Tag Archives: love

A Heart of Stone?

Heart of Stone

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

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

Here was something new then – or was it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love of the Holy Spirit

 

Love One Another…

Love One Another Blog

The end of the Easter season is fast approaching and we will pack away our Alleluia responses for another year (liturgically and in theory). So before we do so here is a reminder that that our praise of God comes not just in liturgical form but in practical acts of loving one another as well.

Based on the following readings: John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48

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

Who’s still excited that it’s still Easter? Perhaps our Alleluia’s that we waited so long to hear after Lent as little more subdued, not quite so resounding? Well, we’ve come to the Sixth Sunday of Easter and we should be excited because the Easter season is building to its climax. Over these past weeks we have been celebrating the joy of the resurrections and the presence of the risen Christ appearing to his first disciples and being among us still. And yet on Thursday it will be Ascension Day when we remember Jesus’ departure from his disciples and his return to be with his heavenly Father for all eternity. We are therefore, liturgically at least, reaching a turning point.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Jesus had been preparing his apprehensive disciples for the shock when he is taken away from them; wanting to give them reassurance of his continuing love and presence with them afterwards, and giving them instructions for how the church (with a small c) should live. Of course, as disciples today, we can never get back behind Easter, because we hear Jesus’ reassurances in the light of our Easter experience, knowing that he rose from the dead to be with them and with us. So his warnings of his imminent departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit as a guide, resonate in our experience as we look toward Ascension Day and Pentecost, soon to come.

So, here today we hear Jesus continuing to give his disciples ‘commandments’, underlying all of which is the commandment given by God to Moses, the imperative that people should show by their lives what their God is like, which Jesus has fulfilled utterly. The example that Jesus gives, of his own willingness to die for his friends, is not a comforting one. Is that, then, to be the measure of love?

Well the gospel suggests that sometimes it is, and we know that nearly all of Jesus’ original disciples were called to do that in one way or another and those who followed after them were often martyred for their faith. However, the verses that follow this commandment suggest that there are other interim measures too.

One such measure is the role that we play, ‘I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. This sharing between Father and Son is extended to us. We are not simply issued with instructions that we must follow without needing to understand them. Instead we are invited to God’s table, to eat and discuss and share his great plan for the world.

Therefore, it naturally follows that one mark of our ‘love’ for one another and God will be our willingness to extend this invitation to others. Not to be an introverted, cozy warm church where we are all having a wonderful time, but ‘Come and join us at God’s table, come and help us to work out with God what to do next’. I wonder if you can remember when you received that invitation? Not simply an invitation to come to church, but the sense that God was calling you, through Jesus, come and find out more; a sense that you had been chosen to be part of the whole Christian way of life and love. As Jesus tells his disciples that they didn’t chose him, but he chose them. In the same way it is not we who chose God, but God who, in his grace, approached us with a call and an offer made out of his love.

This is certainly the experience of Peter and his companions as they watch Cornelius and his household respond to the love of God. They hear these strangers praising God long before they have gone through all the rules and regulations of what you’ll need to do be a proper Christian! Even so everyone needs guidance and God has this in hand when he gives us our different gifts and talents, both academic and practical.

The thing about guidance though it that it should be more about learning than teaching.  We learn better when we engage with our whole bodies – as I spoke about a few weeks ago, we need to love with all our mind, our body and our soul… I know that I have learned more about loving one another from people who have demonstrated this unconditional love of Christ, people who show love and compassion to loved ones with dementia, never getting annoyed or frustrated. People who give their time to serve others without any thought of reward or recompense. People who do things cheerfully and willingly, who never moan that it’s always them left to do something, when others have walked away oblivious to the fact that they might have shared a task.

It is deeply challenging and amplifying to see the word of God at work in the lives of others, and to see that before me and my feeble attempts at love got anywhere near a situation, that God’s love was already at work. I’m standing here talking to you this morning about love, but who remembers anything I or anyone else has said, if all you hear is someone ‘telling’ you? In fact, research shows that within just one hour, if nothing is done with new information, most people will have forgotten about 50% of what they learned. After 24 hours, this will be 70%, and if a week passes without that information being used, up to 90% of it could be lost.

Maybe then, I need to get us to do something a bit more practical to try to help us learn, and I’ve put this in the middle of my talk to see who’s still listening up to this point! Something that will help us think about being called to love one another whoever that might be. So when it comes to exchange the peace this morning, rather than simply shake someone’s hand, then look past them for the next hand to shake – as you take that person’s hand, briefly look them in the eye, offer them the words of peace, but let this thought go through your mind each time you do…. ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’ Remember no need for fuss, just simply use that thought each time, ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’

That’s something then to help us to share love between like-minded people, but we are also chosen in love and for love, and are sent out into the world to love one another. So that’s a thought we should have in our head every time we meet other people as well. Because, sometimes we live as if we were sent into the world to compete with one another, or to dispute with one another, or even to quarrel with one another. Many tell people to love each other when their whole lives are a demonstration that that is the last thing they do themselves. That is not the way of love.

However, we can become confused about being ‘commanded’ to love – perhaps our natural instinct is to say, ‘well actually I don’t think I can love in the same way that you did Jesus’. When Jesus talks about commanding, this is not a peremptory legalistic order, neither is it quite an instructional encouragement, it’s more a necessary requirement. The fact is that you cannot legislate for love, but God, through Jesus, can command us to love and discovering the difference between the two is one of the great arts of being human. The ‘command’ to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When mothers and fathers love their child, they create a context in which the child is free to love them in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return.

So when Jesus issues the command that we are to love one another, we do so because he has acted out and will act out the greatest thing that love can do. He has made us more human, not less because we do this in freedom and joy. So that we can bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to take, … or a single task we had to perform… through which, though we couldn’t see it at the time, the world became a different place.

So let’s enjoy these last few days of the Easter season. Alleluia, Christ is risen!…. he is risen indeed, alleluia!

He Has Risen

 

 

Shoah…An Obliteration of Potential

Shoah - an obliteration of potential

Shoah – an obliteration of potential

A sermon preached on Candlemas, honouring Holocaust Memorial Day 2018, based on Luke 2:22-40

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

A Jewish family… mother, father and precious new born baby son… entering the temple in Jerusalem, some 33 to 40 days after his birth, to fulfil a rite of passage required under the law of Moses; the purification of his mother with a simple offering, for those without wealth or status, of a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons.

Three people learning what it means to be a family, with little or no inkling of what life lies ahead of them, but filled with dreams and aspirations of what their son may grow up to be. Maybe for Joseph, a son to follow in the family tradition, to become a skilled carpenter working alongside him, and for Mary, a child who will grow up strong and healthy, perhaps achieving far greater things than his parents had by becoming a rabbi or priest.

We have to remember that this was taking place quite some time before three strangers from the East would turn up on their doorstep, with their unusual gifts, and a warning in a dream that would cause the family to flee across the border into Egypt. And yet the season of Epiphany draws to a close today with this story of Simeon revealing the poignant potential Jesus is destined to fulfil.

A potential that was to bring salvation for those who believe in him, both to Jews and Gentiles at the expense of those who would oppose him, , ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. A potential that is offered to each and every one of us, to every child that is born. A potential that is to be nurtured and encouraged whatever shape or form it may take. A potential that can be torn away, stamped on and destroyed.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly
John 10:10

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, a day set aside from our November Remembrance Day; when we remember those who fought and gave their lives not only in the 1st World War but also in the 2nd World War, where they stood up aside the evil tyranny of the Nazi regime. Holocaust Memorial Day is a special day to remember the six million Jews as well as other victims, who were murdered simply because of their religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation, bringing the total nearer to eleven million lives.

As a dry statistic, eleven million people is probably unimaginable, but imagine that you drove to the outskirts of London and suddenly the roads, houses and buildings were empty, deserted, every single place, right into the centre of the city. Everyone had disappeared, leaving behind most of their possessions, gone without a trace. Not a single living person remaining.

For the Jews living in Nazi occupied countries, these disappearances were happening in every city, town and village. The streets were falling silent, no one rushing about their daily business, no children playing in streets or shouting and laughing in parks and playgrounds. For among those six million almost a quarter of them were children, 1.5 million lives. Children who never got the chance to grow up and fulfil their potential or their dreams for the future.

Those six million people who were not born as victims, but who had their hopes and dreams brutally stripped away because of an ideology that condemned them to death just because they were Jewish.

Some of you will know that late last year I undertook a ten day seminar at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where they not only educate people about the events and the peoples of the Holocaust or Shoah, as they prefer to call it, but also strive to preserve the memories and stories of the victims. Their photographic archive contains hundreds of photographs of Jewish people; people who smiled, danced, took part in sports and musical events, got married and enjoyed holidays and family occasions; with no awareness of the fate that awaited them; each now frozen in time for posterity, as the camera captured their everyday lives.

Pre-War Jewish Life

There are also photos of beloved children, dressed up and posed in their Sabbath best, no different I doubt to the snapshots we have, brought out years later to embarrass our offspring, except these children would face no future embarrassment.

This recognition of unfulfilled hope is echoed in another part of the site, where the Children’s Memorial has been created by hollowing out an under underground cavern, which has its own symbolism. It is entered by a descent that funnels you into a darkened room. In the gloom the images of several unnamed children stare out from photographs, as the sound of a mournful lament softly plays.

Then further down, feeling your way into the darkness, you enter what appears to be a room filled with stars. The effect is created by just five candles, which are replaced each day, reflected by mirrors to produce an infinity of tiny lights. In this twilight we listened to just a few of the names of some 1800 of the children, their ages and where they were from; a representation of stolen lives. It is very moving and I immediately thought of my own children

But it is the photographs that haunt me because it makes these children more tangible, and despite not knowing their names, they are no longer anonymous. In your service sheet is a slip of paper with some photographs on it, take a look at it now [see below].

Shoah Children Victims

Florika Liebmann, Unknown and Raphael Altmann

On the left is Florika Liebmann. She was born in 1934 in Szeged, Hungary to Bela and Szenka Liebmann. Bela was a Jewish photographer and businessman who ran an optical and photographic supply store, as well as doing photography in local theatres. During World War Two, he was conscripted into the Hungarian labour service. Szenka and Florika were deported, and in April 1945 were killed along with 38 other victims, in the village of Weissenbach by retreating SS soldiers.

On the right is Raphael Altmann. He was born in 1937 in Wilmersdorf, Germany to Kurt and Grietje Altmann. He was the oldest of four children, including his brothers Martijn and Fred. During the German occupation, the family was expelled to Zeist, in the Netherlands, from where they went into hiding in late 1942. When they could no longer stay together, the parents gave their two older children to a children’s house in Zeist. The house had an escape procedure, but in real time things went wrong. The headmistress was arrested with the children and sent to the Westerbork camp. The children were sent from this camp on to Auschwitz, where they perished on 26 March 1944. Kurt and Grietje, however, hid in four different places with their youngest son Fred and managed to survive. Raphael and Martijn never got to meet their sister Sophia, who was born in 1949

And the picture in the middle, what do you see there? A disabled child? A child with Downs Syndrome? Or a child who was lovingly dressed in his smart sailor’s suit, with polished, laced up boots and no doubt one of his daddy’s ties. I couldn’t find a name or a history for this young man, but he is known to have been victim of the Holocaust and he is representative of one of at least 5,000 disabled children who were murdered under the Nazi regime.

The Nazis falsely believed that some human beings were superior to others and they aimed to develop and preserve a pure Aryan master race. To do this they strove to select those they believed to be the most ‘perfect’ human beings and to deliberately remove from society those considered ‘undesirable’, including the disabled.

German midwives and doctors were ordered to report any child known to them who was born deaf or blind, with paralysis or with a neurological disorder such as Down’s Syndrome, and these children were systematically removed from institutions and families, although not without some reluctance on the parents’ part, from whom the final euthanasia was hidden.

Hitler and his regime justified this by endorsing opinions as expressed by Madison Grant, the author of The Passing of the Great Race, who said, “Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life, tend to prevent […] the elimination of defective infants … The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit, and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.”

Nazi Propaganda Against the Disabled

Translation: 60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering with a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen that is your money too.

The Nazis took Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, in particular the idea of survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom, and applied them to the human world and society, however, the valuable of human life doesn’t just rely on its usefulness to others, but more importantly its capacity to love and be loved, and God places in each and every one of us an overriding potential for love.

Not just then, but nowadays, there is also a danger that we stifle this potential even before a child is born. A recent warning by the Church of England was that the future existence of people with Down’s Syndrome is ‘under question’ with the introduction of a new Non-Invasive Prenatal blood test to test for the condition, that the Church is concerned will lead to more terminations because of people’s fears and concerns about their ability to raise a disabled child and misconceptions about the condition itself.

I believe there are compelling and justifiable reasons why a pregnancy might be terminated, particularly if it is for the health and mental wellbeing of the woman or of the unborn child, but not for a sense of seeking ‘perfection’. Some woman reportedly, when they were told that the child they were carrying had Down’s Syndrome were presented with this information as ‘bad news’.

Actress and screenwriter, Sally Phillips, whose son Olly has Down’s, recently addressed this in the BBC documentary ‘A World without Down’s Syndrome’ revealed that when he was born, the doctor said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry’, the nurse on duty wept, and nothing positive was expressed. She discovered however, that far from being a tragedy their lives have been transformed by Olly, who is now twelve and attending a mainstream secondary school.

As she says, ‘Having Olly in my life has changed me and my family for the better. He has slightly worse impulse control which means he often says exactly what everyone is thinking but is too shy to say and he is also incredibly caring and gifted emotionally, really focussing on how others are feeling by noticing when people are upset when I don’t.’

And we do well to remember that discriminating against the disabled, disables us and diminishes us. There is no perfect human being, not me or you, nor anyone else apart from the person of Jesus, and no-one should be robbed of their potential for a full and meaningful life.

Simeon, when he looked at the baby that was in his arms, rejoiced that he was being given this opportunity to see for himself the person sent to bring about God’s plan of salvation for all, ‘the light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’; and we know that Jesus was able to fulfil his potential by making the ultimate sacrifice of dying on the cross. It was part of God’s all-encompassing plan of his will being done on earth, but it was also Jesus’ choice and decision to go through with it, no one else’s.

Definitely ‘good news’, however, this still didn’t negate the sorrow that would be felt by Mary his mother. The sword that would pierce her soul, should also prick our own conscience so that we don’t forget those millions of innocent lives that ended so abruptly and so brutally. Children who never got the chance to grow up and fulfil their potential.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a time to remember the millions of people who were murdered, not just as an anonymous mass, but having looked into the eyes of the people in these photographs realising that they were people, just as we are. We don’t know everyone’s name but we can pause to reflect on their suffering and remember their ‘untold stories’. We can also make a clear promise to speak out against discrimination which judges some lives to be of less value than others today

In that way all may grow strong, be filled with wisdom and know that the favour of God rests on them.

Amen

HMD 2018

 

 

 

Not In Our Own Strength

 

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

An Advocate, a comforter, a helper, an assistant… the gift of the Holy Spirit means that we never have to rely solely on our own strength; and some days you need it more than others. After an exhausting few days, I explore this thought in my talk yesterday morning (6th Sunday of Easter John 14:15-21)

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

The gospel passage we heard and read this morning is often subtitled the promise of the Holy Spirit. In this instance not as a rushing wind or tongues of flame that we will hear about in a couple of weeks, or the gentle dovelike descent that was seen at Jesus’ baptism; but a breath that we inhale and which resides deep within us.

Jesus is about to ascend from his earthly life and resurrection back to the Father. His disciples will doubtless be feeling even further bereft bearing in mind the great task that he is setting them up for. We could reason, and I’ve heard people say it, if only Jesus were here today he’d explain what we need to do – yet look at the time he did spend with his disciples and followers and how they themselves so often showed a complete lack of comprehension or understanding. But if we look closer at what he is saying he is not abandoning them or us; instead he is to send an advocate.

The word Advocate here is a translation of the Greek word parakletos or Paraclete which is often also translated as comforter or helper. For the disciples, and for us as well, the idea of a comforter is very apt. In the sense of bereavement or tragedy, which the disciples were facing, having someone with you and alongside you, giving you the odd hug or silent hand holding, gives strength to face the next moment – the death or tragedy is still a tragedy but having support and comfort enables you to cope with that moment.

Here though we have the word Advocate; a legalistic word as an advocate stands up in a court of law and explains to the judge or jury how things are from their clients perspective and pleads their case.  In the same way the Holy Spirit does this for us, but in ways that are more than just acting as an assistant, helper or comforter; more like bridging the gap between us and God.

As we get to know who Jesus is, so we find ourselves drawn into his life and love and sense of purpose – we are then able to see what needs doing and what resources we might need to do it – and to help us do this Jesus promises his own Spirit, his own breath, his own inner life – the Spirit of Truth.

You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
John 14:17

I must admit that I wrote this sermon yesterday when I was very tired. I’d been out on Friday evening with Southampton Street Pastors and hadn’t gone home until just before five o’clock on Saturday morning. By a quarter to ten I was out with the Love Harefield crew, including several others here, picking up litter around Harefield. By noon I was visiting my mum in Abbey House, Netley, where she is undergoing rehabilitation since having a fall in February when she broke her hip. By two o’clock I’d had a sandwich for lunch but knew that I still had this talk to write before I went out in the evening to hear my daughter, Lizzie, sing with the Singsational Voices choir at All Saints, Botley.

Now I don’t say all of that seeking sympathy or to be told that I’m over-stretching myself, because each of these things I felt were equally important to do. No doubt we’ve all had times when we’ve faced similar periods, when we feel that we’re running at full speed with our petrol gauges hovering over empty. Yet for all the physical tiredness there is joy to be discovered when we realise that we do not have to rely on our own strength or capabilities to engage in each task.

I can tell you at nine thirty on the Friday evening I could quite easily have remained sitting on the sofa and not got up and changed into my Street Pastor uniform and driven into Southampton. Yet the moment I did I began to feel energised as to what situations we might be called to during the patrol.

I could have stood back and simply poured out cups of hot chocolate to our homeless friends on the street, but then I wouldn’t have felt moved to bob down beside Mark, who told me his dyslexia was preventing him from filling out the necessary form in order for the council to provide accommodation for him, and having signposted him to a group that could help him with this, have him grasp my hand and bless me.

I could have hesitated to go over to assist a taxi driver who was dealing with a very drunk young man who had resolutely sat himself in his cab, despite having no money, and gently persuade him to dismount, very precariously I might add, so that we could sit him down on a wall and offer a bottle of water, sitting next to him and listening as he poured out his story of why he was in such a state, as he gradually sobered up enough to be able to start his long walk home instead

I could have ignored the high-heels-abandoned bare-footed girls, knowing that I’d already cleared up two areas of broken glass further down the road, instead of calling out whether they’d like some flip-flops and then explaining in response to their incredulity as to why we would be doing this in our own time and all for free

I could have stayed under the duvet instead of donning a hi-vis jacket and operating a pick-up stick, doing a menial task that would help bring the satisfaction of a job well done to improve our neighbourhood, and which was much appreciated by the people I spoke to as I walked around, and I would have missed the fun of working together and the doughnuts!

I could have been quite irritable with my mum, who nowadays asks me the same thing several times and whose memory means that a lot of the times we’ve shared in the past are often forgotten or denied. Rather than sitting and doing a crossword together and her telling me that she’ll know the answer as soon as I say it.

I could have missed the joy yesterday evening of being filled with the Spirit as I listened to nearly a hundred voices sing in harmony and rhythms that touched my innermost soul.

These are all things that I don’t always want to or feel comfortable doing in my own strength, but I am aware that it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that enables me to achieve so much more, to live for God and to witness to his love in the world, and it’s a gift that is offered to everyone.

Yet not everyone can receive it because they choose not to see or hear the message. There is a large part of the world that lives as if there were no God and a person who has eliminated God from their thoughts never listens for him. When we open ourselves up to receiving the Spirit we wait in expectation and prayer and in doing so will be joined to Jesus and God the Father by an unbreakable bond of love. We will recognise that Jesus never leaves us to struggle alone. As William Barclay puts it, ‘The Holy Spirit gate-crashes no-one’s heart – he waits to be received’

Jesus asks us to keep his commandments – a commandment that boils to down to just one thing – love one another as Jesus loves us. Jesus expressed his love in many different ways, the gospels show us his immense compassion for the suffering, his attentive listening presence, and his energetic celebration of the lives around him. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he released those held captive, he sought justice and invites us to do the same; all with the assistance of the Spirit that he sent in his place.

The Spirit that abides with us and in us. So maybe next time that we feel unsure, ill-prepared or uncertain of what we need to do or how we’re going to cope we can remember that invisible bridge bringing us closer into a relationship with Jesus and the Father so that they are revealed more clearly to us and in turn reveal God more clearly to others through us.

Amen

 

Judas – Servant or Scapegoat

Judas HangingThe turning point for Jesus and Judas? My dissertation for my MA focused on the question of whether Judas Iscariot might be God’s scapegoat. This sermon preached on Maundy Thursday 2017 is based on John 13:1-11, 31b-35 and suggests that there may be more to his actions than the traditional view of Judas the unrepentant, egotistical betrayer of Christ

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

This evening we hear one of the pivotal stories of what it means to be a Christian. John, declines to provide us with an account of the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, the origin of our Holy Communion, but instead gives us an account of Jesus washing his disciples feet as mark of servanthood which models for them a life of mutual acceptance and forgiveness which must be the mark of his followers for all time.

Apart from Peter, who, with his usual bluster and enthusiasm, misinterprets Jesus’ actions, our attention is focused on Judas; Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ. Of all the gospel writers, John focuses on the persistent presence of the devil; for all those who come to believe in Jesus, particularly the Jewish converts, are changed into Children of God rather than children of the devil.

We are also not given an account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert by John, but it is useful to remember Luke’s account, where at the end of his failure to persuade Jesus to have anything to do with his enticements, the devil leaves him ‘until an opportune time’. This then is that opportune time and Judas is to enter centre stage for his brief but eternal moment of fame.

Here then might be his story:

‘The past few weeks and days have been very unsettling. For the last three years we’ve been travelling with Jesus, seeing him doing such miraculous things and managing to outsmart those who wish to do him harm. I’ve never been more certain of anything, that he truly is the one who has come to liberate not only our own people, but many others from the tyranny of brutal regimes… and yet so many are saying he’s gone too far, what he asks us to do is too hard a life to follow, that he must be demon possessed and so they are turning away. His talk of oneness with the Father, calling people to salvation and eternal life for some is an outrageous blasphemy and yet I’ve seen for myself the wonderful deeds he has and is doing.

Restoring sight to the blind, curing the sick and the lame, freeing people from injustices and teaching ways of love and peace above hatred and violence – why don’t the people get it. I’ve learned so much from him and he’s trusting me, as one of the twelve, to be part of his mission, to show others the power of God; and what better demonstration of that power than his bring Lazarus back from the dead – there can surely be nothing more amazing or mind-blowing. Yet, even that has had the effect of dividing people and has added weight to the authorities case against him, that they are losing control of the crowds and fear an uprising. Certainly our latest arrival in Jerusalem shows that he has an incredibly popular appeal, but still for someone who claims that we should do all we can to support and uphold the poor, the way he allowed Mary to be so extravagant with that precious nard is at least questionable.

There have been moments lately when my mind seems foggy, my judgement clouded and I can’t think straight – what really is his purpose for me? Am I to abandon the faith of my father and forefathers; isn’t there a way that we can explore a way to move forward? What might it take to bring both sides together? Might it be best to talk to the authorities and hand the problem over to them? … Is that what he wants me to do?

Now though, as we sit here sharing a meal, he’s once again demonstrating his upside down thinking; the master who acts as a servant, by offering to wash our dusty feet. Look at Peter, who earlier protested so vehemently that he would allow him to do no such thing, suddenly eager that Jesus should bath his whole body… and yet when he came and knelt before me, his gentle hands wiping away the dirt and grime, I couldn’t look him in the eye. Does he know what I’m thinking?

He must do, but it didn’t stop the feeling of cold panic that swept over me when he clearly stated that he knew at least one of us was not as innocent as they seem. Is that his way of telling me he knows what I’ve determined to do? Even so, we have broken bread together and his offering to me of the choicest morsel surely shows that he still loves me. Perhaps it is the right thing to do.

Judas leaves the circle of the disciples.

I seize a lull in our conversations to slip out, and the darkness of the night compared to the bright glow of the room I have left renders me temporarily blind. As I move quickly away, the sound of laughter and fellowship follows me through the still, cool air, however, my heart is heavy and mind whirling – do I sense the enormity of what I am about to do? May God forgive me if I’ve chosen the wrong path’

Judas made a choice, whether under the influence of the devil or not, but John makes it very clear that whilst Jesus was about to be betrayed, he would not be taken by surprise. He has not been deceived and his arrest, trial and crucifixion will not be a dreadful miscarriage of his plans, but their fulfilment. Instead the event will glorify Jesus and through him glorify God, not by being recognised, proclaimed and crowned as king, but by going obediently to disgraceful death on a cross.

Judas leaves the circle of the disciples before he can hear Jesus’ commandment that a mutual reciprocity of love is the best way to show others that they are one of his disciples. Love that is to be shown even to those who find themselves far away from God; those who cannot see or understand what purpose God might have for them; even those who seem unforgivable. God knows his plans for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future.

Amen

A Glimpse of Heaven’s Glory

the-heavens-are-telling-the-glory-of-god

Based on the following readings: Luke 2:1-14 and Isaiah 9:2-7

Another Christmas and what a wonderful time this Advent and lead up to Christmas has been this year. Over the last few weeks at St James’ we have shared the nativity story with various groups of pre-school children; carolled our way through several nursing homes; taken part in a sheep-filled Knitivity before the culmination of Christmas Eve Crib and Christingle services and the pinnacle of Midnight Mass. It was my privilege to be able to preach at this first service of Christmas on what was a very special night…

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

How’s everyone’s Christmas going? Got everything prepared?  –  I hope so, because you know gentlemen, I think even the late night petrol stations are closed now… But, of course you’re all prepared, and what better way to begin our Christmas Day celebrations [looking at watch] – well it’s not quite morning yet but it will be by the time I stop talking – than to gather here together to hear again the timeless story of Jesus’ birth. And there is something rather special about being here, at this time and in this place, and you must admit that the church does look rather wonderful, full of light and mystery.

However busy we’ve been, all the rushing around trying to find the perfect presents; making sure we’ve stocked up on plenty of food and drink; and those little treats we can indulge ourselves with; despite all of that, something calls to us to take a moment, this moment, to remember what Christmas is really all about. We hear the story of a young teenage woman about to give birth; the reluctant fiancé whose done the right thing; the outcasts and rejected members of society in the persons of the shepherds privileged to hear the good news first… of a baby born in an animal shed, yet destined to change the world… all heralded by angelic messengers descending – to bring heaven so tantalising close to earth.

Tonight we’ve come together in what I believe the Celts would have called ‘a thin place’. They had a saying that ‘heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller’. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. Perhaps that’s why we’re here tonight, hoping to catch a glimpse of heaven’s glory

Indeed, there’s something about that story that seems to call to something deep within us, to draw us in so that just for a while we believe that all will be well with the world. A story that speaks of things so long ago and so far away and what wouldn’t we give for it to be happening right now; maybe like me you sometimes, just sometimes, wonder why it  doesn’t appear to be doing so nowadays. After all it’s good news of great joy for all people.

“”I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”

What then was that good news that the angels spoke of to the shepherds, and how is it good news for us today?  Because let’s be honest, the news that’s beamed into our homes and phones and splashed across the newspapers doesn’t exactly fill us with confidence and hope that humanity has a common goal of seeking respect, harmony and love.

Respect, harmony and love, three key element of Jesus’ message for the world into which he was born…  and the world in which we live today; a message that is good news for us but also requires us to be good news to others; a message that allows us to glimpse heaven’s glory.

For Mary and Joseph their lives had been turned upside down and the baby that was now sleeping in the manger brought them joy as any new-born child would, despite the distance they had travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the circumstances they found themselves in. Yet the fact is within two years they would be fleeing for their lives, trying to keep one step ahead of Herod’s henchman who would indiscriminately slaughter thousands of innocent children and bring misery to countless families; families who likes Joseph’s were valuable member of society, and who now had to rely on the country to which they fled to offer them security and compassion, to recognise and respect who they were.

Sounds a bit like a scenario that’s been happening around the world more and more lately? That even today there are people having to flee from their homes, seeking that same sort of asylum, escaping from violence and conflict. Do we recognised their value and treat them with respect? How do we welcome the stranger and alien in our land or into our homes? Do they hear good news from us?

So tonight, on this special night, it would be good to remember all those who are far from the country of their birth, who are missing the comfort of their own home and their families, and pray that with our help they too can envisage a future that allows them and us to catch a glimpse of heaven’s glory

We hear too in the story that the birth of Jesus was a herald of peace on earth and our reading from Isaiah confirms that the one who was coming would be known as the Prince of Peace. It was a peace that would come about not only through meekness and tolerance but through seeking justice and reconciliation in a land dominated by a foreign power and then through the ultimate sacrifice.

“Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Most recently I believe we too are weary of a world in which violence and hatred seems to dominate, where mistrust and selfish power struggles offers discord rather than harmony, where acts of violence leave men, women and children in fear for their lives. How it jars with Jesus’ message of peace and how we so often feel powerless to do anything to bring about that peace?

Surely though it just needs to start with us, to be at peace with ourselves, our families and our neighbours, to reject hatred and discrimination and to stamp on injustice. So tonight, on this special night, let us be resolved to seek everything that speaks of harmony rather than conflict, not just in words, but in actions, so that we and the whole world might catch a glimpse of heaven’s glory.

Back to the story then; those shepherds were just the first example of Jesus’ determination that every single person would be valued, respected and loved. Throughout his ministry he actively sought out the poor, the homeless, the excluded – those rejected by a society that saw them as failures, inconveniences, worthless. He didn’t treat them as charity cases or patronise them in order to make himself feel better – he genuinely loved them. And he calls us to do the same.

Not just to love those who are lovable but those whom we consider unlovable. It’s too easy to create exclusive groups around us rather than to love inclusively. Perhaps though tonight, on this special night we can determine to open our hearts to love, to receive love and to give love so that all may catch a glimpse of heaven’s glory

As I said earlier, tonight we hear again in the Christmas story those three key elements of Jesus’ message for the world – respect, harmony and love, but there’s one more important thing that Jesus’ birth has to offer us – his death. It wasn’t until just over 300 year after his death that Christians began to remember and celebrate his birth. Up until then the good news had centred on the message of the cross.

A message of forgiveness, redemption and salvation for the world as a whole and for us as individuals; but we do recognise that as part of the Christmas message as well. When, later on we come to sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ the last verse has these words, “Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons (and daughters of cause) of earth, born to give them second birth”. So tonight, on this special night, we can believe that heaven really has come close to give us a glimpse of heaven’s glory.

“…born to give them second birth”

 

But the truth is we can’t just leave it there – the Christmas story cannot be just that, a story in history. You may have come this evening because it’s simply part of a family tradition, or maybe you’ve been coming for years, or perhaps you haven’t been for a while – and that’s okay, all are welcome here… or maybe something stirs deep within and calls to a discovery that his story is also your story, my story, our story.

 

Isaiah prophesied all those years ago that ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.’ Tonight, on this special night, we can be certain that that light still shines brightly, dispelling the darkness and allowing us all a glimpse of heaven’s glory.

 

Love came down at Christmas, and may that same love come down and enter our hearts both tonight, this morning and for evermore. Amen

love-came-down

 

 

 

Called to Love

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Love One Another, As I Have Loved You

 On Maundy Thursday we are explicitly called to love one another. Sometimes though it’s not as easy as you think. This reflection was preached as a sermon at St James’ Church at the Maundy Thursday evening service and is shared with you now.

Readings: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

‘That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’

This week has for me been a week of great sorrow. In a week when we are following in the footsteps of Jesus to the cross, his words to his disciples have a great poignancy. A week in which we have once again witnessed the total disregard for the value of human life.

‘That you love one another’

On Monday we heard of the devastating effect that one person can have on one family, the Philip’s family, we heard of the anger and hatred that is justifiably felt as raw emotions are still very much on the surface.  Then on Tuesday, the indiscriminate attack on innocent victims in Brussels, as they went about their ordinary business; treated not as individual human beings but an in-distinguishable mass target.Still each of those who died or were wounded will be connected in a myriad of ways to others: wives, husbands, fathers, mothers , sons, daughters, friends. Connected to people who love them.

Brussels - Tintin

Herge’s Tintin weeps for Belgium

Far too frequently we think of ourselves as just individuals, separated from one another by race, culture and faith, yet we share a common humanity. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, when having to deal with the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa, choose to walk the way of love rather than retaliation. Tutu explained that one of the sayings in his country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human, and that it speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

Our common connection means that what we do as individuals affects the whole world. When we love each other and recognise that common humanity and things go well, it spreads out and shows what the power of love can do; but when we disregard it we act in fear, creating hatred and violence.

 ‘That you love one another’

 That you love one another. Just as I have loved you’

If we want to know what that love should look like then we only have to look at Jesus. Love is never straightforward but he managed to show us the different sorts of love that are needed to unite us rather than divide us.

Love can be tough – we only have to think of the rich young man who when told that he had to give up all that he owned went away grieved.. Yet Jesus didn’t give him a get out clause. He looked at him and he loved him even though he knew how hard that would be

Love enables forgiveness as well as  demanding a change of heart. Like the woman caught in adultery, who was judged and condemned by those who were blinded to their own sinful natures. ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. She was sent away with the instruction to sin no more, knowing that love enables us to forgive.

Love gives us a servant heart. What better demonstration of Jesus’ love for us that he stoops to wash our feet, not as master but as a servant and asks us to do the same. Amongst his disciple he was aware that one was going to hand him over, to be part of his inevitable death and yet he still washed his feet.

And that brings us to the greatest love of all, that he would offer up his own life in order to give us ours. A love that we celebrate each time we come to share at the communion table, and taste the bread and wine.  A sacrificial love that didn’t distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy but was poured out to encompass all of humanity.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’

You also should love one another’

There is one more love that he calls us to emulate – to love our enemies. Jesus tells us that if we only love those who love us back then love has no real value. But to try and love those who perpetrate violence, surely this is the hardest love of all.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t hate the crime and that punishment must follow according to the agreed judicial system, and let’s be clear that in the case of the ISIS attacks in Belgium this has nothing to do with the Muslim faith in general, but is caused by a perverted religion of hate.

Even so we are called to show mercy and offer grace. We are called to look at each individual and imagine what has happened in their lives to make them turn to such hatred, to make them so blind that they forget their common humanity with their victims, to espouse causes that deny the power of love, and despite this to love them­­­­­­. How hard that is.

‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples’

What has also been demonstrated, is that evil and hatred were not allowed to get the upper hand in Brussels, as Christian throughout the city offered practical help and prayers and the Belgian people rallied defiantly in the an open square to write chalk messages of love and hope.

The Archbishop of Brussels, Josef de Kesel, also announced that he had received messages from around the world, as signs of fraternity, and which he said, ‘let us feel how we are united in faith and humanity. He added that “We must stay faithful to our message of peace and go on promoting a discourse which appeals for acceptance, unity and coexistence’

So, as we continue to commemorate the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ this Holy Week, let us all remember that God is the source of love and life, and ask him to bring peace to our troubled world.

Amen

Servanthood image

© ‘Servanthood’ by Debbie Saenz.