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

 

 

The Arrival Of A King

You could hear him coming before you could see him. Except it wasn’t him who was making any noise, it was the crowds that ran alongside, or reached out to tear branches from the roadside trees to wave in exultant hosannas. Or who threw down their cloaks to carpet the well-trodden road, but which couldn’t prevent the swirls of dust rising like pillars of clouds announcing the presence of God.

When he did come into view, there didn’t seem anything remarkable about his appearance. A young man astride a donkey; a kindly, slightly bemused expression on his face, and hands strong enough to wield chisel and mallet resting gently on the neck of the colt, who bore his burden lightly.

Yet his rebuttal of those authoritarian voices who grumbled at the disturbance was spoken in a voice that did not need volume to command attention. He’d leave the crying out to others and the reverberant city walls.

So this was him, the one we’d been waiting for, the one on which all our hopes were to be pinned? The one who would stir up a revolutionary freedom and turn the known world upside down?

Here was our King… the Messiah… entering triumphantly into God’s earthly city.

As the muffled sound of the donkey’s hooves faded away, so the dust settled and everything seemed to return to normal, just one more Passover festival to celebrate or was it? Something deep inside me stirred and I wondered what the days ahead might bring. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

Don’t Worry… Be Happy?

Sermon based on Matthew 6:25-34 and Romans 8:18-25

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

I was listening to a radio interview the other day in which it was mentioned that one of the most played songs recorded as background music in shops and pubs and shopping centres was a certain record by Bobby McFerrin. It becomes a kind of earworm and I’m sure you know it, and as we’ve warmed ourselves up with a couple of hymns, so I’ll sing the first couple of lines and you see if you can sing the two lines that come next…. okay, don’t leave me hanging! Also you need to imagine me singing with a slight Jamaican accent!

Here’s a little song I wrote…. you might want to sing it note for note… don’t worry…. be happy! [If you wouldn’t have known the song then here is a version of it on YouTube]

Well done, and that’s one less thing for me to worry about, as to whether any actual notes would come out of my mouth or whether you’d even recognise the song. Because it’s a fact that we worry constantly about so many things.

As children we worry about friendships in the playground and at birthday parties whether there will be enough chocolate fingers to go round. As teenagers our worries increase about how our bodies are changing and the likelihood of passing our exams. Onto young adulthood as to whether we will ever be attractive enough to attract a partner or attract society’s criticism if we choose to stay single.

And the worries don’t stop there, add in mortgages, career advancement, starting a family, financial insecurities and it’s a wonder that any of us make it to our advanced years, when the worries return about our health, bereavement and loneliness.

This morning’s gospel passage is upfront with a command from Jesus to not worry about our lives, our physical and outward appearances and our reliance on ourselves. It comes towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and is part of a series of four passages that are all to do with earthly treasure, about not storing it up, about the need for generosity, looking to serve God instead of mammon and with not being anxious about material needs’

Matthew is talking about the focus of the heart, especially around service – but in doing so this naturally brings a sense of human insecurity; lots of buts and what ifs. We may have to work to earn money, but we don’t have to worry. How many of us today had to worry whether there was food in the cupboard for breakfast or didn’t have a choice of what they were going to wear. The frantic pursuit of food and drink and clothes is a sign of insecurity. It’s a lifestyle chosen by people who don’t really know God or who even want to.

For those who do want to know him better, Jesus says that we must learn to trust God and we are reminded that those who undertake the hard demands of the gospel have a Father in heaven who gives good gifts to his children. What really counts is God’s kingdom – if we put God and the kingdom first then everything will follow – and find its proper priority and place

As Paul recognises in his letter to the Romans, ‘that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay’, read self-destruction, ‘and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ concluding with ‘if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience’ – patience bringing contentment – contentment bringing happiness.

So, the answers simple, right… stop worrying and we’ll all be happy; but as my mother would often remind me, that’s easier said than done. Perhaps then, its more about changing our attitude to worrying that will bring about a change in our state of mind, in which we are more able to understand better how to deal with those worries. Or perhaps true happiness lies in seeing those worries for what they are.

The primary cause of worry or anxiety is fear, whether it is real or perceived. Apparently, Winston Churchill once said, ‘I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he’d had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.’ Therefore, we should be asking ourselves, are they worries or are they concerns? Because it’s okay to be concerned about your work, to buy insurance or to save for a rainy day, as long as you make time to enjoy simply being alive. It’s okay to be concerned about your cholesterol or blood pressure because you can do something about it such as watching your diet and exercising. It’s okay to be concerned about your child who is misbehaving because you can then take prudent action and administer discipline as necessary. There is a big difference between concern and worry… Concern focuses on probable events and takes action, whereas worry focuses on improbable events and doesn’t do anything productive.

In fact, it can be quite destructive.

Firstly, because worry cancels out faith and the message of the gospel. When we are obsessed with our worries, we are telling God that we don’t trust him. Instead, when we only trust ourselves, our hearts will turn away from God and we won’t see the good when it happens. Our choices will cause our hope to dry up; nothing will grow in our lives. The word worry itself comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word that means to choke or strangle, we only have to think about the parable of the sower when Jesus tells us about the seed that fell among the thorns which choked the plants to death. Having faith and trusting in God inevitably produces a positive attitude, when we have confidence in God we become firmly planted, thriving in life.

Secondly, worry itself causes health problems. It’s the kind of worry that makes you ill – physically and emotionally. It can paralyze us. It can cause an intense amount of fear and anxiety. It causes us to be less effective – more hesitant. It can be described as worrying about things we cannot change, about things we are not responsible for, things we are unable to control, things that frighten and torment us and keep us awake when we should be asleep, things that drain the joy out of our lives.

So often, we anticipate the negative so much that it destroys our peace and minimizes our effectiveness in the present. As someone once said, ‘If you’re tempted to worry, remember that a raisin was once a happy grape’… in the same way worry tends to shrivel us up and make us ineffective. Having faith instead gives us a positive outlook, a positive attitude that fills us with hope and allays our fears because it asks how are we to be defeated if we have God in our lives?

The final reason as to why we shouldn’t worry is because it accomplishes nothing. We can’t change a thing by worrying. In fact, Jesus says that it is a waste of our time, ‘Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?‘ He says that worry is futile; it’s pointless, it’s fruitless.

Accordingly, it’s all down to changing our attitude and outlook. Jesus tells us that the reason that we obsessively worry is because we are worldly-minded. We’re more concerned about the things of this world than we are with the things of God. When we change our perspective, the things of this world don’t seem so overwhelming. Why get so entangled and worked up with the things of this earth when they’re not going to last?

He also says that instead of struggling with obsessive worry we are to live one day at a time, ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘When you follow me, everything will suddenly be wonderful’. It’s a fact that we live in a fallen world. Our actions as humans effect the environment around us. There will still be natural disasters, there will still be diseases like cancer. We may still face financial hardships and people will disappoint you and even be disrespectful to you – even your children. But worrying about tomorrow only takes away from the energy that you need to live today.

We serve a God who spoke the universe into existence, who showed his love for us on the cross at Calvary, who proved his power over sin and death when he rose from the grave. So, I’m pretty certain that he can handle our worries and in doing so help us find the ultimate state of happiness.

Amen

Sermon on the Mount by Jorge Cocco Santangelo

Standing Together

Sermon preached  on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day based on Psalm 27:1-8, Matthew 4:12-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 and using resources provided by CCJ (Council of Christians and Jews) for their 2020 theme of ‘Standing Together’.

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

Tomorrow, the 27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day and its theme this year is ‘Standing Together’ in remembrance of victims of the Holocaust, and the liberation of prisoners from Auschwitz some 75 years ago. We are called quite simply to stand alongside the Jewish Community and with those of all faiths and none, in commemorating the Holocaust, which implies action, commitment, and solidarity. Challenging concepts in a world where an agreement about unity is hard to discover in so many ways.

But try we must… I wonder, if like me, you like to read the words of the Psalm as the choir are singing them? The psalms themselves were written as songs, but they contain a great deal of poignant and resounding poetry with many situations in life. Take verse six for example:

Now my head is lifted up
   above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
   sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord

Urban legend has it that the great Jewish violinist, Itzhak Perlman, was once performing to a packed theatre on Broadway, when one of his strings unexpectedly snapped with an audible twang. The audience held its breath, expecting the end of the performance or, at the very least, a break whilst a new instrument would be found. But, Perlman didn’t bat an eyelid. He proceeded to do the impossible – to play the rest of the concerto almost flawlessly on three strings. In explaining the extraordinary feat after the performance, he is said to have remarked: ‘sometimes in life, you have to make music with what is left.’

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, picked up this idea of making music with what is left in an address to the CCJ – the Council of Christians and Jews, when he pointed out that “None among us can begin to imagine how survivors must have felt as the Nazi regime eventually crumbled and they finally found their freedom. The sense of hopelessness and betrayal must have been overwhelming. There was not (and could never be) any rule book or prescribed structure for how people should rebuild their lives, having had every element of their humanity savaged.

If one Holocaust survivor had somehow summoned the strength to overcome his or her ordeal and live a happy life, it would have been extraordinary. That so many survivors made it their mission to use their experiences to positively impact the world around them, is nothing short of a miracle. You have to make music with what is left”.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch – Cellist in the Women’s Orchestra at Auschwitz

The fact that there was a remnant left was also down to the inspirational courage of other individuals, who, despite being faced with multiple political, social, cultural and physical deterrents, found ways in which to offer a lifeline to some of those caught up in the Holocaust. Pushing their differences aside and standing together against tyranny and evil.

In what is also a week of Prayer for Christian Unity, our readings this morning, although not directly, but unsurprisingly, speak to just these issues. In our gospel reading this morning Jesus has returned from the wilderness, with news that John has been taken prisoner, and realising that before he has even uttered a word of the message he was to preach and teach that his persecution had begun, enough that he felt it expedient to leave his home town and go further north, away from the authorities in Jerusalem to live in the north Galilean town of Capernaum.

Matthew also manages to tell us that this will fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy about the ancient land of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, both named after sons of Jacob, the Patriarch and founding namesake of Israel, and their mention is particularly poignant because at the time that the gospel was written, these two tribes had been lost to history for more than 750 years. Originally annexed to the Assyrian empire they had been subjugated by Babylon, Persia, the Seleucid empire and finally Rome, but the people of Naphtali and Zebulun were not forgotten.

Likewise, today, by standing together in Jesus’ name, we must be committed to remember other people beloved to God who were lost to history, but who are not forgotten. Remembering 750 years on, not just these 75… action, commitment and solidarity

The urgency of the need to stand together, is also expressed in Jesus’ calling of the first disciples. A matter so important that there was no time to for internal decision-making or hesitation in their response, the point was to rise and follow at once. We too, must turn from indifference and apathy and rise, follow and act, because if we wait for other’s braver than ourselves to speak out then we permit grave injustices to occur.

The image of the first disciples leaving their nets is still appropriate. Imagine if Jesus were looking to put together a group of people today whom he knew would eventually take over his work and deliver his message for people to turn back to God. You can bet that on top of twelve men there would be at least as many women and children, people with disabilities, homosexuals, trans people, Muslims, Jews and those of other faiths. Just as Jesus called his first followers, so today Jesus calls ordinary people – you and me – in faith, to set aside our tasks and rise to ‘stand together’ in action, commitment and solidarity.

Because faith begins when a group of people come together when they all believe something about a divine being. Last week in Church Alive we tried to come up with five statements that could hold true for all of us whoever we are. Apart from the fact that we were all alive and breathing, there were three other statements that felt right, the first that, ‘God is love’, the second that ‘God loves us’ and the third that ‘we are all children of God’. Whatever faith or none you might confess, we believed these to be true, something everyone could agree on.

Even so, our reading from Corinthians, paints a different picture of what was happening in the early church, where divisions were already appearing, so much so that Paul was appealing to them in Jesus’ name that they ‘should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose’.

I personally struggle when Christians exclude people because of their gender or sexual identity. I struggle when they espouse theologies that broke no argument and lead to exclusion of those they disagree with. I struggle when people regard people of other faiths as being represented by a small section who advocate violence and hatred. I struggle with these things. Maybe you disagree with me, but I personally don’t think this is what is means to be a Christian.

Disunity among the leaders and nations of the world, stifles a crying need for the kind of outrage demanded against acts of genocide and other injustices, and disunity within the people of God produces dismay among the hopeful, and allows poverty and human distress to take the place of the joy of restoration. Holocaust Memorial Day is a special opportunity to quietly reflect on the dispossession of God’s human family so totally, and there is a challenge to pray that the present dangers we all see in our personal, social and political life may be prevented, so that the evils that have been experienced within our time will not be repeated.

Following Jesus, rightly remembering the Holocaust, overcoming Christian anti-Judaism: these are not one-off actions. The work to which Jesus calls the Church is a long road that demands daily tasks of healing, justice, and hope. In Matthew’s gospel, that work is carried out under the wider promise of God’s ongoing commitment. As Jesus’ disciples did, there will be times when we falter and stumble. But, standing together, we are strong enough for this journey, for action, commitment and solidarity

Returning to the words of the Chief Rabbi, “We live in challenging times. Hate speech and hate crime are on the rise. Respect for difference appears to be declining. Our society is becoming increasingly polarised. So, what should our reaction be? To fight fire with fire? To match the hateful rhetoric with invective of our own? I believe that we should look to the heroes of the Holocaust: both the survivors and the righteous saviours. We should not be intimidated or cowed. If they were able to make music with what was left, surely we can as well.”

The music of Holocaust victims deserves to be heard loudly and clearly and we need to pick up the strain and add our own voices because if we don’t the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem will echo in the silence:

First they came

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

The Holocaust is now 75 years – a lifetime away, and the time when there will be no more survivors left to share their experiences draws ever closer. So today and every day, let us resolve to remember the past, commit to the present and dare to look to the future with hope as we stand together. Amen

 

 

Evangelism – Keeping It Simple

Never be afraid of being evangelical – it’s easier than you think! A talk for Evensong based on Acts 13:13-41 and Isaiah 5:8-30

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

I don’t think we every truly appreciate the work of St Paul, his indefatigable zest for spreading the gospel, the distances he travelled to do this and the toll it must have taken on both his mental and physical well-being.

This evening we meet Paul right at the beginning of his ministry, on their first missionary journey., Having been recruited by Barnabas who saw in the ex-persecutor a person with sound teaching for the growing church, Saul and Barnabas return to Antioch from Jerusalem, after being sent by the church to deliver alms there, and along with John Mark, travel to and across Cyprus, to reach Pisidian Antioch.

And what a cosmopolitan bunch of companions they must have made. Barnabas from Cyprus, Simeon from Africa, Lucius from North Africa, Manaen who was brought up with Herod Agripa and Saul from Tarsus in Cilicia. When Jesus sent out his disciples in twos it would be good to think that he paired them up carefully and the two leaders Barnabas and Saul, although being completely different from each other, do have complementary gifts.

Saul an active, single-minded and intellectually sharp individual and Barnabas a more relaxed and accepting character, generous and affirming. However, they were to fall out over John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin, whom Saul regarded as a coward and deserter; but who knows, maybe he was just homesick or resentful of Saul being so bossy, and who leaves them at this point.

Whatever the reason we see Saul taking over the lead from Barnabas, and Luke, the writer of Acts has also only just told us that Saul from this point on will be known as Paul. A Jew by birth and also a Roman citizen, travelling now almost exclusively among Gentiles, it is natural that he should use his Roman name.

However, it is to the Jewish synagogue that they make their way on the Sabbath, being the quickest way to meet people of their own kind, who read the scriptures and worship the one true God, and Paul is invited to say a few words of exhortation after the scriptures have been read.

His Jewish audience may not have been fully aware of the underlying mission and so he gives them a potted history of the Mosaic Faith starting from the Exodus, thorough Judges and Kings, leaping to John as the forerunner of Jesus, to Jesus himself, his treatment at the hands of the Jerusalem authorities, his death and subsequent resurrection, confirmation of the Good News promised by God, with a warning, just as the people of Isaiah were being warned of the consequences of their actions, that they could choose to ignore at their peril!

And we bring you the good news, that what God promised to our ancestors
he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus
Acts 13:32-33

Luke goes on to say that Paul’s message excites great interest, with requests to hear it repeated, while others become hostile. By the following Sabbath, the Jewish leaders in Pisidian Antioch have publicly rejected Paul and thus a determination to reach out almost exclusively to the Gentiles is borne.

This interaction with people who should be prepared to at least consider the truth of what Paul was saying, begs us to ask what does it take to convince someone about the good news of Jesus and how should we go about it?

Perhaps you simply need to tell stories – it’s a start, because if you don’t hear or are told about something then how can you know about it? But stories can be made up and depending on who is telling them you may get a different version of events and ‘facts’ How can you tell if its fake news or not.

Maybe autobiographies give us as close a true story you can get, but it is still subject to what they might want to tell you. Far better then to have an account of first-hand witnesses. Even then these may differ as we each of us look at things from our own point of view and pick up on some things and not others.

What we all need to be is more evangelical, and before you raise your eyebrows and throw up your hands in horror…. horror or praise?… take a moment to consider what that word really means. What makes us so afraid of the idea of being more evangelical. At its very heart it simply means sharing the message of God’s love and hope.

Forget standing up in a pulpit and preaching to the converted majority. Reach out to all those who will ‘hear and see the good news through your words and actions. How you speak to and treat people, how you live your lives, the relationships you form, the love that you show to both friend and stranger. Each of us can tell our own personal story, all that is needed is to be ourselves in all our saintliness and sinfulness.

So as we spend this time in Advent watching and waiting may we do all we can to offer people the chance to be amazed and not cynical, to complete the mission that God started, that Paul advanced and which we are called to continue until Christ comes again. Amen.