Tag Archives: God

Dancing With The Daffodils

Short Talk for the National Day of Reflection, 23rd March 2022 based on Psalm 23 and Matthew 11: 28-30

I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils; beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine and twinkle on the milky way, they stretched in never-ending line along the margin of a bay: ten thousand saw I at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they out-did the sparkling waves in glee: a poet could not but be gay, in such a jocund company: I gazed–and gazed–but little thought what wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood, they flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude; and then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth 1802

I have no idea what heaven looks like, but if I were to stand in the very spot that William Wordsworth did some 200 years ago I would have thought that here is a place where heaven meets earth.

Today, the daffodil has become the symbol of reflection, remembering those we knew and loved, but who are no longer with us because of the pandemic. Many of them left us at a time when it was difficult to say our goodbyes, others taken before their time despite the valiant efforts of our health professionals and personal carers. Deaths that have left us lonely and disorientated. Perhaps like the cloud, wandering and wondering, at times our tears falling like rain.

It’s hard, isn’t it, to see beyond the endings and look for hope in the future, yet it surely is there. A glance, a glimpse of brightness, an unexpected movement that catches our attention.

As I said I have no idea what heaven looks like, but to imagine our loved ones, beyond the pain and suffering, to see them once more in their prime, the happy times and memories, dancing gleefully, like the ten thousand or so daffodils that outshone the sparkling waves, must surely be of comfort to us.

Wordsworth describes it as a jocund company meaning cheerful and light-hearted. Here they are at rest, the lightness of God’s yoke no burden at all, and for that we can be grateful

Of course, we could try and stay there in that moment, but eventually we need to return to our ordinary everyday lives. However, that vision is now part of our memory, a wealth of memories to recall in moments of quietness and thoughtfulness, which Wordsworth describes a ‘the bliss of solitude’

Through our experiences we know that solitude can be hard at times, but true solitude can bring great peace as we rest in God’s presence. For many of us these last two years have also been a time of weariness, as both our mental health and reserves of strength have been battered and bruised. Yet today our readings promise us a time of rest and restoration; in Matthew, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ and the beautiful psalm, ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He shall refresh my soul.’

We have to allow ourselves to hand over to God our cares and worries, our frustrations and our anger. He will take it all and release us to remember those we have loved and see no longer with love and gratitude.

Then in their company our hearts we will once more dance with pleasure not in pain.

Amen

Lamenting Jerusalem…

Grieving Lady – Lynn Greyling

Sermon preached on the 2nd Sunday of Lent 2022 based on Luke 13:31-35, Philippians 3:17-4:1 and Psalm 27

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

I wonder how many times, like me, you have wept when waking up, sitting to read, or listening to and watching the news recently? We have wept for the people and cities of whom we have hardly heard of a few weeks ago. For Kviv, for Mariupol, for Kharkiv and Sumy. We have wept for the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our very eyes; for the misinformation being spread as a means to retain power; for the destruction of life and liberty.

Even so, we must also weep for the peoples and city of Moscow because as we hear today in our gospel reading Jesus will weep with grief over his beloved city of Jerusalem, but his will also be tears of frustration and notice of intent.

Our reading begins with a warning and open threat of violence against Jesus. The Pharisees, knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition would have been scrutinising Jesus carefully, ready to challenge his behaviour and teachings, and were openly colluding with the Herodians to destroy Jesus. They were gathering their evidence, whether it was because on the Sabbath, his disciples had gleaned grain or Jesus had healed a man’s withered hand. (Matthew 12 1-14)

Their warning was likely to be a taunt rather than concern for his safety and Jesus was having none of it. Certainly, his description of Herod as ‘that fox’ shows he knows the man’s true character. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was a crafty, cunning, cruel and deceitful ruler. He cared little for others and greatly about himself. He had already had John the Baptist imprisoned and beheaded, was desperate to see Jesus (Luke 9:9) but he now wants his potential rival dead.  

This threat, however, was not going to deflect Jesus from his mission of redemption. Rulers like Herod will not stand the test of time. Jesus still has work to do, and his eyes are fixed firmly on Jerusalem and the way to the cross. He understands his main opposition will be in that city. A city that has rejected and killed God’s prophets time and time again as they have sought to bring his message of peace and reconciliation. For Jesus, Jerusalem has to be the place where his mission comes to its completion. It’s perhaps interesting to note that his phrase, ‘it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem’ doesn’t mean that there were never any prophets who died elsewhere; rather that it was not acceptable – ouk endechetai that a prophet should die away from that city.

The context of this pronouncement is the failure of Jerusalem and the wickedness of its leaders. Those in authority had strayed far God and were actually hindering his work. Hence, we have this beautiful image of a compassionate Jesus’ desire to protect and shelter the people, like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but Jerusalem seeks to prevent even this.

No wonder Jesus’ tears are of frustration. The city’s rejection of protection for the people tells us that they will ultimately reject Jesus himself. However, it is their house that is forsaken and there will be an ultimate reckoning when Jesus returns and delivers the final judgement.

Paul assures us in his letter to the Philippians, that those who reject Jesus and the cross, face destruction for their reliance on earthly things ‘their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame.’ Surely then all we have to do is to rest on the laurels of our salvation, to stand firm in our faith and to reject the ways of the secular world. Well we could, but I think I’d be trying to wriggle my way out of the judgement line to keep moving to the back of the line to delay coming face to face with Jesus if I chose to do that.

Our faith is a living active thing. However helpless we feel when faced by situations beyond our immediate control, there are still things that we can do to model Jesus and to boldly proclaim the good news of the gospel and bring those who raise up war to justice.

In our Lent course this week we looked at reactive and active justice. Obviously written to highlight the many injustices that are happening in our world and which we shouldn’t forget about. It speaks about our natural response is that of compassion. To do something that will bring immediate relief to a situation. To donate to relief agencies, to look at opening our homes to refugees, to mitigate the false news on social media.

Yet, it has to be more than that. The majority of us live in real comfort and yes, we may have to face deprivations of less travel and higher food prices which might mean we cut out our treats; but it will also mean that we balance our needs against those of our neighbour… We can be active in telling our government and politicians what direction we want to travel. We can sign petitions and write to local MPs to show support for those campaigning for justice

Ruth Valerio, who works for Tearfund, and is a social activist as well as a environmentalist and theologian, gave a really simple way for us to breech the gap in what we can do. Give – Act – Pray. Give what we can, either money or time – Act by getting involved more – and Pray. We should never underestimate the power of prayer.

The war in Ukraine, the totalitarian regimes in Afghanistan, Yemen and North Korea, the bloodshed in Saudi Arabia all these things will pass as history shows us. But we mustn’t let them just pass us by. Jesus was not afraid of Herod and was not afraid of Jerusalem because He was confident that he was doing the will of God

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?

Amen

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.

Mirroring God’s Generosity

Sermon preached on 27th June 2021 – Trinity 4 based on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 exploring generosity

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

Toddlers, certainly between the ages of two and three, are often very egocentric, the world revolves around them and is purely there for their pleasure. Still there is no harm in starting to teach them that sharing is a good thing; a kind thing; a generous thing to do. A few months ago, if you had attempted to ask my granddaughter Helena if you could share one of the chips she had on her plate, her reaction would have been to move the plate further away from any attempt to extract the said item.

However, the consistent attempts to instil in her that sharing should be a natural thing to want to do resulted in her asking me the other day if I’d like to share a bit of her custard cream biscuit the other day. ‘That’s very kind of you’ I said, ‘Yes please’ – only to be presented with the merest smear of cream that she could manage to pass over on her finger before disappearing to play with her toys!

I think we’re going to work a bit harder on the question of generosity, but the sentiment was there. But is generosity a sentiment, a feeling or is it something more calculated, a financial transaction or negotiated timetable?

I wonder how many of you have picked up on the Winchester Diocesan initiative called ‘Generous June’, which offers individuals within our churches an opportunity to engage with the theme of generosity in a number of different ways. Not only as a key part of our discipleship and walk with God; but as an encouragement to reflect on our own position on generosity and see how it can affect our day to day lives.

With it’s many and varied resources it’s certainly worth dipping into, but like all initiatives, generosity shouldn’t be seen as a one month a year focus, but an ongoing response to God’s generosity.

So this morning we have a passage from a letter that Paul was sending to the church in Corinth, basically exhorting them to complete a charitable collection for the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem, many of whom were Jews who had been disowned by their families when then had become followers of Jesus. It would seem though that the Corinthians were being slow to respond

How did Paul present his arguments to appeal to the Corinthians to give generously? Well, although we don’t hear this in the reading, he had cited the example of the Macedonian churches, who though poverty stricken had reached into the very depths of destitution to overflow with the wealth of their generosity – so in other words don’t be penny pinching!

He also cites the example of Jesus, whose generosity came not simply through his death or even his birth but the fact that he laid aside his glory and consented to come to earth – so self-preservation had better not be a reason for holding back!

He even calls on their pride, you did it once you can do it again – so don’t drop your high standards!

But perhaps his next appeal was the most important argument. He stresses the necessity of translating fine feeling into fine action, ‘but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it’. The Corinthians had been the first to feel the appeal of this scheme, they had been moved in an emotional way to do something, and that’s where generosity starts.

It starts right here [placing hand over heart] in our hearts, it doesn’t start in our heads or in our pockets. It is not negotiable or calculable. Generosity is an overflowing of our hearts desire to action.

But a feeling that remains only a feeling, a pity which remains a pity only of the heart, a fine desire that never turns into a fine deed, is a sadly unfinished and frustrated thing. The tragedy is that so often it is not that we have no high impulses to act generously, but that we fail to turn them into actions

Of course, we could say that having an infinitely generous heart will get us nowhere if we don’t have the means to act out our desires, and it’s true that financial generosity is limited by our financial means and generosity in service is limited by the amount of time available, but true generosity is limitless because love is limitless.

As Paul reminds the Corinthians, life has a strange way of evening things up; when we give generously, we often find we receive generously. As Jesus explained in his Sermon on the Mount,

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’ Luke 6:38

Life has a way of repaying generosity with generosity, but no gift can be in any real sense a gift unless the giver gives with it a bit of himself or herself, above and beyond what they think they can give, beautifully expressed in a quote by the Lebanese author and poet, Khalil Gibran, ‘Generosity is giving more than you can.’ Which is why personal giving is always the highest kind, of which Jesus Christ is the supreme example.

Paul concludes this passage, before going on to speak of practical arrangements, with a quote that come from Exodus (16:14-18)

The one who had much did not have too much,  
and the one who had little did not have too little
.’

which tells how, when the Israelites gathered the manna in the wilderness, whether they gathered little of much, it was enough.

It is out of a fresh understanding of God’s limitless love and generosity that we are able to give beyond ourselves. Yes, our financial generosity may need to be constantly reviewed. In good times we may have more to give and in lean times it may be that we accept the abundance of others. In the same way our giving of time and energy, has to produce a good balance between church, work and family lives.

But that should never stop us from being extravagantly generous, because the treasures we store up on earth are nothing compared to the treasure that awaits us in heaven, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ and there’s nothing that God loves more than a generous heart, because it mirrors his own.

Amen

The Elephant In The Room

Ever wanted to know how to explain the Trinity? Well perhaps now you can stop trying so hard. Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday 2021 based on John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17

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

Before we turn our attention to our bible readings today, perhaps we ought to address the matter of the elephant in the room – that is the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday when traditionally an attempt is made by the preacher to ‘explain’ exactly what the Trinity is. It falls to my lot this year, but I wondered if we could take a different approach and actually try not to explain it.

By that I don’t mean dismiss it altogether for it is something that exists; but set aside the usual illustrations that somehow always fall short of the mark. For example, the idea that the Trinity is like water, which can be in a liquid, gas or solid state, but it’s still the same water. The problem with this is that is denies the three distinct Persons of the Trinity by claiming that God is one Person who appears in different ‘modes’ at different times. However, the three are not co-existing; H2O can only ever be one form at a time whereas for instance at the baptism of Christ, the Father, Son and Spirit are all distinctly present and interacting and only one of them is in the actual water!

To theologists this aquatic depiction of the Trinity is akin to the heresy of Modalism.

Similarly, we can discard many of the alternatives; the egg, with its yolk, shell and albumen where each part of the egg make up only a portion of the whole – the yolk alone is not the fullness of the egg, whereas each part of the Trinity is fully divine. Or perhaps the Sun, with itself, its light and its heat – again we’re verging towards the heresy of Arianism to claim that, because whereas light and heat are simply creations of the sun, we can not claim that the Son or the Spirit are mere creations of the Father.

And before you dash out to pick a clover leaf, just let it be…

Trying to explain the Trinity is rather like the Hindu fable of six blind men encountering an elephant, which John Godfrey Saxe translated into his poem The Blind Man and the Elephant where each man is brought into the presence of an elephant but can only feel one part and thus describe it variously as a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan and a rope – you will have to guess which parts they were touching. His concluding verse, however, can remind us God is someone whom we have to encounter as a whole.

So, oft in theologic wars the disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!

And yet we have seen and still see the Triune God all around us. We encounter the three persons of God when we visit a nature reserve and see the marks of careful husbandry; we encounter the three persons of God when we watch the skills of a surgeon in a real-life documentary, we encounter the three persons of God when we listen to the joyful sound of children’s laughter

At the moment I am on tenterhooks awaiting the birth of my first grandson, who will definitely be born of the flesh, and yet his arrival will reveal, as all new-born babies reveal, the Trinitarian presence of God, in creation, in love and in Spirit.

But what of Nicodemus, a devout Jew, a teacher of the Law; his mind was trained to obey God and to keep to the Law, yet his encounters with Jesus had led him to see a glimpse of God in the man Jesus, something had moved him to seek out a closer relationship and understanding that he was of God. Even so, he was trying to apply human logic and reasoning to something that clearly was beyond that.

Nicodemus was told he had to look beyond the physical and instead allow the spiritual to guide him. ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’. And as St Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans, that instead of trying to elucidate God’s nature through the things that tie us to earthly conventions we must allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit as children of God. 

Perhaps we would be better to be content to admit that we cannot fully understand the Trinitarian nature of God, but rather to simply and faithfully accept that God exists eternally as one divine nature, substance, or essence, comprising three co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Instead to accept the truth that despite living in a perfect Triune relationship, which is completely self-sufficient and with no deficiency, he still chose to create and eventually redeem us at great cost to himself.  

If we bring to an end our attempts to cognitively master God and the fact that we cannot understand the full depth of the Trinity (and certainly not with any myriad of analogies from the limited realm of creation) it should bring us to the reality that we are finite creatures standing before a sovereign, transcendent divine mystery… or more appropriately, it should bring us to fall to our knees and humbly worship the One true God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Chosen For A Reason

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

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

You did not choose me, but I chose you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe Out… Breathe In

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

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

Are you sitting comfortably…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out           

Amen

Initiating Universal Motherhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Repentance, Readjustment and Renewal

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2021 based on readings Isaiah 58:1-12 and John 8:1-11

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

Today is Ash Wednesday, a specific day in the church calendar on which we enter the season of Lent. A season that is dedicated to three things: Repentance, Readjustment and Renewal. A season that requires not one, but all three of these things to happen in our lives. A season which can last beyond the next 40 days (47 if you include the Sundays, which I think you should, to be consistent) into the future.

The first thing about Lent is the need to gauge a starting point. This involves a period of inner reflection on what we have done and said that requires forgiveness. It’s a way of clearing the decks or wiping the slate clean and putting ourselves right with others as well as God. The things that we do wrong, that go against God’s will and purpose are what we call sins, and there’s no real difference between the degree of sinfulness that we experience, the fact is we are all sinful.

For the women caught in adultery her sin was obvious, but it was the unobvious and unobserved sins of those who were about to launch their own form of physical justice who were restrained by their knowledge of their own sinfulness. In the same way, we are called to acknowledge our own sinfulness and to ask for forgiveness.

Just so with the House of Jacob, and God’s instruction to Isaiah to very loudly pronounce their lack of consciousness of their sinful behaviour. For them, as for us, the practise of faith is not in the rituals and laws, but in the knowledge and understanding of God’s way.

Acknowledgement of our wrongdoings is only the first step, the second is to change our behaviour to avoid repeating those mistakes, to turn away and to turn back to focus on God, to repent. For the woman in John’s gospel, there was no condemnation, but there was an instruction, ‘Go your way, and from now on do not sin again’.

If we do the same then we are readjusting what we need be like; and in doing so we can ask ourselves, what are the things that get in the way of us focussing on God, are there too many distractions in our homes, in our work and leisure, in the world around us. Some of us counteract this, during the season of Lent, by abstaining from some of the physical pleasures, but it’s often just a temporary abstention.

However, a fast is not really a fast unless some long-term readjustment takes place. The real idea of fasting is just that, to take our eyes off of the things of the world and instead to focus on God. Fasting is a way to demonstrate to God and to ourselves that we are serious about our relationship with him.

For the people of Isaiah’s day, it was clear that their fasting was never going to improve their relationship with God and was merely a cellophane cover that didn’t make any difference to their attitudes towards those they held responsibility over, and it was certainly not acceptable to God.

Of course, fasting is also about humbling ourselves and the imposition of ashes will serve as a visual reminder of our repentance, but the real difference will be in readjustments and choices that we make as our focus coincides with the things that God wants to focus on; injustice, relief of oppression, charitable provision and family harmony.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Luke 4:18-19

If we are in any doubts that these are the most important things on God’s heart then we only have to recall Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Nazareth, when he opened and read from the scriptures his mission statement, ‘to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim liberty to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind and to set free the oppressed’

When these things are our focus then renewal can take place; instead of gloom and darkness there is new light brought into our lives and into the world, and with God walking alongside us as our guide our lives are reinvigorated, and ‘parched places… shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose water never fails’.

For the adulterous woman, her encounter with Jesus brought about repentance, readjustment and renewal and the same would have been assured if the people of the house of Jacob had taken notice of Isaiah’s offering of redemption, and for us, this Lent or at any time, we too can receive this reassurance.

So, make this Lent not just a season of sackcloth and ashes but one that lays a strong foundation for ourselves and for the future as we look forward to the joy that will be Easter.

Amen  

The Light Shines In The Darkness

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday Before Lent based on the following passages – John 1:1-14 and Colossians 1:15-20

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

In the beginning was the Word… perhaps one of the most evocative starts to a gospel or indeed any scripture, where we are presented by a mystery. Of course, one would expect nothing less of John and whilst all four gospels can be said to be biographies of Jesus, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, ‘the Synoptic Gospels [i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke] are like photo albums, whilst John’s gospel is like a portrait’, and a portrait is something we can spend many hours standing in front of to try and gauge what the artist is trying to tell us.

In the beginning was the Word… John’s opening sentence echoes the opening words of the book of Genesis which firmly places the Word in creation, communicating God’s will and evidence that it is eternal and has always been at work throughout.

With its capital ‘W’ we can see that it is a title not a noun or a verb, and John identifies the Word as God in the person of Jesus; and although the term Word or the Greek Logos is not retained as a title in John’s Gospel beyond the prologue, the whole gospel presses the basic claim that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together are one God. Here is God present to his people and knowable to his people in self-revelation and redemption.

Accordingly, Jesus is the source of life and light for all people everywhere; but what of that light? God had sent an advance messenger in John the Baptist to provide testimony as to the true light. A light that will enlighten, educate and clarify God’s purpose in wanting to redeem all who will believe in him. A light that will dispel the darkness and evil that shrouds the world in so many places.

Certainly, over the last year we have seen a lot of darkness in the world; darkness that is more like an invisible fog that clings to bodies and minds. Yet the one thing that has kept many people going is a sense of faith that there is hope for the future. In amongst all that darkness a small flicker of hope has burned steadily, ‘and the darkness did not overcome it’.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it
John 1:5

And today, more than ever that small flame is burning even more brightly as we appear to be at a turning point in the Coronavirus pandemic, with the vaccine programme rollout and lockdown measures reducing the rate of infection. Yet, we can’t reduce God’s role to that of a single unextinguishable tealight!

However, the light is indeed eternal, and as mentioned, is a light that will enlighten people everywhere. It is a spiritual light, that awakens a response to the person of Jesus, but it is also a light that kindles in our heart and minds the knowledge and skills needed to bring light to others. 

In flashes of inspiration or eureka moments – from Archimedes in his bath; Newton under his apple tree and the scientists at AstraZeneca in their test tubes, to the light that shines out from people’s eyes in simple acts of kindness and love done purely for the benefit of others.

There is nothing that can stop this light from shining and yet people still choose, just as Jesus’ own people did, to turn away, to shield their eyes and fail to recognise God even when he walks among them.

And walk among them he did, which was quite extraordinary, that the Word of God, the agent of creation, should choose to become ‘flesh’, to become a human being, taking on our nature, with all its wayward appetites and frailties. But just like then, his death could not extinguish the light, and those who believe in him, whether then or now, all creatures of the original creation find themselves transformed through his blood on the cross into a new spiritual creation, as children of God, in which the light of Christ resides.

This then is the light that we all have within us as followers of Christ. Even so, for many people there have been times when the surrounding darkness has threatened to overwhelm us, unable to fully imagine the number of deaths related to the Coronavirus, the mental anguish of being parted from loved ones, the exhaustion, the rules, the sheer inescapable nature of the way we are having to live our lives; it all takes its toll.

Yet, the light still shines deep within us. slow and steady – we just have to allow it push away some of that darkness, to hand over our worries and concerns to God, to let him reveal the signs of hope and new life for each of us, just as he revealed his glory in the life of Jesus.

A ‘glory’ not as a radiant vision or dazzling light but in his sacrificial love for the world that revealed his true worth. Centuries before, Moses realised that God ‘is compassionate and gracious… abounding in love and faithfulness’ but it is God’s Son who is ‘full of grace and truth’. And it is through this Grace that the invisible God is never truly hidden but is always revealed in the perfect light of his son, Jesus Christ, the light for and of the whole world, now and forever. Amen