The Arrival Of A King

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Worry… Be Happy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, it can be quite destructive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Sermon on the Mount by Jorge Cocco Santangelo

Standing Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First they came

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

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

 

 

Evangelism – Keeping It Simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reaping the Harvest

This weekend had all the elements of a traditional Harvest Festival at church. The autumnal colours of the flowers; an altar groaning under the weight of tins and fresh produce brought as gifts for the local foodbank; children singing upbeat harvest songs with prayers and blessings for the abundance of God’s grace within his creation. Our sung Evensong lectionary, however, reminded us of a different harvest to come.

Based on the following readings: Revelation 14:14-20 and Philippians 4:4-9

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

Our passage from Revelation this evening, at first glance or first listening, fits beautifully with the theme of our Harvest Festival today, an almost idyllic image of the harvest being gathered in for all is ripe and ready, at its peak of maturity. But the passage itself is actually plucked from a whole series of chapters and verses describing the Battle of Armageddon… So this is not some John Constable ‘hay wain’ moment but an eschatological vision given to John on the island of Patmos

Here we have two distinct and opposite images; a reaping of the grain and a gathering of the grapes. The first is a positive one of Jesus as the Son of Man, as he foretold his disciples when they asked him in Matthew’s gospel about the signs of the end of the age, sitting on a cloud, surrounded by angels, coming to gather the elect. Those humans who through God’s grace, have been chosen because of their faithfulness, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, a gathering of all who responded on earth to the Messianic message.

The second one a negative image of the judgement of the unrepentant nations and people. These grapes were not to become a wine of celebration, but to be gathered and then thrown into God’s winepress of wrath, a pressing that will produce rivers of blood ‘as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of about 200 miles’, which was roughly the length of Palestine from north to south.

Here is Jesus in all his power and glory, revealing absolute dominion over all of the nations, represented by his golden crown, who with one swing of his sickle, a single action, ‘reaps the earth’ and gathers the people of God instantly into the Kingdom. This is an action that suggests there is no judgement involved. The people who are part of this special harvest are those who have lived in the light of God’s grace…For all the others, as I mentioned in the second image, there is the gathering and then the pressing – a time of judgment and divine retribution.

Thus the response to the proclamations of the angels is left open to two final possibilities; salvation or judgement.

Better then to hope to be in the elect than in those who have ‘the mark of the beast on their foreheads’ (Rev 13:16). The verses before this reading, vv1-5, speak of the Lamb and the 144,000, who will be saved. However, we don’t need to take this number literally otherwise we’re going to be very few in number, but numerology in the bible was important, and this number is based on twelves. The twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles of Christ, now multiplied together a 1,000 times, symbolising the complete gathering of the faithful, from Israel and the Church, the ‘redeemed’.

Everyone, whom Christ has rescued from the power of sin and death by giving his life on the cross and who have committed themselves totally to him, living lives marked by self-control, honesty and a clear conscience.

For Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, a church he founded himself and who have always given him loving and generous support, he urges them to be united in their faith and to see Christ as the supreme goal of their life and mission. He writes this letter from prison, but his heart is free and full of joy, and this joy now breaks out.

He urges the Philippians (and indirectly all of us) to rejoice in the Lord, a joy that doesn’t depend on life always being good or feelings of happiness, but a much deeper satisfaction that comes from belonging to Christ and being united in his love and purpose. It is more fitting to be gentle, yet confident and prayerful as we await his coming. Anxiety must be turned into prayer; prayers of thanksgiving that God will return to us in the form of an amazing peace that comes when the love of Christ conquers and embraces all.

We are to fill our minds with good and beautiful ideals, that purify our imaginations and inspire our actions, so that we can live out the gospel in practical ways.

Paul speaks without arrogance, but as a true teacher – he practices what he preaches. If we then, follow his example, and have a perfect trust in God we can be assured that we too will find ourselves, not through our actions but through God’s grace, safely gathered, as part of the harvest, in heaven’s great garner store. Amen

Harvest Loaf

Replacing Law With Grace

from-law-to-grace

Replacing Law with Grace

There are times when the Law is important and there are times when it needs to be replaced with Grace; whether it is to make a point or whether it is part of the way we need to live.

Readings: Isaiah 58:9-14 & Luke 13:10-17

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

Let me start by asking you three questions, and please don’t think you have to confess anything out loud. Have you ever broken the law? If so what were the circumstances? Do you feel you were justified in breaking the law?

No doubt a great many of us can probably answer yes, I admit that I probably do it quite frequently when I exceed the speed limit, and a recent survey in the Telegraph newspaper found that ‘millions of people who declare themselves innocent law abiding citizens actually commit around seven crimes a week’, with the most common offences being speeding, texting or talking while driving, dropping litter, riding bicycles on the pavement, parking on pavements or not cleaning up their dog’s poo!

It seems that people are not at all bothered about committing what they consider ‘minor’ crimes, because so many people are breaking these laws that they have almost become legal. Even so, it still depends on what sort of law you may have broken. Was it a law established to protect people and uphold society, one that carried a defined punishment in breaking it? Or was it a rule created for a particular group for a particular time? And how is that law being upheld?

In Isaiah we hear about the exiles’ complaint about God’s perceived lack of response to their prayers. However, the basis of their worship is that of self-interest – what they can get out of it, rather than opening their lives to God’s presence with them and the promise of God’s grace to transform them.

The covenants and the Laws that had been handed down to them were not wrong or unnecessary, but were part of the journey that God was taking humankind on towards complete reconciliation. The Old covenants would be superseded by the New Covenant that was Jesus. They were not separate goals for each group of people to aim for, but one goal. The difference being between the journey and destination; between the interim and the ultimate.

God’s meeting with Moses on Mount Sinai was the supreme revelation of himself in the Old Testament. The laws, the rules, the regulations that were handed down were relevant to what was happening to people at the time – the food laws, the hygiene laws, the clothing laws,  the laws of possession, the laws of laws – all made perfect sense for an itinerant band of travellers to provide protection, both physical and spiritual. However, the physical can never contain the reality of God.

The perceived wrathful, vengeful, inaccessible character of God would go on to be revealed anew in the gloriously accessible person of Jesus. Condemnation would be swallowed up in love and forgiveness.

In this morning’s gospel our focus it not centred on God’s power to heal –the fact that the women was restored to full health was almost a given; just one of many examples we have of Jesus’ power to heal throughout the New Testament. Nor is it concerned with the importance or value of the Law – Jesus himself declares in Matthew’s gospel, that he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it; adding that ‘truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass form the law until all is accomplished.’

 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;
I have come not to abolish but to fulfil’
Matthew 5:17

The Law of Moses may seem irrelevant to twenty first century Christians, laws such as don’t shave your face, don’t eat shellfish, don’t do any work on the Sabbath, and we consciously choose to disregard them. Even so, the law still remains, and, it is the same God as then as is now that we follow. In many cases the laws remain right, but it is how they are being used that is the nub. Is the law being used as an instrument of condemnation or as an instrument of grace

In this particular narrative, those who use it to condemn are ‘hypocrites’, masquerading as agents of a gracious God while being nothing of the sort. Jesus’ action demonstrates grace, his power to heal and all the while bears the fruit of God being praised in the response of the woman. The action has led to the Sabbath being honoured.

Jesus was rebuked because he dared to heal on the Sabbath or Holy Day – an action that was considered ‘work’. If he’d waited till the next day he’d have been fine, but he insisted that no one’s suffering should be prolonged just for the sake of the law. If good can be done today then it shouldn’t be postponed until tomorrow.

The synagogue official was putting the system of law above the individual, but in Christianity the individual comes before the system and it is fair to say that democracy itself would not exist without Christianity. Civilisation has developed based on the relationship of the individual to the system. But all too often the social system takes on a life of its own and swallows up the individual. As the theologian William Barclay says, ‘Should those Christian values start to disappear from political and economic life then we can only look forward to a totalitarian state where people exist not for their own sake but simply for the sake of the system’.

This, therefore, is the big wide world in which we all have to live in, but what about the world within the church. How do we react to those whose only concern is that of Church governance, that consider the method more important than worship of God or service to others. Even more worrying is those who seek only to condemn because of a narrow-minded and blinkered interpretation of what God wants us to do rather than applying the grace that God offers to everyone.

The law doesn’t bind us to what we should  or shouldn’t do on the Sabbath or any other day. In fact the law shouldn’t be a bind at all. Laws are created  and upheld to protect us, to guide us and to enable us to make the right choices. And we do have a choice. We can ask ourselves is this something that is immutable or does my love and knowledge of God allow me to break or remove it all together.

Does our respect for the present position of the church on matters such as marriage, divorce, disability, homosexuality preclude us from recognising God’s grace for these situations and the individuals they affect.

When the law changes around us how do we react as Christians? Think of some of the things that have happened within many of our lifetimes. From the apparently mundane decision to allow shops to open and trade on a Sunday, to the well-considered remarriage of divorcees in church, the full inclusion of those considered disabled in some way, to the current impasse over the pain and suffering that has been and continues to be inflicted on members of the LBGTI community by certain Christian theologies and biblical interpretations. Where has the love and compassion that flows from God’s grace been in all of this?

If we honour God with our rituals so must we also honour God in our lives. So rather than break the law let us always instead replace it with the law of grace.  Amen

creation and grace

Sabbath Rest

Sabbath Rest

It’s really hard when you want to write about something that you know is a good thing to do but you are not so good at actually doing it yourself. A someone commented yesterday when I delivered this sermon, ‘Physician, heal thyself’! Still, as I said, it acts as a good reminder to me as well as everyone else

Bible Reference: Luke 10:38-42

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

I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to say this morning, because I am sure that some people could so obviously accuse me of hypocrisy, quite possibly a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do!’ But I believe there is an important message that needs to be explored and undoubtedly, I need to hear it as much as others might.

But first let me ask a question for you to ponder… when was the last time that you actually spent time doing nothing? Not doing something that you wouldn’t consider work, nor doing something that involves you organising your leisure time, not even setting time aside for prayer or to read a book… but just simply doing nothing but resting.

I guess that this simple kind of resting could go one of two ways. You either fall asleep or you allow yourself to simply bring yourself for those few precious moments into God’s presence. I call them precious moments because so many people nowadays have lives that do not involve seeking any time of rest or relaxation. We are conditioned to wake up and immediately our brains are focussed on what we must achieve that day or over the coming week. We have to plan and organise every single minute of our time, whether that is doing work, or filling our leisure time with activities or for parents of young children making sure that they are involved in stimulating pursuits, because, heaven help us, that they should be bored or have nothing to do!

But what’s wrong with a bit of boredom every now and again? Yes, it can be a state of mind caused by a lack of stimulation that leaves us craving relief, but it’s also acknowledged that without boredom we couldn’t achieve our creative feats. It often gives us time to think, to explore and to rest awhile.

It’s the difference between being a Martha or a Mary… not that I’m suggesting that Mary was bored, having nothing to do… but the two women in our gospel are demonstrating the need to set aside time to simply be with God. It’s also not the case that we need to choose between being a Mary or a Martha, whether we should only be one or the other. Rather that it’s essential to be both. Like Martha we think that the important thing is doing, but Jesus teaches us through Mary’s example that we need to sit, to listen, to learn, to love.

For Mary and Martha, their friendship with Jesus meant that they would have been proud to have this popular man as a guest in their house, together with all of his entourage and followers, and Martha, as the principal hostess would have wanted to make sure that he was comfortable and that his needs were catered for. So she welcomed him into her home and went into the kitchen to prepare a meal for him.

However, her sister Mary did NOT go into the kitchen but instead ‘sat at Jesus feet’, and fair enough when you have guests you do not generally abandon them straight away and all disappear to do other things. But for Martha, it wasn’t okay that her presumably younger sister got to do nothing, while she had to organise and cater for so many.

Luke tells us that Martha ‘was distracted by her many tasks’ and I’m sure we all know how that feels, don’t we! The times when we’ve experience being ‘in over our heads’, when we’ve needed help, but didn’t know where to turn. The times perhaps when we’ve pitched up to help with something and end up doing everything, while others sit around chatting. So Martha’s anger at being abandoned in the kitchen was understandable, and the stress and anxiety spills over into calling out Mary in front of everyone. There was no subtle sidling up to Mary and saying, ‘Mary, I need some help’. instead she rebukes Jesus, her principle guest, whom she had acknowledged as ‘Lord’ and basically orders him to ‘Tell my lazy sister to get into the kitchen to give me a hand’ or words to that effect and meaning.

‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?
Tell her then to help me.’
Luke 10:40

Now everyone is aware of the tension in the room, but we can still feel sympathy for Martha, and in some ways we want Jesus to appreciate and commend Martha for her hard work and suggest that they both go in there and give her a hand. However, Mary’s focus on her relationship with Jesus was also right and whereas Martha’s anger was disruptive, and Jesus acknowledges that she is ‘anxious and troubled about many things, he points out that Mary has chosen to the one thing that is needed

She had set aside time, in the busiest of situations to spend time with God. What we might call Sabbath rest, when we very deliberately take time to do nothing but make ourselves more aware of God with us. And don’t get confused, this is not just setting aside one day a week to abstain from work, because even that is no longer a day when we rest our minds and our bodies, instead filling it up with alternative tasks; but times, whether it’s a few hours or minutes that we switch off from the everyday normal.

This idea of taking time to step aside, is nothing new. From the very beginning we are given this example of Sabbath rest. After creating the heavens and earth, in whatever way or timescale you believe, God rested. It didn’t mean that God was tired and needed a rest, unlike most of us, because being omnipotent he never tires, but he simply stopped what he was doing, he ceased from his work. It was a message and example that he called the Israelites to follow when he handed down his commandments. They were to remember the Sabbath day and ‘keep it holy’. They were to lay down their work in order to spend time in worship and prayer.

For Jesus himself, there were times that he must have experienced the stress and anxiety caused by overwork. As more and more people came to seek him and listen to his teachings, so the time that he had to take that rest became more and more elusive. Still he recognised the importance of stepping aside if only for a short time. In Mark’s gospel we hear that ‘because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Who hasn’t skipped a meal because of the workload we’re experiencing, but after resting, it’s so much easier to exit that secret place, go back into the world, and feel re-energized, focused, encouraged and strengthened to continue doing what we’re called to do.

So many mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression can be caused as the saying goes, by ‘too much work and not enough play. And not taking time out may make any existing mental health issues worse. And what’s even more alarming is that even primary school children are showing signs of mental health problems – including anxiety, panic attacks and depression –caused mainly by family problems, pressures of exams and social media, which lead to problems such as self-harming, eating disorders and OCD.

So, when we find ourselves in stressful situations such as a difficult phone call, a crowded train journey home or a looming deadline, we need to give ourselves time to pause and calm down. Imagine what Martha could have done. Instead of stomping into the living room and having a go at Jesus and Mary, she could have gone into her bedroom and closed the door. Martha could have prayed ‘God, I’m so angry. It would be so tempting to take out this anger on Jesus and Mary – but I know that would be wrong. Please drain this anger out of my heart. Help me to feel love for Jesus, my guest, and Mary, my sister.

 Better still, Martha could have gone and joined her sister Mary at Jesus’ feet and listened to him speak and be in his presence for a while. Who would have worried that the meal was late when was it was Jesus that was with them

We are such busy people, and we live in such a busy world. It’s easy to miss the important things. The story of Martha and Mary tells us that there is value in sitting – in listening – in learning – in loving. Whether at home or work or school, take a moment to look around and find the blessings in your life. Take a moment to thank God for giving you another day to discover more. Sit at God’s feet for just a moment. Be quiet. Listen. Treasure the moment.

We all live in a Martha world, but take time to be Mary for just a bit. Jesus says that that’s the one thing that’s needed. He says that’s the good part that won’t be taken from us. Give it a try. You will find a blessing! You will find that Jesus was right.

Amen

‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Luke 10:41-42

Mary and Martha - Vermeer

Mary and Martha by Vermeer

 

Label Jars Not People

Labels are for Jars

A short note before my latest post below – as it seems a long time since I last posted anything. However, having just seen our church though a time of interregnum, I am looking forward to getting more chances to post regularly again. Here, on our return to Ordinary Time in the church a consideration of why we should only sport one label.

Based on Luke 8:26-39 and Galatians 3:23-29

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

Designer labels, fashion labels, medical labels, religious labels, personality labels – labels we give ourselves and labels that are given to us. The government asks me to label myself every time I fill in an official form – am I male or female, am I white or black or of a different hue, do I smoke, do I drink, or would I prefer not to answer.

Then there are the socially constructed labels, of rich, poor, educated, uneducated, gay, straight, old, fit, fat, attractive, funny, boring, vegetarian or vegan.

However, each answer that I give creates algorithms that are designed to place me in various boxes in order to qualify me, tax me or sell me something – and you wonder why you get those adverts pop up for Slimming World or Saga holidays, or have you sorted a funeral plan out yet… that was only after I had my ‘big’ birthday the other day!

But what it all boils down to defining who we really are the only label that should be relevant is that we are children of God, and every person on earth carries that label

As we heard in Paul’s message to the Galatians; In God, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one. In baptism, we are all clothed in Christ. Only a couple of weeks ago, a member of our congregation, Sophie was baptised, clothed in Christ and welcomed into the family of God and she may carry many labels throughout her life: student, dancer, musician, graduate, scientist, fashion model, firefighter… the possibilities are endless. But the most important label she will have is child of God. And I pray that every person who looks upon her will see that above all else.

The trouble is, and I don’t just mean for Sophie, but for all of us, people rarely see just that. Take for example the sight that greeted Jesus and his disciples as they stepped off of the boat in the country of the Gerasenes. No official welcome, but a dishevelled, vocal creature who is obviously mad… rubber stamp, mental health issues.

On the one level, yes he is naked, screaming and obviously suffering from a disturbance of the mind, but had he chosen to live among the ‘unclean dead’ as the fundamentalists would have seen it or was he driven away from society to take refuge in a place whose claim to humanity was a tenuous as his own? Either way, his life is lonely and pitiful.

But, unlike those who have labelled themselves as righteous, keepers of the law and created a world of rules and laws and labels, into which only certain people can fit in, the demoniac is under no illusion and the irony is that only the ‘mad’ man recognises who Jesus is.

Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’
Luke 8:30

When Jesus asks him, what is your name, there is a sense of calm and relief amongst the noisy shouting and dreadful back story as narrated. The question treats the man like a human being for the first time in goodness knows how long. and although he can’t remember what those who once loved him used to call him, Jesus’ question marks a turning point in the story and the man’s life, as he restores the human image to the man, as he is to restore it to the whole of humankind.

No wonder the law keepers were fearful and trembling. The ‘mad’ man was desperate enough to welcome change, however drastic, but these ‘sane’ people are comfortable with their illusion of life and did not want it challenged.

In the Galatians passage, Paul tells us without Christ, we are all in the condition that the demon-possessed man was. We were chained up, naked, living in a world of illusion and artifice, but now we can be ‘clothed’ with Christ, at peace and made whole again.

Why though were the people of Galatia writing to Paul, what labels were they still wearing, which ones did they need to cut off and discard? Apparently, another branch of Jesus followers had come to town with a different message than Paul. The Galatia church was primarily Gentiles, non-Jews. Paul believed that all people were to be welcomed without conditions. Welcome Jesus into your heart and off you go. However, these new preachers believed that the only path to Jesus was through Judaism, which required circumcision and adherence to Jewish laws. Two very different messages. What were the people of Galatia to think?

Paul replied that the law was a prison, and Jesus was the key that set humanity free. The law was in place to keep people in line until they could experience that faith that sets us free, the law that is written on our hearts to tell us right from wrong. And if anyone knew about the law being a prison, it’s Paul. In the name of the law, he had led stonings; murdered the followers of Jesus, instilled fear and drove people underground. He hunted and killed the followers of Jesus for living out their lives as God had called them to do, to live authentically in their identity as children of God.

In his prior life as a Pharisee, Paul saw people simply by their legal status: legal or illegal. If you were illegal, you were put in prison, banished, killed. They did not have humanity or identity. There was no grey area, no grace, no compassion. Just judgement and conviction.

After his conversion, Paul understood the damage being done by this way of thinking. He understood the importance of baptism, that the label of child of God is the most important label and the only one that mattered.

Following the Jewish laws was not necessary, following Jesus was. But it is much more difficult. The appealing aspect of the Jewish faith for so many was that it provided clear ethical directives. Follow the 613 rules about everything. From worship to clothing, to what to do if your neighbour’s ox falls into a ditch on a Tuesday or someone wearing a polyester blouse, then it was off with her head! Check things off the list and see that you are living properly.

Paul uses the word paidagogos, translated as ‘disciplinarian’. A paidagogos was the household slave charged with keeping the children under control. He was to a certain extent an educator – we get our word pedagogy from it. But he was mainly a custodian – a jailer, if you like – who ensured the children behaved properly wherever they were. The law was therefore like a babysitter, a guardian designed to keep people in line under the threat of God, but also under the threat of the death squads like Paul had ran.

Living in Christ was different though. Jesus was by all accounts a good and faithful Jew, but he began questioning these laws that didn’t match what his heart was telling him. The law said no healing on the sabbath. So, he was supposed to let someone suffer until the law said he could end that suffering?

Jesus saw what was underneath the outward appearance and behaviour of the man living in the tombs because love sees people differently. How then do we see people? When we label someone as homeless, that may well be an accurate description of their state of residency, but the label of homelessness reduces the entirety of someone’s being to one adjective that seems to overrule all others. A homeless person could be an artist, a cancer survivor, compassionate, or a comedian, but the label of homeless is all that they are seen as. Most certainly they are no longer seen as a child of God.

The person serving in a restaurant or shop, who can’t get our order right might be labelled stupid or lazy, but what if they are tired from having been up all night studying, grieving a death or breakdown in a relationship, or struggling with their finances and having to do multiple jobs. Most certainly they are not a child of God, if we give them an angry, exasperated glare.

To so many, we add our own preconceptions and judgments when we apply a label to them. As Muhammad Ali, the boxer, once said. ‘There is only one true religion, and that is the religion of the heart. God never named it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Man gave the titles, and that’s what separates and divides us. My dream is to one day see a world that comes together to fight for one cause — the human cause…’

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus
Galatians 3:28

The human cause then is surely what the message of Jesus is all about? The human cause; ensuring that the hungry are fed and the lonely are visited and all people are able to live in peace and justice and love. Because the labels that we put on one another mean nothing compared to the label of child of God that surpasses all else. Love one another, do not pass judgement. Look at every person you meet first as a child of God, and then wonder if all those other labels really matter.

Amen

Labelling People

 

Drawn From The Deep

Sunlight Under Water

He drew me out of deep water

Based on Luke 5:1-11

When I was little I would occasionally be allowed to go fishing with my dad. I say allowed, because it was actually for my father a time when he could escape the busyness of his work life and just simply sit and enjoy the peace and quiet of the river bank, certainly not to have to entertain a young child; but eventually I too learnt to appreciate this time of quiet companionship.

Of course, there was also the benefit of catching a few fish, that would be placed to wriggle around in the keep net until it was time to pack up and go home, and they would then be returned to the freedom of the water, presumably to swim free until the next time that they took the bait of the fly hook of another fisherman.

But there were also the days when we would sit there in virtual silence and the keep net would remain obstinately empty. For Simon Peter and his partners, James and John it must have been one of those days when much effort had brought little reward. Yet, suddenly here was this man inviting them to try one more time.

No doubt they were tired and weary, and also slightly sceptical, but something about him gave them a sense that they should do as he asked and trusting his confidence they cast their nets once more into the water and were suddenly faced with a catch that was almost overwhelming in its abundance.

It was miraculous, but what was even more surprising was their response, that they would immediately leave all that they knew and depended on to become followers and fellow missionaries with this young man. I guess it is this last outcome that most of us find difficult to understand and imagine ourselves duplicating but it is the whole story that leads us to see why this might be so and what it says to us about discipleship.

We know that Jesus will often use the situation he finds himself in to help people understand more clearly the point he is trying to make, so a miraculous catch of fish to a group of fishermen would certainly bring home the point very effectively. However, we can see that this was already being mirrored in his interaction with the crowd. Here was a sea of people, like a lot of people nowadays, who were beginning to realise that they were in deep water, all around them the water was foaming in turmoil and although they had the freedom to go anywhere, it was usually only in the direction that the tide took them.

Jesus, through his teaching was casting the net as the Word. This was not a net that was set as an entrapment, but a means by which God could rescue his people. As it says in Psalm 18, ‘He reached down from on high and took hold of me, he drew me out of deep water’.

He reached down from on high
and took hold of me,
he drew me out of deep water
Psalm 18:16

There was a growing realisation that without God they were lost, and Jesus was there to remind them of this. Simon Peter’s obedience and trust that what he was being told was a good thing, put him on his first step to acknowledging who Jesus really was. But this realisation also made him fearful; since the prodigious haul of fish only proved the awesomeness of God’s power and made his or anyone else’s effort pale into insignificance., ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’.

Yet, Jesus’ response was that they should not be afraid. The fact is that when they and we are drawn into God’s presence he asks us to part of his mission, to be his ears and eyes, his hands and feet, to work together as the body of Christ. And just as Simon Peter called for his partners to help with the extraordinary catch of fish, we never do it on our own, whether as individuals, or one church, but as the whole Church.

So the disciples were to be sent out to catch people. To use the Word to act as the net to draw them closer to God, and that net was to be cast far and wide. Just as each net of fish brings up not just one type of fish, but gathers many, so that diversity is reflected in the many different types of people who are called and seek to be in his presence. God is not looking for any particular type of person, just those who are willing to be transformed.

Of course there are always going to be as few who for some reason want to wriggle out of and escape the net, but for those who choose to believe and to take up the challenge there is no reason to hesitate, real freedom has been gained, grace offered and accepted and the task of catching people for God begun.

Amen
Luke 5

Wedding Vows

Wedding couple

The year 2018 was full of new and exciting events in our family, amongst which was the wedding of our youngest daughter, Ruth, to her fiancé, Josh. Not only are weddings great social occasions, when distant family and friends make that special effort to come together, but they are also the start of what we all hope will be a lifelong journey of discovering what being married really means using the promises and vows that you make on that day to be your yardstick.

Later this morning I will be conducting a special service for a couple who are renewing those vows after 50 years of marriage and who want to thank God for the blessings they have received over those years. Of course, vows are not all about expecting only the good things to happen – for better, for richer and in health, but include the possibility of for worse, for poorer and in sickness.

Entering marriage knowing that it will bring the likelihood of both opposites means that you can be prepared to weather the difficult times and celebrate the joyous ones, because underpinning it all will be the love that first brought you together

 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love
1 Corinthians 13:13

The love that you have for each other; the love of your family and friends; the love that God blesses you with, are all powerful reasons for holding fast to those wedding vows.

Wedding Boquet

It was also, just as I had done for Lizzie and Lewis, about love that I wanted to write this poem for the newly-weds:

When Love Comes

Who may stand against love when it comes?
For it rushes with fervour into our hearts,
breathlessly catching hold of the other’s hand.
Tingling with electric sparks, causing
laughter to bubble up and burst.
Still smiling inward to hug a new secret
between two souls.

Who can unlock the mystery of love?
That makes tentative enquiry of
feelings, unexpected, yet welcome.
That hesitates to speak out loud,
yet knows spontaneously that this
is the one – its confirmation sealed
by the infinite band of earth’s riches

Who denies the power of love?
In gentle caress of skin against skin.
Yet ferocious as a roaring lion,
fiercely protective of the other,
declaring mutual respect and care,
that selflessly offers itself up.

Who has the fortitude to resist love?
That holds strong to bear tragedy,
overcoming life’s sadness;
stretched and strained from time to time.
Which seeks its boundaries;
nonetheless, drawing back
to the very core of its existence.

Who can weigh the worth of love?
More precious than man’s treasure trove
of glittering trinkets and trifles.
Daring to dream dreams and
crystallising hopes for the future.
Selflessly deepening its roots
allowing each to flourish and be built up.

Who can but rejoice in the joy of love?
Expressed in vows that set a seal
between two hearts.
Union in sacred, ancient ceremony;
that offers friendship twixt families.
Celebrated and blessed
By God’s own love.

On the occasion of the marriage of Ruth Galvin and Josh Gallocker – 30th June 2018

Wedding Group