Repentance, Readjustment and Renewal

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2021 based on readings Isaiah 58:1-12 and John 8:1-11

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

Today is Ash Wednesday, a specific day in the church calendar on which we enter the season of Lent. A season that is dedicated to three things: Repentance, Readjustment and Renewal. A season that requires not one, but all three of these things to happen in our lives. A season which can last beyond the next 40 days (47 if you include the Sundays, which I think you should, to be consistent) into the future.

The first thing about Lent is the need to gauge a starting point. This involves a period of inner reflection on what we have done and said that requires forgiveness. It’s a way of clearing the decks or wiping the slate clean and putting ourselves right with others as well as God. The things that we do wrong, that go against God’s will and purpose are what we call sins, and there’s no real difference between the degree of sinfulness that we experience, the fact is we are all sinful.

For the women caught in adultery her sin was obvious, but it was the unobvious and unobserved sins of those who were about to launch their own form of physical justice who were restrained by their knowledge of their own sinfulness. In the same way, we are called to acknowledge our own sinfulness and to ask for forgiveness.

Just so with the House of Jacob, and God’s instruction to Isaiah to very loudly pronounce their lack of consciousness of their sinful behaviour. For them, as for us, the practise of faith is not in the rituals and laws, but in the knowledge and understanding of God’s way.

Acknowledgement of our wrongdoings is only the first step, the second is to change our behaviour to avoid repeating those mistakes, to turn away and to turn back to focus on God, to repent. For the woman in John’s gospel, there was no condemnation, but there was an instruction, ‘Go your way, and from now on do not sin again’.

If we do the same then we are readjusting what we need be like; and in doing so we can ask ourselves, what are the things that get in the way of us focussing on God, are there too many distractions in our homes, in our work and leisure, in the world around us. Some of us counteract this, during the season of Lent, by abstaining from some of the physical pleasures, but it’s often just a temporary abstention.

However, a fast is not really a fast unless some long-term readjustment takes place. The real idea of fasting is just that, to take our eyes off of the things of the world and instead to focus on God. Fasting is a way to demonstrate to God and to ourselves that we are serious about our relationship with him.

For the people of Isaiah’s day, it was clear that their fasting was never going to improve their relationship with God and was merely a cellophane cover that didn’t make any difference to their attitudes towards those they held responsibility over, and it was certainly not acceptable to God.

Of course, fasting is also about humbling ourselves and the imposition of ashes will serve as a visual reminder of our repentance, but the real difference will be in readjustments and choices that we make as our focus coincides with the things that God wants to focus on; injustice, relief of oppression, charitable provision and family harmony.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Luke 4:18-19

If we are in any doubts that these are the most important things on God’s heart then we only have to recall Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Nazareth, when he opened and read from the scriptures his mission statement, ‘to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim liberty to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind and to set free the oppressed’

When these things are our focus then renewal can take place; instead of gloom and darkness there is new light brought into our lives and into the world, and with God walking alongside us as our guide our lives are reinvigorated, and ‘parched places… shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose water never fails’.

For the adulterous woman, her encounter with Jesus brought about repentance, readjustment and renewal and the same would have been assured if the people of the house of Jacob had taken notice of Isaiah’s offering of redemption, and for us, this Lent or at any time, we too can receive this reassurance.

So, make this Lent not just a season of sackcloth and ashes but one that lays a strong foundation for ourselves and for the future as we look forward to the joy that will be Easter.

Amen  

The Light Shines In The Darkness

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday Before Lent based on the following passages – John 1:1-14 and Colossians 1:15-20

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

In the beginning was the Word… perhaps one of the most evocative starts to a gospel or indeed any scripture, where we are presented by a mystery. Of course, one would expect nothing less of John and whilst all four gospels can be said to be biographies of Jesus, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, ‘the Synoptic Gospels [i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke] are like photo albums, whilst John’s gospel is like a portrait’, and a portrait is something we can spend many hours standing in front of to try and gauge what the artist is trying to tell us.

In the beginning was the Word… John’s opening sentence echoes the opening words of the book of Genesis which firmly places the Word in creation, communicating God’s will and evidence that it is eternal and has always been at work throughout.

With its capital ‘W’ we can see that it is a title not a noun or a verb, and John identifies the Word as God in the person of Jesus; and although the term Word or the Greek Logos is not retained as a title in John’s Gospel beyond the prologue, the whole gospel presses the basic claim that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together are one God. Here is God present to his people and knowable to his people in self-revelation and redemption.

Accordingly, Jesus is the source of life and light for all people everywhere; but what of that light? God had sent an advance messenger in John the Baptist to provide testimony as to the true light. A light that will enlighten, educate and clarify God’s purpose in wanting to redeem all who will believe in him. A light that will dispel the darkness and evil that shrouds the world in so many places.

Certainly, over the last year we have seen a lot of darkness in the world; darkness that is more like an invisible fog that clings to bodies and minds. Yet the one thing that has kept many people going is a sense of faith that there is hope for the future. In amongst all that darkness a small flicker of hope has burned steadily, ‘and the darkness did not overcome it’.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it
John 1:5

And today, more than ever that small flame is burning even more brightly as we appear to be at a turning point in the Coronavirus pandemic, with the vaccine programme rollout and lockdown measures reducing the rate of infection. Yet, we can’t reduce God’s role to that of a single unextinguishable tealight!

However, the light is indeed eternal, and as mentioned, is a light that will enlighten people everywhere. It is a spiritual light, that awakens a response to the person of Jesus, but it is also a light that kindles in our heart and minds the knowledge and skills needed to bring light to others. 

In flashes of inspiration or eureka moments – from Archimedes in his bath; Newton under his apple tree and the scientists at AstraZeneca in their test tubes, to the light that shines out from people’s eyes in simple acts of kindness and love done purely for the benefit of others.

There is nothing that can stop this light from shining and yet people still choose, just as Jesus’ own people did, to turn away, to shield their eyes and fail to recognise God even when he walks among them.

And walk among them he did, which was quite extraordinary, that the Word of God, the agent of creation, should choose to become ‘flesh’, to become a human being, taking on our nature, with all its wayward appetites and frailties. But just like then, his death could not extinguish the light, and those who believe in him, whether then or now, all creatures of the original creation find themselves transformed through his blood on the cross into a new spiritual creation, as children of God, in which the light of Christ resides.

This then is the light that we all have within us as followers of Christ. Even so, for many people there have been times when the surrounding darkness has threatened to overwhelm us, unable to fully imagine the number of deaths related to the Coronavirus, the mental anguish of being parted from loved ones, the exhaustion, the rules, the sheer inescapable nature of the way we are having to live our lives; it all takes its toll.

Yet, the light still shines deep within us. slow and steady – we just have to allow it push away some of that darkness, to hand over our worries and concerns to God, to let him reveal the signs of hope and new life for each of us, just as he revealed his glory in the life of Jesus.

A ‘glory’ not as a radiant vision or dazzling light but in his sacrificial love for the world that revealed his true worth. Centuries before, Moses realised that God ‘is compassionate and gracious… abounding in love and faithfulness’ but it is God’s Son who is ‘full of grace and truth’. And it is through this Grace that the invisible God is never truly hidden but is always revealed in the perfect light of his son, Jesus Christ, the light for and of the whole world, now and forever. Amen

The Wisdom Of The Wise Men

Divine Wisdom by Shiloh Sophia McCloud

A sermon for Epiphany based on the readings Ephesians 3:1-12 and Matthew 2:1-12

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

What makes a wise man or woman for that matter? Is it having knowledge of many things? Is it using the knowledge you have to make wise decisions? I would say it needs to be both, after all knowing that a tomato is a fruit does not mean it will go well in a fresh fruit salad…. or maybe it would if you’re Heston Blumenthal!

Today Matthew gives us a beautifully compact version of the story of the wise men, no word is wasted. I say version, because there is an ancient manuscript, The Revelation of the Magi, but that is an apocryphal gnostic text, so let’s stick with the gospel.

These men have the knowledge that they have gained from studying the stars, researching their own texts and discerning what the appearance of an apparently new star might mean. They could have parked that knowledge there, recorded it for future generations to wonder if it were in fact, just the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn to produce a Great Conjunction that we could witness in 2020, for the first time in 800 years.

But then it wouldn’t have got the more familiar name of ‘the Christmas Star’. What they did was to use this knowledge to make a wise decision, to follow it and see where it might lead, and to come prepared to honour a child that was foretold to be the king of the Jews, a king worthy of homage and the travails of the journey.  

So, these were indeed wise men. Then I found this unattributed quote that says, ‘Wisdom is the perfection of knowledge of the righteous as a gift from God showing itself in action’. Surely in this story, here is wisdom as knowledge and wisdom in action.

‘Wisdom is the perfection of knowledge of the righteous
as a gift from God showing itself in action’

But what of wisdom itself? Over my desk, I have a lovely painting of a figure entitled Divine Wisdom, she is called Sophia, the Greek word for wisdom, and she is a central idea in Hellenistic philosophy and Christian theology. She appears in the Book of Proverbs, ‘Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice’ (Proverbs 1:20). However, she come into her own in one of the accepted apocryphal books which is often used in our lectionary of readings, The Book of Wisdom. She is described as, ‘more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior (Wisdom 7:29) and ‘She gave to holy people the reward of their labours; she guided them along a marvellous way, and became a shelter to them by day, and a starry flame through the night’ (Wisdom 10:17).

The Book of Wisdom, was written about fifty years before the coming of Christ. Its unknown author was probably a member of the Jewish community at Alexandria in Egypt and his profound knowledge of the earlier Old Testament writings is reflected in almost every line of the book; the first ten chapters in particular providing background for the teaching of Jesus and some New Testament theology about Jesus. However, its primary purpose was to convey the message about the splendour and worth of wisdom.

Accordingly, here too is wisdom as knowledge and wisdom in action.

In Jesus, the mystery of God was revealed, as Paul tells the Ephesians ‘In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5)’ and it was to those who not only gained this knowledge but who were to act upon it that wisdom was given, ‘so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities (Ephesians 3:10)’

So why should we, as the church and as individual seek wisdom today?

Well, there has been much over the last year that has tested us like never before. The free will that we have, to gain knowledge and learn and discover, means that we are much wiser about a virus that has threatened and changed nearly every aspect of our lives.

Wisdom and knowledge have led us to develop new medical devices, procedures and medicines as we have pooled that knowledge. Our governments and global organisations have had to gain wisdom and knowledge to understand what is happening and then to apply that knowledge in the wisest way possible.

Of course, there are always those who would say they have not always been so very wise, and hindsight is a wonderful thing; but whilst the foolish or unwise have developed conspiracy theories that frighten and disable, theories that can be debunked just as quickly as they spring up, wisdom enables us to recognise the difference.

Definitely then, wisdom as knowledge and wisdom in action

On an individual level, I think we have learned a lot about ourselves. Maybe things that have surprised us. We have experienced emotions and seen and heard things first-hand as never before in our lives, whether we are young or old, wise or unwise.  

However, as Christians we are privileged to receive God’s grace that gives wisdom. Our knowledge of God and our faith enables us to see his leading, to hear his guidance and gives us a heart of courage to journey faithfully and find our way even when the path may seem difficult and dark.

It also means that we are enabled to reach out and to bring light into the lives of those around us. To shine in the darkness by putting our knowledge of God into action – to make known the wisdom of God.

The star that shone so brightly some two thousand years ago, can still illuminate and reveal the way – the way that leads to a child, who would grow into a king. The king of the Jews, the king of all God’s children, the king of the past, the present and the future, the king of kings, the wisest king of all!

Amen

The Magi

The Right Man In The Right Place At The Right Time

San Juan Bautista, Alvise Vivarini, c1475

Sermon preached on the second Sunday of Advent 2020 based on the following readings 2 Peter 3:8-15a and Mark 1:1-8

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

We have a saying in our family, ‘Patience is a virtue, virtue is a Grace. Grace is a little girl who wouldn’t wash her face!’ It was often quoted when one or other of the children were eager to attain something sooner rather that wait. Of course, waiting when you’re very young can be a hard thing to do, especially if it’s something exciting that might be about to happen; but it’s no less hard waiting whatever your age.

In Peter’s letter he is faced with a congregation who are disillusioned and impatient by the non-appearance of Jesus coming in glory, definitely an event to be excited about. Even so, the ‘I want it now’s don’t get – they need to learn a little more grace. Instead he encourages them to live lives of holiness and godliness, to wait in ‘peace, without spot or blemish’. After all God’s time-relativity is different to ours. Except, there is still the need to be ready for the unknown moment of his return to the Earth.

But patience is not an attribute recognised by the writer of Mark’s gospel, as he takes us back to the beginning of the story. He starts off like a bullet train out of the station and to be honest never slows down or pause to take on water or fuel till the very end… an end that actually needed something added to it later!

His opening sentence is like a shout, a proclamation, a declaration of intent, ‘the beginning of the good news’. This is the gospel ‘of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, a word derived from the Anglo-Saxon term god-spell, meaning ‘good story’. No starlit stable, no paternity angst, no migratory gift bearers, just straight into the reason that he was here on earth amongst us – to redeem us for all time.

Nevertheless, his first appearance is heralded by an unlikely character, a wild man of the desert, clad in camel’s hair and sustained by a diet of kosher protein and wild honey (locusts are mentioned in Leviticus as a ‘clean’ food). John the Baptist certainly dressed like Elijah and was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah to be ‘the messenger’ who was preparing the people of God for the long-awaited Messiah.

But why was this messenger so different from the many prophets that God had send before? What was it about this man that was attracting people to come out into the wilderness from the region of Judea and Jerusalem to be dipped in a river as a sign that were re-turning towards God – a baptism of repentance.

Well, it had been about 500 years since Malachi had stepped off the earthly stage, and since then no genuine prophetic voices had been heard.  Without a prophet, people in the land began to divide into parties and groups, each claiming the right to interpret the scriptures and lead the people.

So, the time was ripe for the long-awaited Messiah to appear, even so we could ask why this was the moment in time that God chose to do so? What we do know is that he came according to God’s time schedule, as Paul states in Galatians, ‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law’ (Galatians 4:4-5)

And if we were to try and put forward a reason why it was a perfect time for the spread of the gospel, we might assume that the Pax Romana, a time of peace in the Roman Empire, and great road and water transport systems, allowed for information to be passed quickly. In addition, Greek was a common language with allowed the Gospel to be communicated to a wide range of peoples, although language is no barrier to the Holy Spirit.

Today’s technological advances in global communications might suggest that now would have been a better time to reveal the Messiah, but would people be prepared to go and submit to a need for repentance from an eccentric looking, religious firebrand in the wilderness of our city suburbs? Yet alone recognise and accept Jesus?

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years,
and a thousand years are like one day.

2 Peter 3:8

God always communicates with us in ways we can understand and twenty first century humanity has sufficient reason to believe in Jesus. That he chose to come some two thousand years ago does not change the fact that he came and fulfilled everything that the Bible had predicted. Two thousand years ago, people were ready and able to understand just enough to get the message across; after all for the Lord, ‘a thousand years are like one day’ so it was God’s perfect time for him to come to us.

But it was not to be in the way that most people expected. He would not be a military leader. He would not crush the Romans and set up a Jewish state. The true Messiah would seem utterly defeated before he won.

Yet win he would, and John the Baptist knew this. Although his water of baptism would physically and metaphorically wash people clean from their sins, the power and glory of Jesus would lie in his ability to immerse, plunge or drench people in the Holy Spirit (from the Greek word baptizo).

For us, this drenching means that we are forgiven and brought back into a proper relationship with God; we are blessed with powerful gifts to prepare us for service and for building up the body of Christ, and we are given hope for the future, whatever that looks like and whenever it happens

As Peter says, ‘The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.’ We can’t hurry time, but this Advent we can repeat our heartfelt wish – Maranatha – come Lord Jesus. Come amongst us and be with us once again and we will welcome you

Amen

Maranatha written in the Southwick Codex

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