Christ the King – Shepherd Not Goatherd

Sermon based on Matthew 25:31-46 preached on Sunday 22nd November 2020 for Christ the King

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Whenever, I’ve read the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats, I’ve always felt a little sorry for goats. After all, who hasn’t seen those delightful pygmy goats bouncing around in paddocks, on bales of hay? No less charming than gambolling lambs in the spring. This sympathy made me feel that the gospel writer had picked the wrong animal to cast as representing the accursed. That was until I met Roger…

Roger was a large, bug-eyed, short-haired, tan coloured goat, who was part of the animal petting area at the zoo. Inquisitive and bleating loudly, he made it very clear that he was entitled to monopolise the fodder that was on offer and woe betide the timid, young sheep who shared his pen, daring to approach. If he wasn’t getting fed quick enough, a few butts to the leg made sure you knew what was required, and if nothing was forthcoming then a large mouthful of your skirt would suffice!

I did manage to get most of my skirt back out of his mouth and I think they retired him from this specific zone soon afterwards.

But what, according to Jesus, is the difference between sheep and goats, after all in many middle eastern countries, sheep and goat are grazed together and isn’t Jesus described as the Good Shepherd? Indeed, yes, but he is the shepherd of sheep not goats, with many biblical references to this fact. From Psalm 95 for example, ‘For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’

If you were also to look at the habits of each creature you can begin to distinguish the traits that help us to see why Jesus vilifies these particular cloven-hooved creatures

In some parts of the world sheep and goats can look almost identical, so it’s nothing to do with appearances. However, sheep graze, that is they prefer to eat grass as well as peas and pulses and clovers, things that grow close to the ground. They eat what is rich in nutrients and tend to be more selective in what they consume.

They also are more gregarious, preferring to stay together in large social groups; and should one become separated from its flock they will become very agitated and nervous, and as a result, may die. They need a pastor – hence the parable of the lost sheep.

Goats on the other hand like to eat the tender leaves of the tress, cutting off the tips and preventing their natural development. They eat the leaves, suckers, vines, stems and shrubs, even undergrowth – basically they eat it all – and can rise up on their hind legs to reach the highest vegetation, and although they are not discreet in their eating habits, which may seem like an advantage, it turns out to be a disadvantage because much of what they consume is low in nutrients

They are also very agile, independent, and very curious. They can survive entirely in freedom, adapting to the environment without real need of a shepherd.

‘For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’
Psalm 95:7

So, having briefly outlined some of the habits and differences that exist between goats and sheep, it would be perfectly reasonable to consider whether, spiritually speaking, we are sheep or goats; a question that is not directly answered in this passage. However, we are told that the decision will ultimately be up to Jesus.

What is clear from the text is that neither the sheep nor the goats recognised the king at all when they were either doing, or refusing to do, the acts of kindness and compassion described. It would also seem that what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is not the capacity to discern Jesus in the person in need, but the willingness to do the deed despite this.

Which begs the question about how much of what was done to the people in need, was a conscious act, done to, or for, Jesus and how much was an instinctive action taken in response to need, however or whenever we encounter it . What appears to be more praiseworthy, is the instinctive response to human need and not the act done, or not done, on the basis of whether a person was deserving or not, nor even whether we were doing it consciously as our Christian duty. What matters is our openness to respond compassionately to human need.

Individually and corporately, we are called to help those in need, and we cannot ignore the plight of human beings suffering hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, sickness, or imprisonment. We join with others to find ways to come alongside those who lack the basic necessities of life that we may take for granted. If Jesus’ words in this passage are taken seriously, more may hang on our charity than we realize.

But in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, we are looking at humans being redeemed and saved, and humans being condemned and lost, and a casual reading appears to suggest that salvation is the result of good works – the sheep acted charitably, giving food, drink, and clothing to the needy which seemed to result in salvation, whilst the goats, who showed no charity are damned.

This is incorrect, because Scripture does not contradict itself, and the Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches that salvation is by faith through the grace of God and not by our good works. From St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast’. In fact, Jesus himself makes it clear that the salvation of the sheep is not based on their works—their inheritance was theirs ‘from the foundation of the world’ long before they could ever do any good works!

Consequently, the good works mentioned in the parable are not the cause of salvation but the effect of salvation. As Christians, as we become more like Christ, the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control overflow into good works, which result from our relationship to the Shepherd.

Therefore, followers of Christ will treat others with love and kindness, serving them as if they were serving Christ himself. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was famous for being able to see Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor, but she did not gain that awareness overnight. It took years of continuing to care for them until God gradually opened her eyes, and she saw it was literally true: She was caring for them not as if they were Jesus, but because they are Jesus, in whatever disguise it pleased him to assume.

Amen

Called To Be Saints

All Saints, Elizabeth Wang © Radiant Light

A sermon written and preached on All Saints Sunday, 1st November 2020 based on Matthew 5:1-12 and 1 John 3:1-3

This morning we celebrate All Saints, a time when we remember all those who have in one way or another been exemplars of the Christian faith; people who have somehow rose above the humdrum of life and shine out as beacons of commitment to the Christian message… Of course, the most famous saints are known for their deeds that have been written about over the centuries. They appear in the bible and chronicles, as leaders of communities and popular figureheads.

Our own East window depicts a large body of saints from the time of Christ throughout the life of the church. You may notice that not one of them is a woman, although women have been saints since time immemorial! However, I would suggest that this window reflects more accurately the patriarchal society of the Victorian age rather than a sleight on the ability of women to be called saints.

Even so, they stand before us robed in nobility and transformed in glory. Near impossible models of distinguished sainthood and yet their histories are based on living out the attributes that Jesus revealed, not just with his closest group of disciples, but to a crowd of ordinary people on the side of a hillside; people like you and me.

Here was Jesus’ call to us to live the Gospel, by putting into practice in daily life the beatitudes, to demonstrate meekness, mercy, righteousness, justice, purity and peace. ‘Blessèd are the peacemakers… although Monty Python’s film the Life of Brian would have had us believe it was the cheesemakers!

Pope Francis has written that, “Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the beatitudes,” which are “the Christian’s identity card.” He asserts that “If anyone asks: what must one do to be a good Christian?” then “the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Developing and exhibiting these characteristics, direct each of us to be more saintlike, a calling that Paul highlighted was possible to the people of Corinth, Ephesus and Rome, all of whom he wrote were, ‘called to be saints’. So, it follows that we are all called to be saints, to be witnesses to Christ, but there are many ways of bearing witness and many ways to be blessed.

Earlier this year Dave Walker and Jayne Manfredi produced a very clever cartoon for the Church Times. It was entitled ‘Beatitudes for a Global Pandemic’ and whilst the nature of cartoons is to make us smile, they often hold truths beyond the humour.

Here then are eight beatitudes in a form for our current situation as we move back into lockdown and need God’s love and presence with us even more through this continuing time of uncertainty.

Blessèd are the teachers, for they remain steadfast and constant in disturbing times

Blessèd are the those who stay indoors for they will protect others

Blessèd are the single parents, for they are coping alone with their responsibilities and there is no respite

Blessèd are those who are isolated with their abusers, for one day – we pray they will know safety

Blessèd are the hospital workers, the ambulance crew, the doctors, the nurses, the care assistants, and the cleaners, for they stand between us and the grave, and the kingdom of heaven is surely theirs

Blessèd are the bereaved, for whom the worst has already happened, for they shall be comforted

Blessèd are those who are alone and isolated, for they are children of God and with him they will never be lonely

Blessèd are all during this time who have pure hearts, all who still hunger and thirst for justice, all who work for peace and who model mercy. May you know comfort, may you know calm, and may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.

Today we remember all the saints, but don’t forget that they are still here and that they move among us each and every day. They are you and me when we answer Jesus’ call and bear witness to his love

Blessèd are those who believe, for they are a comforting presence in a hurting world as they continue to signpost toward God

Amen

Matching God’s Generosity

Yesterday, in between showers, I took Molly dog for a walk in the park and I noticed these beautiful leaves that had fallen to the ground. When I found them they were still glossy and supple and felt full of life. But this morning they have begun to dry and fade and will eventually become lifeless.

Of course, whilst they were still part of the tree, they created and stored energy, from the water supplied by the tree, the carbon dioxide supplied by the air and sunlight – microscopic sugars. This energy was then shared with the tree to build up its branches and produce more growth and leaves – a perfect example of giving and receiving, of mutual generosity

However, once a leaf becomes separated from the tree, all of its stored energy is useless, its beauty begins to fade, and you are left with nothing except a mulch for the garden or crumbly dust.

We too can be full of energy and life, have more than enough reserves to sustain our way in the world, and plenty of opportunities to share what we have to make a difference, but if we keep these things to ourselves, storing up treasures in ever increasing amounts then we become like these leaves. We will have broken that connection to the source, and that mutually beneficial relationship that enables us to grow and flourish will have been severed; our riches will be worth nothing more than the likelihood of becoming someone else’s rich compost.

The saying, ‘you reap what you sow’ comes in many guises throughout the bible, from proverbs and psalms, prophets and parables, but the underlying message is clear, the amount you receive is equal to the amount you give and vice versa. In our New Testament reading, Paul is reminding the Corinthians about the principles of Christian giving. Giving is like sowing seed: what you get is linked to what you give. In Christian giving both the thought and the attitude count. We are reminded that God is the greatest giver. He provides in all kinds of ways – in crops and food and spiritual gifts. His greatest gift being to send his only Son, Jesus, to be the Saviour of the world

The Corinthians, like us, will discover that by changing their attitude to giving that they themselves will receive more. They, like us, will be enabled and encouraged to be generous, both now and in the future. This will be a harvest of praise to God when people see his grace in their lives. So, more than ever we need to give generously, willingly, and cheerfully, of our time, of our talents, of our resources; because what we will receive back will be so much more

But wait, haven’t we heard this exhortation to be more generous so many times before. Haven’t we for a moment taken stock and reviewed what we already give in time, talents and resources and decided that we can say we are giving in at least one of these ways very generously so surely that counts?

I wonder though if God takes stock and reviews his generosity or does he simply pour out more blessings in abundance hoping some will at least try to match him.

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance,
so that by always having enough of everything,
you may share abundantly in every good work.
2 Corinthians 9:8

Time, talents, and resources, it should never be a case of which one should I choose to be generous in…

Generosity of time should not be counted in hours and minutes, but being willing to offer enough time and more, so that things can be accomplished that will benefit not only ourselves but others too.

Generosity of talents should not be scored by the ability to outshine everyone else as the star of the show, but by sharing those skills to enable everyone to rise to their full potential

And generosity of resources should never be about percentages. If you have sufficient then the rest is a surplus, which might just be the necessary amount to provide for those with little or nothing.

As Christians and church members, we carry within us the seeds of faith, seeds that are to be sown to enrich each and every life that comes into contact with our own, to make those connections. God generously supplies the water, the spirit and the light and we are called to convert that into a generous life-giving energy. This is grace and it is freely given, is inexhaustible and unextinguishable.

This is our generous God, let us be his generous people. Amen

A sermon for Harvest Festival based on 2 Corinthians 9: 6-15 and Luke 12:16-30

Denying Ourselves

 

Photo Credit: Werner Volmari / Unsplash

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity based on the following readings:
Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-end

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

I have recently found out the rather wonderful news that one of my daughters, Lizzie, is expecting and I am to be a nana for a second time. Everything is progressing well, although it’s been hard on her husband Lewis as he has not been able to attend any of her scans with her, which could have been a bit scary if the news were not so good.

However, a blood test has revealed that she has gestational diabetes, the news of which came just as she had enjoyed a piece of homemade cake, so no more treats for a while. Hopefully, she will be able to control this by denying herself some of the more sweet things in life and although it will be a minor hardship she will change her lifestyle for the benefit of her unborn child – a necessary form of suffering.

Suffering you may say… suffering…. is that really suffering? Well suffering means to undergo pain, distress or hardship and it can be physical, emotional, or mental. It can be as simple as not getting what you want or as tough as living with a terminal illness. Whatever level of suffering it might be, it was the one thing that Jesus told his disciples both he and them and those that came after would face in one way or another.

Alongside this they were to ensure a change in their lifestyles to that of self-denial, defined as ‘the willingness to deny oneself possessions or status, in order to grow in holiness and commitment to God’. It is an essential part of our Christian life to renounce our egos, where we are the centre of existence (which, lets be honest, goes against our natural inclinations) and recognise instead that Jesus is our true centre.

Carol spoke last week about Peter’s naming of Jesus as the Messiah as a pivotal moment in his story, and we can see that from now on there is a distinct change of mood. Less of the teaching in parables and more about warnings of what lies ahead for him and his followers.

Once again it is Peter who resists the idea of such a thing happening, but even Peter himself was soon to come to understand exactly what was required. The disciples had already showed what it meant to step away from the life that they knew, to go out into a world that is sometimes so diametrically opposite to what Jesus was teaching and to see this through to the bitter end.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me. “

The idea of self-denial is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, that ‘‘When Christ calls a man (and you can substitute woman here), he bids him come and die’. This is the ultimate act of selflessness but through denying ourselves each day, our life in Christ grows, strengthens, and develops more and more. Christ now becomes our life.

So, what does that life look like? Well Paul, in his letter to the Romans outlines what the Christian life might look like with this new way of thinking; a complete contrast to the idea of community put forward by the empire. In the community of Christ, people are called to honour each other, whether they are the wealthiest, highest status members of the group or the lowliest workers and migrants. Love is not to be measured or mechanical, but genuine, joyful and from the heart.

There is to be no more sycophancy and toadying to those more prominent in society in order to get ahead – Uriah Heaps there were to be none! Instead we are to look in completely the opposite direction – to the needs of the poor, offering hospitality, a meal, work if we have it, anything to make people’s lives better. And the streets of Rome could be pretty lawless in those days, so it made sense to align yourself with the Roman ‘mafia’ and give as good as you got. Again, not so says Paul, instead you should offer a blessing to those who persecute you, don’t repay evil for evil, live at peace and leave the wrath to God.

Paul’s way of imagining what self-denial means should be no different nowadays if we are to be part of Christ’s community. It is sometimes a hard path to walk and can lead to personal suffering, and there is no doubt that from time to time, like Christ, we will stumble under the weight of the cross we are being asked to take up. But it is also the only way to life.

The promise is that those who commit themselves totally to Jesus will, one day, see his glory and be welcomed into his kingdom, and if we’re lucky, we may also glimpse his glory in this life as well.

Amen

Whom Shall I Fear?

Whom Shall I Fear – Psalm 27:1

It always seems strange that we should be told to ‘fear’ God, but there is a real difference between being afraid of and fearing something. This difference is explored in my sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity and can be heard here or read below. The reading is Matthew 10:24-39

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

I wonder, what are the things that frighten you? Some people are afraid of the dark, others of creepy, crawly things, others of seemingly illogical inanimate objects, such as buttons or patterned carpets. Most of the time we can live with these fleeting moments of panic when we encounter these things, because our challenge is to put these ‘fears’ into perspective.

A few years ago, when I was sat 15,000 feet up in the air, with my legs dangling out of the door of a light aircraft, strapped to another human being whom I had only met about half an hour ago, relying on strips of canvas and silk panels to prevent me from plummeting to earth at speeds of up to 300 miles an hour, I was filled with a sense of fear for a brief moment, but logic told me I was in safe hands – this wasn’t my tandem partner’s first jump, everything had been checked and they knew what they were doing. Also, God knew what I was doing

There is a great difference between being afraid of something and fearing something. The former keeps us alert and aware of actual or perceived dangers, the latter works on our mind and conscience to allow us to make choices to mitigate what we might be fearful of. This morning’s gospel, therefore, continues Jesus’ message to his disciples of the challenges they will face in the coming days, weeks and years and reminds us of those same challenges that we face as disciples of Christ.

The passage starts though with a reminder that we don’t always have all the answers out of our own intelligence but need to emulate those considered to have a greater knowledge and understanding. I’m guessing though that the word that hits slap bang into our consciousness when we read the first verse is the word ‘slave’. We need to appreciate why Jesus should be so casual using this as an example. Here we have Jesus talking about slavery, which in this current time can be a divisive point of contention, and whilst not dismissing or condoning the abhorrent practice, we have to accept that slavery was just one circumstance of everyday life in Jesus’ time. Historically we have to acknowledge that this did happen and at the time was conventional, which is why Jesus is using it to highlight a disparity of power.

What Jesus appears to be saying is that until we gain knowledge there will always be those who have a position of power over us, but the good teacher passes on their learning in a way that empowers the student, the good employer seeks to build up their staff do the work to the best of their ability and both will inspire others to grow and even overtake them in knowledge and understanding

However, the ‘head’ of a household in which there is abuse, deceit and sometimes evil will simply wish to subjugate those under their control and deny them a chance to find freedom from fear which stifles their growth. If they choose to condone and uphold this way of thinking that is their choice; and shamefully, we have to acknowledge that it is very difficult for those who do break out of these situations without becoming unjustly tainted with the broad brush of prejudice. Fear is often the thing that holds them in thrall

‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered,
and nothing secret that will not become known.
What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light;
and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops’. 

To understand who ‘them’ refers to, we have to go back to last week’s gospel, when Jesus was warning his disciples about the coming persecutions they were to face, when they would handed over to the authorities, flogged and denigrated, betrayed by those they loved, brother betraying brother. They were to endure all of these things in order to achieve salvation, but it would be a fearful, uncompromising, itinerant life, but one which would eventually reveal the truth.

Nearly all of the original disciples would pay the ultimate price of having their lives cut short as they died at the hands of those who misunderstood the message they shared, who felt their authority was being threatened, who did not have respect for the value of a human life. However, it was their faith and their fear, not of humans but of God, that enabled them to bear this. That leads us though to question why we should ‘fear’ God, who after all is the essence of love.

The Jews, were certainly aware of this need to fear God, but knowing this did not mean that they forgot about love or that it was the greatest thing, but that they were sure that in relation to God there was both fear and love. Listen to what the psalmist says,

‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him’. Psalm 103:11-13

But we do not have to fear God in the way that we fear a tyrant or dictator, but it is a fear of awe and reverence and therefore provides us with the security that our souls and bodies will not be destroyed.

Neither the Jews nor Jesus ever attempted to sentimentalise the love of God; God is love, but God is also holiness. This reverent fear also brings reassurance for those who are willing to be disciples. From Proverbs (14:26-27), ‘Whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death‘. God’s omnipotent power over life and death is tempered with the amazing revelation of our worth to him. The knowledge that God doesn’t let a sparrow fall without his knowing; who knows every hair on our head, and counts us as of more value than some birds that are sold in the marketplace two a penny, reassures us that God knows the temptations and dangers that we face in our life when we choose to acknowledge and follow God’s call to take his message into the world.

Just like Jesus was warning his disciples that they faced opposition and persecution, when we ‘preach’ the gospel either in our words or lives, we shouldn’t be surprised that our reception is not always met with enthusiasm. After all why should we expect a better reception than Jesus himself received? But fear of opposition should not be a reason to give up. We can feel afraid when we hear of fellow Christians suffering in many parts of the world, who are being persecuted for sharing their faith, but we can also uphold them in prayer. We can feel tension when we hear of divisions in families caused by firm stands on religious principles, but we can also pray for better understanding and a respectful peace.

Our fear of God should actually be an encouragement; to those that are faithful there is the ultimate divine reality of life. To those that deny it, there will be retribution. The fact is that our relationship and duty to Christ has to have priority over every other relationship, which sometimes means having to embrace a way of hardship, even of death

As we proclaim in the words from Deuteronomy (10:12) ‘What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul’, being a disciple of Jesus is a challenge, but the weight of your personal cross will never be too heavy for you to bear, even if sometimes it can seem so. With God, our fear should be based on the consequences should we fail to follow the teaching and guidance that he has given us through Jesus, and fail to trust that he has our back when we faced with dilemmas and situations that sometimes seem beyond our control

For what are we to be afraid of? The darkness; when we can’t see a way forward? The unknown, when we don’t understand what’s happening? The loss of love, when we feel rejected? Within our darkness there is light, within our confusion, there is clarity, within our desolation there is comfort. And in all of these we have one thing that we can hold onto with certainty, the love of God.

God is the ultimate person to be revered, God is the ultimate person to hold in awe, God is the ultimate person to trust with our lives. All others will fall short. When we choose to pick up the cross of Jesus, yes, we will be afraid from time to time, but ultimately it will be our fear of God that will secure the final victory over everything else.

Amen

Fear God’s Holiness In Awe And Wonder

Normal or New Normal… It’s All Just Normal

Whatis

What is normal? This Thought for the Week for St James’ church explores what normal is at this time, what a new normal might look like, and how this is influenced by the early church when normality was turned on its head

You can view the video here or read the transcript below

I wonder how many times you’ve heard the word normal lately. At the beginning of lockdown there was a great hankering to get things back to normal as soon as possible. When it emerged that this was unlikely to happen for some time, we began to wait patiently for things to be normal again. In the meantime the things that we were being asked to do, such as stay at home, stay alert, maintain social distancing, wear masks, don’t wear masks, wear masks, began to become quite normal things to do. People then began to talk about a ‘new’ normal.

Now this idea of a new normal is not itself new. The Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, Martin Percy, recently pointed out in his blog ‘that pandemics have always re-reordered society’ and that following the Great Plague of the 1660’s, when over a 100,000 people, almost a quarter of the population of London died, that a ‘new normal’ emerged and society invariable re-boots itself when these type of seismic events happen.

This may well be what is happening at the moment when we look at the bigger picture, but it is also happening with each of us as individuals. Our normal is changing and it probably won’t be changing back.

If we consider what normal is, then we can see that it is simply to conform to a standard, something that is usual, typical or expected. As a society we have agreed either consciously or subconsciously the rules and laws for normal life. But for me as an individual, my normal will not be the same as your normal. My likes and dislikes, my experiences and my understandings, my prejudices and beliefs do not necessarily conform to what your idea of normal is; nor yours to mine.

Of course, the Christian faith has always embraced changes to normality. After all, a Trinitarian Godhead, a virgin birth and miraculous resurrection are not necessarily normal. For individuals too; think about a fisherman called Simon on a lake in Galilee; a name changed; a career changed, a personality changed; a heart changed – what did his normal look like? How many times did his normal become something new.

The beginning of the Christian church was in the hands of a small group of men and women, but the events of Pentecost that we have recently celebrated and the coming of the Holy Spirit, changed the lives of thousands of people, who in turn have changed the lives of millions. It turned normality on its head.

They only had to remember that Jesus said, ‘This is what I want normal to look like. I want you to respect differences, I want you to abide by the law, whilst challenging injustice, I want you to do all you can to ensure that the poor and the disadvantaged are cared for with dignity, I want you to look at everybody with the same reverence that you have for me, I want you simply to love each other.

If throughout all of these recent events we have begun to detect that our normal has changed, and actually what we have learned is that there is chance for a better normal now, then we should welcome it. If normal is now to slow down, to appreciate relationships and friendships more, to reach out to serve our neighbours in practical and emotional support, to comfort those who mourn, to act with more kindness, then let that become our normal.

Then perhaps there won’t be a need for a ‘new’ normal, because we will have already made it so.

We end in prayer

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Those who have God
Find they lack nothing;
God alone suffices.

St. Teresa of Avila

 

Link to Martin Percy’s blog
https://modernchurch.org.uk/martyn-percy-a-plague-of-numbers

Spiritual Tagline

The Promise of the Spirit

There are plenty of taglines going about at the moment, so maybe it might be appropriate to have one for the Church. This and other thoughts are explored in this sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2020

Reading: John 14:15-21

A recording can be accessed here or the transcript follows below

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

If you love me, you will keep my commandments’.

I suspect all of us have at one point or another walked past a sign on a building or an object that said ‘Wet Paint. Do not touch’? I wonder, were you able to walk straight past it, or were you tempted to touch it a little bit – just to see if…? ‘No harm to try’, we might think, but if your fingertips or your hands came away covered in sticky paint, you would have to live with the consequences for some time and possibly be embarrassed and annoyed with yourself.

For logical reasons, most of us are happy to follow the instruction. We know that paint is a liquid that takes varying degrees of time to dry, we know that paint is very viscous and sticks to anything it comes into contact with, we know how hard it is to remove paint from our hands, our hair, our clothes, so we weigh up the risks and decide it’s better to obey the rules.

So what’s the difference between a rule and a commandment? Everyday life is filled with rules and commandments, none more so than at the moment as we look to find ways to control and eradicate the Coronavirus. The phrase, ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ sounded very much like a commandment (only couched in ‘government guidance only’ speak) and it was fairly easy to understand and obey, with the majority of people complying with the request). Now, as we attempt to restart our economy and everyday lives, we are given a different kind of edict. ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’.

Yes, there are still rules, but how those rules are applied it very much up to our own interpretation and common sense. Now that this is no longer sounding like a commandment, we are given the choice as to how we obey, and some people are finding this hard. Ways are being sought to ‘bend’ or interpret the rules in a way that gives personal advantage. People are asking, ‘Why can’t we just go back to doing exactly what we want to do’? ‘Why are other countries allowed to do certain things that we can’t’? Starting a shift away from the ‘we’ to the ‘me’.

Of course, not all rules make logical sense. We’re still not allowed to meet up with our families from other households, yet we could now be employed by them as cleaners – as long as the vacuum is switched on at all times and the tins of Pledge are weighed before and after visits to check sufficient sprayage has been achieved!

But all of this misses the point. If we are to continue to love and care for our families and friends, for the vulnerable and disadvantaged within the wider community then we need to follow the rules, to obey the commandments.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments’.

There are 281 instances of the word ‘commandment’ in the bible. From the blessing of Abraham in Genesis, ‘Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws’ through the ‘big ten’ commandments given to Moses (twice) in Exodus, the many commandments of what was required of the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness to the promised land given in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, to the rebellious disregard of God’s commandments in Chronicles and Kings.

Finally to Jesus’ reiteration of the value of God’s commandments, before his declaration that there were really just two commandments that mattered and which encompassed all of the others, ‘Love God with everything you’ve got and likewise, love your neighbour as yourself.’ In doing just this we shouldn’t find it that hard to follow the ‘rules’. If Jesus did it, then we should do it; if Jesus said it, then we should say it; if Jesus showed love, then we should show it.

Yet Jesus knew that following these commandments and the rules of everyday living was not going to be easy; but if the disciples and in turn, ourselves were prepared to show that our love for him meant that we were willing to do so, then we would not have to face the inevitable struggles alone. As he prepared to return to be with his Father in heaven, he would send someone in his place. Someone who would be a helper, a comforter, an advocate. This person would be with them forever after and he would reveal the truth about Jesus, and about God to everyone who loves them and wants to know them.

The Spirit of truth, a sounding board when we are trying to work out what we should do or say, a conscience tester when we are indecisive about what the right thing to do is and who acts as a mediator when we find that we have made the wrong decisions and want to ask for forgiveness.; and a confidante when we were are struggling with our faith.

God know what each of us is dealing with in our lives. Whenever we feel confused or alone, we simply have to remember that we have been left the wise and comforting Holy Spirit, the third person of the indivisible Trinity… so clearly illustrated by this passage when Jesus declares, ‘I will not leave you orphaned, I will come to you’.

The Spirit that abides with us and in us just as the Father and the Son do, ‘On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’. The Spirit that empowers us to respond rightly. As Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Holocaust survivor puts it, ‘Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments’.

Whether they are rules or commandments, I believe that those rules are there to help us to be the best people we can be and that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom so that we can stay on the path that God has for us. Maybe by following those rules we will find peace and contentment. But even greater than this, it will be love that will bring us closer to God. It should be our love for him, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that reveals to both us and the world around us the love that he has for all people who are willing to see him and know him. So, let’s all be patient for a little while longer.

Stay true

Reveal God’s Love

Save Lives

Amen

Simeon’s Farewell

This evening, the 5th Sunday of Easter, as part of our worship outside of church during the Coronavirus, Evening Prayer is offered in the style of Iona. Taking the Gospel reading for Evening Prayer, Luke 2:25-32 we can imagine that this moment was Simeon’s farewell. The whole service can be seen here, but a transcript of the mediation is below

Simeon’s Farewell

I am a firm believer that God accomplishes all things according to his will. Yet the one thing that we desire the most to be accomplished is that the Messiah will come to us. For surely when he comes this long-standing era of the law and the prophets will be complete and will pass away as a new era is ushered in, and we will rejoice!

Even so, my days are numbered, age wearies me, and my eyes are growing dim, so perhaps it is not to be in my lifetime. So many times, within these sacred walls have I felt the Spirit of the Lord surround me, like the swirls of incense burning on the altars, whispering promises in my ear that he is coming… he is coming. Still, like the smoke ascending to the heavens, it’s hard to grasp hold of the truth in that.

 Nonetheless, there is a frisson of expectation in the air. It’s not my usual day to visit the temple, but I felt compelled to come this morning. As usual the crowds are jostling and pushing through the gateway, some voices loud and demanding, others chattering excitedly, unsure where they should be going. It is then that I spot them. The young couple standing still in amongst all of this bustle and hubbub. The woman holding a young baby in her arms, close to her body as if this disturbance would wrestle her precious child away from her; surely their first-born.

 Before I could move, I realise that they have spotted me and are making their way deliberately in my direction. I stand still and wait. Without them saying a word the child is proffered to me and as I take this small bundle of humanity into my own arms I am struck by the firm unwavering gaze that connects us, young and old, wise and innocent, master and servant.

 

Then I feel something welling up inside of me and I hear my own voice bursting forth out of my mouth; people nearby stop at this unexpected exclamation,

 ‘Lord, today you have kept your promise to me that I would not die before the revelation of your chosen one, whom we have waited for with such longing. This child, born among us, comes unannounced to your temple, but his presence here shouts of salvation for us all, for Jew, for gentile, for the whole of humankind. Oh, that I have been blessed to know that through him you will bring glory to your chosen people, which leaves my heart and mind at ease so that there is nothing more needed in this your humble servant’s life but to wait for your calling me to the future eternal kingdom.’

 This verbal outpouring suddenly leaves me feeling exhausted and I am conscious of the full weight of the child, who still lays in my arms; a heaviness of soul within the lightness of his frame. This glimpse of sorrow would be nothing compared to what I perceive he will achieve and so I pass him back to his mother. Let our salvation begin today!

Stillness

Stillness in the Garden

As part of our offerings during the Coronavirus Pandemic the Ministry Team at St James’ Church, West End are each offering a Thought for the Week. Here is mine taking the theme of stillness and the need for a ‘me’ space

You can either watch the video or a transcript is below:

I wonder if you’ve managed to find your ‘me’ space yet?

At this time when we are all practising social distancing; being separated from our wider families and having to stay at home, it can be difficult to find a space in our homes in which we can just simply be still. A space in which you need do nothing but sit, not to feel the need to pray or to read or to do anything that involves taxing your brain. Perhaps you’ve found your ‘me’ space in a spare room, or a comfy corner or in a shed at the bottom of the garden. For me, it is a bench in front of my fishpond. It is a sunny spot, but also a peaceful one, with the sound of running water as background music and the graceful goldfish to watch gliding through the water. For me it is a perfect spot in which to be still.

For many of us that very element of stillness is one which has been conspicuously lacking in our lives up until now. We have been taught that we should be busy and productive, and we have all but lost the art of being still. Now it’s about listening; about compassion, and about faith; but mainly about stillness, because, so many of us have been forced to be still because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. The places where we worship are closed, the places where we work are shut and we are being asked to socially distance ourselves, to stay away from people and places other than our homes.

As we face this epidemic, the most important thing required of us is stillness. We have needed to stop going places–to church, to school, to work, to anywhere. We have needed to stop congregating. And that means that we have all had to slow down; because if we don’t, people will die. The logic of compassion and human connections demands that we do this one thing, and that one thing is nothing. And it is really hard.

What we can find though is that in this stillness comes faith and in faith comes stillness. Psalm 46 (v10) has that well-known verse calling us to do just that, ‘Be still, and know that I am God!‘ These lines connect stillness to faith, and this is what gives stillness its power. The Psalmist does not simply mean belief in God, or even a sure knowledge of God’s existence…faith in this context means trust – the knowledge that God is competent. Of course, it is very easy to be glib when giving advice like this – ‘Just let go and trust God’.

Nobody is telling us not to worry about Coronavirus. We should all worry about it because it threatens some of the most vulnerable people in our society. We should worry about it, and that worry should lead us to… stillness. Because being still is the best way to protect our loved ones–and to protect millions of people we do not know. So, we do the only thing we are required to do and that is to be still and listen.

The author Annie Dillard, has a wonderful quote from her book, ‘Teaching A Stone To Talk’ – ‘Whenever there is stillness there is the still small voice, God’s speaking from the whirlwind, nature’s old song, and dance…’ and it is these voices that we never hear except when everything is silent, they only reach us as a moment of revelation in the stillness. They are the voice of the Holy Spirit, who is never far away from any one of us, their voice as Psalm 19 tells us about the heavens, is that ‘they have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’ These ‘words’ that will come and go unnoticed unless we learn the grace of being still.

Whenever there is stillness there is the still small voice,
God’s speaking from the whirlwind, nature’s old song, and dance…’

And we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about taking this time out. It’s so easy to be made to feel guilty that everyone else seems to be constantly involved in ‘good’ works. There is undoubtedly a great need for us all to look for ways of helping our friends and neighbours at every opportunity, but we can’t let that altruism overwhelm us. We only have to look to Jesus as an example of someone who gave all that he could to others, and yet frequently took time out to recharge his batteries – from Luke (5:16), ‘the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their illnesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’

Of course your ‘me’ space will get interrupted from time to time, the telephone rings, someone suddenly needs you to do something or the children start arguing, but those few precious moments of stillness should be enough to set you up with the strength to face whatever comes.

So, I hope you manage to find your ‘me’ space, whether indoors or outdoors. And if it rains… well there’s still the opportunity to stand looking out of the window and watch the rain fall, refreshing the earth.

So let us pray a prayer of St Benedict:

O 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 mediate upon you,
And a life to proclaim you;
Through the power of the Holy Spirit Of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

So go well and God bless

Pooh’s Thotful Spot is interrupted

 

 

Faith – By Sight? By Touch?

The Eagle Lectern at St James’ Church, West End

A recording made of an informal talk for a Service of the Word for St James’ Church, West End during the present Coronavirus Pandemic whilst our church door are locked. A transcript of the talk is printed below as well.

based on the following readings:

Psalm 16 – The Golden Secret, A precious song engraved in gold by King David
from The Psalms – Poetry on Fire (Passion Translation© tPt

1 Keep me safe, O mighty God
I run for dear life to you, my Safe Place.

2 So I said to the Lord God,
‘You are my Maker, my Mediator, and my Master.
Any good thing you find in me has come from you’

3 And he said to me, ‘My holy ones are wonderful,
my majestic ones, my glorious ones,
fulfilling all my desires’

4 Yet, there are those who yield to their weakness,
and they will have troubles and sorrows unending.
I never gather with such ones,
nor give them honour in any way.

5 Lord, I have chosen you alone as my inheritance,
You are my prize, my pleasure, and my portion.
I leave my destiny and its timing in your hands’

6 Your pleasant path leads me to pleasant places,
I’m overwhelmed by the privileges
that come with following you,
for you have given me the best!

7 The way you counsel and correct me makes me praise you more,
for your whispers in the night give me wisdom,
showing me what to do next.

8 Because you are close to me and always available,
my confidence will never be shaken,
for I experience your wrap around presence every moment.

9 My heart and soul explode with joy – full of glory!
Even my body will rest confident and secure.

10 For you will not abandon me to the realm of death
nor will you allow your Holy One to experience corruption.

11 For you bring me a continual revelation of resurrection life,
the path to the bliss that bring me face-to-face with you.

and Acts 2:14a, 22-32 and John 20:19-31  

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Can we simply believe what we see? I would say yes, most of the time. Even so, sight can deceive the brain because after all isn’t that what we call magic? We only have to think of magicians who have claimed to have made whole buildings disappear, such as David Copperfield and the Statue of Liberty, and the people there as witnesses at the time would have sworn on their lives that it really did happen – they saw it with their own eyes.

No don’t get me wrong, there is no suggestion of magic taking place in any part of our gospel this morning, or indeed in any part of the Easter story, but sight and witnessing are at the heart of it – except there was one who despite all of this wasn’t convinced – he doubted.

A few weeks ago, I spoke about worrying and how it wasn’t helpful, in that it can produce fear; may be a bit like the fear some of us might be feeling at the moment because of the necessary self-isolation and social distancing; and what fear does to your mind is that it leaves you doubting, it paralyses your thoughts. This sort of doubt is definitely not helpful. It’s the thing that stops us from doing the things that God is calling us to do. As the psalmist said, ‘You are my Maker, my Mediator, and my Master. Any good thing you find in me has come from you’

‘You are my Maker, my Mediator, and my Master.
Any good thing you find in me has come from you’
Psalm 16:2

Doubt, therefore, can stop us realising our true potential when we think, ‘I doubt God would want to know someone like me’ – yet we forget that we are exactly as God created us to be in all our diverse and different personalities, blessed with a variety of gifts and talents

On the other hand, doubt can be a useful, self-check tools – giving us a moment to pause and to consider. Perhaps Thomas was right to say, ‘hold on a minute, I not only need to see this for myself, but I need to have physical evidence as well’, because surely the physical always trumps the visual? So, when Jesus appears a second time he offers this opportunity for Thomas to confirm his physical presence – that he was not just some holographic projection. Yet in both of his appearances it doesn’t record that any of them reached out and actually touched Jesus. On the contrary, Thomas immediately answered Jesus’ offer with a firm declaration, ‘My Lord and my God’.

This was pure faith, the same faith that enabled Peter to later step forward and point out to the crowd that King David was undoubtedly dead and it was his faith that led him to boldly and unflinchingly declare ‘we all are witnesses that Jesus rose from the dead’.

We all are witnesses that Jesus rose from the dead
Acts 2:32

Oh, that we would be so bold, the ones that have not seen and yet have come to believe. How though are we to convince people about the truth of the resurrection? If we go back to that first encounter that the disciples had with Jesus, we can actually see that his main concern is not to provide proof of this. The first thing he offers is reassurance that its really him and the disciples rejoice – but Jesus moves swiftly on – his purpose isn’t to linger on the miraculous fact that he’s risen from the dead, but rather to enable the disciples and us, through the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive and to be able to discern when it is called for. He is inviting them and us to extend the same Peace he spoke to them in that locked room, to begin to share that in faith with others, to start others on that journey of discovering the truth for themselves.

Yet how can we do this when our own faith journeys can often be full of ups and downs. There are times when our faith runs deep and there are times when doubt threatens to take over. The fact remains that we simply cannot force anyone else to believe – indeed we can not even force ourselves to believe. Faith comes only and always as a precious gift – but it is helped by being surrounded with others who carry and hold that gift of faith as lovingly as we do.

Whether our faith runs deep or shallow we can still live as one who believes, bearing witness in our words and actions to the truth that Jesus lives because God brings us ‘a continual revelation of resurrection life’. Sight may be fallible, the physical may be convincing, but as John declares in his purpose for writing these things down, it is the written word that is something tangible, to provoke thought and reflection, to come back to time and again, to give us better understanding through our experiences to show something in a new light.

Fear can be overcome; doubt can be set aside, and faith and belief are the keys to life in all its fullness through the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen