Tag Archives: Christ

What Does It Take For Us To Believe?

'This is impossible' said Alice

‘This is impossible’ said Alice

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19 – end

On the second Sunday of Easter we find out that not everyone was yet ready to believe the incredible Easter news that Jesus was alive. Some people still had their doubts, including the apostle Thomas. We also hear how another apostle, John, was persuading a group of Christians that what he had witnessed first hand was the truth. Put that alongside the growing number of believers who were learning a new way of living as a community and suddenly the question of what it would take to enable us to believe is one that we might ask; which is exactly what I did in my sermon this morning

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

If you don’t mind I’d like to start by conducting a straw poll with a show of hands. There are two main choices, but possibly an infinite number of circumstances and experiences that could fall into either of those categories.

I want you to think about your journey to faith, from when you first took an interest in Christianity to a point when you knew you believed. I wonder whether this was a sudden and datable experience or whether it was more of a gradual process, where you can perhaps remember a time when you didn’t believe and now you do but you don’t know exactly when that happened. Perhaps you’ve always believed or maybe you’re still on that journey.

None of these choices are better than the other, but it would be interesting to know, if you’re willing to share. Put your hands up [Reader, you too can join in, although remember that statistically the result will be 100% for whichever choice you raise your hand to] if your belief followed a sudden, ‘Damascus road’ type experience…… and now if your belief has been more gradual…… We’re actually quite representative of the average, which is about three-quarters describing it as gradual and a quarter as sudden.

I’d actually quite like to stop and hear from some of you about your journeys but I suppose I better carry on… because the really interesting bit might not be when it happened for those already there, but what it takes for us to believe.

The Incredulity of St Thomas blog

The Incredulity of St Thomas, Benjamin West (1738 -1820)

For Thomas it was the sheer physical proof of placing his hands on a man with whom he had spent the best part of the last three years and who he knew had been crucified, had died and had been shut up in a rock tomb and was now according to his friends and fellow disciples very much alive again; a man who was speaking to him and asking him not to doubt but to believe. This apparently indisputable proof led Thomas to publicly declare that Jesus was indeed ‘My Lord and my God’.

Where then does it leave those of us who will probably never have the opportunity to physically encounter Christ, at least not in the same way that those first disciples did? We are told that we are blessed more if we come to believe without seeing. Do we, therefore, come to belief because there are first-hand witness statements available to this event?

The First Letter of John

The First Letter of John

We don’t know for sure who the author of the first letter of John was, but from the very earliest of times it was believed to have been written by John, the fisherman and apostle of Jesus and bears striking similarities to the Gospel of John. Here is someone writing to one of the first group of Christians, who are somewhat unsure as their faith is being tested by spurious claims about whom Jesus really was; that he wasn’t actually human and didn’t really suffer on the cross; that he only ‘seemed’ human.

John writes to reassure these believers, that as a first-hand witness of Jesus’ ministry he and his friends saw and heard and touched Jesus when they became his disciples and shared his life. In this way their testimony is very convincing – they believed that Jesus was none other than the ‘Word’ of God – the source and meaning and purpose of life.

Even so, an eyewitness account is not quite the same as having concrete facts and figures, to inform our belief. Now before you get too excited I am not going to pull the ‘white rabbit’ of incontrovertible evidence out of my theological training ‘top hat’ but in amongst the minutia of historical data plenty of scholars and historian have investigated what might be myth and what could be reality.

WDITFUTB_Lament over the Dead Christ blog

Lament over the Dead Christ, Giovanni Bellini (c1432 – 1516)

We know that without a resurrection Christianity is counterfeit. As the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless’ 1 Corinthians 15:17. Accordingly, since a resurrection requires death, Jesus’ death by crucifixion has to be regarded as true. This ‘fact’ is attested to by a number of ancient sources, including the non-Christian historians, Josephus and Tacitus, who were therefore not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events.

We know that the chances of surviving crucifixion were very bleak and no evidence exists that Jesus was removed whilst still alive. The unanimous professional medical opinion is that Jesus certainly died due to the rigours of crucifixion, and even if he had somehow managed to survive, it would not have resulted in the disciples’ belief that he had been resurrected.

Il Precusore,

Il Precusore, Giulio Aristide Sartorio (1860 – 1932)

What about the empty tomb? Well its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, why would the chief priest have devised a plan to give a large sum of hush money to the guards, telling them to say that ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’ Matthew 28:12-13. It would also have been pretty impossible for the large group of believers to have suddenly sprung up in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before and for those same believers to have been willing to die brutal martyr’s deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

Were people hallucinating when they encountered the risen Christ? Well, usually hallucinations are something that happens in an individual’s brain and not repeatedly on separate occasions and certainly not to groups of up to 500 people! 1 Corinthians 15:6 Even if they were visions, brought on by the apostle’s grief over the death of their leader, surely the body would have still been in the tomb.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s Wager

Convincing facts and figures? Well maybe. Or perhaps Pascal’s Wager might be the reason why people believe. Pascal was a seventeenth-century philosopher who theorised that humans live their lives by wagering that believing in God is a good bet because if when they die he does exist then they have gained the best of everything, on the other hand if they don’t believe and then find out he does exist then they made the worst choice and will have lost everything. However if they were to discover after death that God never existed then it didn’t matter what you believed.

So by believing, you are in a win-win situation. This sort of hedging my bets is just one accusation made against Christians who assume that because they believe in the right God, they are automatically good and have a one-way ticket to everlasting life. However, it also assumes that God would always reward blind faith above living a conscious Christ-centred life and all of the obligations that that might bring.

WDITFUTB_Belief is truth blogPerhaps belief and faith are different then… that belief is something that our logical, human minds hold to be true whilst faith is something that is felt deep within our hearts. Or could it be that faith is based on belief and that is why faith alone is not possible because belief always brings about actions and reactions?

Some people might even say that faith is truth held in the mind and that belief is a fire in the heart. Perhaps we just can’t separate the mind and heart, because as we heard ‘The community of believers were of one heart and one mind’ Acts 4:32

I hope you’ve been aware that I’ve been careful to never actually define what it is exactly that we understand and count as belief. Some might say that’s a cop-out; that the church is forever allowing so much laissez-faire around declaring what it believes and stands for that it nullifies any claims it might have to the truth. Well, I’m sure that for the majority of us it will include the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected in order that we might ‘have life in his name’, but that for each of us that might mean something slightly different depending where we are on our journey of faith.

As we walk together in fellowship with each other and with God, let’s make sure that we’re not only helping each other to increase in faith, but that we are sharing our beliefs with others so that God’s joy may be complete. After all didn’t Jesus say ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. So let’s go and open a few more eyes to the truth of what we believe.

Amen

John 20:29

John 20:29

Tree of Life

Tree of Life, © Mary Fleeson, 2009, www.lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk

Detail from Tree of Life, © Mary Fleeson, 2000, www.lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk

A poem inspired by Mary Fleeson’s ‘Tree of Life’, that was written for a series of prayer stations at St John’s Church, Hedge End for Easter Sunday 5th April 2015

Tree of Life

in the midst of death
there is life;
life drawn from the
living water
and anchored in
the spirit;
spreading branches
o’er the whole of creation
to revitalise and renew;
manifest in grain and vine
in sorrow and in joy;
to fall and rise
on celestial wings;
no longer earth-bound;
with wounded limbs
both glorious and sublime.

Prayers for Passiontide

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head

A weekend away at college brings lots of new insights and learning, and it also gives us time for reflection. In the midst of all the talk about mission and preparing for ministry we entered Holy Week with a day of silence which was to include an area set aside for prayer and contemplation. Several people brought with them some resources to set up separate prayer stations but it is amazing that what might be disjointed individual activities often come together beautifully to make a whole spiritual space. Here are just a few highlights and the ideas behind them.

Making Palm Crosses

They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is he who comes  in the name of the Lord!” John 12:13

They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” John 12:13

Making palm crosses is not necessarily easy at the best of times but to have to give instructions without speaking  makes it even more interesting. These were used for the Palm Sunday procession later on in the morning

The station reminded us that Jesus knew he was on his way to the cross when he entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Many of those who had been with him and who cheered him that day were soon to fall away, unable to follow his instructions.  Matthew 16:24-25 reminds us that if we want to become followers of Jesus that we are required to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses. We were therefore asked to think whether we were willing to do so.

Kneeling at the foot of the Cross

When I survey the wondrous cross

When I survey the wondrous cross

Kneeling down and looking up at the cross is a powerful image. It was an opportunity to lay down all the things that we had got wrong  and for which we asked forgiveness for.

Before the cross as we thought of these things we could write or draw them in the sand. As the prayer told us:

Know that God forgives you…
Forgive yourself

PS Foot of the Cross Sand Blog

Now smooth out the sand… You are forgiven

 Now smooth out the sand…
You are forgiven

The Stones Cry Out

if these were silent,  the very stones  would cry out.” Luke 19:40

if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Luke 19:40

The cheering that accompanied Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem was upsetting the Pharisees and they ordered him to tell his disciples to keep quiet. His response that even if they were silent then the very stones that lined the roadside would cry out

A reminder that we can not keep silent about injustices, and we were invited to think and pray about all those who are suffering at this moment in time and then to place a stone before the cross

The Crown of Thorns

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13

At the hands of Pilate’s soldiers, Jesus was mocked, spat upon and struck. People of faith often suffer this humiliation at the hands and voices of those who do not understand, who belittle their beliefs and who do so out of hatred; the answer being to respond with love. Jesus predicted that this would happen (Matthew 10:22) but there was reassurance that God would provide the strength necessary to endure this. Lighting a candle was a way of giving thanks for this

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:13

 Consider the Lilies

Consider the Lilies - Stanley Spencer

Consider the Lilies – Stanley Spencer

A chance to contemplate one of Stanley Spencer’s beautiful painting that was produced as part of a series entitled Christ in the Wilderness (1939-54). Here we see Christ contemplating not the grand lilies but the humble daisy, whose faces are turned toward the absorbed attention of their creator. The reference is to Matthew 6:25-34 with its reminder of the futility of worrying. (Concept – Jenny Tebboth)

PS consider the lilies + flowers blog

 The Unity Cross and the Tree of Life

PS Unity Cross blog

The Unity Cross

Other things to contemplate were the Unity Cross and the Lindisfarne Scriptorium, Tree of Life. The cross had been especially commissioned  for our opening worship when as individuals we had each taken one of the small piece of coloured glass that were scattered on a table and placed them within the cross to symbolise our unity in Christ. (Concept Jenny Tebboth)

Likewise the drawing of the Tree of Life with Christ at the centre was used as an example of a powerful image for mission in one of the lectures

PS Unity Cross and Tree of Life blog

 Peg Prayers

Pegging out our prayers

Pegging out our prayers

Our own prayers were important as well and we pegged them knowing that God has promised to hear our prayers when we pray to him in faith

Other Prayer Activities

PS Prayer Activities

Also included were other prayer activities which included clockwise from top left above:

  • Poetry Corner – a chance to read and write our own poetry
  • Meditating on Christ on the cross
  • Tasting Scriptures
  • ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ with its imagery of the Eucharist
  • Lectio Divina
  • Praying for the Nations
  • Stations of the Cross (not pictured)
  • The Potter and the Clay based on Jeremiah 18 (not pictured)

All in all a veritable plethora of activities and images to not only provide breathing spaces in a day of quiet contemplation but to help make us more imaginative in our prayer lives for the future

 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Matthew 21:22

 

Righteous Anger – A Necessary Emotion

The righteous anger of Jesus, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC

Mosaic of Christ in Majesty, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC. Often known as ‘The Angry Jesus’

The third Sunday of Lent sees Jesus clearing the temple in Jerusalem. It is one of the few times that we see him displaying such raw emotion as he angrily removes the ‘thieves‘ from his Father’s ‘house of prayerMatthew 21:13. Often we consider anger as a negative emotion but there are undoubtedly times when it is right to be angry. It is how we use that feeling and who we direct that anger to that can be important.

The sermon I delivered this morning reflect some of the nuances that I had heard in an Oxcept Lecture by Diocesan Canon Angela Tilby entitled ‘Fragile Selves: Shame and Healing in an Age of Envy‘ and an informal talk given by Reverend Joseph John from St John’s Cathedral in Peshawar, Pakistan

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

Let’s imagine I am driving down one of the side streets in Hedge End. There is a long row of parked cars on my side of the road, so glancing ahead, as it’s all clear, I pull over onto the other side of the road and start to overtake them. About fifty yards down the road another driver suddenly decides to pull out of their driveway and turn towards me. I can see they are determined to have their right of way. They gesticulate repeatedly that I should reverse back down the road, the whole fifty yards. I in turn glare and gesticulate that it would be easier for them to simply reverse back up their drive, but they are having none of it and start to shout something, which luckily is unheard through the windscreen; and which is also lucky because they can’t hear the words coming from my car either! Eventually, after what seems like several minutes of stalemate, I decide it is easier to simply reverse, and do so rather slowly and erratically as I can feel my heart beating rapidly and tears pricking at the corner of my eyes. The final hand gesture as the other car whooshes past, its driver’s eyes fixed straight ahead, was I feel unnecessary and I have to sit there for a few minutes to regain my composure and let the angry feelings subside.

I knew I’d ‘lost it’, rather like a toddler, kicking and screaming on a supermarket floor, and the whole incident served no real purpose other than to raise my blood pressure and make me feel slightly ashamed. The trouble is that when we ‘lose it’ then our anger, as an emotion, is selfish, destructive, and amoral… However, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger’, which tells us that anger in itself is not an emotion we should avoid altogether

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger
Ephesians 4:26

This morning we heard of Jesus’ very vivid and public display of anger and it comes as something of a shock… although not as much of a shock as it must have been for the animal traders and money changers. We much prefer to think of Jesus as meek and mild, gentle and loving, but as with all of his actions, his anger had a purpose.

And it wasn’t the first time he had displayed this emotion. In Capernaum, with the Pharisees waiting to accuse him of breaking the Sabbath by healing the man with a withered hand, ‘He looked around at them with anger; deeply grieved at their hardness of hearts’. Even his own disciples came in for a tongue-lashing occasionally. When Peter rebukes him for foretelling his death and resurrection, Jesus then rebukes Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’; hardly said with a mild sigh of, ‘Oh Peter, Peter, Peter. Let me explain it one more time’

Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things
Matthew 16:23

When Jesus gets angry he is angry for the right reasons. It is not a selfish anger but focussed on the behaviour and injustice involved. He is not angry about the ‘weaknesses’ of others, but arises out of his concern for their spiritual well-being; they are defiling God’s holiness and in the case of the temple, God’s worship. It does not involve hatred or ill will. He is also fully in control and knew that when he had achieved the desired result of accomplishing God’s will that there was no need to become bitter or to hold grudges

Sometimes we need to become angry about things that are happening around us and in the wider world, at the injustices we see being inflicted on innocent victims, the abuse of children and violence against those who are defenceless, but we need to do so for the same reasons and in the same manner that Jesus has demonstrated. We need to make our voices heard in certain situations where no other voices are speaking up, in other words we need to raise awareness of situations. People are very quick to complain about the church and Christians in general when they ‘poke their noses’ into social situations, but at least it shows we care enough to state an opinion that might upset someone! And we shouldn’t underestimate the effect that holding regular prayer vigils, such the monthly ecumenical world-wide prayers for the Middle East or the annual Women’s World of Prayer can have on bringing issues to a wider audience.

However, should we not be in a position to interact with the public sphere then taking our concerns to God in private can create a safe space in which to express our anger about a situation. As the psalmist points out, ‘With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him’. So there are occasions when we are justified in being angry and there are some things we are justified in being angry about. But what about when we are angry with God? What should we do then?

With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him
Psalm 142:1-2

Maybe we have to ask ourselves why we are angry with God. We often live our lives believing that life is supposed to be easy and that God should prevent tragedies from happening. When he doesn’t, we get angry with him. Sometimes we forget human involvement, with all its flaws and weaknesses and instead think that God has lost control of his creation and consequently our lives, so we blame God. It’s then that we realise our inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that in fact we are not always in control and that when things happen, it is then we have to trust that God understands the reason and that he will give us his peace and strength to get through any difficult situation. Trusting him in this way is an incredibly hard thing to do… but God is a God of compassion and hope, as well as being full of grace and love.

And God does understand when we get angry through frustration and disappointment. He knows our hearts and he knows how difficult and painful life can be in this world. Perhaps instead of being angry with God, we should pour out our hearts in prayer, and trust that he really is in control and that he already knows how these things fit into his ultimate plan for the world

Recently it was brought home to me how this trusting was more powerful than any acts of anger or retaliation could ever be. The Reverend Joseph John is currently on sabbatical at Cuddesdon College. He is a cathedral vicar at St John’s Cathedral in Peshawar, Pakistan. When Pakistan achieved independence in 1947 a lot of its schools and hospitals were Christian institutions and even after 1956 when it was declared an Islamic Republic, the Christian communities, which now make up only 3% of the population, were successfully integrated as freedom of religion and equal citizenship was guaranteed to all citizens.

However, on the 22nd September 2013 two Taliban suicide bombers killed over 147 of the congregation at All Saints Church, Peshawar; among several of Joseph John’s close relatives. There was a lot to be angry about

Nearly two years later, whilst still seeking justice from the government, the Christians there have a wish is to be recognised and supported as the church that God called them to be. They know that they cannot simply expect God to produce peace, but must pray and work for it. This means listening deeply and trying to understand people who are different and also seeking to resolve differences without conflict and violence. The work that the church undertakes is not exclusively with Christians, in fact 95 percent of those benefitting from their education, development work and health care are Muslims.

They know that it requires courage and humility, and that it often requires sacrifice; but they continue to serve their neighbours, as Joseph John puts it, ‘by washing their wounds’. Their anger has been channelled into seeking justice and continuing to act faithfully because they trust that God is with them in this work and has a plan for all the people of Pakistan, even if they don’t know exactly what it is at this moment in time.

When Jesus speaks of the temple being destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days, those with him are also unable to see the connections to the bigger picture until it is revealed through Christ’s resurrection; then the pieces fell into place. Their knowledge and wisdom is limited to what the human mind tells them is logical. So are we foolish to proclaim Christ crucified, in order to save all who would believe its message? Human wisdom appears weak because it requires proof and concrete knowledge, but God’s wisdom and power dwarfs our understanding and therefore we just have to hand over ourselves to him and trust that eventually that wider vision will be revealed in all its glory. Amen

Concrete things as against those only glimpsed dimly

Concrete things as against those only glimpsed dimly

Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
don’t rely on your own intelligence.
Proverbs 3:5

Lent And How To Give It Up

The 40 Days of Lent

The 40 Days of Lent

This morning I finished my Parochial Placement with St Thomas’ church in Fair Oak and Horton Heath. It has been a useful and at times challenging experience with much to reflect on; but more of that in a later blog. However, today, Ash Wednesday, I was given the opportunity to preach at their 10am morning communion service and I took my reading from Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

Today sees the beginning of the Lenten season, when we concentrate our thoughts on the journey toward the cross. I would hope that our focus is always centred on the passion of Christ and ultimately his resurrection, but for the next few weeks we are asked to try to set aside and deny ourselves some of life’s worldly pleasures. But how might we do that?

Well I wonder how many of us have started the day having already been shriven? … In order to be shriven we need to have made a confession – a confession that we’ve not always got things right; that we’ve held back our love from those most in need of it; that we’ve failed to live up to what is expected of us as followers of Christ.

Do we need to shout out how sorry we are from the rooftops? No, our confession is to be done quietly, honestly and simply between God and ourselves and although he already knows everything we’ve done, by admitting it before him he will know just how repentant we are. We need to have done this so that we can approach Lent unburdened, forgiven and with open hearts and minds.

Of course a good many people have translated this unburdening to mean an emptying of the larder… To deny ourselves all the goodies such as sugars and fats in chocolates, biscuits, cakes, etc.  I suspect that fewer people would have known yesterday as Shrove Tuesday – rather it was Pancake Day – and jolly nice they were too!

But we shouldn’t feel smug that we know it more than as a chance to lose a few pounds in weight, because it is hard to give up things we love; and don’t you find that the more we deny ourselves the more the shops, magazines and television seems to be full of images and examples of our favourite treats – no wonder we might look dismal instead of joyful.

I wonder also if we don’t – and you’ll pardon the pun – ‘make a meal of it.’ How many times when we’ve been offered a forbidden treat have we answered ‘Oh I can’t eat … I’ve given it up for Lent’ thus declaring to the world how good we’re being, rather than a simple ‘No thank you.’

This period is also a time for considering offering financial support with a donation to a charity or cause – perhaps with the money we’ve saved on buying all those goodies?  Maybe there’s a special Lent appeal, or Lent programme that puts a cost against the many blessings we already receive – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong in doing something like that – in fact I would encourage us all to take this opportunity to review our sacrificial giving – but an anonymous donation will mean so much more than an official thank you note.

We undertake this journey with Christ just as his disciples did on that first Lenten journey and I don’t expect Jesus was worried about how much sugar the disciples were putting on their breakfast cornflakes. He was more concerned that they understood what was going to happen, what they needed to know about and how they were going to continue his work – because time was running out.

We also only have a limited time, and I don’t just mean these six weeks, the rest of the year or even our lifetime, in which to make a difference and to really appreciate what we are being called to do. That time starts right now when we need to draw closer to God and so begin to gather up those imperishable treasures of goodness, mercy and love. In that way we will not only discover our own hearts but God’s as well.

Amen

I would like to finish by reading you a poem called Lenten Days

Lentern Window

Lenten Window – from the old to the new – from death to life

Let’s Talk About Money

Generous Giving

Generous Giving

I was recently asked to preach a sermon on giving. Not that our giving isn’t already generous in so many ways, but from time to time it’s useful to be reminded not only why we need to give as a response to a generous God, but also how we need to respond to requests to review our level of giving. This topic can be quite a tricky one for lots of churches and so I thought it would be good to share a slightly adapted version. The readings that informed these ideas were Deuteronomy 15:1-11; 2 Corinthians 8:1-3, 9:6-12 and Matthew 6:19-34.

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

Today, on Bible Sunday, as on any day really, we are asked to think carefully about how important the bible is in helping to bring us closer to and to know God better; about his plans for us and for his world and just what our part in those plans might be, as followers of Christ… and it’s important to remember that ALL of us have a part to play.

The passages above all have a common theme running through them – they speak of the generosity of a God who knows no limit to his blessings for us, and they help us see the response that is expected on our part… to be equally generous in our giving, both of ourselves physically and our prosperity materially. So, I could say that I’m not going to ask you to give serious thought as to what and how you give – but quite honestly that would be as blatant a lie as those telephone calls you get from time to time….

‘Hello madam. How are you today…. now don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell you anything…..’

Now perhaps, like me, you occasionally want to slam the phone down immediately, because you know that that’s exactly what they do want to do, and it’s annoying that they don’t just say straight out what they want from you; so perhaps you will choose to stop reading at this point and click off of the page. But what I am asking you to do… in fact what I’d rather you did, is to carry on and discover some of the reasons, all revealed and supported within the bible, as to how and why each of us needs to be as generous as we are able, and afterwards to spend some time reflecting and praying about your levels of giving and what you might do about that.

We hate talking openly about money, it makes us feel uncomfortable, sometimes we feel a sense of indignation or even guilt but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be talked about. As church members it can seem that the Church is always asking for more… more of our time, more of our money… so that we’re never left in peace. There’s always some job that needs paying for; the parish share to be met, the books to be balanced. So why then should we give?

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also – Matthew 6:21

If we drive a car we know that we have to pay out to maintain it, if we don’t then eventually the car will stop working and it will be very expensive to repair or replace. If we have a hobby we have to invest a bit of money setting ourselves up with materials and equipment and as we get more proficient at it we may have to spent a bit more on different tools. The buildings in which we sit for church, have been dedicated and sanctified as a place where Christians can gather. If they fell down around our ears we could still gather there, because they’re not just buildings. They also aren’t buildings that should be preserved as pristine museums, so that people can drop in and visit it and say how wonderful it must have been to worship there; so it seems sensible that we try and ensure that we and future generations at least have a roof over our heads.

Therefore, our giving enables worship – whether we are giving of our time on Sunday to be with God, sing his praise, hear his word, share his sacraments, which is the first part of our giving. Or the second part, that our giving of money helps maintain the holy place where we worship, a place of history, a place of beauty, a place of peace and challenge, a place to glorify God.

Our giving of money also helps provide wages and resources for those who minister to us, who lead us in worship, for our music and others who enrich our worship. We need people leading us who are trained and knowledgeable and dedicated to helping us grow in our knowledge of Christ both in word and deed. If we are to sustain and enable that leadership we have to understand that it costs. The early church often paid its leaders in kind – in Matthew’s gospel for example:

Go and preach, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is near!’ … Do not carry any gold, silver, or copper money in your pockets; do not carry a beggar’s bag for the trip or an extra shirt or shoes or a walking stick. Workers should be given what they need – Matthew 10:7, 9-10

Likewise, the medieval church, who asked for donations of bread, wheat, mead and vegetables; although we’ve moved on from that now and use money instead, which is much better because quite frankly I don’t think our ministers or anyone else we have to support could cope with vast quantities of eggs and butter and pots of jam landing on their doorsteps and I’m pretty certain the gas board or the petrol station or the local council wouldn’t understand either when they tried a bit of bartering for their bills.

Our giving enables discipleship – Our giving of time and talent can help children and young people grow in the Christian faith and help those who study together to understand the gospel more fully, so that all can learn how to live faithfully. But it is our giving of money that can help provide resources for this learning, both in our own congregation and throughout our dioceses.

I wonder though how many of us use our own money to provide resources for the church? We think we are being generous… and we are, but we’re actually hiding the true cost of discipleship. We should be coming to the church and our treasurer and saying in order to do this it’s going to cost this, please can you reimburse me. Of course it may be that after having received the money you decide to offer it back as a donation, and you can say that that’s a load of faff, but it’s more valuable that we do realise the true cost. However, we don’t have a bottomless pit of money, but if we all become more aware then we can make sure that we can all contribute to that.

Our giving enables service – our giving of time and talent can assist our congregation in its service to the community, caring for some of those who are most vulnerable in our society. Every single church member can say that they give to the church, in so many different and diverse ways, you serve at his altar, you sing in the choir, you make cups of tea, you comfort the sick, the lonely and the bereaved, you clean, you organise, you lead, you turn up each week; and that’s absolutely wonderful and very sacrificial, but that can’t be treated wholly as a substitute for financial giving

One of the hardest passages in the bible to read is that of the young man who wants to follow Jesus, he knows exactly how he should behave and treat others, he does all those things that we can all do it without dipping our hands into our pockets, but Jesus says it’s not enough, you have to shed your reluctance and reliance on making sure that your nest egg is large enough and instead trust God that he will provide for you.

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well – Matthew 6:31-33

I can almost hear you thinking, ‘Yes, but it would be super if we actually got to use the money that we give, on things that we want to happen and support,’ and it’s true that over the last few years I’ve got tired of thinking that every penny we give is often not quite sufficient to meet the demands of the diocesan Parish Share and has to be topped up by such hard work by the fundraising and social committees.

However, giving to an overarching hierarchy is nothing new either – the early churches were doing it when collecting for the church in Jerusalem, and they appears to do it with a spirit of generosity like the churches in Macedonia; but I believe things will change, particularly in the Winchester Diocese over the next few years, and that hopefully we might be in the more joyful position of deciding exactly what we want to spend our money on with the Parish Share review; which doesn’t mean that we have less to raise but it does mean that we can really get stuck into thinking of way in which the Good news can be brought to more people.

And there’s the nub… Our giving reflects our faith. We could say ‘why can’t the church do less, cut its cloth according to its means, and be content with what we already do, with what we already give’. Well, I suppose that’s one way to go – we could become more inclusive, look after our church; our people, but that would be like ‘storing up for ourselves, ‘treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal -Matthew 6:20

Surely, we have to realised what the real treasure is – that God has given us life and love, that he has shown us the extent of this love in the life and death of Jesus and that he has promised us new life through Jesus’ resurrection. Right now we can hear the good news of the gospel… and it certainly is good news for ourselves; it’s good news to know that we have personal salvation, it’s such good news that we almost what to hug it and keep it close to us. Yet, if it’s such good news for us why aren’t we bursting to share it with other – the gospel that we proclaim by word and example is a gospel for the world, a gospel for everyone. As Jesus said to his first disciples:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age – Matthew 28:19-20

I think sometimes we forget that each us of is individually called to proclaim the Gospel, not just a special few, but everyone. So our giving enables mission – our giving of time and talents assists in providing outreach to the community, providing a Christian presence in every part of life, while our giving of money helps to fund projects to bring the gospel to those who have yet to be challenged by it, and enabling the wider Church to comment on the social, moral and political issues of our time.

How more effective it is, when the world takes notice because it sees a group of people who are willing to make generous investment of their time, energy, gifts and money to share and spread the gospel…

The Widow's Mite by James C. Christensen

The Widow’s Mite by James C. Christensen

God calls us to be infinitely generous, like the widow and her mite in Luke’s gospel:

For the others offered their gifts from what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, gave all she had to live on – Luke 21:4

That’s a really hard message to hear and live out, but what about making a start by at least considering what we have to spare…maybe we’re still reluctant sometimes to increase our giving because we honestly don’t think we have any money to spare

A Hotey Money Box

A Hotey Money Box

I actually surprised myself the other day when I looked at my ‘hotey’ money box. ‘Hotey’ – as in Don Quixote? Yes, I know he’s lost an ear, but it steadfastly refuses to stick back on… We made these at the beginning of Lent. So every time I come back from the shops and have those small coins that make your purse or wallet bulge I pop them in the box, and I also help my husband David prevent himself from wearing holes in his trouser pockets by relieving him of his pocket shrapnel as well…

As you can see it’s pretty full now, and looking at it I think there’s at least £50 in there – just made up of the small amounts of money that was spare and that we haven’t really missed – on average £3 a week … and it doesn’t have to be saved up to be given as a one off gift. Those are great for specific purposes, but it’s much more valuable knowing as a church that you are receiving a regular income, so that you can plan and budget for all the things you want to do and support. That’s not to say that we all have a lot to spare, all of our circumstances are different, but it was interesting to realise that perhaps if we do have some spare capacity to consider what we could do with it. Just imagine if everyone only had a spare 50p a week to increase their regular giving – an average congregation of 70 people could be equally sharing an increase of £1820 per year – a £1 would double that to £3640.

At the beginning, I said that I wanted this to be an opportunity to hear how and why each of us needs to be as generous as we are able, using the bible as our guide. It was not my aim to make anyone feel angry or guilty, but for you to go away prepared to review and reflect, and to then come to a decision, so that the next time you are approached to consider increasing your giving you know what your answer will be. At the end of the day, as Paul said to the Corinthians:

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver – 2 Corinthians 9:7

Our giving of time, talent and money is a giving for the Gospel… for the Good News, and this fact was brought home to me the other day when I was privileged to be able to look through and choose some books that Sheila and Gordon Rose’s family had passed on to the church; among them were several bibles, and in many of them were personal greetings. One that stood out for me was this one in the front of  a Good News bible.

Gordon had written ‘To Sheila, hoping that it will always be “Good News”’

However on this Bible Sunday, I’m going to let Sheila have the last word, with a prayer that she had written and that was tucked into the front of her bible

A Prayer on Opening My Bible
As I settle for this time of quiet, O God, hush my heart and quicken my understanding.
I bless you for scribes, scholars and translators who have served your holy will.
I bless you for the great Bible Societies that have made this book available in my language.
I pray for a living expectancy, as I wait to learn what you will say to me as I read.
I pray for courage to face new challenges and to embrace new truth
For Christ’s son
Amen

Sermon delivered on Bible Sunday, 26th October 2014

Sant’Egidio – An Example of Cheerful Giving

Comunità di Sant'Egidio

Comunità di Sant’Egidio

The second in a series of reflections following a visit to Rome to discover its links with the early Christian church and the church as it is today

Up until a month ago I had never heard of a saint called Egidio, and even when I found out that it was the Italian translation of St Giles I had to look up who he was. Having done so I discovered that Giles was a hermit monk who lived deep in a forest with only a hind [female deer] for company. One day when the king and his retinue came a-hunting, an arrow, intended for the deer, struck and wounded Giles and thereafter he became the patron saint of those who were physically and mentally challenged and as a consequence were often those cast out from society.

It was therefore entirely appropriate when a community of lay Christians chose the church of Sant’Egidio in the Trastevere area of Rome to become a centre for continuous prayer and welcome for the poor and pilgrims. This was back in 1968 and since then the work that the community has done since and is still doing amongst the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed and quite frankly the unloved has been amazing.

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly
or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver – 2 Corinthians 9:7

 When one thinks of giving it is often in the sense of a monetary capacity – donations to various charities, towards the upkeep of our churches, payrolling the official ministry team – but at Sant’Egidio’s the giving is from the heart, entirely voluntary and selfless. All of the volunteers are lay members of the church, often with full-time paid employment or family commitments who agree to be part of the community as regularly and as often as they can; not simply as an occasional act of philanthropy but as an inclusive life-choice.

Christmas Meal in the church of Sant'Egidio

Christmas Meal in the church of Sant’Egidio

Their main work is in solidarity with the poor and homeless who end up for a multitude of reasons on the streets of Rome,  and who each day are welcomed into the Centre for a meal, use of the washing facilities (both bodies and clothes) and healthcare through the medical centre. The meals themselves are not simply doled out – care and attention is paid to offer a proper substantial meal, with fruits and drinks, presented on cloth-covered tables, proper cutlery and served by the helpers with smiles and respect. At Christmas time this meal turns into a huge banquet served in the church itself with personalised… yes personalised  presents for each and every person there.

‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you’ Luke 14:12-14

Prayers are offered each day

Prayers are offered each day

The Community also provides spiritual support to those in need because the heart and the life of the community is in communicating the Gospel both in word and action. Each day prayers are offered at both morning and evening worship. However, it is often spiritual matters of a more practical nature that are of concern. Many of the street people have been abandoned by or lost touch with their families and they are worried about what will happen to them when they die. Here the community steps in to reassure them that even at this moment they can rest assured that as part of the community family they will receive a proper funeral and their memories will be treasured through continuing prayer.

Just some of the Amicos who work in the Sant'Egidio sponsored restaurant

Just some of the Amicos who work in the Sant’Egidio sponsored restaurant

The work of the community doesn’t stop at acting responsively, it is also proactive and its project in setting up and running a restaurant staffed by a unique mix of ‘amico and amica’ – some of whom have learning disabilities – is a great success which is drawing comments from neighbouring establishments who are now beginning to be more inclusive in their own choice of staffing – and the food is delicious too!

Other projects that the community is involved in are working with immigrants, refugees and the Roma people to overcome language barriers where bureaucracy is involved and running ‘Schools of Peace’ for families and children. They are also active in ecumenical dialogue, which is just one of the reasons we were welcomed so warmly during our visit.

All in all I came away from the experience feeling incredibly uplifted by the sheer demonstration of what can be achieved when we choose to live our lives wholly sacrificially –  because joy certainly abounds when Christ is placed at the centre of everything.

The interior of the church of Sant'Egidio, Trastevere, Rome

The interior of the church of Sant’Egidio, Trastevere, Rome

More information about the work of the community can be found here: http://www.santegidio.org/