jesus tell them that following him will not be easy.
Still further, in this passage Jesus makes the greatest claim he ever made. He prays to God and says: "All mine are yours, and all yours are mine."
The first part of that sentence is natural and easy to understand, for all things belong to God.
But the second part of this sentence is the astonishing claim--"All yours are mine." Luther said: "This no creature can say with reference to God."
Never did Jesus so vividly lay down His oneness with God.
Although it might seem difficult and convoluted to us, for those who were listening at the time they can have come away with no other understating than that Jesus was very clearly confirming for them that He was the messiah they had been expecting, and the message it has for us is that Jesus truly is the Son of God, fully that integral part of the Triune nature of God, Father, Son and Holy spirit.
We know His name, and we can put put our trust in Him.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/3ZoCUHWOcS8
Sixth Sunday of Easter
You did not choose me but I chose you
Do you remember the Wombles? Strange furry creatures who lived underground and went about looking for things left behind.
Great Uncle Bulgaria, old and wise. Madam Cholet, kind-hearted but short-tempered. Tobermory (the handyman), Orinoco (prone to be lazy and greedy), Wellington (clever and shy), Tomsk (sporty womble), and Bungo (bossy and excitable).
The Wombles were created in a series of children’s book by Elizabeth Beresford in the late 1960’s and achieved wider fame when the BBC descended on Wimbledon Common during the 70’s.
The Wombles spent their time gathering things human beings discarded. Before recycling or upcycling was even thought of the Wombles were doing it first. Their motto was, “Make good use of bad rubbish”.
You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit.
The first thing, God chooses us. God chooses us. We do not choose God. People sometimes think that being a Christian is a lifestyle choice. They describe themselves as a churchgoer, in the same way that they might say they are a golfer, or a horse rider.
You might think you chose to come to church this morning, and indeed in today’s world taking part in worship is just one of many possible options on a Sunday morning, so – yes – you have to choose to be here. But God’s work does not depend on our initiative, God first chooses us, and we decide how we respond.
Being chosen matters. Not being chosen hurts. You can probably remember school PE lessons when teams were picked. I suspect PE teachers back then were blissfully unaware of the damage they did to those whose gifts lay elsewhere. Think of the scene in Barry Hines’ novel A kestrel for a knave, adapted into Ken Loach’s film Kes. Billy Casper is a working class lad abused both at home and at school. His PE teacher, Mr Sugden, was based on all too common reality. There are too many people who go through life not being chosen.
When I was in training a wise old priest came to visit and stayed for evensong and the evening meal.
There was a conversation about hospital visiting. One of the tutors was saying that you should never make people feel you have put yourself out for them. Don’t say you’ve had to make a special journey to the hospital. Tell them you were passing, and just popped in.
The wise old priest nearly spilt his gin with outrage. ‘Rubbish’ he snorted. Tell ‘em you’ve made a special trip. Tell ‘em you’ve gone out of your way. Tell ‘em you’ve cancelled something just to visit them. People need to know they are valued. They are worth your time. They are worth a special journey. Let them know they matter. Let them know they are chosen, to be worthy of your time and attention.
The first thing, God chooses you. St Paul calls it having treasure in clay pots. The Wombles called it Making good use of bad rubbish. This journey begins with God choosing you.
The second thing is that you are called for joy. When we were in Chester I often mentioned the Christians at either end of Eastgate Street.
At the cross outside St Peter’s, on a Saturday, there was usually a small group preaching the word. They were committed but stern. Their message was in their voices and their faces, harsh and gloomy. People hurried past keeping their heads down.
At the other end, outside WH Smiths there was black guy who worked in a local building society. In his lunchtime he’d stand and sing. His favourite song was ‘Happy Days’ and I’m not talking about the Fonz.
It was the Whoopi Goldberg song from Sister Act – Oh happy day, when Jesus washed me, washed my sins away, Oh happy day. His face beamed. His eyes shone, and he rarely sang alone for long. Students and other young people joined in, they’d sing, then they’d laugh, then they went on their way. His joy was infectious.
You are chosen for joy.
Do you know where the word Womble comes from? It is partly based on an old French word, ‘omble’, meaning the offal of a deer. It was the omble pie for the poor, after the best meat had gone to the rich.
Omble is about food, basic down to earth food, a meal that is shared by people who stand together facing life’s adversities. Omble pie is the humble meat, served in pastry to fill people up, it is a meal to be shared, eaten together. When people eat together community is formed.
Martin Percy says that to ‘womble’ is to forage, to hunt around for the unseen, the hidden, neglected, discarded. Jesus both advocated and practiced wombling. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame. When he visited a town, he chose to spend time with the rejected and overlooked.
In what comes next our churches need to womble. There are many who have become isolated, lonely, and lost confidence. I keep hearing people saying they want to come back, to reconnect, but they are finding it difficult.
We need to womble. To go looking for them, as the good shepherd might. Maybe it is as simple as doing something like making a meal together, choosing to run a lunch club. Sharing a meal, making a space people can come into, creating community. I’m not sure we’d hunt down deer, but soup and a roll might do, so long as there’s cake to follow.
It has been done here before, people tell me the WI used to do it in the Mews. Maybe it’s time to do it again. To womble – looking for the unseen, the hidden, the neglected.
God chooses us. He chooses us for joy. His joy is that we bear fruit, and make a difference.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/m4pxMRw2fj8
Rogationtide 2nd May 2021
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
We are marking Rogationtide, traditionally the days immediately before the Feast of the Ascension, when the church focussed on the work of the land.
I was watching a tractor in the field next to the vicarage. One of the joys of living where we do is that the kitchen window looks out over the field. When we arrived it was full of turnips, then it was full of sheep, then all the turnips disappeared. Then the sheep went and the muck spreader arrived, followed by the plough, then the harrow.
A new crop, a harvest, then the plough again. The land is always busy. The farmer’s work is never done. This year something new. A subsoiler plough, breaking up the hard pan where last year’s tractor compacted the soil. The plough followed, and a few days later the harrow.
It struck me these are images rich with significance for how life feels at the moment. People speak of a harrowing experience. It usually means something difficult and unpleasant. Something that shakes us, possibly something that breaks us.
As I watched those two tractors criss-crossing the field I had a sense of this is how things feel right now. Like the ploughed earth our lives have been overturned. This year it feels like the overturning has been deep, and things we thought we solid and fixed have been cut through and broken up.
Then comes the harrowing. In the old creeds people spoke of the crucified Christ descending to the dead. Holy Saturday, the day between the Good Friday and Easter Sunday, marks the time when Christ was dead. In the old traditions it was called the Harrowing of Hell, when God breaks the power of death.
The harrow breaks up. And we find a curious new significance, that this word which we avoid, because harrowing experiences are painful, is also the word for the preparation of ground for the planting of new seeds. It is only when the ground has been harrowed that new life begins.
I suspect many people have a sense of lives being deeply overturned and life being broken. I know there are many people who are finding it difficult to reconnect with what went before. People who used to be sociable and enjoy the company of others are struggling to find any enthusiasm to take up what they have lost. People who used to do things actively have a sense of diminished confidence. People who were proactive and determined say they have just lost their spark.
The first thing – the first thing is to accept this for what it is. In the land that is overturned and harrowed, in this season of Rogationtide, we get a sense of how things are. A facing of facts, an understanding of how we feel and what we experience, and also that curious new significance – that it is the overturned and harrowed land which is ready for new planting.
Jesus said, Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
We might prefer it not to be pruned. But God has other plans. The hallmark of life, and the judgement of life, are the fruits we bear. It is as the parable of the talents, to those who have been given gifts much will be expected. The servant who hid his talent in the ground had it taken from him.
It doesn’t mean that we all have to do things that will make the headlines. God isn’t looking for heroes. As Edward Kings said, what we need are a few quiet saints. A course I used a few years ago began with the story of Peter, who after 25 years in the same place retired to a town he didn’t know. He was lost. No friends, no connections, no church, no job. What was he to do with his time? In a sense Peter’s life had been ploughed up and harrowed. Like a field, his life was made empty. It is in the emptiness God makes new beginnings. That is a phrase I keep coming back to – God acts in the empty spaces.
Peter prayed. He took a risk and asked God, what do you want me to do? Which is a dangerous prayer because you never know what the answer might be.
And in his prayer a verse from Jeremiah came to mind – Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.
So what does that mean?
Well Peter liked to go for a morning walk through a local park. On his next walk he stopped and looked around. It was a nice park, it had once been neat and tidy, with flowerbeds and a bandstand. Sadly these days it was a bit of a mess. There was litter everywhere.
So Peter went to Screwfix and bought a litter picker and a roll of bin bags, and he started picking up litter. And nobody noticed, at first. But after a few days people began to notice, and a couple of them stopped and chatted to him, and then a few more, and people asked him why he was doing it. And Peter told them it was God’s answer to his prayer.
Sometimes it takes our lives to be deeply overturned for us to hear God’s voice. Sometimes it is in the painful moments of harrowing that new beginnings emerge. Sometimes it is when we do not know what to do that we are closest to bearing fruit.
We may thing we come to church to be comforted. If so remember what Jesus said, Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You may be here this morning because God is pruning you, making you ready to do something more, be something more.
If life is like that, if you feel overturned, harrowed, pruned, remember what Jesus said. It is those who bear fruit who God turns to. Your challenge may be a sign God sees in you a branch that bears good fruit.
25th April 2021 - Fourth Sunday of Easter
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil
The image we ponder today is that of the shepherd. One of the consolations of lockdown has been the joy of walking the pathways of Cheshire. We are blessed with a beautiful land, as the Psalmist says, “My share has fallen in a fair land.” Over the past months I have worn out two pairs of walking shoes, and one pair of wellies.
We do not take this beauty for granted. On every walk my heart has dwelt on those living in high rise blocks, or families with children with no garden, surrounded by bricks and concrete.
I remember taking a group of children from a Liverpool outer estate into North Wales. As the minibus climbed the hills chaos erupted in the back seats. Some exotic creature had been spotted and there was great excitement. The children clamoured to know what it was.
It was a sheep.
For us the image of the shepherd might seem well known. For many in our society it is utterly alien. The first thing to note is that when we speak of Christ the Good Shepherd many in our society won’t have a clue what we are on about.
But then do we? There is a huge difference between your 21st Century Cheshire farmer and your 1st Century Palestinian shepherd. Jesus was speaking from what he knew, and what he saw day by day. He was using language people understood.
The shepherds of Jesus’ day lived a precarious existence. It was a job at the bottom of the social ladder, difficult, dangerous and disliked. When Jesus says, ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking of Amos, chapter 3, verse 12. Of course you are.
“Thus says the Lord, ‘As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel be rescued…’”
A Palestinian shepherd had to account for sheep that were taken, attacks by wild animal or robbers were frequent. If the shepherd could not save the sheep he was at least charged with bringing evidence of the attack.
William Barclay quotes one who had spent time with shepherds; “I have listened with intense interest to their graphic descriptions of downright and desperate fights with these savage beasts. And when the thief and the robber come (and come they do), the faithful shepherd has often to put his life in his hand to defend the flock. I have known more than one case where he had literally to lay it down in the contest. A poor faithful fellow last spring, between Tiberias and Tabor, instead of fleeing, actually fought three Bedawin robbers until he was hacked to pieces with their khanjars, and died among the sheep he was defending.”
Which is not to say that our modern shepherds have an easy life by any means. The Lakeland shepherd, James Rebanks, in his book ‘The Shepherd’s life’ offers some advice to would-be shepherds.
First thing – it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep.
Second thing – you won’t always win.
Third thing – so stop whining and get on with it.
There’s some good advice for churches in those words.
Jesus draws a distinction between the good shepherd and the hired hand. The clue is in the word ‘good’. As you well know, in Greek there are two words for good. There is agathos which describes the moral quality of a thing. And there is kalos which means something good because it is lovely.
When Jesus speaks of the good shepherd he used kalos. We sometimes refer to someone as good because we see in them something wonderful. A good teacher may be skilful, effective, able to control a class and deliver good results. But then there are those people whose passion for their pupils goes beyond skill and efficiency and results. A good teacher inspires and encourages, is gracious, generous and kind. There is a difference between effective and good.
When Jesus speaks of ‘good’ he means people who inspire and encourage, those whose passion for what they do makes it an act of love rather than just a job.
Covid has been, as Charles Dickens put it, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We have, quite literally, walked through the valley of the shadow of death. We have seen great suffering and much grief. We know a difficult road lies ahead. Yet we have also seen, as Kate Adie put it, ‘the kindness of strangers’. Medical staff and those working in care homes have trodden the path of the good shepherd, too many have lost their life in doing so.
Neighbours have shown kindness in countless acts done for others. Teachers have gone door to door delivering lessons to children. People have volunteered in their thousands. We have seen goodness, kalos, in our communities. So yes, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death – and we have seen goodness and seen it in abundance.
We face tough times ahead, our world has changed, we have changed, our jobs, our communities, our churches, have changed. In a few moments we shall hold our annual meeting a key part of which is to grasp some difficult nettles and elect people to represent our church as we move into that difficult future.
On our shared behalf may I offer our thanks to those who have served our church over the past year, in some cases for several years, but particularly over a year that has been unprecedented and extraordinarily challenging.
The past year has been the most challenging we have faced in many of our lifetimes. But let us acknowledge, here and now, that the year ahead will present us with even greater challenges.
I hope we are building a community that is good, people who do what they do not just out of a sense of duty but because with a genuine love for what it means to be a parish church. We need people who are kalos. Such lives make a difference.
I want to finish with a comment made to me by a local funeral director a few days ago. He said, we see funerals in many settings, churches, crematoria, civic celebrants, clergy, people of all faiths or none. In this past year your church has stood out as a place where people are treated with courtesy, kindness and respect. It is still difficult. We are still under Covid restrictions. But in your church it just seems better, it is kinder.
In what comes next let us tread as the good shepherd, that what we do we do kindly, with grace and in love.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/XRfUCy79t28
18th April 2021 - The Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24: 36b – 48 (Act 3: 12-19)
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
If our phone rings before 10am it is usually someone wanting to
1. save us money on domestic appliance insurance,
2. prevent us from being charged for something expensive we never knew we'd bought from Amazon,
3. or to tell us we have a problem with our internet which they'd like to resolve for us.
I'm afraid they all usually get pretty short shrift from me.
The other week we did have a problem with our internet, and an engineer from Openreach came and sorted it out for us – but just after he left we had a phone call “about our internet”. How were we to know whether it was a genuine follow up or another would-be scammer? That was an easy one, but unfortunately many of us hear the words without comprehending their meaning.
We've also heard a lot about fake news recently – and for some of us even April Fool jokes were difficult to recognise. It now seems that we live in a society where truth is often more unbelievable than fiction – and fraudsters play on that.
The events described in our reading from Luke 24 were not easy to believe either – but these were genuine. They took place on the evening of Jesus' resurrection. Late that afternoon the risen Jesus met Cleopas and another disciple as they walked on the Emmaus Road. After Jesus had left them they went to tell the other disciples that they had seen Jesus.
Despite that – when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, v37 tells us “they were startled and terrified, as though they were seeing a ghost”. ….. and it wasn't as if Jesus himself hadn't prepared them what was going to happen either. It is there in v46: “thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day”.
But if you look at v44 you will see there is more to it than that - Jesus tells them “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written in the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”. Here Jesus is summarizing the message of the OT – i.e. what is happening now is what God always planned, as he had revealed in his Word.
Yes the Easter events are the fulfilment of scripture – but God's plan doesn't stop there – because he tells us in v47 that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name, to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”
Jesus had taught all this to his disciples but – as we might say today – the message hadn't sunk in. Their minds were not yet open to understand what they had been taught.
Move on for a moment to Acts 3 (our first reading). It is now after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had been poured out on the disciples – Peter is a new man - and almost unrecognisable from when he denied Jesus in the High Priest's court a few weeks previously.
Here he is now standing in Solomon's portico (part of the Temple where Jesus had taught the disciples) addressing the people and he is really socking it to them:
• you rejected Jesus and handed him over to Pilate
• you rejected Pilate's finding of his innocence
• you demanded the release of a convicted murderer in his stead
• you killed Jesus, the author of life, whom God raised from the dead
Collective responsibility has always been a contentious issue.
• The church gets blamed for what it does as much as it gets blamed for what it fails to do.
• A good proportion of the population think of the church only as the buildings - a view we would probably refute,
• but another sector of society blame the nearest Christian they can find for anything the church does which they don't like – whether we happen to agree with it or not.
Here Peter was using the word you in a collective sense, LAOS was the collective noun for the Jewish people = it was you Jews who were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus – not his listeners individually.
However – and this is a very important point – we cannot stop there - as some throughout history have done. Peter (v 17) puts this in context “I know you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers – but this is how God fulfilled what the prophets had foretold, that the Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore and turn to God that your sins may be wiped out.”
The 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine was visited by a priest who urged him to make his peace with God while he still had time. Heine replied flippantly “God will forgive me – that's his job”
That is a very dangerous assumption - we cannot expect God to ignore our sins, but we have the assurance that he pardons those sins which we confess and renounce.
The renounce bit is important and sometimes is more difficult than the confession itself. It's not much good confessing what we did wrong last week, unless we resolve not to repeat the misdemeanour next week.
Of course we don't always get it right straight away and God may still forgive us again – but that doesn't give us a licence to go on sinning provided we confess afterwards. We have to keep working at renouncing and hopefully move on.
Here Peter was not suggesting the sin of the Jewish people and their leaders was excusable, nor was he implying that forgiveness was unnecessary – but he was showing why forgiveness was possible – through Jesus the slate can be wiped clean.
So here we see Peter and the disciples taking up that command from Luke 24. They have started to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, but so far they are only at stage 1 - “beginning from Jerusalem” and of course the job is nowhere near finished yet 2,000 years later.
The on-going mission of the church is the responsibility of God's people in every generation. As Paul Dawson reminded us last week we benefit from those who brought the gospel to this country 1500 years ago and from those who established Christianity and built and endowed our churches in the centuries since. .
God promised Abraham that the good news would be shared with All Nations – so we are but one generation in God's purposes. Our role is not just to preserve and conserve that which we have inherited – and that seems difficult enough at times – but to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those who do not know him.
I don't know about you but I've found that a particularly difficult thing to do in the last year or so, so it is my prayer for us all that God will open each of our minds to understand the Scriptures better - that we may be open to his leading as we face the opportunities, and challenges, that come to us as individuals and as a church.
The YouTube version is here https://youtu.be/Y7hvo8JVsOY
Second Sunday of Easter
‘he breathed on them…’
Locked doors. Breath. A finger.
Let us begin by noticing the context of this morning’s reading from St John. The disciples met behind locked doors.
We are an Easter community. We celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are the church whose task it is to proclaim good news to all people.
Yet this was not immediately so. In the days of the first Easter the friends of Jesus met behind locked doors, because they were afraid. Easter is a drama, it is a journey, over these weeks we witness transformation. That frightened, beaten, despairing people were changed. If those friends of Jesus had only met behind locked doors we would not be here today.
God acts. God acts in people. God begins with ordinary people, people like you and me, not terribly clever, not always brave, not filled with confidence, and when the world falls to bits he acts in those people to make a new beginning.
We need to hear that today more than ever before. And we need to remember that like the seed that falls into the earth and dies, new beginnings are at first small and hidden.
We need at this time a sense of grace and generosity. I was reading this week a book by one of my favourite authors, John Lewis-Stempel – The Running Hare, the secret life of farmland.
It is the time he took a field in Herefordshire and sowed it by hand with wheat. He wanted to take a field from which all wild flowers had been eradicated, and all wildlife fled, and nurture life back into it. He quotes the old adage for hand-sowing, “One for the rook, and one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.’ We get our term ‘broadcasting’ from the old way of sowing. It is a reminder that not everything will work as we think it will, or hope and expect it will.
God must surely know us in the same way, the failures are more frequent than the successes, but it is the seed that falls to the ground and dies that bears a harvest. God’s way is of grace and generosity, allowing the harvest to grow where it can.
What comes next may make us anxious, like the friends who met behind locked doors. But Easter is a time for transformation. We need to allow God to act in us. Small beginnings matter. Locked doors.
Next - Breath.
Jesus breathed on his disciples. This is how God transforms. Our bibles begin with emptiness, the earth was without form and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep, the breath of God moved over the face of the waters.
The word ‘breath’ is interchangeable with ‘Spirit’ or ‘Wind’. It conveys life giving energy. Every living thing is that which has been given the breath of life.
A new born child’s first breath is a moment of change, lungs formed in the womb that have never been filled with air suddenly start to work. Oxygen is absorbed, the miracle of new life begins. It is no wonder breath is understood as a gift.
In Luke the gift of the Spirit is given in the simplicity of this moment, Jesus breaths on his friends and so shares God’s life changing Spirit.
This gift is given to be used. That is made clear. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
We often overlook the second part of that. There is nothing soft or woolly about our commission as followers of Jesus. We have a job to do and it matters. In the ordination of priests one of the charges laid upon those entering holy orders is the responsibility to teach and admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations.
Being a Christian isn’t about being nice to people. Sometimes what people need isn’t what they want. In our life together God calls us to be tough because love costs.
That is something else we need to bear in mind as we face what comes next for our churches. This will not be an easy time. Moments of change never are. A new born child’s first breath is usually a cry. Breath transforms.
You might expect that a new movement trying to introduce new ideas would make the most of its heroes. Naval stories of Nelson always focus on his grasp of strategy and boldness in tactics. You don’t hear many stories pointing out that he wasn’t actually a very good sailor.
So Christianity is a very odd new movement. Our gospels mostly tell us how the disciples got it wrong. Peter jumped overboard and sank. James and John wanted seats of importance. Thomas doubted.
Well, if anything, such failures give us hope, because – if I dare say it – the church is full of failures. Maybe it’s only when we know we’re pretty hopeless that we’re willing to listen to a different way of looking at things.
The fact that the gospels record the failures of the disciples is really quite astonishing when you think about it. You’d expect those bits to be quietly edited out – but they haven’t, and for that I am truly thankful.
More to the point - the resurrection does not deny the reality of Christ’s suffering. If Walt Disney has scripted Easter the risen Christ would be revealed as young, fit and healthy. But Luke tells us a different story, that the risen Christ still bore the marks of crucifixion. He invites Thomas to put his finger into the marks of the nails, to put his hand into the wound of the spear.
The risen Christ, indeed when we come to it, the ascended Christ, still bears in his body the wounds of crucifixion. So too does his body the Church.
This also is a mark of how we will be in the times ahead. Covid will leave scars. Scars in individuals, scars in communities, scars in our society, and scars within our churches.
Locked doors. Breath. A finger.
God acts in people. God acts in us. In the resurrection we see how God acts, and in whom.
Christ, our risen Lord, no tomb can keep you,
no door is closed to you, no heart is barred to you,
no mind is shut off from you.
Come lead us out of darkness into light,
out of doubt into faith, out of death into life eternal:
Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/kCrBdbLeqds
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
We come to Easter morning. We have walked with Christ in the wilderness. We have pondered the meaning of the cross. We have followed the crowds who saw Jesus. We have sat at table as his friends, shared bread and wine, wondered at his taking the role of a servant, washing his friends’ feet.
We have stood at the cross, or perhaps not, as many then could not, to watch him die. To be abandoned is the hardest death of all. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It wasn’t just God who forsook him that day.
And now with the women we come to the grave. It was a woman’s role, they brought spices to anoint the body. In Jewish burial customs a body was first buried in a temporary tomb. Only later, when just the bones were left, was it moved for permanent burial.
The women would have sat through the night grinding spices with which to anoint the body for this first burial. Perhaps in silence, just being together grinding the spices of grief. We don’t always need the right words. We sometimes just need to be together. That is something we have learnt anew through these past difficult months.
When they come to the tomb they expect to find nothing other than death. This is the end of their hopes, all their dreams, all their love. The world can be a cruel place.
We need to remember this. Our Easter morning begins as a day of mourning. We must grasp that reality if we are to understand what God is doing through his people. Happy clappy religion that sees the world through rose tinted glasses is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
In Easter our encounter with God is in the cross and the grave, and why are we surprised? Is this not the same God who acts in the wilderness? Is this not the same God whose voice is heard not in signs of power and glory, not in the earthquake, not in the mighty wind, not in the brilliance of fire, but comes to one terrified and alone, hiding in the wilderness, hearing God in the piercing silence?
Is this not the same God who looks to the desert to make new beginnings? The God who is more at home in a tent than a temple, in a stable than a palace.
So – if we can walk in the dawn light with the women we do so carrying the spices of grief. That last final act of love – which is all God needs. For it is they who discover the unthinkable, that in this ultimate desert place God is doing what God does best, and is making a new start.
Mark, as I have said many times, is a master story teller. You will notice what is missing from this story. Like that party game where you memorise a collection of items, then one is removed and you have to spot what is missing.
So what is missing from this Easter morning? The answer of course is Jesus. Nowhere in Mark’s Easter account do the disciples actually meet the risen Christ. The story ends at verse 8, the women running away, in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That’s it. End of. Finito.
Our bibles of course have some extra verses, but those are very clearly added later to try to make sense of Mark’s abrupt ending. There are those who think Mark obviously wrote more but that has been lost. Think of a manuscript where someone picks it up but leaves the last page behind. Maybe it’s a simple as that.
Others, and I am one of them, think that Mark ended his Gospel this way by intention. He is a master story teller, and really good stories have untidy endings. Yes, in your average fairy tale they all lived happily ever after, one of our infant nativities even ended that way, which was a bit odd seeing it was performed under a stained glass window of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, but this isn’t a fairy story.
Mark is writing for people who choose to follow Jesus, and who choose to do so in a difficult and dangerous world, who would never themselves meet the risen Lord. For those people what happens next matters, and it matters very much.
They knew, as we know, that being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy. In fact for them it was often a life threatening choice. Can the story end with women running away in fear, saying nothing to anyone?
Yes it can. But if it had we wouldn’t be here today. But it didn’t. So we are.
In Mark’s account as we have it I suggest we find ourselves involved in this Easter morning. Do we encounter this truth and go away telling no-one? If we do that what happens next? Or can we hear him telling us – you are here because that’s not how it ended. And you can’t let it end that way today.
The story of Jesus, God’s greatest gift, ends like it started. As vulnerable and as weak as a baby born in a shed. A truth as fragile as a tale told by frightened people.
Yet this message of hope and of unbreakable love has endured. Today it is placed into our hands. In these strange and difficult times it us who run into the dawn, and what message have we to tell?
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/yaR02PVaAcY
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches
We come to Palm Sunday, and one unlike any before. We cannot process with our palm crosses. We cannot read our usual dramatic Gospel. But at least we are here, last year our churches were closed on Palm Sunday.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road. Palm Sunday is a day of crowds. Crowds are fickle. Crowds can change unpredictably. Crowds can be peaceful and quiet one moment, a raging mob the next. A crowd can be a shared celebration, the joyous greeting of a successful football team. Or a crowd can be an angry force of violence and destruction, as we saw recently in Bristol.
Jesus knew crowds. He spent time with many people. He clearly knew how to, as they say, work a crowd. He could read the mood, he spoke with humour, irony and appeal. He could stun a crowd into silence, and he could provoke hostility and resentment.
Margaret Thatcher was infamously misquoted as saying, “There is no such thing a society.” Which ignored the second part of what she said, that society can only exist because it is created when individuals come together. A crowd is a crowd, many people, many unique and individual people. Each person matters.
In St Luke’s account Palm Sunday is immediately preceded by the story of Zacchaeus. You will recall that Zacchaeus was a small man so he climbed a tree to see Jesus better. We may remember that Zacchaeus was a bad man who cheated people in their taxes. And if we remember that then we remember wrong. Like the crowd we have jumped to conclusions. Collective memory isn’t always right.
Nowhere in the story of Zacchaeus does it say that he was a cheat or dishonest. When he meets Jesus he says that if he has defrauded anyone then he will restore it four times over. If he had defrauded anyone – the ‘if’ makes a difference. Jesus very often spotted the person amongst the many, the individual within the crowd, the person left out, ignored, overlooked or despised. Jesus spotted Zacchaeus, and many others.
I spoke last week on the request of the Greeks, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ I suggested that most of the time most of the people see the Jesus they want to see, the Jesus that fits their agenda, the Jesus who matches their views, the Jesus that doesn’t ask awkward questions.
The crowd was no different. They wanted a new king. They wanted someone to make life better. They wanted a hope they could get behind. They wanted what you and I want, for our lives to be better than they are right now.
Jesus knew what they saw in him, and he knew he wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. So he rode on a donkey, a parody of a Roman triumphal procession, I am not what you think I am.
To be fair to the crowd even his closest friends didn’t get him right. Judas didn’t set out to betray Jesus to death, he likely believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah, sent to kick out the Romans and bring in a new age of Jewish independence. His actions weren’t designed to send Jesus to his death, he acted in good faith, hoping to provoke the final conflict between good and evil, knowing Jesus would prevail.
Like many, he saw the Jesus he wanted to see, not the man riding a donkey, not the man washing his friends’ feet, not the man who would accept the cross as the only means of doing God’s will.
It is an unusual Palm Sunday. It will be an unusual Holy Week. It will be an unusual Easter. Maybe in this time we will glimpse an unusual Jesus – not quite the person we expect, not quite the man we think we know.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/-s6NpNz7Hpk
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
In 2018 I attended a conference in Manchester for those involved in Cathedral ministry. I came home with several things. A whistle, a genuine ACME Thunderer, the gift of an after dinner speaker who informed and entertained us with the history of Joseph Hudson who in the 1880’s developed the first police whistle.
Did you know that before the ACME whistle football referees had to call attention to a foul by waving a handkerchief? Not very effective. Joseph Hudson’s whistle have played their part in policing, sport, maritime safety, military communication and as Fiona will testify – calling over excited children back into class.
I also came home with several books, some useful contacts, a job offer in Australia, and a cross.
The first Christian sign was the sign of the fish. You will have seen it on the back of cars. A simple line outline in the shape of a fish. It was used by Christians to mark places of gathering, family homes where the church met to worship. In Greek the word for fish is ICTHUS – the letters of which stand for Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour.
Yet it is the cross which is the most universally recognised sign of the Christian faith. And if you think about it that is odd. The cross was a Roman instrument of putting someone to death in the most humiliating and agonizing way possible. It was a slow death, stripped naked and robbed of all dignity. The cross was a deliberate tool of political oppression. As I said recently, the message of the cross is that this person doesn’t count.
So why did Christians, this new movement of friends of Jesus, use the instrument of his death as a sign?
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
If someone asked you that what would you show them?
Our pictures of Jesus are of necessity no more than imaginative. Some of them very badly informed. You can probably remember images of a handsome blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus – forgetting entirely that Jesus was Jewish.
People nearly always portray Jesus as they would like him to be. On the one hand there is Jesus meek and mild who wouldn’t say boo to a goose and certainly wouldn’t present any disturbing questions. On the other is Jesus the freedom fighter, the wild revolutionary, malleable to whatever ideology you’re wanting to promote.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
To this request Jesus gives an unexpected answer. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
During our conference we met at St Anne’s church in the middle of the Manchester shopping centre to listen to the Archbishop of York. Outside the church there is a bench on which is a sculpture of a homeless man sleeping. He is wrapped in a blanket, you cannot see his face, only his feet stick out.
And they are pierced feet. This is an image of Jesus, as a homeless person sleeping on a bench.
It is in stark contrast to the glitz and glamour of the surrounding shops. Its poverty is shocking in the midst of so much wealth and money spent on ourselves. You come out of a shoe store with your shiny new shoes and there are cold naked feet pierced by nails. The buildings tower upwards, modern and clean, our Lord appears tiny and insignificant so low and on the edge.
When the statue was unveiled, it was unveiled by a homeless man named Dave.
It reminded me of a story, of a lady hurrying to a prestigious exhibition of religious art. Near the entrance she spotted a huddled figure sat on the pavement with a cup begging for coins. She kept her head down, didn’t make eye contact, and hurried past.
The exhibition was everything she’d hoped for. Beautiful treasures speaking of God’s glory and transcendence. Paintings that spoke of peace and joy. Sculptures which were breathtakingly powerful. Until she came to a sixteenth century sculpture, Christ on the Cold Stone, depicting Jesus naked, alone, awaiting crucifixion.
As she left the exhibition she came again to the homeless person outside. And saw them differently.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
Jesus’ answer is that those who wish to see him need to let go of themselves. We cannot see Jesus if the Jesus we seek is the Jesus we want. It is only when the grain falls into the earth and dies that it bears fruit. The grain that is kept safe does nothing. It just eventually rots.
The cross then is why Christians know who they are.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/CbnN5-fEdic
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
We come to Mothering Sunday, in strange and difficult times. Last year Mothering Sunday was the first Sunday of lockdown. All our preparations fell to bits, our churches were closed, there was a sense of being bewildered and bereft.
A year later and we are still bereft. We cannot visit our families. Travel is restricted. We are separated from those we love.
We are aware of those who have lost people they love, who have been unable to grieve with others. Of babies born yet to be held by grandparents. Of those who have become mothers alone, without the support of family, and unable to make bonds with other new parents.
If there is a price of lockdown it is the social isolation which has affected every part of our society. In the months ahead I hope our churches can be places where people can connect. We need to work on new connections.
And this is an unusual Mothering Sunday. Originally Mothering Sunday was a day people travelled. They went back to the church where they were baptised, or to the Cathedral, the mother church of the Diocese. They would usually make the journey walking, and it was said they went ‘a Mothering’. Such travel of course, would be illegal today.
Those who travelled would reconnect with family, often taking a Simnel Cake as a gift, a reminder that whilst Mothering Sunday falls during Lent it is still a Sunday, the day of resurrection, so it remains a feast day.
By the early 1900’s the world had changed, not least following the
First World War, and Mothering Sunday had largely
been forgotten. In 1921 Constance Penswick-Smith, the daughter of the vicar of Coddington, Northamptonshire, wrote a book
suggesting the revival of Mothering Sunday. It was a focus on family in an age when many of the poor worked in service or newly emerging industries, people who had little time off and precious few holidays, family life was changing and Mothering Sunday was a reminder that family matters.
It was Mothering Sunday, not Mother’s Day, an American invention which its creator, Anne Jarvis, later campaigned to abolish because it had been overtaken by commercialism and lost contact with its original intent.
I must confess to feeling rather lost when preparing for this service. Usually Mothering Sunday has meant churches filled with families, gifts of flowers for all ladies present, and a sermon aimed at a younger audience. But not this year.
A few years ago Fiona and I marked Mothering Sunday with the Great British Bake Off, we both made cakes during the service. We had the same ingredients but there the similarity ended. Fiona’s ingredients were weighed carefully on the scales - mine were measured in handfuls less whatever fell onto the floor.
Fiona mixed her cake in a Kenwood Chef, I used a paint stirrer mounted in a power drill. Fiona’s cake was made with love and care, mine was chucked in a bucket. Fiona’s table was neat and tidy. My side of the church looked like an explosion at Mr Kiplings.
The message was meant to suggest that love and care matter, a reminder to value the things our mothers do for us. It has to be said, that when the cakes were baked and presented to the Brownies and Cubs, both were consumed with equal delight. A reminder for parents that you don’t need to be perfect to be a good parent.
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
Both our readings speak of parenthood in difficult times, and they bear witness to the transforming power of compassion and courage. You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to work out that Pharoah’s daughter knew exactly what was going on. When a Hebrew mother comes forward to look after the child hidden by the river she must have figured out whose child this was.
So often in the Old Testament it is the women who act with wisdom and discernment.
On 23rd October 1881, some of our older members may remember it, Edward King preached a sermon in which he mentioned a sign he had seen in a local park. The notice ran, “All persons are requested to assist the society in the protection of the flowers.”
There was no threat of punishment or hint of compulsion. Just an appeal to everyone’s sense of beauty and value to exercise their personal freedom for the preservation of a common good.
Such signs today would be different. Inevitably there would be a penalty for none compliance. We live in a culture which assumes people will only be good if they forced to be so.
Mothering Sunday is reminder that God invites us to assist in the protection of the flowers, or if not the preservation of nature, to assist in the protection of people. There is an appeal for us to share in God’s work of bringing new life, caring for the fragile, nurturing the young, helping people grow and develop their full potential.
God invites us to assist, without threat of punishment or hint of compulsion. All persons are requested to assist – it’s as simple as that.
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
Pharoah’s daughter didn’t need to act to save this child. She didn’t need to turn a blind eye to the reality that the Hebrew woman was clearly the child’s mother. She didn’t need to risk herself by breaking the law.
But she saw the child and she chose to do good.
As you go about your week ahead, in the people you meet, difficult children, awkward adults, or in the handling of things, which Benedict reminds us are always God given treasures, reflect on that sign in the park.
All persons are requested to assist the society in the protection of the flowers.
You don’t have do. If you don’t there’s no come back. It’s just an invitation, to be the person who makes a difference for the better.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/4HJZNx3oSIE
7th March 2021 - Third Sunday of Lent
John 2: 13 - 17
The Bible teaches us that our God is the God of 2nd chances.
To try to be positive that could have been what Jesus was doing when He turned over the tables in the Temple. Giving those who had disgraced the temple a 2nd chance. A chance to give up what they were doing and try a different way.
In this passage it is easy to see the emotion of Jesus. This is not the only time when we see the emotions of Jesus coming to centre stage.
But this is slightly different from other times when Jesus allowed us to see his emotions, there is only one way to describe it, on this particular day….Jesus was angry.
I’m sure all of us have been there. Something stirs us up, our emotions flare up and suddenly our anger spews out. But we need to clear about an important truth here.
It’s not being angry that is a sin. It is what we do with our anger that really matters, and what we direct it at.
We know that Jesus was without sin, and yet here we see him in this story showing what seemed like uncontrolled anger at the sellers and money changers, and actually driving them out of the temple.
It seems His emotion took over, but it was for a reason.
The temple was being used for the wrong purpose, a bad purpose. This was not so much about the buying and selling that was taking place, it was about how and why it was being done.
It was the time of the Passover which meant that Jews who were faithful, and able to, headed to Jerusalem to celebrate. So Jesus went too, but when He got there things were not as they should be.
You may remember that in the Old Testament, God required the Jews to celebrate the Passover to remind them of how God had delivered them out of Egypt.
To preserve the life of their first born they would need to kill a sacrificial lamb and apply the blood of the lamb to the door post.
When the messenger would see the blood then he would pass over the house and the child would be spared.
They were also told that (if possible) they were to go to Jerusalem to make this sacrifice. So this is why Jesus and His family were there.
I want you to imagine if you will, what they saw when they got there. The Jews had greatly multiplied by this time so hundreds of thousands of Jews would have flooded the city. Like some major convention, or perhaps like the Olympics had come to town. And all of that attention and the size of the crowd meant one thing to the Priests and the Pharisees. Money. The economic impact was huge. The merchants, and the priests and temple leaders, would clearly make a lot of money.
When Jesus arrived at the temple He saw immediately that it had been turned into a giant marketplace. But worse than that was how they were selling, they were certainly charging far more than they should.
In other words they were ripping the people off. Most of the people who came to Jerusalem for Passover had traveled a very long way. Travel was already tough but imagine trying to travel with the animals for their sacrifice. Almost impossible.
Depending on what type of offering you were making that would decide the type of animal you needed. It could be a big as bull, or a small as a dove ... but in addition for Passover everyone was required to bring, or purchase, a lamb.
So it would be a real struggle to bring them any distance. Even if you decided to bring your own animals they had to be perfect, no spot or blemish. And you were not the one who got to decide. The priest was.
Many, no doubt, brought their own animals only to have them turned down by the priests. The priests were sharing the merchants profit so they turned many of them down. Then you had to purchase one at their prices.
They had a monopoly going and anytime there is a monopoly, people will take advantage of it. And they did. They charged high prices because the people had no choice but to pay it.
So here were those who sold the cattle, doves, lambs and right by them were the money changers, you see you couldn't just use any money, it had to be specific coins that were needed to be used, and most people would not have them. So merchants and money changers were taking lots of money from people who simply came to worship their Lord, and probably couldn't afford it.
And there they were when in walked Jesus.
Jesus the man who worked in a carpenters’ shop with His Father Joseph, a man who is healthy and strong and He storms in and basically destroys the place. Animals, people, money, scattered everywhere.
Not surprisingly the the leaders of the Temple began to demand some answers from Jesus.
Basically they were asking Jesus “who do you think you are?” If you are so important do something to prove yourself. They demanded that He give them some kind of sign, a miracle to show he had authority.
And how did Jesus answer them? He said, “An evil and adulterous generation looks for a sign.”
Could this happen today? Of course it could, and it does.
Have you ever said, I’ll go to church Lord, if you will just heal me. OR Lord if you will just get me out this problem I’ll live like I should OR Lord if you will just answer this one prayer, I’ll do whatever you ask.
The Jews asked for a sign. Instead of giving them a sign Jesus simply answers their question.
But they didn’t understand, but then, neither did the disciples at that point.
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in 3 days I will raise it up.” They were confused. They all thought He was talking about the building they were standing in.
Jesus was, of course, talking about Himself. His crucifixion. And these very same Jews, led by the priests, merchants and money changers, were going to be responsible for having Jesus crucified.
The Priests and Pharisees didn’t get it. They didn’t want to get it because they knew they were in danger of losing their authority….their power, and most of all, their source of lots of money. So they chose not to believe.
The disciples saw how Jesus reacted to the sins of the moneychangers in the temple. They eventually twigged and saw it in the same way that Jesus did.
But in fact the Bible tells us that it was not really until after the resurrection that they truly believed. It was only then they fully understood what Jesus had meant.
What does it take for you to believe?
When you face trials or you face a time when God is testing you how do you respond?
Do you stop and remember. Remember what God has done for you. Remember your blessings, and give Him thanks.
Or do you start to try to make a bargain with the Lord. God if you’ll do this for me then I will do this for you.
Or do you remain skeptical saying to yourself, I have to see it to believe it.
Or do you simply accept His discipline, learn from it and begin to grow again.
Perhaps God is trying to do something in your life right now to get your attention, God sometimes does that.
God tried to get Jonah’s attention and he ran.
God tried to speak to Moses and Moses got angry. His anger kept him from ever getting into the Promised Land.
So what is the best thing you can do when God tries to get your attention?
You will all probably have your own answers, but I think the Bible tells us:
Just say yes Lord, what do you need? What can I do?
And then listen!!
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/QQvAEV6uXCo
Second Sunday of Lent
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
In Jesus’ time there were crosses everywhere you went. They were a common sight. The people nailed to them were not the Messiah, nor even heroic freedom fighters or brave idealists, by and large they were petty thugs, criminals, runaway slaves and frequently innocent people murdered because those in power sometimes do things just because they can.
Every cross had a meaning, it was a noticeboard, It’s message was who is in charge, and who is nailed here doesn’t count. Anyone who challenged authority was nailed up as a public spectacle - this is what happens if you stand against us. This is what happens if you rebel.
Those nailed to the cross were non-persons, non-citizens. Roman citizens were never crucified because Roman citizens mattered. They might be punished, even executed, but they were never crucified. Only the people who don’t count were crucified.
When Jesus walked amongst the towns and villages crosses were everywhere. They said who was in charge. And who wasn’t. He of course had a message about who was really in charge - so he knew full well the risk he was running.
Art and religion have often missed the point of what Jesus said to his friends. If you want to follow me then you should know the consequences. If you accept the authority I speak of you will be in conflict with the powerful of this world.
Art has so often depicted the meaning of the cross as Christ’s suffering for the world. Whether it be a painting, or the bloody reality of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, the focus has often been on the pain and gore of the cross.
Religious people have also often focused on the suffering. Sometimes using the cross to shock and arouse guilt. Sometimes using it as a sentimental self-obsession that God loves us this much.
But that is not the point of the cross.
You’ll have heard people say, we all have our crosses to bear - some minor inconvenience that has upset our plans - a broken washing machine, an awkward colleague, some disappointing news. Or giving up chocolate or wine for Lent. Taking up the cross becomes nothing more than doing something slightly uncomfortable to prove we’re faithful.
But that also is not the cross Jesus points to. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.”
He knew the message nailed to the cross. This person doesn’t count. This person doesn’t matter. This person means so little we can do this, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Step out of line and this person might be you.
He knew that message all right - and he knew that those who followed him would tread the same path.
The point of the cross is not the suffering. The cross is where non-citizens are killed. Those who choose the kingship of Christ reject the kingdom of this world. Those who are non-citizens of this world are citizens of another. You have to choose who to obey. And if you choose God, be prepared to be rejected by this world.
We know, because we are an Easter people, that the cross is not the end. But its reality not denied by the resurrection. The risen Christ displayed to his friends the wounds of the cross. His risen body was still a crucified body. God’s greatest hope, greatest gift, greatest love, is revealed precisely in that moment of rejection.
God has chosen to belong with us, that is the crazy claim of a God born in a back street stable. The question Jesus poses to his friends is - do you choose to belong with God?
There is an irony in his question - “will you deny yourself?” The reality is that most of the time most people act and think in self-denial. It is the driving force behind the hunger that drives people to desire and acquire more and more. The illusion that happiness is a newer car, a posher house, a bigger television - which of course never works so the cycle repeats itself.
This is real self denial - the pursuit of happiness, and meaning, and love in all the wrong places. We know it is self-denial because it simply doesn’t work.
Over lockdown we have been walking every day, mostly through Whitegate woods down to the river. You see a lot of dogs being walked, and the happiest dogs are those with sticks.
One doggy was a very happy doggy, he had a massive stick. A branch fully six feet long. His tail was up, his eyes straight, his head held high. He was ever so pleased with himself. Until he came to a gate.
You know what happened next, he tried and he tried, but he simply couldn’t understand why the stick wouldn’t go through the gate. Any more that the fully loaded camel of a rich man would pass through a narrow gate in a Jerusalem city wall.
Jesus’ irony is a grim irony. He could see crosses all around him. He saw the denial of hope - will you turn your back on this, and embrace the cross? Will you stand with God with the rejected? Will you take that chance, and discover where that takes you?
The cross is essential, because it takes us to that point where the illusion is denied, and a reality unimaginable revealed.
O Lord, our Saviour and our God, whom nails could not hold to the cross, but only love; grant that we, who have received the fullness of your love, may be ready to bear before the world the marks of your Passion; for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/x9CCI6pm2UU
21st February 2021
For the next few minutes I’d like to concentrate my thoughts on Verses 12 & 13 of this mornings gospel.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan: and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on Him”.
It seems that no sooner was the glory of the hour of the Jesus’ baptism over than there came his battle against temptations.
I think there is one thing which stands out here in such a way that we shouldn’t ignore it. Paul mentioned it on Wednesday evening at our Ash Wednesday service. It was the spirit who thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for this time of testing. The very same spirit who came upon him at his baptism now drove him out for his test.
In this life it is impossible for any of us to escape temptation in some form; but one thing I think is sure--temptations are not sent to us to make us fall; they are sent to strengthen us, our minds and hearts and souls. They are not meant for our ruin, but for our good. They are meant to be tests from which we emerge better and stronger to serve God.
Suppose someone enjoys playing football or rugby or some other game; suppose they are doing really well in the second team and showing real signs of promise, what will the team coach do? The coach certainly will not send them to play for the third team in which they could probably walk through the game and never break sweat; more likely they will send them to play for the first team where they will probably be tested as never before and have the chance to prove themselves. That is what temptation is meant to do--to enable us to test ourselves and to emerge the stronger for it.
One, if you like slightly technical point, as with many things we find in the bible forty days is a phrase which should probably not be taken completely literally. It is the Hebrew phrase used to express a considerable length of time such as when Moses was said to be on the mountain with God for forty days ( Exodus 24 ).
It was Satan, who we sometimes call the devil, who tempted Jesus. I have to admit to sometimes struggling with the idea of the devil.
So perhaps it would help to look at the development of the concept of Satan, which I think is very interesting.
The word Satan in Hebrew simply means an adversary; and in the Old Testament it is used of ordinary human adversaries and opponents.
The Philistines fear that David may turn out to be their satan in
1 Samuel 29; David regards Abishai as his satan in 2 Samuel 19; Solomon declares that God has given him such peace and prosperity that he has no satan left to oppose him in 1 Kings 5.
So the word Satan began by meaning an adversary, a human one and not one specific individual or entity.
But as time goes on it does take a step on a downward and somewhat more sinister path; it begins to mean someone who pleads a case against a person. It is in this sense that it is used in the first chapter of Job. In that chapter Satan has the particular task to consider men and to search for some case that could be made against them in the presence of God. He was the accuser of men before God. The word is also used this way in Job 2 and in Zechariah 3 . The task of Satan was to find and to say everything that could be said against a man.
As I mentioned earlier the other title often used of Satan is the Devil; the word devil comes from the Greek diabolos, which literally means a slanderer. It is a small step from the thought of one who searches for everything that can be said against a person, to the thought of one who deliberately and maliciously slanders people in the presence of God.
So far in the Old Testament Satan is still human individual and not yet the malignant, supreme enemy of God. He is more the adversary of man.
But now the word takes the last step on its downward course. Through their time of captivity the Jews learned something of Persian thought.
Persian thought is based on the conception that in this universe there are two powers, a power of the light and a power of the dark, Ormuzd and Ahriman; the whole universe is a battle-ground between them and man must choose which side he is on in that cosmic conflict.
To put a more Jewish/Persian slant on it, we could could take the view that in this world there is God and Gods Adversary, Satan/The Devil.
So it was almost inevitable that Satan/The Devil, should come to be regarded as The Adversary par excellence. That is really what his name has come to mean; that is what he always was to man; but now Satan becomes the essence of everything that is against God too.
When we turn to the New Testament we find that it is the Devil or Satan who seduces Judas in Luke 22; it is the devil whom we must fight in 1 Peter 5 & James 4; it is the devil whose power is being broken by the work of Christ in Luke 10. Satan, The Devil, is now the power which is against God.
Here we have the whole essence of the Temptation story. Jesus had to decide how he was to do his work. He was conscious of a tremendous task and he was also conscious of tremendous powers.
God was saying to him, "Take my love to men; love them till you die for them." Satan was saying to Jesus, "Use your power to blast men; obliterate your enemies; win the world by strength and power and bloodshed."
God said to Jesus, "Set up a reign of love." Satan said to Jesus, "Set up a dictatorship of force." Jesus had to choose between the way of God and the way of Satan.
And that is, of course the message for us all, in life we have a choice, to be a follower of God or to be an adversary of God, and all that follows on from that decision.
In our story presented to us by Mark the choice seems straightforward, temptation is clear to see and, of course, Jesus is strong enough to reject it.
For us it often seems to be so much more difficult and complicated, and as mere human beings we also may feel less well equipped to cope with it.
But note the last few words of that passage, “and the angels waited on him” or as it is in another translation, “the angels took care of him”.
I would like to leave with you the suggestion that we also have to remember, that just like Jesus in the desert, whatever temptations and trials we have to face, we don’t have to cope with them alone either.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/xNrM7x-aZLc
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
Dust and glory and Ekballei.
Dust - Ash Wednesday brings us face to face with mortality. It’s something we usually avoid. I don’t know when you last walked along Llandudno pier – it is one of those places we cannot go at the moment. A couple of years ago we went on Shrove Tuesday, it was a lovely day. How often in February can you sit on top of the Great Orme, sheltered from the wind, and eat your butties?
We took it for granted of course. A drive along the North Wales coast, a walk along the promenade, then up the Orme. Never did we dream that one day such simple freedoms would be denied us.
It makes you think. Lent is a time to think. We are in a wilderness time. It is uncomfortable, it is hard, but remember that it is in the wilderness that God so often acts. It is in the wilderness that new beginnings happen.
The Great Orme is a marvellous spot, it must mean a lot to many people because if you walk out to the headland you will find several discrete piles of dust – people go there to scatter the ashes of their loved ones.
Actually, if you scatter ashes on top of the Orme they’ll all blow off and end up on the pier, so save yourself the climb and go to the pier in the first place.
Either side of the pier are rows and rows of benches, all but one bearing the name of someone held in memory. (The exception is a couple who bought a bench to celebrate their golden wedding.) Most of the names are not local people – they are visitors – people for whom Llandudno, the pier, the seaside, the windswept Orme, speaks of a better place.
Many of the plaques on the benches reflect the value of a better place – that where people are, their home, their work, the daily grind, they feel isn’t enough - there remains a longing for something above and beyond.
So it is to the seaside that people go to make that important gesture.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This dust is both reality and glory. Scientists tell us that the stuff we are made of was born in the furnace of a star. Stars are the building blocks of creation – it is in their heat and intense gravity that matter is formed. If we are dust, then we are star dust. Every atom in your body was formed somewhere beyond – the dust that swirled through space - over countless ages becoming rocks and planets and water and air – and life – created in the heart of a star.
Which is pretty amazing. I often reflect the words of Wesley in his hymn – Love divine all loves excelling – near the end
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place. He didn’t know much about astrophysics, but he knew that it is the things of this world which reflect the glory that is to come – and are of themselves a glory to be rejoiced in. That’s important – the things of this world are where glory is to be found. Family, friendship, love, loyalty, compassion, glory is here, and it points to a glory yet to come.
So as you walk along the pier - every bench, every plaque, every memory, the celebration of a golden wedding – these speak of glory. And it is glory in the here and now.
The dust and the glory and ekballei.
Ekballei. We don’t come easily to the wilderness, to Lent. It is a tough journey and many choose not to acknowledge it. It is time to remind ourselves, again, year on year, of how Jesus comes to the wilderness. St Marks tells us that the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus out into the wilderness. He uses the word ‘ekballei’ – it’s a forceful, powerful word. It’s where we get the word ballistic from – as in a ballistic missile.
The Spirit hurls Jesus into the wilderness – because this Lenten time isn’t a time of ease and comfort, we are disinclined to come easily, if it feels like a struggle then maybe you’re doing it right.
Dust and glory and ekballei. Over the next few weeks we will follow Christ in the wilderness. We need to make wilderness moments – and they don’t happen easily either. A moment to stop, pause, think, pray.
This year we cannot have Lent groups, but the Church of England has provided a good resource of daily prayer, reading and reflection. It is available free as an app, either for Android or iOS. Please use that resource, make a moment of wilderness every day. God makes new beginnings in the wilderness.
In my daily prayer I follow the Rule of Benedict. Benedict knew all about the dusty bits of life, the reality of living with ourselves and living with others. The reality of living in our world. The reality of living with God. And he knew it isn’t easy.
Benedict’s rule is at times down to earth, compassionate, realistic. And at other times it hurls – it makes demands that are uncomfortable – but important. He tackles head on the conflicting pressures of daily living. The joy of hospitality. Moments of solitude. Times of companionship. In the Rule we meet ourselves as we are, sometimes joyful, sometimes cross and grumpy, we recognise times when we fill emptiness with busyness, and what happens when we give too much of ourselves to the demands of others.
In wisdom we come home – the heart of Benedict’s wisdom is that we don’t need to look to the above and beyond, to the unreachable – to live well – in ourselves, with others and in God is not about being somewhere else and someone else. He brings us down to earth – to the reality around us, where God waits for us.
God waits in the wilderness. He needs us to stop and be still. He needs us to listen. He waits for us to empty ourselves of too many distractions. The wilderness is an opportunity, and like this hard and difficult time, in the emptiness we discover new possibilities.
There are no ashes this Lent. But we have dust and glory and Ekballei.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/CQXAn9PPqDA
14th February 2021 - Sunday next before Lent
“As they were coming down the mountain…”
In Chester I used to be one of the chaplains at our local hospital. A few days before Christmas we found ourselves with a group of volunteers from local churches singing carols around the wards. It is a big hospital and we had to fit into a tight timetable between ward rounds and visiting. So at each ward we sang two carols, then dashed along the corridor to wherever would have us next.
I wasn’t sure we were really doing much good. Most of the time the curtains round beds remained closed, or someone was obviously watching Corrie and just turned the sound up. But we persevered. We had a list and felt we had to visit every ward on it.
In the last ward we got to, a bit later than we should and feeling we were intruding on the busy staff, there was a side room with a door just ajar. A family was gathered, clearly deeply upset. Should we sing?
We decided we ought to, and the door remained open. We sang our usual two carols and then tried to leave as quietly as possible. I was the last to leave and as I followed our small group down the corridor the door opened and young man came out.
“My father has just died,” he said. “We’ve been here for hours, it’s been a terrible day. And right at the end you sang carols. He left this earth with a smile on his face. Thank you.”
There are moment of transfiguration. There are moments when you stand on a mountain top and everything is made clear. There are moments when God’s glory touches the messiness and chaos of our mortal humanity.
Remember what I said about Mark’s Gospel – it was written for Christians who were finding life hard. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Mark begins with prophecy, a voice often rejected, and with Jesus’ baptism, his identity with those who choose to follow him. And do you remember the voice that spoke at his baptism – this is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased?
Here again, in this moment of transfiguration, the same identity – this is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.
Mark is a master storyteller. In the shape of his gospel the transfiguration is a turning point. It is from here that Jesus moves towards Jerusalem. He knew where that road would lead, it is a journey towards the cross.
Mark’s readers were mostly Jews, people whose grasp of reality and understanding of who they were had two foundations – the giving of the Law and the voice of prophecy.
The Law was the bedrock of God’s relationship with his people. In Moses God had called a people out of slavery and led to freedom. In Moses they were chosen and God entered into a covenant with them. This was a mutually binding relationship. You shall be my people, I shall be your God.
The sign of this covenant relationship was the Law – that when people lived in the land God gave them they would remember all they had was a gift. They would treat the poor with respect, leave a harvest for the refugee, uphold the practice of Jubilee – a time when all debts are wiped clean. The poor will not get poorer, and the rich will not get richer.
These are a people living in obedience to God – a holy nation who did things differently. This is the Law.
Of course human beings fail, we forget our best intentions, we allow our dreams to fade, and when that happened God sent a voice to call people back, to remind them of the covenant, to heal the relationship. This was the voice of prophecy. Often a hard voice, but one that spoke the truth.
Two foundations of relationship – the Law and the Prophets. The Law given through Moses, the greatest voice of prophecy heard in Elijah.
And so in this transfiguring moment, when the path ahead is so difficult, when his friends cannot believe this is the road he must tread, Jesus encounters Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. Everything God has done leads to this moment. Everything God can do depends on what Jesus does next.
And he choose the hard road, he turns towards the cross.
“As they were coming down the mountain…”
We all have mountain top experiences. Moments when everything is clear, or something we do goes so well, and we sense a certainty that God is close. But you always have to come down the mountain.
If you read just a bit further then you find that as Jesus and his disciples came down the mountain the first thing they ran into was an argument. Conflict broke out, they went from the glory of the mountaintop to the messiness and chaos of other people.
That is how faith is. We need to be reminded constantly that faith is not about staying up the mountain where everything is clear. Faith is about clinging on that glimpse of glory when you’re down in the valley and everyone is being a pain in the neck.
Most of the time we are not up the mountain. Most of the time we are in the shadows of the valley and the way ahead is not clear. But moments of transfiguration happen, and they matter, and when they do remember what direction they point.
Gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/uEyw_-gbRRE
7th February 2021 - Second Sunday before Lent
John 1: 1 - 14.
And the word became flesh and lived among us,… full of grace and truth.
Each of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were obviously written by different men, but each were inspired and directed by the Lord. They were written with different specific audiences in mind, but together, they provide 4, complimentary, accounts of the life of Jesus.
John, the son of Zebedee, is the author of the Gospel we heard from today. That very familiar passage, loved by so many and often argued about as to which translation is the best.
John and his brother James are sometimes known as the "Sons of Thunder," most likely for their lively, zealous personalities.
Of the 12 disciples, John, along with James, and Peter formed the inner circle, chosen by Jesus to become his closest companions.
They had the exclusive privilege of witnessing and testifying about events in the life of Jesus that no others were invited to see.
Luke tells us that John was present at the resurrection of Jarius' daughter, and Mark that he was at the transfiguration of Jesus, and in Gethsemane.
John is also the only recorded disciple to be present when Jesus was crucified. He is the one Jesus spoke to from the cross about His mother. He is the one Jesus told to take care of His mother after He was gone. They were close.
John tells us a lot about the life and ministry of Jesus that the other writers do not tell us.
John tells us about the Marriage Feast at Cana of Galilee, of the coming of Nicodemus to Jesus, the woman of Samaria, of the raising of Lazarus, of the way Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.
John paid careful attention to everything going on around him, so he gives us many of the little details the other writers leave out.
When Jesus feeds the 5,000 with the fish and loaves, only John tells us they were barley loaves. When Jesus walked on water and came to the disciples in the middle of the storm, John is the one who tells us they had rowed between 3 and 4 miles when the storm came.
He is the one who tells us there were 6 stone water jars Jesus turned in to wine. Only John tells us about the crown of thorns and how the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ robe.
These are all the memories of a man who was there, who experienced these things first hand.
But in the beginning part of this chapter, John tells about things he did not directly see or know. These are things which could only have been shown to him by the Lord, showed to John so that he could record them for others.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . .
These are the words of a man inspired and directed by God to teach us and to help explain to us who Jesus is and where He came from, and how God prepared the way for His arrival.
There was a man sent from God who’s name was John, is a God-directed passage telling us about the forerunner of Jesus, not John the disciple but John the Baptist of course, explaining how through him God paved the way for His arrival.
And in verse 14, John shares more of his God-inspired, but also directly experienced memories.
And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Most of us are familiar with the verse John 3: 16, explaining why Jesus came into the world, explaining how the love of God caused Him to send His only begotten Son into the world, to pay the price for our sins, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.
That is often quoted as the most important verse in the New Testament, many have called chapter 1 verse 14 the 2nd most important verse in the New Testament.
You remember I’m sure, it begins, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
This can also translated as he pitched his tent among us. Many of the people of Jesus’s time were nomadic so a tent would be their home, not a stone or brick building, Jesus came for everyone nomad a town dweller, rich or poor, anytime, anywhere. We do not only find him here in church.
Can you imagine the love that drove God to have His only begotten Son, the Creator of all things, leave the glories and majesty of heaven to come and live as a man?
To know the pains, hunger, thirst, heat and cold, heart break and temptations that we know?
But He did, and John was able to spend around 3 years with Him, and took care of His mother after that.
If we could talk with John now we might ask him to tell us, like a good interviewer would, what stood out about the time you spent with Jesus? When you saw His glory displayed, you who notice all of the details, what stood out to you about Jesus?
Here we read what I think would probably be his answer.
We observed His glory, the glory of the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
We might also ask what was most important thing you personally took from your time with Jesus?
He could be likely to reply, I saw His grace and truth.
Years ago, a large international conference was held of religious leaders and theologians from around the world. In the midst of the conference, a quite heated debate began about what it was that set Christianity apart from other religions.
Some argued that it was God coming in the flesh that set Christianity apart from other religions.
They decided that wasn’t it, because other religions claimed that their gods came to earth to us too.
Some argued that it was love, or sacrifice, or the resurrection, or one thing or another; each idea in turn being shot down.
Finally, C. S. Lewis, the writer and theologian, who had arrived late, walked into the conference and asked what all the noise was about.
When he was told they were discussing what it was that set Christianity apart from all other religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
I can see why he said that, as John brings that message to us so clearly in this passage.
Yes, the thing that sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world is grace, the “unmerited, unearned, undeserved, favour of God, given freely out of His love.”
That is what Jesus brought to us all.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Let us pray,
Heavenly Father help us to meet your Son, and just as John did, to know your grace and truth on our lives. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mknb3TXSLm4
31st January 2021 - Candlemas
This child is destined for the falling and riding of many, and a sign that will be opposed.
Luke’s Gospel is full of encounters. He begins with a series of encounters. An older couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth and an angel. A teenage girl and an angel. The same girl, the same Elizabeth and an unborn baby - who leapt in the womb. Shepherds and a whole host of angels and a newborn baby. A young couple with their child and an encounter in the temple.
The encounters matter. They reveal God amongst us.
Candlemas is an Epiphany encounter. Truth is revealed.
It is also a pivotal moment. We take our last look at the Crib, we have our first glimpse of the Cross. Mary holds her son, and we foresee the time she shall hold his broken body taken down from crucifixion.
These are stories of contrast. The shepherds come and go, it is a brief encounter. One of the best books on funeral ministry was called just that. Brief Encounters.
I remember a mad old Canon telling a group of curates what the church was for. People come into churches, he said, ‘sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying’. We’re here to give them a glimpse of heaven. And then to let them go again. Brief encounters matter.
People come to our churches for all sorts of reasons. Christmas, a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Like the shepherds they come, they see, they hear, and then they are gone. What did they glimpse? What did they hear? God is in those brief encounters – just as he chose the shepherds, disreputable and untrustworthy, to be the first witnesses to Christ’s birth.
And then we have Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. William Barclay calls such people ‘The quiet in the land.’ People who aren’t interested in power or wealth or success or glory. People who just say their prayers and get on with life. Day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Anna and Simeon are in the temple daily – watching and waiting patiently, faithfully, diligently. The shepherds saw immediately. Anna and Simeon had to wait a lifetime. But wait they did – day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Different encounters – the same hope.
Some years ago, in a small room in a corner house, a group of teenage mums were playing with their babies, they were drinking tea and complaining about the price of baby milk. A grandma was serving biscuits and chucking the babies’ chins. She remembered her days as a young mum, during the war, when everything was rationed.
She asked the teenage girls why they didn’t breastfeed their babies – there was a silence. The mums looked at one another, then the bravest said – we don’t know how to.
So a group of grannies got together and they started a breastfeeding class – the next week the pavement outside was gridlocked with buggies. Teenage mums spread the word and the grannies rose to the occasion.
Our local doctor rang me. “I believe you’ve set up a breastfeeding class?” Well – not me personally. “How did you do it? We’ve been trying for years. We’ve spent thousands trying to do it.”
Ah – I said – what you need is granny power.
Luke’s telling of the story makes me think he took mums seriously. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, her meeting with Mary – two women divided by age but sharing a common expectation.
Gabriel’s visit to Mary – and I always have to ask – was Mary the first to be asked? How many other young women had Gabriel knelt before and waited? But their weddings were planned, their hopes set, their answer was no.
We don’t know if Mary was the first to be asked. Only that she was the first to say yes.
I cannot imagine that Anna did not take this child in her arms – Luke doesn’t say it – but young mums delight when someone cherishes their child. I can see Anna, whose soul had been pierced, holding Mary’s child - knowing what Mary’s heart would endure. When Mary stood at the foot of the cross I wonder if Anna’s face came before her.
Candlemas connects us with signs, God is amongst us, waiting to act – maybe in a moment, maybe over years. We don’t get to choose how, we just have to be ready to say yes when it happens.
Let the flame of your love never be quenched in our hearts, O Lord. Waking or sleeping, living or dying, let us delight in your presence. Let the flame of your love brighten our souls and illumine our path, and let the majesty of your glory be our joy, our life and our strength now and for ever. Amen Johann Arndt, 1555-1621
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/tyMYM2NvlFo