Chosen For A Reason

Sermon preached on Sunday 9th May – Easter 6 based on the Gospel, John 15:9-17

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

You did not choose me, but I chose you

What does it feel like to be chosen? Well looking back on those days at school when you all stood in a line in a PE lesson and two of your classmates had to take it in turns to select their ‘teams’ and you either had to be very good at sport or very popular, and you could see the level of both criteria dwindling as you still stood there till the bitter moment of being the last one standing, so not technically even chosen, just making up the numbers, it wasn’t really something you really knew about!

Of course, you knew the hurt of not being chosen, but today we hear Jesus confirming that the diverse and disparate group of people that he had gathered together were not there because they had chosen to follow and believe in him, but that he had chosen them, and in doing so he was continuing a long tradition that we can see throughout the bible and throughout the history of the church. Unlikely people chosen to accomplish extraordinary tasks.

The fact is God does not play favourites among his people, however, through the Old Testament we are made aware that God does designate the Israelites, the antecedents of the Jewish people as his ‘chosen people’ as they were the ONLY ones at that time to obey him in lieu of other gods. In Deuteronomy (7:6) it says, ‘For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.’

However, with the coming of Jesus, that specific favouritism was, if not to be laid aside, was undoubtedly to be extended to a wider group. Instead, being chosen was to be based on faith, not on genealogy, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him’ (Romans 10:11-12)

So why would he choose you or me? Maybe some of us might be extraordinary and totally obedient to God, but I would suspect that the majority of us are pretty ordinary and fall short some of the time, yet God still chooses us; and thus, it has ever been.

If we go back to Genesis, we can find many examples of ordinary people being chosen by God for extraordinary tasks, people like Noah, Abraham and Sarah, but perhaps the most surprising at that time is the story of Joseph, the one with the multicoloured coat, beloved son but hated brother. Who rose from captured slave, unjustly accused prisoner to Pharaoh’s right-hand man, who helped Egypt prepare for a great famine. Why? Well God had a plan for Joseph, as he told his brothers when they were reconciled, ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today‘. Joseph was chosen by God to preserve God’s chosen people. 

We can then fast forward to Moses, whom God also chose to preserve his chosen people, and to free them from slavery in Egypt. Unwillingly abandoned as a baby, then brought up as a prince by Pharaoh’s daughter; as a young adult he saw his people being beaten, and retaliated by killing an Egyptian and had to flee to Midian until he was chosen by God to confront Pharaoh and lead God’s people to freedom. An unlikely choice, who stumbled over his words and needed his brother Aaron to speak for him, but who turned out to be the perfect choice, because God intended it to be that way. 

Perhaps though one of God’s most astonishing choices was David, a talented poet and musician, slayer of giants (okay that’s pretty amazing) but an adulterer and inciter to murder who became a great leader; but most of all, a man after God’s own heart. Chosen by God to be king.

God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved
Colossians 3:12

And of course, we mustn’t forget people like Mary, a young teenage virgin from a small town, who would become the mother of God’s son. Such an unexpected choice. But Mary had a remarkable faith, an open heart, and a willingness to do whatever God asked of her. She turned out to be the perfect choice, but only God could have known that. 

There are countless examples in scripture of people being chosen by God, who had no other real qualifications, except that they were selected by God for these tasks, and the same was true of Jesus’ choices of his disciples. Fishermen, tax collectors, political activists and a suspected thief, not a religious leader among them. No experts in God’s teachings, no scholars. If anyone were asked to pick a team to plant a new church nowadays, I don’t think these would be the professions that would feature high on the job specification. Yet for the disciples they had one thing going for them, Jesus chose them.

And they needed to be reminded, when full of fear, anxiety and confusion after Jesus’ arrest, of that conversation in that upper room; of his command to love one another and to remain in him; and the fact that Jesus chose them. They didn’t choose him. He chose them – those particular people, after prayer and discernment, to continue to bring his love into this world, and to bear his fruit, fruit that will last. They may not have felt particularly qualified to do this, or very confident that they could pull it off. Except for one very important thing: Jesus chose them. 

How many times, I wonder, would they need to come back to that assurance? The times when they were ignored or laughed at, hated and persecuted, imprisoned and some of them were even killed? How many times did they remind themselves that God’s own Son chose them, and he chose them for a reason?

The disciples were chosen by God for a particular purpose. But they’re not the only ones. The fact is each and every one of us has also been chosen by God for a particular purpose in this world. We know this because as Paul tells the Ephesians, we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world; and to the Colossians, we are ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.’ 

Of course, we all have our moments of doubt. Moments when we wonder what on earth are we are doing with our lives; what are we really here for; and it’s good to sometimes ask ourselves these hard questions. Because if we dig deep enough, we will hear those words that God’s people have heard from the very beginning, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you‘. We have been chosen to bear the fruit of God’s love in this world, and to bear it in a way that no one else can. 

And what an important time it is for us to bear the fruit of God’s love in this world. We can keep reminding ourselves it’s been a tough year, how our world has changed forever by the pandemic; the economic challenges, the rise in mental health issues, and a decrease in hope for our future. but perhaps you and I have been chosen by Jesus, for just such a time as this. Our world needs healing. Our world needs hope. Our world needs to be reminded of God’s love for us all.

If ever there was a time for the church to be the church, it is certainly now. And we are the church.

The words that Jesus spoke to those first disciples, he speaks to every one of us today: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you to go and bear fruit.’ So may God bless us and help us as we step out in confidence to bring the light of Jesus into our world, and to bear the fruit of his love. Amen

Chosen For A Reason – Gospel and Sermon, St James’ Church, West End, Southampton

Breathe Out… Breathe In

Sermon preached for Easter 2 on Sunday 11th April 2021 based on readings Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-end

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

Are you sitting comfortably…

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out.

I’ve recently started using an app on my phone which teaches basic meditation as a way of slowing down a little and making space for quietness from time to time.

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out.

The first thing it makes you do, apart from sitting comfortably is to focus on your breathing and suddenly you realise that you’re consciously thinking about something that you subconsciously have done all your life.

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out.

You find yourself with your hand on your diaphragm, trying to make sure that your stomach and abdominal muscles are fully engaged to make your lungs work more efficiently – and it’s then you begin to think that you’ve actually forgotten how to breathe…

Yet breathing is the thing that keeps us alive: it’s the reaction to the proverbial slap on the bottom by the midwife when we are born; it’s the air passing through our larynx to give us speech and laughter. It’s also the last thing we will do when we face the end of our mortal life. Breathing is a natural and necessary part of creation, but it is also a means by which God imparts his Spirit.

Throughout the bible we hear how the breath of God enlivens and invigorates. From the second account of creation in Genesis,

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being’
Genesis 2:7

to the quickening of the dry bones and Ezekiel’s prophetic command to the four winds,

So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies.
They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army’
Ezekiel 37:10

However, in our gospel reading this morning we hear that the risen Christ comes and stands among his amazed and probably terrified disciples and breathes on them both as a soothing and galvanising action, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

He then says something that seems a little disjointed in verse 23, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ However, there is a connection.

In Greek there are many different words for breathe, but two of them appear just four times in the gospels and all of them are an action of Jesus and all of them are connected to the Holy Spirit.

At the crucifixion scene, Mark tells us that Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last, and that the Centurion witnessed that in this way he breathed his last; whilst Luke tells us that it was after committing himself into this Father’s hands, that Jesus breathed his last. In all of these verses the Greek work for breathed is ekpnéo meaning to expire, to breathe out, to exhale.

However, Matthew’s account doesn’t mention breathing, he has Jesus crying out with a loud voice before yielding up his spirit, using the Greek word aphiēmi, for yield, which has a number of meanings but most commonly means to forgive. Luke also uses this word just before Jesus’ last breath when he tells us that Jesus says,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Luke 23:34

We could reasonably surmise that Luke and Matthew are connecting the breathing out of the Spirit with the forgiveness that Jesus gave. So, Jesus forgave us and breathed out the Holy Spirit on the cross.

But let’s go back to that locked room and the next time that breathed is mentioned in the gospels. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ However, breathed here is a different Greek word emphysáō , which means to breathe into, breathe on, or blow in and echoes the action of God in the story of creation. Jesus breathed out his Spirit on the cross. But here he is breathing out his Spirit onto the disciples, because he is sending them as the Father sent him, to bring life and peace to everyone by forgiveness of their sins.

This then is the purpose of the Holy Spirit, to provide life, to energise and to activate. Just like those disciples gathered together, they had now received the Spirit and were being transformed into a people who sought to live and work for the common good, who valued forgiveness as an essential grace and who through the Spirit gave their testimony with great power, no longer afraid and no longer doubting.

What then of Thomas? The absentee disciple, whose doubt would not be satisfied unless he had physical proof and who did not at this time receive the breath of the Spirit. For him the sense of touch activated his belief, but he too would go on to receive the Spirit at Pentecost.

What then do we need to believe? There’s a wonderful verse in the Book of Job,

But there is a spirit within people,
the breath of the Almighty within them,
that makes them intelligent
Job 32:8

This does not necessarily mean academic or clever, but more intuitive. Life is breathed into us at the moment of conception but there is an unconscious desire to understand what it means to be fully human.

When we encounter Jesus, whether through our baptism, a gradual awareness or a seismic moment of conversion it is then that the Spirit within us is activated and becomes a living breathing force that blesses us and sends us out to bless and bring life, peace and forgiveness to others.

Jesus breathed out his Spirit on the cross. But, after the resurrection, Jesus breathes his Spirit into us. So, it’s worth getting that breathing correct

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out           

Amen

Initiating Universal Motherhood

Sermon preached for Mothering Sunday, 14th March 2021 based on readings John 19:25b-27 and Colossians 3:12-17

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

A few years ago, I sat through an interactive Mother’s Day sermon, in which one of the ladies sitting in the congregation was invited to come forward to be part of a demonstration of all of the things that ‘mothers’ need to be skilled in. It started with being asked to hold a multitude of items representing these gifts, including holding a baby, several pots, pans and cooking utensils, an upright hoover and progressed through chalk and easel, chauffeur’s hat, clown’s wig and nose, to steering wheels, first aid kits and judge’s wig, and more…

Of course, it gave an insight into the many and varied roles that mothers play, and apart from the gender role assumptions that were made, it left me thinking that being able to do all of those things didn’t necessarily make you a super mum… and vice versa, not being able to do some of those things didn’t make you in any way deficient as a mother.

The fact that gender does not have anything to do the skills leads me to think that proficiency does not define you as a mother

Without doubt, we should celebrate those women who have devoted their lives to doing all of those things for their children, they are indeed our superheroines, but, quoting Edna from the film The Incredibles, ‘no capes’ are necessary!

Motherhood is not just about the ability to bear children. For some the painful truth is that they are not able to do so, for others there is no desire to do so, and for some it is simply physically impossible.

So, the biological process of giving birth does not signify motherhood. What defines it more accurately is being the person that offers unconditional love and affection. The care, responsibility, behaviour and affection for a child is the true essence of motherhood. For a child, it is the person whom they will look for in difficult times, who can offer reassurance. It is the person who acts as their first mentor, who provides unconditional support, who acts selflessly whilst taking care of their own physical and mental health, but who is willing to provide firm guidance in the child’s journey in life and the struggles that they face in this unruly world.

Motherhood encompasses all the phases of life, hopes, dreams, acceptance, failures, disappointments, repentance and forgiveness. It includes perseverance to raise the child for upcoming life trials and to show the next generation, the various ways of life.

Today’s briefest of gospels exemplifies the nature of motherhood and familial relationships with its image of Jesus’ female followers being alone, bar one disciple, in offering a physical presence in his suffering; but also, in its fulfilment of Christian love.

For Jesus’ mother Mary, it is a bittersweet moment. As a mother she has raised her child, through the miracle of his conception; knowing, as a new mother, the prophetic nature of his life; watching as some of his siblings challenged and rejected him; the awareness that family ties are not the most important thing in life and now seeing her child die at a time out of sync with the normal rhythm of life and death.

Yet, Jesus shows that love is greater than blood ties as he initiates universal motherhood. ‘Woman, here is your son’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother’.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple
whom he loved standing beside her,
he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 
Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ 
John 19:26-27a

This was more than giving shelter to a woman, who may have been widowed; as she also had sons who would have been obliged to look after her. It is also more than a providing a mother figure to someone who would have had a mother of their own. This is the state of motherhood which Christians would come to recognise as being that of the church, in its broadest sense and which we recognise and celebrate on this Mothering Sunday.

Of course, this was to be the ideal and we have to acknowledge that the overall patriarchal nature of the church has not always lived up to this; but that shouldn’t stop us from making sure it does for the future.     

As I said at the beginning, motherhood depends on the care, responsibility, behaviour and affection that we have for others, and if we need a reminder of what that should look like then our reading from Colossians spells it out clearly.

At the heart of our relationships with others we need to act with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bearing with each other in times of complaint and offering forgiveness so that we can live in peace with each other. To share wisdom, good teaching and a firm hand of guidance. To be joyful and thankful for everything that we receive from each other and from God. But to above all love one another because that is what binds us together.

That then truly is motherhood, and today we celebrate and are grateful for it.

Amen

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