Tag Archives: christian

Listen… Learn… Love

Sermon preached on Sunday 5th September 2021, introducing the Pastoral Principles of Acknowledging Prejudice and Speaking Into Silence ahead of the Living in Love and Faith course to be run at St James’ Church, West End in October 2021. Using the lectionary readings of James 2:1-10, 14-17 and Mark 7:24-37

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Loving God; creator Father, redeeming Son and sustaining Spirit. Amen

 On the bottom of my emails I have a quotation of Martin Luther King, which says, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter“. Of course, for King the silence was to do with the discrimination of black people, mainly in America, but also around the world, where people’s skin colour was deemed to be the only necessary indicator of sub-humanity and therefore gave others the right to mistreat, subjugate and even kill a black person with no recriminations or sense of guilt.

At some point, someone, somewhere must have pre-judged this human being who stood in front of them, a mirror of shape and form of themselves, but a different hue, and persuaded others that this was the case. They must have had power and authority that enabled them to do this, and took others silence as acquiescence and so it became accepted as the norm which people passively accepted and taught their children and children’s children that this was how it was. If anyone did protest, the power of common psyche overrode any objections, and silence was easier than speaking out. A silence that speaks volumes.

Some of you will have heard me quote the poem from Martin Niemöller about the Jewish Shoah in World War II, ‘First they came for the Jews’ in which a person remained silent whilst the Jews, the communists, the trade unionist were taken without anyone speaking out, until it came to their turn, and they realised that ‘there was no one left to speak out for me’. In many cases this silence was because of fear; fear of the Nazis and the power that they wielded, fear of being the one who spoke out; fear of going against the norm.

One question that is often asked is what were the Christian communities or individual doing whilst both of these unspeakable chapters of human history were taking place? For many Christians their position was actually dictated by scripture. They searched the bible and found passages that supported their stance, particularly when God made a covenant with Abraham in regard to circumcision, ‘Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money… that very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised; and all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him (Genesis 17:23, 26-27). Here was their evidence that God condoned slavery

Many Christians saw this as meaning that slavery was morally acceptable. In fact, a Methodist preacher George Whitfield said, ‘As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house’. George Whitfield himself owned slaves and campaigned for slavery to be reinstated in the American state of Georgia after it was abolished there in 1751.

Maybe we consider it ironic or preordained that it was the Quakers who were early leaders in the campaign to ban slavery. The Quakers, whose worship of God involves sitting in silence, not to prevent anyone from speaking, but to listen, to hear more clearly God’s ‘still small voice’. And of course, Jesus himself exhorts people multiple times in the gospel to listen closely to his message, when he says, ‘He who has ears, let him hear’. It’s the listening to each other that helps us understand more

We know that you can’t claim justification of your actions using snippets of scripture, passages that reflect the context in which the people were living at the time, because you then fail to see the bigger picture and overarching message of God’s love for each and every individual, born and created in his own image. Moreover, prejudice comes when scripture is abused rather than used.

In his epistle, James is writing from a Jewish background at a time when most Christians came from a Jewish heritage. He was also writing in a very partial age, filled with prejudice and hatred based on class, ethnicity, nationality, and religious background. In the ancient world people were routinely and permanently categorized because they were Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, Greek or barbarian, or whatever. His message was that this kind of partiality has no place among Christians.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point
has become accountable for all of it
James 2:10

When we treat people differently because of their appearance, their background, their lifestyles and their sexuality, we are picking and choosing how we hear and interpret the message, creating prejudices that are taken as up and regarded as the only truth, and if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, many of us won’t even realise it because it has become our norm and excuse to remain silent about these things.

It’s then that we have to make a greater effort to listen to each other, to not make assumptions, but to welcome the opportunity to gain understanding. To apply that knowledge and change things where they need to be changed. Jesus demonstrates this simple fact when his assumptions were challenged. When what he considered the norm, that his mission was only to the chosen children of God, the Jewish people, was set aside when he heard what the Syrophoenician woman had to say. He listened and heard her faith and responded to show that no-one was to be excluded.

One thing that we are being asked to listen to and hear right now is how prejudice and silence have meant that another group of people have also been excluded and suffered at the hands of the church. The LGBTI+ community, and I’ll spell it out for you, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex + community.

Central to our faith is a belief that each of us is unique and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God… but as a community and as individuals they have been abused by the church, denied inclusion, forced to deny their very individuality and identities, even forced to undergo therapy and medical interventions in silence and in fear… and few people have come forward to speak into that silence.

More often than not it is because people don’t know, don’t understand or don’t want to challenge what they believe is the norm. We mustn’t be those people. The norm is only the thing we want it to be. We need to hear their stories, we need to listen to their injustices, we need to take up the challenge of inclusion, we need to love each other in the same way that God loves us unconditionally.

For the Syrophoenician woman it was her faith that persuaded Jesus that things had to change, for the deaf man it was his inability to make himself clearly heard that persuaded Jesus to step forward and help him. For us it is the recognition that God doesn’t see the colour of our skin or our gender or our sexuality; what he sees is what is in our hearts; he sees us for ourselves and not how others want us to be; he sees us as individuals, his marvellous creation, beloved and precious in his sight.

As an individual I have, over many years, made a conscious effort to listen to LGBTI+ people, to hear their stories, to reflect on my own upbringing, to read the bible, to pray, in order to discern what my response should be, trying to be as faithful to God’s Word as I can. It wasn’t always straightforward; it took time, and I did have to consider the views of others. However, I’m now comfortable with trying to help others to take that same journey.

And so, this October, I urge you to join in the conversations through the Living in Love and Faith course we are running, to understand more, to put aside assumptions and prejudice, to have the courage to start the process of breaking up the silence.

To listen…to learn… to love one another… just as God loves us, wholeheartedly and unashamedly.

Amen

The Living in Love and Faith course will run at St James’ Church, West End, starting on Thursday 7th, and continuing on 14th, 28th October and 4th, 11th November between 7.30pm and 9pm. Each session has short videos and there will be break-out groups for discussion and Bible study. You are welcome to join us.

Initiating Universal Motherhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Called To Be Saints

All Saints, Elizabeth Wang © Radiant Light

A sermon written and preached on All Saints Sunday, 1st November 2020 based on Matthew 5:1-12 and 1 John 3:1-3

This morning we celebrate All Saints, a time when we remember all those who have in one way or another been exemplars of the Christian faith; people who have somehow rose above the humdrum of life and shine out as beacons of commitment to the Christian message… Of course, the most famous saints are known for their deeds that have been written about over the centuries. They appear in the bible and chronicles, as leaders of communities and popular figureheads.

Our own East window depicts a large body of saints from the time of Christ throughout the life of the church. You may notice that not one of them is a woman, although women have been saints since time immemorial! However, I would suggest that this window reflects more accurately the patriarchal society of the Victorian age rather than a sleight on the ability of women to be called saints.

Even so, they stand before us robed in nobility and transformed in glory. Near impossible models of distinguished sainthood and yet their histories are based on living out the attributes that Jesus revealed, not just with his closest group of disciples, but to a crowd of ordinary people on the side of a hillside; people like you and me.

Here was Jesus’ call to us to live the Gospel, by putting into practice in daily life the beatitudes, to demonstrate meekness, mercy, righteousness, justice, purity and peace. ‘Blessèd are the peacemakers… although Monty Python’s film the Life of Brian would have had us believe it was the cheesemakers!

Pope Francis has written that, “Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the beatitudes,” which are “the Christian’s identity card.” He asserts that “If anyone asks: what must one do to be a good Christian?” then “the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Developing and exhibiting these characteristics, direct each of us to be more saintlike, a calling that Paul highlighted was possible to the people of Corinth, Ephesus and Rome, all of whom he wrote were, ‘called to be saints’. So, it follows that we are all called to be saints, to be witnesses to Christ, but there are many ways of bearing witness and many ways to be blessed.

Earlier this year Dave Walker and Jayne Manfredi produced a very clever cartoon for the Church Times. It was entitled ‘Beatitudes for a Global Pandemic’ and whilst the nature of cartoons is to make us smile, they often hold truths beyond the humour.

Here then are eight beatitudes in a form for our current situation as we move back into lockdown and need God’s love and presence with us even more through this continuing time of uncertainty.

Blessèd are the teachers, for they remain steadfast and constant in disturbing times

Blessèd are the those who stay indoors for they will protect others

Blessèd are the single parents, for they are coping alone with their responsibilities and there is no respite

Blessèd are those who are isolated with their abusers, for one day – we pray they will know safety

Blessèd are the hospital workers, the ambulance crew, the doctors, the nurses, the care assistants, and the cleaners, for they stand between us and the grave, and the kingdom of heaven is surely theirs

Blessèd are the bereaved, for whom the worst has already happened, for they shall be comforted

Blessèd are those who are alone and isolated, for they are children of God and with him they will never be lonely

Blessèd are all during this time who have pure hearts, all who still hunger and thirst for justice, all who work for peace and who model mercy. May you know comfort, may you know calm, and may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.

Today we remember all the saints, but don’t forget that they are still here and that they move among us each and every day. They are you and me when we answer Jesus’ call and bear witness to his love

Blessèd are those who believe, for they are a comforting presence in a hurting world as they continue to signpost toward God

Amen

Denying Ourselves

 

Photo Credit: Werner Volmari / Unsplash

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity based on the following readings:
Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-end

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

I have recently found out the rather wonderful news that one of my daughters, Lizzie, is expecting and I am to be a nana for a second time. Everything is progressing well, although it’s been hard on her husband Lewis as he has not been able to attend any of her scans with her, which could have been a bit scary if the news were not so good.

However, a blood test has revealed that she has gestational diabetes, the news of which came just as she had enjoyed a piece of homemade cake, so no more treats for a while. Hopefully, she will be able to control this by denying herself some of the more sweet things in life and although it will be a minor hardship she will change her lifestyle for the benefit of her unborn child – a necessary form of suffering.

Suffering you may say… suffering…. is that really suffering? Well suffering means to undergo pain, distress or hardship and it can be physical, emotional, or mental. It can be as simple as not getting what you want or as tough as living with a terminal illness. Whatever level of suffering it might be, it was the one thing that Jesus told his disciples both he and them and those that came after would face in one way or another.

Alongside this they were to ensure a change in their lifestyles to that of self-denial, defined as ‘the willingness to deny oneself possessions or status, in order to grow in holiness and commitment to God’. It is an essential part of our Christian life to renounce our egos, where we are the centre of existence (which, lets be honest, goes against our natural inclinations) and recognise instead that Jesus is our true centre.

Carol spoke last week about Peter’s naming of Jesus as the Messiah as a pivotal moment in his story, and we can see that from now on there is a distinct change of mood. Less of the teaching in parables and more about warnings of what lies ahead for him and his followers.

Once again it is Peter who resists the idea of such a thing happening, but even Peter himself was soon to come to understand exactly what was required. The disciples had already showed what it meant to step away from the life that they knew, to go out into a world that is sometimes so diametrically opposite to what Jesus was teaching and to see this through to the bitter end.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me. “

The idea of self-denial is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, that ‘‘When Christ calls a man (and you can substitute woman here), he bids him come and die’. This is the ultimate act of selflessness but through denying ourselves each day, our life in Christ grows, strengthens, and develops more and more. Christ now becomes our life.

So, what does that life look like? Well Paul, in his letter to the Romans outlines what the Christian life might look like with this new way of thinking; a complete contrast to the idea of community put forward by the empire. In the community of Christ, people are called to honour each other, whether they are the wealthiest, highest status members of the group or the lowliest workers and migrants. Love is not to be measured or mechanical, but genuine, joyful and from the heart.

There is to be no more sycophancy and toadying to those more prominent in society in order to get ahead – Uriah Heaps there were to be none! Instead we are to look in completely the opposite direction – to the needs of the poor, offering hospitality, a meal, work if we have it, anything to make people’s lives better. And the streets of Rome could be pretty lawless in those days, so it made sense to align yourself with the Roman ‘mafia’ and give as good as you got. Again, not so says Paul, instead you should offer a blessing to those who persecute you, don’t repay evil for evil, live at peace and leave the wrath to God.

Paul’s way of imagining what self-denial means should be no different nowadays if we are to be part of Christ’s community. It is sometimes a hard path to walk and can lead to personal suffering, and there is no doubt that from time to time, like Christ, we will stumble under the weight of the cross we are being asked to take up. But it is also the only way to life.

The promise is that those who commit themselves totally to Jesus will, one day, see his glory and be welcomed into his kingdom, and if we’re lucky, we may also glimpse his glory in this life as well.

Amen

God’s Attitude Should Be Ours

 

Rainbow Through the Trees

Our attitudes to God and each other should be the same as his attitude to us. A sermon for Evensong based on Jeremiah 7:1-16 and Romans 9:14-26

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

I want us to reflect this evening on our attitude to God and our attitude to each other as Christians. How our differences can be a stumbling block not only to our relationship with God but also to those who see us a stumbling block to any sort of belief in God or the Christian Faith. By ‘us’ I am not necessarily referring to individual Christians here at St James’ church, but a more general broader identity, but it does us no harm to consider what our own attitudes might be in some of these situations.

First though, we have to go back to the pre-Christian ‘church’ where Jeremiah’s radical and hard hitting words proclaim God’s judgement on a nation that believed they were unassailable in their right to God’s protection and salvation. Their interpretation of the scriptures, the laws that protected their faith and their judgement of others was predestined and incontestable. However, they were in for a shock – there was no way that God was going to let them treat the temple in a mindless, shallow way by assuming that forgiveness was automatic simply by walking through the doors.

As Jeremiah stresses quite forcibly – ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ – a triple, Trinitarian reminder, that even though Christ was yet to live on earth, that here was Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here was the simple statement that if you want to be true believers then you have to stop abusing foreigners and the weakest members of society, the easy targets. Neither could you disregard the most basic of commandments nor cherry pick those that have more in common with your way of thinking or lifestyle. If you mistreat your holy places, turning them in to a ‘den of robbers’ – a sentiment echoed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel – then you should know that God will not protect them, they will be abandoned and eventually destroyed – there was and is no automatic security of God being with you… A self-righteous attitude will not save you.

The people’s disobedience of God’s commandments, brings what would appear be a harsh response and directive to Jeremiah, ‘do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.’

For the people in Rome, whom Paul was addressing, they were struggling with their identity, attempting to understand what the term ‘Israel’ meant in regard to being chosen people. Paul explains that God hasn’t broken his covenant to original people of Israel, as this was never intended to just apply to the race who shared Abraham’s blood group, but, as he states earlier in his letter as well, those who shared in his faith. Moreover, here was a God who would not be contained by people’s views and attitudes, here was a God who sprung surprises even on the most faithful, choosing Jacob over Esau, demonstrating his sovereign right to do so. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart to highlight his greater power

God does what he wants, as evidenced in the metaphor of the potter’s right to create from the same lump of clay whatever objects he chooses. He has a purpose for of his creations, and the fact that some are chosen and some are not is not the same as pre-destination, this is amazing grace.

God's Amazing Grace

The belief in the omnipotence of the one true God may lead to the conviction that God exerts control over every human action, but God is not only powerful but just.  It is not an injustice to be merciful, to apparently treat some people better than they deserve. To be chosen by God is a gracious gift, not an achievable reward. He can be trusted because he had done what he promised, calling people regardless of their faith; their gender, their sexuality.

We may question why, as Paul says, ‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’’. That conversation though is between God and us as individuals, others have no right to ask the same of a person.

There is an arrogant complacency within the Church of England that breaks my heart for it as an institution. An arrogance among Christians today who feed their own theologies into the media, which then labels divisive and exclusive views as representative of all Christians. It is not our job to decide who is unworthy and it certainly isn’t for us to link unworthiness to those who disagree with our theology based on limited fragments of scripture.

John Barton in his commentary, describes God as ‘an untamed deity, a wild thing not reducible to theological formulae.’

As Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”. ’ ‘And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, there they shall be called children of the living God.’

As Christians, representative of the one, true God we do well to make this our own attitude. Amen

 

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

 

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Not the cheeriest subject for this time of year – or any time of the year really, but a weekend’s training, curtailed somewhat into an intensive one-day session due to an outbreak of Norovirus at college, saw us gathering on a very cold and frosty morning in Diocesan Church House, Oxford to contemplate our own and other’s mortality and our responses, as part of our pastoral training.

Having to face death is part and parcel of being a priest; the initial contact to the bereaved, the nuts and bolts of organising a funeral service and the continuing pastoral support to all those affected are skills that can be taught but that can only be developed, unfortunately, through practice, which is always at the expense of someone’s grief.

We may therefore have expertise, but we will never truly be experts. So, hard as we might wish to, we can never honestly say that we know exactly what someone is going through or what they are feeling, as each person’s experience of the death of a loved one is unique. What we can do is to come alongside the bereaved, not shying away because we fear we’ll get it wrong and make things worse, but offering to listen or just to sit in the silence,

Gravestones blogAnd I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away’
Revelation 21:3-4

Accepting the reality of death for many people can be particularly hard and there are many euphemisms that are used to try to alleviate the finality of human life. Phrases such as the deceased having ‘passed away’ or ‘gone into the darkness’. Believing that they’ve ‘become a star’ or ‘gone to a better place, to be with Jesus or Granny’ etc. are all quite commonplace. Humour also features in sayings such as the cockney rhyming slang ‘brown bread’ for dead or ‘sleeping with the fishes’ with it’s undertones of Mafia involvement. It’s also interesting to discover the origin of some of these phrases; for example ‘kicked the bucket’ actually refers to the grotesque history of lynch mobs standing their victims on upturned buckets, which were then kicked away, or the more practical ‘popped their clogs,’ where the Lancastrian meaning of ‘popped’ equates to ‘pawned,’ so that in order to afford the funeral, the deceased’s family would place their clogs in hock until they could afford to redeem them!

However, death is a reality and needs to be faced, and as Christians we have something that offers a unique reassurance – a hope for the future. When we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ – a euphemism courtesy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – we look to Christ’s promise of eternal life. Just how that will look can differ enormously depending on your theology; but one beautifully imaginative description of what this might be comes at the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, a book that is often considered an allegory of the Book of Revelation.

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before

Out of death comes life - tiny cyclamens planted in the graveyard

Out of death comes life – tiny cyclamens in the graveyard

It was also important that we contemplated our own mortality so that we could become aware of our own thoughts and understanding about death because no-one is immune to the physical and emotional aspects of grief. Time spent in reflection enabled us to work through these attitudes in order that we can be better placed in the future to support those who will rely on us doing our ‘job’  both professionally and pastorally.

What is clear in all of this is that when death is not the end of life then death takes on a whole new meaning however it occurs

Death Comes

Death comes out of the shadows,
padding with stealthy footsteps;
like a thief in the night
to steal away life’s breath.

Death comes tumbling on the wind,
choking with gritty determination;
like a sudden desert sandstorm,
to obliterate hope and dreams.

Death comes with iron jaws,
lurking among the undergrowth;
like a hidden gin,
to bind and snare.

Death comes after sentence quashed,
counting the endless days;
like a prisoner of conscience ,
to bring welcome release.

Death comes in the shape of a cross,
sacrificing innocence;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
to redeem and bless humanity.

Grave Flowers blog


Roman Reflections – Supersize Faith

The Altar Canopy or Baldacchino, St Peter's Basilica, Rome

The Altar Canopy or Baldacchino, St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

The first of 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

As an ecumenical advocate it would be hypocritical of me to censure the joy and devotion inspired in fellow Christians and others when visiting holy landmarks. A visit to the Vatican and in particular St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, however, has led me to reflect on how I would wish to express my own idea of reverence and faith.

As humans we are drawn to those places where the people who are part of our history actually walked and talked and left their mark on the landscape. As part of our veneration of their lives we erect memorials so that future generations will know the exact spot where they too might draw closer to these colossi of faith

Yet the hustle and bustle of thousands of pilgrims rushing from one grandiose monument to another without pause to look at what they are actually snapping through their camera lenses; the papal catacombs in which the human remains of the former bishops of Rome repose amidst the splendour of carved marble reliquaries; and being continuously funneled around those holy objects that offer the best ‘selfie’ opportunities, somehow left me cold and wanting to shout ‘Let’s clear the temple!’

From sky to grave - St Peter's Basilca, Rome

From sky to grave – St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

The Lord is high above all nations and his glory above the heavensPsalm 113:4

Yet, the visit hadn’t started like that. It had actually begun deep underground in the Roman Necropolis directly under the Basilica. Here in the ancient cemetery, originally without the city walls, the brick-built mausoleums, designed to hold the remains of Roman households spoke of reverence. Places where families might occasionally climb up onto the rooves to have a picnic whilst they remembered their departed relatives and loved ones.

Even so, we were still among the glory of the Roman empire, whose prosperity could afford to erect these monuments, whilst the poor and persecuted were buried in pauper’s graves.

Simon Peter was one such as these. After he had met his gruesome death in the Circus of Nero c64AD, his body was laid in the ground and discretely memorialised by the early Christians, many of whom chose to be buried close by. A small ‘trophy’ or physical shrine was erected to mark the grave by the theologian Gaius around the end of the 2nd century and at the beginning of the 4th century the newly converted Emperor Constantine marked the spot with a white marble sarcophagus over which the altar of the basilica was to be built. Now, as then, the open dome of the basilica provides a direct connection from the skies or heavens above, through the baroque grandeur to the simple grave of Christ’s rock and foundation of his church

The dead do not praise the Lord, nor those gone down into silence
Psalm 115:17

I have to admit, that without Pope Pius XI’s desire to be buried as close as was possible to the tomb of St Peter, then these things may have remained undiscovered and maybe they should have. For Simon Peter, the simple fisherman, would surely be turning in his grave, that is if he wasn’t already in heaven, at the way that people have put all their energies into immortalising the saints in stone and precious materials whilst failing to grasp the irony of their riches.

A papal audience with Pope Francis

A papal audience with Pope Francis

Perhaps the latest Bishop of Rome, will continue to lead by example as he sets aside some of this pomp and ceremony and tries to live out his life and ministry close to the people he serves. I do hope and pray so, for all our sakes.

 

Of Being Challenged

We are challenged to look beyond what we know

We are challenged to look beyond what we think we already know

The last few days have been particularly challenging, both in terms of my personal response to events that have happened and reflections on the responses of others to these situations. On the whole the outcome has been positive and hopeful, but this has been at the expense of other’s sorrow and suffering.

Harrowing pictures of the brutal treatment of Christians and Yazidis as they are persecuted for their faith, left me sobbing for the sheer inhumanity of the perpetrators of these violences. The incomprehension that once again genocide rears its ugly head in the name of religious intolerance and I feel powerless…

Yet, the response of many has been to speak out and simply say ‘It’s not right” and that we will do something about it. Whilst I am not in a position to honestly know whether military intervention is part of a solution; I do know that humanitarian airdrops of food and water were the correct immediate response to alleviate some of the suffering. I also know that the emergency appeals by charities such as Christian Aid for donations enable us all to ‘do’ something towards long-term solutions; and of course there is always prayer.

The outpouring of sorrow for all of the unknown and nameless victims of these atrocities has been matched this week by the sorrow and sadness of the passing of one whom we felt we really did know, the actor Robin Williams. His death has brought to our attention the devastating and often silent suffering of those for whom depression is the ‘black dog’ that they have to live with on a daily basis.

Social media sites and newspapers have been full of messages of condolences and self-identification and some, in their genuine sadness and sense of mourning have inadvertently used phrases and ideologies in their expressions of sympathy, that although well-meaning have highlighted a lack of understanding of suicide and depression. I have personally been humbled to reflect on things that are helpful to say and things that are not, and have learned immensely from those who have challenged these unintentional faux pas.

The fact is that sometimes we all need to challenge what isn’t right, and this Sunday I will be preaching on the story of the Syrophoenician woman who dared to speak out and challenge Jesus because she knew in her heart of hearts that he was the one who could heal her child whether she was Jew or a Gentile, simply because of her faith in him

Then Jesus said to her,“O woman, your faith is great – Matthew 15:28

So I will continue to hold all of these situations in my prayers and whenever possible look for ways to challenge both mine and other people’s assumptions, but hopefully to do so in love.

Have faith that all will be well

Have faith that all will be well

If you are living with depression or care for someone who does you may find this helpful – I Had A Black Dog

Coming Out… Into The Light

Does God weep over his creation?

Does God weep over his creation?

Recently, after much prayerful thought I have reached what I believe is a clarity in thinking with regard to something that I have often struggled to express. That is what my stance is, as a Christian and future Minister, towards those, including fellow Christians, who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women

I have often not expressed what my inner heart was telling me, but instead have prevaricated, choosing to be cautious with my public expressions and feeling deeply hypocritical for not speaking out

However, events, both recently within the Church of England and in our world as a whole, have left me with a sense of both shame and despair.

I have struggled to reconcile what I understand to be the most basic tenet of my faith, namely love, and the many interpretations of what that should look like in respect of people whose sexuality differs from my own.

The love that we are called to is quite simple – we are to love God and we are to love each other. For this love to be genuine is indubitable, but in both cases, we have to be wary of discriminating and categorising exactly what this love should look like; how it might be expressed and who may partake of it, whether in long-term relationships, through marriage or through celibacy

I am aware that there are many who look to Scripture and yet only use isolated and often disjointed biblical passages to justify their position and I would affirm that Scripture as a whole contains all truths; but I would have to wonder whether we only worship a God who remains firmly in Old Testament attitudes and early Judaeo-Christian life-styles or a God that lives and is part of the 21st century, with all its challenges, changes and nuances. Has God not accompanied humanity in the last two millennia? Has he not wept and rejoiced, listened and guided? Does he not know what is happening?

Others speak of alternative sexuality as sinful and unforgivable; and again I would be loath to apply this label to what could be considered part of the human condition. Particularly as this is not helpful, especially in light of the message of open-ended grace and forgiveness for all, regardless of any measure of rebellious sinfulness. Who is to say what God does and does not see in us as a whole person – did David (murderer and adulterer) or Jacob (lier and cheat) not receive God’s grace for their devotion to God rather than for what other people judged them by? It is surely our faith that makes the difference

As a professed heterosexual, I cannot begin to say I know what it feels like to have your faith questioned or to be regarded as less worthy because of your sexuality – to know that despite being created in God’s image, that others consider it a tarnished reflection – to have to settle for something less because someone has decided you don’t meet all the ‘criteria’. Yet, I do recognise that the pain and hurt must sometimes be unbearable and for that I willingly offer my support in prayer and in love

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome
but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher,
patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.
God may perhaps grant that they will repent
and come to know the truth
2 Timothy 2:24-25

I know that on reading this, despite my heartfelt attempt to show sensitivity for all concerned, that some Christians will regard what I say as wrong, that they may even regard me in a different light. There will be those who have already made their mind up, who will reject these and other valid arguments completely; and whilst I must respect that decision, whether made on a personal level or as a church directive, at the same time I will be hoping that they too, like many others will be open to a similar journey as mine. When they find that they can no longer sit on the fence or through prayer and soul-searching be ready to admit that when we are called to love as God loves us then we should do so completely and honestly and be ready to treat all equally

Until then may God bless all who love the Lord our God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength, and with all their mind; and also their neighbour as themselves. Amen

Brothers and Sisters in Christ