Tag Archives: Christ

A Heart of Stone?

Heart of Stone

Evensong Message for Pentecost 2018 – Reading Ezekiel 36:22-28 and Acts 2:22-38

Today we celebrate Pentecost – an outpouring of the Holy Spirit – sent just as Jesus had promised – enabling and transforming those who were willing to receive it, with physical signs of flames and wind and a universal understanding of the truth being spoken to those listening and watching this in amazement. Just as Ezekiel had prophesied here was a gathering of the nations to hear the Word that would then spread out like wildfire from Jesus’ own land to ignite the flame that would become a global phenomenon – the birth of Christianity, with its message of faith, hope and love.

Here was something new then – or was it?

Surely people had had faith before? Jesus himself was a Jew, part of a well organised and structured faith; and whilst there were not necessarily a large number of organised religions as we would think of them today, there were many faith traditions. The Roman and Greek pantheon for example, Norse and Celtic traditions, many of which were Polytheistic, and often had an emphasis on communal public worship, and sacrifice (either of animals or humans) as an offering to the Gods; going right back to simple sun worship and pantheism.

 Hope is perhaps a little bit more difficult to measure prior to Christianity. What is it people were hoping for? For many it did centre on there being more to life than our brief span of three score years and ten – four score at a push. For the Greeks, a favoured few, were considered to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in places like Elysium. For others it was the ability to be reincarnated and to have the chance to live again, back on earth, albeit in a different way; but for most people, at the moment of death there was, however, no hope of anything but continued existence as a disembodied soul, endlessly swirling around in a cosmic soup.

And of course there was love, whether it was a strong feeling of affection and concern arising from kinship or close friendship or accompanied by sexual attraction. We all know that the Greek and Roman gods indulged in love with a relish, both among themselves and mere mortals, but rarely was it considered a love that was for all peoples, a love that begged relationship and which sought reconciliation as its ultimate goal.

Christianity though was and is different. Faith was not just something you did, it is how you live; hope was not limited, it is tangible and everlasting and love was not exclusive, it is mutual and unconditional. This wasn’t some distant deity dandling human beings like puppets, this is a God who lives right alongside us.

In order to love one has to engage with our minds and our hearts. The two organs in a human body that not only sustain life but which enable us to understand what life is all about. But it is our hearts that pump blood around our bodies to every other organ which enable us to think, to feel, to touch, to sense and which have become universal symbols of love; and a heart that does not love can be said to be as lifeless and useless as a heart of stone.

A heart of stone does not allow our ears to hear the cries of those in need or our eyes to see injustice being done. A heart of stone does not allow us to feel emotions of compassion or joy, it does not permit our arms and hands to reach out to hug or be hugged or comforted.

 A heart of stone does not allow us the desire to know God and to become followers of Christ, because a heart of stone cannot love either itself or others. Even so, God is able to reach out to the most hard-hearted individuals and to use them for his glory.

 ‘A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body
the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’.

However, having a heart of flesh is not an easy thing to live with. A heart of flesh can feel the keenest of suffering, the deepest of sorrows and the innermost pain. There are times when it is almost unbearable to experience these things, but our hearts do not give up

The fact is that the heart it is the hardest working muscle in the body – the first organ to form during development of the body, and the last to shut down in death. But that’s just physiology. The difference is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in the form of love that enables us to ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.’

 When Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost, it was the Spirit that enabled him to declare so boldly that despite what the people had done to Jesus, there was no power on earth that could have held him down and he used the scriptures to back up this declaration.

Quoting from Psalm 16, the Michtam of David, or the Golden Psalm, he spelt our very clearly the faith, the hope and the love Jesus knew was his in God,

“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

 It was the witness of the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit that persuaded others that indeed, Jesus was both Lord and Messiah. As it says, ‘they were cut to the heart’. To the very centre of their being.

 When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish, whether it is showing compassion, sharing joy, or seeking peace. When our hearts beat to the same rhythm as God’s then nothing will be the same and everything will be transformed by love

Love of the Holy Spirit

 

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

A voice a calling out

A sermon for the third Sunday in Advent recalling John the Baptist as the ‘one calling out in the wilderness’, and the call to be that voice today.

Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28

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

I wonder how many of you will admit to watching ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’? Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong if you do. I think we all have a natural curiosity to watch people who for one reason or another are deemed famous, doing things that are strange or unusual. I must admit that if I hear in the news that someone is proving to be a real character, I might flick over and catch part of an episode to see what all the fuss is about.

Of course it’s easy for us nowadays, with satellite TV and catch up, to bring things that are happening ‘live’ into the comfort of our living rooms or on our mobile devices to satisfy our curiosity, but in Jesus’ day any apparent fame was broadcast by word of mouth and only those who were serious about finding our more would make the effort to travel long distances on the testimony of a friend or neighbour; and yet, we hear in Luke’s gospel that ‘the crowds’ were coming out to see John the Baptist; and today in John’s gospel we catch a sense that the strict traditionalists, the Pharisee’s, had got wind of a strange and curious man doing things that were unsettling and causing ripples in their neat and tidy well-ordered lives. Who was this man?

Obviously, not concerned enough to distance themselves from undertaking their strict religious observances in the temple in Jerusalem, but enough to send a contingent of representatives to find out more, just in case. What then did they find as they journeyed out into the wilderness around the River Jordan? The gospel writer tells us that the place they found John was at Bethany – not the village just east of Jerusalem, near the Mount of Olives, that was the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. No this Bethany, although nowadays not officially known, would have had to have been about 50 miles to the North of Jerusalem, in Jordan, and is thought to be modern day Al-Maghtas, an Arabic word for a site of baptism or immersion and which has been venerated as such since the Byzantine period.

That’s the place but what about the man? John, even by biblical standards, would have presented an eccentric appearance, dressed in camel hair clothing secured with a leather belt and a physique that was sculpted by a diet of locusts and wild honey, one can imagine his wild hair and austere demeanour were not the things that were attracting the people to him. He probably looked like an ancient prophet, if not smelt like an ancient prophet and his words echoed the prophecies of those Old Testament prophets who had gone before him. Perhaps his disregard for his own personal appearance confirmed his humble and self-effacing nature, but let’s be under no doubt, John was no shy wallflower, he knew what his role was and he was certain about the mission he was undertaking.

In answer to their attempts to guess his identify, he wasn’t the Messiah and he wasn’t the re-embodiment of the prophet Elijah, but he was the messenger that the prophet Isaiah had said would appear as a herald to prepare the way for the Messiah’s appearance; to make straight the paths, to smooth the way, to give people a chance to re-order their lives before it was too late. Yet Isaiah had mentioned nothing about the need to be baptised in order to repent of your sins and certainly this form of baptism was not something that the Jewish people would have seen as normal. Ritualistic washing, however had been practised since the time of Moses, through the Leviticus laws when a person needed to be cleansed and purified in order to be able to make sacrifices in the Temple.

This ritual was later expanded to taking a dip in a ‘mikveh’ or immersion pool, with steps leading down on one side and then up on the other, having passed through the pool of water; think of the pools of Siloam and Bethsaida, that were used for high days and holidays at the Temple site. And as with a lot of Jewish ritual law there are six different options that satisfy the requirements starting with pits, to cisterns refreshed by rainwater, custom-built ritual baths, then fountains, then flowing waters. But natural lakes and rivers were considered to be the best, so the ‘living waters’ of the River Jordan were definitely ideal.

But as John says this is only the preliminaries, water would give way to immersion in the Holy Spirit, and he was very, very clear of his unworthiness to carry out this form of baptism. There was another coming after him. Curiosity satisfied then for the Pharisees’ researchers, they would no doubt return to their leaders with more food for thought than reassurances. But that still leaves us with the question of why so many people were attracted to the message that John was voicing and what that means for us today. What was this baptism of repentance that he offered?

Like ourselves this Advent, the people had been watching and waiting, in fact they had been waiting for over 400 years. This period of seemingly divine silence is the name given to the period of time between the last of the Old Testament prophets and the arrival of Jesus in the New Testament. It had begun with Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return, ‘I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,’ hence the Pharisee’s question and was now to end with its fulfilment in the coming of John the Baptist.

Silence however didn’t mean that the people had been living in limbo, because despite the lack of Scripture detailing this period, a great deal happened. The Jewish homeland had first of all been taken over from the Persians by the Greek Empire followed by an Egyptian occupation. Then halfway through the Syrians overtook Jerusalem, followed by the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes’ desecration of the Holy of Holies within the temple which led to a revolt, led by the Maccabee brothers to retake control of the Jerusalem, only to be conquered by the Roman Empire, the state the people found themselves in now.

You can understand, therefore, when the strange and unusual figure of John appeared in the wilderness, calling people to repent, to turn back to God , then they were ready and curious enough to seek him out. There were some, like the Pharisees, who came to the Jordan to observe John’s ministry but who had no desire to step into the water themselves. However, even those who did wade into the river, it wasn’t enough to be ritually purified, John’s baptism was more than that – it was a symbolic representation of changing one’s mind and going a new direction – a direction that pointed toward Jesus. His was the voice calling as we are called to be that voice.

On a personal level, I have always been reminded that this task has been passed on to us each time I say out loud the Benedictus during Morning Prayer. The second half of the canticle is an address by Zechariah to his own son, John the Baptist,

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.

You, my child… that you is directed at each and everyone one of us to be the voice, offering the knowledge that points people toward Christ. With John’s baptism, a person repented of sin, acknowledged their need for salvation, and was therefore ready to place their faith in Jesus Christ. It foreshadowed what Jesus would, did and still does accomplish, as the Benedictus goes on to say

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John the Baptist wasn’t a B-list celebrity in the jungle or wilderness, someone you think you’ve heard of but you’re not sure you recognise them – he was definitely A-list, but he wasn’t the main attraction. His baptism was a purification ceremony meant to ready the peoples’ hearts to receive their Saviour. In this season of Advent we too are watching and waiting to receive once again with joy our Saviour. It’s an event worth calling out about…

Amen

John_The_Baptist

Hail To Christ, The King

Hail to Christ, the King

Hail to Christ, the King

On Sunday we came to the last Sunday of the church’s year. It goes out with a bang, celebrating Christ as King. The evening brought a quieter more reflective time when we could think about just what sort of king Jesus is.

Using some of the liturgy from Liturgies for High Days by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, we thought about a different kind of royalty, one bereft of privilege and wealth, whose power lies in truth, faithfulness and grace for all people. We also remembered Jesus’ faithfulness to his calling, entering into the pain of our lives and yet able to leap free of all its bondages.

The cross that frees us from bondage

The cross that frees us from bondage

Our reading for the evening was one of those ones that lends itself naturally into a meditative retelling. Here is my version of Luke 23:32-43:

The journey through the streets had been tortuous, the crowd pressing in on either side. The sounds of jeering and weeping had mingled together to form a cacophony that heralded their progress. Now they had left the city gate and slowly climbed the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. Three condemned men, each bearing the burden of a death sentence, brought out to this seemingly god-forsaken place to be nailed to a cross and hoisted high so that all might see that justice had been done.

Few people had made the effort to ascend the incline; there was a perfectly good view from the shaded city walls, and they were even more grateful for that distance as the midday sun rose to its zenith, its heat intensifying the stench of decay that hung in the sultry air over the place.

Jesus’ thoughts, however, were not for his own physical discomfort but that God might show mercy to those who had condemned him, and he cried aloud, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not realise what they are doing’. Some of those who heard these words felt a pang of guilt sweep over them and turned away, ashamed.

Are there times when we too turn away in shame?…

But beneath the crosses the guards, who had seen it all before, bickered over who should have his redundant clothing before drawing straws; the winner triumphant that he had obtained such a seamless tunic so cheaply. Whilst the representatives of the Jewish leaders, perhaps sensing the remorseful sentiments of the woman who had gathered there, tried to add justification of their part in the proceedings by scoffing at Jesus, pointing out that this man who claimed to be the chosen Messiah of God seemed incapable of saving himself despite his claim to have saved others. Hearing this, the soldiers joined in, offering a toast to the ‘King of the Jews’ with a sponge soaked in sour wine. Even so, they could see no glorious death of a king in battle, no pomp and ceremony, and soon grew tired of mocking this inaptly titled monarch.

When might our desire for ritual and symbols blind us from the simple truth?…

One of the criminals, hearing these things, turned and spoke in derisory tones to the man who hung beside him in silent sufferance, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ His thoughts were, that if this was the hope of Israel then surely he could save not only himself from this punishment but them also, however unlikely that was… and it was a slim hope that he would not die today.

However, the other rebuked him harshly; pointing out that self-preservation was not necessarily the main reason to call on God in these circumstances, particularly when they were both there for being condemned justly for their actions. It was clear to him that Jesus was a victim of a miscarriage of justice; what’s more he had recognised the holiness of this innocent man. Perhaps, he told the other, they should fear God’s ultimate punishment more.

Where does it leave us if we only call on God in times of crisis?

Turning to Jesus, an honest and heartfelt plea came to his lips, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ As the figure at his side turned to look at him with a full gaze, he saw not a broken and bloodied man but a saviour in all his resplendent majesty who spoke immeasurable words of reassurance, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

IMG_5817

Back to the service then, as we sang ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ as a prayerful chant and thought about our ‘king’ who calls us to have a more generous love for the world; to bravely dream of the future where we might be a new hope for better things to come and to remain steadfast in our faith in the possibility of Christ’s reign of love.

Hail to Christ, the King,
ruler who lays down the power to destroy,
leader who treads through the costly journey
and into the shadow places of life,
that we might find the rising of life before us:

Hail to Christ, the King,
born to be first witness to God’s truth,
whose might lies in mercy,
whose throne is placed in the midst of humble people.

Hail to Christ, the King

Some material has been reproduced from Liturgies for High Days, Dorothy McRae-McMahon ©SPCK. The meditation is my own.

The purple stole used in the service as a focal point was created by Deborah Ireland. See here for more information about her work

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff?

Don't sweat the small stuff?

Don’t sweat the small stuff?

Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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

There’s an American idiom that you may have heard of, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. It’s basically something that might be said to someone in order to tell them not to worry about things that are not important. It’s actually not a bad thing to suggest, because sometimes we worry about getting the small things sorted out and forget to look at the bigger picture. So are the small things unimportant?

The bigger picture as far as Jesus was concerned was teaching people what their attitude needed to be in relation to God, not whether they had dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s on their membership application to the Christian faith.

In this section of Mark’s gospel people are flooding to him – he has just fed the five thousand, had a brief respite in prayer; and then walked out to his disciples in their boat, when they were fighting against an adverse wind, to calm the weather and their fears. On landing he has been immediately recognised and word has spread and people are rushing about the region, bringing to him their sick, begging for and being granted healing.

Now in this passage, the Pharisees and scribes, who had no doubt been sent out from Jerusalem to gather evidence against him are interrupting a well-deserved meal break to tell him that he’s breaking Jewish law by eating with unwashed hands. No wonder he decides to tell them as it really is! ‘Stop sweating the small stuff!’

To the Jews, and in particular the Pharisees, however, the small stuff was important. They believed that, alongside the written Torah, there existed another body of oral laws, interpretations and traditions transmitted by God to Moses orally and then memorised. In fact there are 613 statutes stated in the Halakhah, or Jewish Law, most of which are derived from the Torah’s books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy … never easy reads!… but some are laws that have been enacted by the rabbis, who have interpreted the Torah over time.

A few of them are related to particular groups of people such as the Nazarites, whilst a large proportion of the others relate to sacrifices and offerings which can only be made in the Temple, which no longer exists. There are some that sound rather quaint to our ears, such as ‘not to make a bald spot in mourning’ or ‘not to eat worms found in fruit once they have left the fruit’… presumably it’s okay to eat them whilst they are still in the fruit then! But there are some that are abhorrent… that a rapist must marry his victim if she is unwed and is never allowed to divorce her. Certainly tells us a lot about the status of women if nothing else.

The laws to which Mark was referring to, and which he explained in some detail to his mainly Gentile audience, are part of the Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws concerning kosher foods and its preparation and handling, and were part of a highly complex and developed system of purity regulations. For orthodox Jews even today they throw up problems, such as how you are going to use a dishwasher for both meat and dairy utensils in a kosher home. Still sweating the small stuff!

Kashrut symbols blog

For many modern non-orthodox Jews, however, they believe that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete and that the legalistic aspect of traditional Judaism reduces religion to a set of rituals devoid of spirituality, which was not the intention of Halakhah, which can be translated better as ‘the path that one walks’. So they no longer see the need to sweat the small stuff, perhaps having been persuaded by changes in society that these laws are no longer important or relevant to their faith.

However, back in first century Palestine, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, in that by interpreting and applying scripture in this way they are only honouring God with what they say rather than what they do. His kingdom message has nothing to do with how and what you eat, that is not what will stop you becoming pure. Rather the challenge of the gospel is much more a challenge of the heart. He is insisting that good and bad external and physical actions come from internal and spiritual sources, and that it is human motivation that is the real problem.

His list of evil intentions seem full on, and perhaps it is easy for us to glance at the list and feel comfortable with the fact that on the whole we’re fairly sure we haven’t indulged in many of them, especially the biggies like fornication, murder or adultery. Yet can we be quite sure that in some small way we haven’t practiced theft… the pen ‘borrowed’ from work and never taken back; or licentiousness… the extra packets of cakes or food bought which never got eaten and which had to be thrown away; or slander… the sarcastic insult offered veiled with a smile? What about envy, pride or avarice?

Yes, we might say, but that’s only the small stuff… even so, Jesus doesn’t seem to rank them in order of importance; they are all equally said to be possible evil intentions that are present in and come from the human heart.

He also at this stage doesn’t seem to offer a solution as to what we can to do to either avoid or resolve this problem, we are simply left to infer it… of course later on and with our gift of hindsight we do know what the solution will be, through Christ’s ultimate revelation of the kingdom. However, our reading from the letter of James, does give us something concrete to act upon. It tells us that rather than drawing from our hearts those things that make us sordid that we should listen to that part of us that God has already placed within us.

We are to be quick to listen so that we can exercise self-control and know what the right thing to do is; take time to consider what the effect of our words might be on others so that we act with kindness; to be patient so that our actions are those of love rather than hate.

Christians are called to be above reproach and yet we are only too well aware that we so often fall short. But despite this we can’t casually set aside bits of scripture that we don’t like or understand. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to justify our actions because society around us doesn’t seem to worry about the small stuff; that’s how we become tainted by the world.

Yes, we make mistakes and get it wrong… yes we can seek forgiveness… and yes we will be forgiven; but we need to take an honest look at how we behave and change the things that make us follow human traditions rather than being doers of the word.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’. Matthew 5:17

The important thing is that Jesus came not to set aside the law but to fulfil it. The scriptures were not necessarily irrelevant then or now. They act as signposts to the reality that was Jesus. Everything that they were getting at reached a climax in Jesus Christ, and from then on everything was different. He became the perfect law, the law of liberty. So by keeping his law we can constantly remind ourselves of our relationship with the divine so that it becomes an integral part of our existence.

The Pharisees were more concerned that the rules were followed and that keeping the laws was more important than how people were treated. Jesus was more concerned with how we treat others; that we were love God and our neighbours as ourselves, because on those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Should we sweat the small stuff?… I’ll let you decide.

Amen

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

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

 

Salt and Light

You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world

You are the salt of the earth… the light of the world

A fifth Sunday at St James, West End provided the opportunity to come together for evening worship in the style of Taizé. Prayer and silence are at the heart of Taizé worship along with the singing of repeated prayer chants, often highlighting simple phrases from the Psalms or other pieces of scripture, which are designed to help meditation and prayer.

A  candlelit San Damiano Cross, a large Romanesque rood cross, is usually the central focal point and is the cross that St. Francis of Assisi was praying before when he is said to have received the a divine commission to rebuild the Church. St James is lucky enough to have its own copy and was placed in the centre of the chancel steps for our service

Focusing on the San Damiano Cross

Focusing on the San Damiano Cross

What follows is excerpts from the evening service, including a meditation on Salt and Light.

Opening prayer (said together):

God our Father, be with us in our time of worship. When we pray, help us to concentrate our thoughts on you; when we listen to the reading of the Bible, help us to understand it; when we sing your praise help us to sing because we really love you: help us to worship you in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

Opening Chant:
Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus.
Confitemini Domino. Alleluia!
(Give thanks to the Lord for he is good).

Psalm 27:1-6, 13-14 was read, with a special emphasis on verse 14

Wait for the Lordbe strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Before the next chant:

Wait for the Lord, his day is near. Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart!

Our reading Matthew 4:23 – 5:16 then led us into our meditation, that was in two parts. Firstly concerning salt

13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

 ‘You are the salt of the earth!’

Salt, that precious commodity that purifies, preserves and penetrates;
and we are called to be as salt into the world of human society
to purify, preserve, and penetrate that society for the kingdom of God

Who hasn’t felt the tiny flecks of salt on their skin when next to the ocean?
Or maybe you remember the jars packed with salt and green beans at harvest time
to provide a delicious treat in the depths of winter;
or licked your lips and tasted the saltiness after physical exertion?

Silence

Salt – as precious as gold
It paid the Roman soldier his salarium
and indicated your standing in society
as to whether you sat above or below the salt.

Salt – to purify and to heal
A gargle for sore throat, a soother of stings and burns,
a pain reliever for toothache and sore gums
a natural ‘miracle’ medicine

Salt – to preserve and penetrate
Adding flavour and preventing food from spoiling
and saving people from starvation
A symbol of fellowship and the common meal

Yet salt can become contaminated,
often burnt in ovens to increase the heat,
then no longer useful it is thrown out onto the ground
and mixes with the dirt and gets trampled underfoot

Silence

Therefore, God calls us, his precious creation,
to be like salt, to penetrate society
and show in our lives and our dealings with others
how in living differently and seeking purity
that we can bring healing and hope,
both now and for the future through Christ;
and to avoid those things that would contaminate us,
and seek ways of making life liveable, healthy and good

Silence

Taste and see...

Taste and see…

We are also blessed with special receptors on our tongues that can detect saltiness and know when things are good;
so take your pinch of salt, and if you want dip your finger in and taste and see that the Lord is good [small glasses with a pinch of salt had been given out to everyone at the beginning]

Our service continued by singing, as a chant, the chorus from the beautiful anthem ‘Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord’ by James Moore Jr. I am sure we didn’t do it as much justice as the soloist at the Washington National Cathedral*, but it provided a special moment in the midst of our worship.

Taste and see, taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
O taste and see, taste and see the goodness of the Lord, of the Lord.

Then concerning light:

14‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘You are the light of the world’

Light is vital to enable us to see in the darkness
and to help us to avoid stumbling.
Light is also an expression of inner beauty,
truth and the goodness of God.

Who hasn’t stood under the night sky and gazed up at the infinity of space
and seen the pin pricks of light of a million stars?
Or been awakened by the sunlight creeping in through their curtains;
or come home on a winter’s evening to a darkened house and been grateful to flick on the light?

The psalmists tell us that ‘In [God’s] light we see light’ (Psalm 36:9) and that
‘[His] word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Psalm 119:105)
Through God’s grace our darkness is illumined and banished
and we are filled with spiritual light, joy and peace.

Silence

Light dispels the darkness and nothing can be hidden;
From others, from ourselves, from God
Everything is known to God, who sees all.
Yet there is great freedom and joy for those
who live in God’s light and who seek his truth.

As believers that light shines in our hearts
and we are called to act as light-bearers of Christ
so that others may see the truth of the gospel
and be set free from those things that blind them

Silence

We should seek to show light and healing in every part of our lives
to every relationship, every activity, every word;
to bring Christ’s light and hope, joy and peace
to those who need it the most;
as well as discovering God’s light shining in unexpected places
revealing his glory.

Silence

glory of god blogSo let us light our candles and place them at the foot of the cross
to better illuminate that glory.

During the following chant, we were invited light a candle and place it in the bowl of sand at the foot of the Taizé cross.

The Lord is my light, my light and salvation: in God I trust, in God I trust

There followed five minutes of silence, introduced by saying together:
Lord, you are living water, You are light and fire, You are love.
Come, O Holy Spirit! Come, O Holy Spirit

Our service concluded with intercessions and a final chant:

Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, that never dies away. (repeat)

 and a final prayer:

Be with us Lord as we go out into the world. May our lips that have sung your praises always speak the truth; may our ears which have heard your word listen only to what is good, and may our lives as well as our worship be always pleasing in your sight, for the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

Before we departed, having said the Grace.

There are not many fifth Sundays during the year, so it was nice to be able to be part of something special , something that was beautiful as well as uplifting, exactly what worship should be like.

Salt and light reveal the glory of the Lord

Salt and light revealing the glory of the Lord

*YouTube link to a soloist singing Taste and See The Goodness of the Lord at the Washington National Cathedral © James Moore Jr.  

The Service was put together by David Forster and Linda Galvin using both resources from the Taizé community and original material.

Servanthood – A Call To Serve

Based on Readings: Acts 11:27-12:2; Matthew 20:20-28

Your first sermon in a new church is always a tricky affair. How will the congregation react? What’s it like up in the pulpit? Is your style of preaching appropriate? Although you may have preached many times before, when you have been doing so in one particular church, in one particular place, to one particular group of people, you know that you have built up a relationship and a rapport over many years. Suddenly, the people looking back at you from your new viewpoint are strangers and this is the first time they have heard your thoughts and are eager to see what the new Curate has to say.

Add to all of that the fact that it’s the church’s Patronal Festival, when the life and character of the particular saint that the church is dedicated to has probably been discussed, dissected and generally mulled over for many years and you feel you have to come up with something new?

Sunday 26th July 2015 saw me climbing up into the pulpit at St James, West End, Southampton, to do just that. Here then is an abridged version of my talk.

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

Today we are here to celebrate the patronal festival of St James. James the fisherman, not to be confused with James brother of Jesus or James the author of an epistle. He is one of the closest companions of Jesus, alongside Peter and John, and together with them he is one apostle about whom we know quite a lot about his background and character. We know his father was Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman from whose boat James and his brother John answered Jesus’ call, and biblical scholars have reasoned that their mother was Salome, about whom we’ll hear more about in a minute.

I wanted to find out some interesting facts about James, but I suspect that you may have heard them all before… however, they are all new to me and here are a few I found especially interesting.

St James 'Son of Thunder'

St James ‘Son of Thunder’

 James has a nickname… ‘Son of Thunder!’ Whoa, that’s great… ‘Son of Thunder!’ …makes him sound like he should be in an Avengers movie. Apparently he got this after John and he asked Jesus if they should ‘call down fire from heaven’ to destroy a village and its inhabitants who had been less than welcoming. Needless to say his offer was declined.

You may have also wondered why there is a scallop shell on the church logo. Well, I hope that today you will all be going home to dine on Coquilles St Jacques à la Provençale…no?

This delicious dish of scallops, white wine and mushrooms is traditionally eaten on St James’ feast day, a reference to the saint’s appearance at the battle of Clavijo in the 9th century, riding on a white horse and adorned in scallop shells. On that occasion the Christians were able to defeat the Moors and the rallying cry of the Spanish troops, from that time became ‘Santiago!’

In our New Testament reading, we hear of James’ violent death at the hands of Herod Agrippa. He was the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom, just over a decade after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. However, the Spanish have a special place for St Iago, as James is translated, as they believe that his remains were buried in Compostela, having been transported there in a stone boat by angels, a place that has become the third greatest place of Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome.

Some really interesting facts and stories; speaking of a man of great loyalty, fiery of spirit but willing to serve Christ to the point of offering up his life. However, in our gospel reading he and his brother have to stand by and watch as their mother tries to secure a favourable position for her boys in the new earthly kingdom she believes Jesus is bringing about. In Mark’s gospel this incident sees the brothers themselves asking for this advantageous position, but Matthew, writing some 25 years later, distances the disciples from this overly ambitious request and chooses their mother to press their case. Interestingly, it’s possible that this was because of their family relationship, as Salome is identified by the gospel writer John, as Jesus’ mother’s sister, making her his aunt and the brothers his full cousins.

What it shows is that the disciples were still thinking about personal reward and distinction without personal sacrifice. Jesus, however, knows that the kingdom he is to bring about is not about earthly values, and that whilst he doesn’t doubt their faith and commitment, it will be the Father’s decision as to what that looks like in the long run. You can imagine what the other apostles, said to James and John afterwards, perhaps some of them chastised them that their mother had spoken out in such a way or they were annoyed that the brothers were trying to gain extra favour. Whatever, it was they were angry about, Jesus points out that being one of his followers is not about human leadership values but instead true greatness comes through servanthood.

I wonder though what we think of when we are called to become servants or even as Paul puts it slaves. I suspect we could have a vision of Downton Abbey and life downstairs, although this particular portrayal is certainly a rosier picture than what it was actually like for many servants. But it’s not really about being powerless at the mercy of others. Instead, we should think about what servants do… they serve… Only three weeks ago at my ordination service the role of serving was emphasised time and again throughout the service. Let me read just one bit from the declarations that we had to make – first the bishop read out the job description.

They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely, and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that the love of God may be made visible.

This then is the role of a deacon, to be a servant and what my title is for this first year. However, I don’t stop being a deacon after the year’s up, in fact you never stop being a deacon. Thomas is still a deacon; Bishop Tim is still a deacon and Archbishop Justin is still a deacon*. Once a deacon always a deacon, but despite it being a clerical title every one of you here could also be called deacons.

We are all called to serve in a variety of ways. We are called to serve in the worship life within this church building, whether as ministers or choir members; as servers or sidespeople; as cleaners or flower arrangers for example – everyone offering their gifts and time to build up the church community. But we are also called to serve and to be available to our wider community finding out ways in which the church as a body can meet their needs and be a beacon of hope. The great thing is that we are not called to do it alone as individuals, but to work with and support each other, being proactive as well as reactive. Then, as we serve we will become the visible signs of God’s love to all his people.

Deacons scarf blogOne of the visible symbols of being a clerical deacon is that I wear my stole slightly different to Thomas, who has been priested and I know some of you wondered why. Again it is to do with servanthood. During the Last Supper Jesus removed his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist in order to wash his disciples’ feet. In the ordination service it was the bishop or in my case the abbot who did just that to me.

For Christ it was a way of showing the extent to which he was prepared to humble himself to take on the form of a servant. He was demonstrating to us that we have to set the needs of others before our own. When we remove our outer pride and clothe ourselves in humility then we too can bow down in readiness to serve others

To some people in our society nowadays that seems like an alien concept, where self-satisfaction counts for more than self-giving. Surely by becoming a servant we also make ourselves vulnerable to abuse – we become doormats rather than open doors. I would disagree – if we are serving God and actively seeking how we can bring about justice and mercy for the vulnerable then we will have opened the doors to Christ’s kingdom.

Perhaps we should all consider how we can become more like those visible signs of Christ to those around us. Are we prepared to offer everything so that God’s kingdom can be brought about both on earth and in the future? It’s certainly a challenge and not an easy one. Jesus knew this, but he had trust in his followers. He never doubted that James and John would maintain their loyalty; he knew they had ambitions and their faults, but they didn’t turn away from him – they were prepared to give their all. In the same way he has trust in all of us.

For those of us who were here on my first Sunday, we sang the words ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you; let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. We have all been called to serve in this place. God has placed us here for a purpose; to serve him and to serve one another. Unquestionably, in doing that we cannot fail to become those visible signs of Christ’s love.

Amen

*Reverend Thomas Wharton (Priest in Charge, St James, West End); Tim Dakin (The Right Reverend The Lord Bishop of Winchester) and Justin Welby (His Grace The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury)

©The image used at the top of this blog is copyright and permission to use it has been sought from and granted by the artist. For details of how you can purchase a copy of this or of any of Debbie’s other artworks please visit https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/DebbieSaenz

 

As Our Prayers Rise Before You

As our prayers rise before you

The smoke of the burning incense went up with the prayers of God’s people – Revelation 8:4

Prayer is a powerful tool; it’s a tool that enables us to communicate with God either directly or through the advocacy of Christ, more often than not in the power of the Holy Spirit. If you were to dip your hand into your prayer toolbox you should not be surprised that at different times and in different circumstances you would find a diverse range of tools that you could draw out; yet each one of them would fit your purpose.

Throughout my training I have had opportunities to experience different forms of prayer; from the strict, traditional Prayer Book style to free-flowing extemporary prayer. However, the one constant is the discipline of saying Morning, Evening  and Night Prayer (Compline), although I have to confess that  the first of these has been more faithfully undertaken as against the occasional imperceptible mutterings as I drift off to sleep.

Morning Prayer, like most church liturgy changes with the seasons. There are moments throughout the year when certain phrases cause one to catch your breath or make your heart sing; in fact in Epiphany season I been known to break into song when reading the Jubilate – A Song of Joy; but just about all of them are preceded by an opening prayer that sets the right tone for the day ahead:

The night has passed, and the day lies open before us;
let us pray with one heart and mind.

Silence is kept.

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
Amen

prayersrising2 blog

… so may the light of your presence…

Each morning and evening we are also given one or more of the Psalms to read. However, these too are prayers and throughout the Psalms, David and the other writers poured out their hearts to God in prayer, expressing honest feelings of anguish and desperate pleas for protection. They grieved painful confessions of sin, confidently expressed their hope and trust in God, and joyfully lifted praises to God.

In the same way they enable us to give voice to our feelings, whether of despair when we are at a low point in our lives or sheer exuberance at the scope and majesty of creation. They bring us into contact with the ancient people and places of our history – some long-lost civilizations; but they can also speak into current situations.

I suspect that we all have our favourites but for me Psalm 104 ranks high on my list as it sweeps through the beauty of creation; from the heavens spread out like a curtain to the deeps in which the Leviathan play; the springs and brooks that quench the thirst of the wild donkeys to the cypress trees where storks dwell and the conies and wild goats taking refuge on the stony cliffs. How food is brought forth from the earth with wine to gladden hearts, oil to soothe and bread for strength. A true prayer of thanksgiving!

May God hold you in the palm of his hand

Christ, as a light illume and guide me

Sometimes though prayer can be difficult; when we are tempted to ask, ‘Why me?’ So often we seek responses to our prayers in very exact ways, and when they don’t appear to be answered ‘just so’ we may become disillusioned and distrusting. As part of a sermon recently we were asked to look at it in a slightly different way. Instead of asking. ‘Why has this happened to me?’ try removing the ‘Why’. Suddenly it becomes, ‘This has happened to me.’ Now our prayer can be for strength and guidance on how we are going to deal with the situation and thus be able to move forward, even if we need to take it day by day.

Which leads us to the evening of the day, when with that same one heart and mind that we started the day with we ask that the end of the day may be holy, good and peaceful, as our prayers rise before God; before finally, looking for a quiet night and perfect end to our day in a responsory prayer:

In peace we will lie down and sleep:
for you alone, Lord, make us dwell in safety.
Abide with us, Lord Jesus,
for the night is at hand and the day is now past.
As the night watch looks for the morning,
so do we look for you, O Christ.
The Lord bless us and watch over us;
the Lord make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
the Lord look kindly on us and give us peace
Amen

 

Heights & Depths blog

And for those who are still out there seeking, this beautiful prayer is taken from Celtic Daily Prayer, Morning Prayer from the Northumbrian Community:

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever He may send you.
May He guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.
May He bring you home rejoicing
at the wonder He has shown you.
May He bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.

Prayer, as I said at the beginning is as different and individual as we are, and whether our prayers are whispered in the dark or shouted from the rooftops, whether they come in fancy words or stuttering sobs, know that each and every one of them is heard. So never feel that your prayer time is wasted or that you don’t have time to pray. Those few precious moments could make all the difference to your day. Amen

Prayers have been reproduced from Daily Prayer ©The Archbishops’ Council 2005 and Celtic Daily Prayer ©2000, 2005 The Northumbria Community Trust