Tag Archives: Peter

Servanthood – A Call To Serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St James 'Son of Thunder'

St James ‘Son of Thunder’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

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

 

Changing Doubts Into Hope

Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit

Baptised with water and the Holy Spirit

It’s not often that you start a talk in church with a piece of music. However last Sunday, the second of Easter (yes we are still celebrating Easter long after the chocolate eggs have been eaten and the hot-cross buns finally toasted) I decided to see if the congregation were up for a bit of ‘Name that Tune’ The piece in question was the theme tune from Star Wars, Episode 4, ‘A New Hope’

We were celebrating a Eucharist, made all the more special because it was to include a baptism. Our readings included the story of Thomas meeting the resurrected Jesus and it was, looking to the future we are being offered, that we hopefully were to discover that morning

First though I want to ask you a question… Is it just me?? Or do we all have moments of doubts? Doubts about whether we are capable of doing something – if we have the ability or the strength? Doubts about whether we can trust others to carry out the things they have promised to do. Doubts about what the right thing to do is? Doubts about what our purpose in life is? Doubts about where God is in our lives? Is it just me??

Everyone doubted that Noah could build an ark – and yet he went on to achieve this incredible feat of engineering; Sarah doubted that she would ever have children and even laughed in God’s face and yet she went on to be the co-founder of a great nation Moses doubted that he had the articulate skills to face up to Pharaoh, yet with the help of his brother Aaron he went on to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Elijah doubted that God was with him when he fled in fear for his life to Mount Horeb and yet it was there that he encountered him in that ‘still, small, voice’ guiding him as to what to do; Peter doubted when he walked on the water and yet there he was at Pentecost speaking out boldly and clearly, and of course the eponymous Thomas

So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ John 20:25

So it certainly seems that God has no problem with us having doubts from time to time, after all we’re only human and we’re very often not in a position to see the bigger picture or what the future holds for each of us. What is it that we need to turn those doubts into belief I wonder? What proof will be good enough? For Thomas it was physical proof that the man he had been following and believed in had truly risen from the dead and was very much alive and standing in front of him. Maybe the only proof we’ll accept is when something we’ve doubted would happen has actually happened then we’ll believe it, or maybe if something didn’t happen when we feared it might. Good concrete evidence is often what we seek to allay our doubts and fears

Doubt often comes about because of a fear of failure; fear that we will let people down; fear that what we desire won’t come about. And maybe it won’t – not in the way we think or hope it will… and that I think is the key. The need to change our outlook from negative to positive, changing our doubts into hopes, putting our faith in God not in ourselves. All the while we hold on to our doubts then we are stopping ourselves from believing that things are possible.

Psalm 16 is sometimes translated with the subtitle ‘the hope of the faithful, a prayer of trust and security in God’ and it’s a beautiful lament from David which contains the following lines,

I praise you, Lord, for being my guide. Even in the darkest night, your teachings fill my mind. I will always look to you, as you stand beside me and protect me from fear. With all my heart, I will celebrate, and I can safely rest. I am your chosen one. You won’t leave me in the grave or let my body decay. You have shown me the path to life, and you make me glad by being near to me.’

Appropriate words as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but also appropriate for our own lives, as Peter in his first letter tells us, ‘By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ – a living, breathing hope that has been placed in all of us.

Font blog

The waters of baptism in the font at St John the Evangelist, Hedge End

And this morning we witnessed that hope being placed into a young child, Noah; whose baptism symbolised a new birth, not of water but of the Spirit. A hope that will be new and vibrant, a hope that will be reflected in the love and example that he receives from his parents, grandparents and godparents; a hope that Noah will need to have reaffirmed from time to time not only by his family, but by the whole family of Christ.

Because it’s all our responsibility to look to the hope that has already been placed in our own lives and to remain steadfast in trusting that God knows what he’s doing and all will be well.

Regrettably, as we’ve already seen, there may still be creeping moments of doubt. Again as Peter puts it, ‘even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.’ And let’s be honest, all of us have and may be having to face various trials, some more than others, some harder to bear than others. Maybe our faith has been tested to the limits, but, if through it all, we don’t lose hope and believe that we will be given the strength to endure it, then just like metal that when it is tempered by fire is made stronger, so our faith will emerge with genuine hope for whatever the future may bring; and just like Thomas we will be able to declare, ‘My Lord and my King

Jesus tells his disciples, standing there right next to him, that they are blessed because they have seen for themselves with their own eyes and have no reason to doubt only to believe. How foolish we must seem to others to believe in something we’ve never seen, yet we have all come to or are coming to faith in so many different ways. What is it that convinces us that we should believe? Is it a personal encounter with Jesus; is it the love shown to us by those around us; is it an example of a friend, or was it that we just couldn’t believe that our lives are nothing more that this brief span of time. Whatever it was that started you on your journey of faith, be hopeful and hold on to it and remember how blessed you are.

The promises we make to the newly baptised, to support them in prayer, example and teaching we should also make to each other. We should push all of our doubts to one side as we are welcomed into the fellowship of faith and remember instead the one hope to which we are all called

Let’s celebrate that hope, and as always, may Christ’s peace rest in you…Amen

Expect the unexpected in our font!

Always expect the unexpected in our font!

Seeds of New Life

Seeds and Bread

Seeds and Bread

Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, 
it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit’
John 12:24

 On Monday in Holy Week our church holds an informal communion and this year we were reminded of the seeds of hope and the bread of life through the beautiful liturgy of Dorothy McRae-McMahon from her book Liturgies for the Journey of Life published by SPCK

This simple and reflective service allowed us space to offer our prayers where we believed we saw the signs of the seeds of new life, however small, by placing the single seeds we had been given at the beginning of the service onto Christ’s table, where seeds are turned into bread, as we named the sign we saw and the hope we have

Also to quietly listen to Psalm 42:1-9 and to hear the Gospel through a meditative reading I had prepared based on John 12:1-11.

 Seeds of New Life

It seems incredible that we’re all here together again. It fact it is far beyond incredible and yet I must somehow believe it. Look at them all – relaxing and enjoying the meal that Martha has prepared for us. My wonderful, hardworking sister Martha – not at all as bossy as she appears but kind-hearted and generous, and so very grateful to the man who is our guest of honour this evening.

An honoured guest indeed, and yet he has become one of the family, certainly no airs and graces, just a gentle and humble presence. As I catch his eye, he smiles at me, a look of genuine love – and yet just a few weeks ago it could have been so very different.

Silence

Then I was aware that my illness had taken such a grip on me that my family was beyond hope, and yet they still had faith that he would come. They had tried to hide their tears from me, but I still heard them sobbing as the night passed and I felt myself slipping away to death and to nothingness. ..

… That was until I heard his voice, telling me to come out; but out from where? Everything seemed muffled until I realised that my whole body had been wrapped in cloths for my grave, yet the insistence in his voice gave me a sense of urgency and so I stumbled into the bright light before falling at his feet.

As I said, beyond belief… and yet I do believe.

Silence

Many of his travelling companions are with him tonight. They’ve stopped here in Bethany on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. I can hear Peter, with his loud, gruff voice cheerfully retelling stories of what they’ve been up to since we last met, and Thomas – careful, thoughtful Thomas – listening intently, and occasionally interjecting to correct some small inaccuracy of what Peter is saying, which Peter takes in good humour.

On the other side of the room, I can see Judas, looking as if he’s brooding about something. I often wonder what it was that Jesus saw in him when he called him to be one of the disciples. They say he’s good at making the small amount of money they have stretch just that little bit further, although they often seem short of cash. Still God provides for them somehow.

Silence

And at least we’ve been able to provide some warm food and plenty to drink; and Martha hasn’t had to scold Mary too much to get her to help get things ready. I can see Mary now, sitting right in amongst those nearest to him. She been so excited since she knew he was coming, full of smiles as if keeping a secret but trying not to let it burst out.

Suddenly it’s as if the room has been transported to the middle of Solomon’s garden of delights; the air heavy with a strong fragrance, familiar and yet unfamiliar. Of course… it’s nard, that purest of perfumes and also one of the most expensive. That must have been what Mary was hiding and it must have cost her a great deal, at least 300 denarii – a most precious gift indeed.

Silence

A gift that she has broken open and is now using to anoint his feet; an act of pure devotion, yet one which I can see is making her sorrowful as tears roll down her cheeks and fall on his feet, and which she wipes away with her beautiful long hair, her own glory.

The smell has obviously reached Judas’ nostrils as well, and he seems incensed, querulously asking why so much money has been wasted; that she would have been better of giving it to help the poor or maybe he wanted it in the common purse for another purpose. My dear friend was having none of it, rebuking Judas and pointing out that regrettably there would always be poor people among us, and what she has done was simply what she would do on the day of this burial. Instead we should be more worried that we might not always have him.

Silence

I wonder what he means. Perhaps he’ll soon be moving on again. Things have undoubtedly become a little more difficult. Ever since he miraculously restored me to life I have noticed that people are very confused, several of them shy away, ducking into doorways and crossing over when I walk along the streets. Still more though want to see for themselves and vast crowds of people are starting to visit our village. They too are discovering how incredible the things that he does are. It’s certainly rattling the chief priests; they don’t like to see their authority threatened.

Perhaps it’s best then that he goes away, and Mary can save the rest of the perfume till much later… Cheer up Judas, your teacher knows what he’s doing.

 

A State Of Flux

State of Flux

State of Flux

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, • and why are you so disquieted within me?
Psalm 42:6

Just lately I have been feeling really unsettled and I just can’t put my finger on it. On the surface nothing has obviously happened that might cause this feeling of unrest; in fact things have been falling into place and my self-confidence has been gradually increasing – but still there is a feeling of general unease.

Obviously, looking back there are many changes that have taken place in my life over the last few months; the excitement and nervousness about starting college; learning how to split my week between study and wanting to continue to serve my home church; as well as pulling back on some of my voluntary commitments. Alongside these, in my personal life, I have been rediscovering what it means to be part of a married couple, now that the girls have left home and are more or less independent.

These are all definite changes, and as I’ve written about before, change is not something to be concerned about, but is necessary for us to grow as people and in our faith. So I don’t think it’s that. Perhaps it’s more about transformation

You might say that change is actually only the events or things that we either choose or have thrust upon us, which will have an effect on us in some way. What comes out of those changes is transformation, because we will never be the same and we can never go back to being the person we were before.

This can apply to so many life events, but a vivid example, where this is clearly apparent is where death and loss are concerned. Mags Blackie in a recent post, spoke about Kay Warren, an American pastor’s wife and her family’s emotional journey through grief, following the suicide of her son. There was an expectation from people around them, that life would eventually get back to ‘normal’. However, Kay’s observation was that her true friends recognised that this wasn’t going to happen, ‘they don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different’. 

Clearly this and similar events involve huge and uncomfortable changes and where our faith is concerned, those changes might not on the surface be so obvious. If we were to look to biblical times, there are many more examples where ordinary people have come into contact with God and the changes that that entailed transformed them and their lives forever. We can think of Peter, who after meeting Jesus, was transformed from a humble fisherman to a leader of Christ’s church; or Mary Magdalene, a woman with a troubled past, but who’s devotion to Jesus transformed her into the one who was trusted to reveal his resurrection to the other apostles.

Yet none of these things happened overnight, it was something that occurred gradually, and whilst it was emerging there would often be a period when they were in a state of flux – uncertain of what was to be done but aware that it preceded a new direction for their lives.

What I am certain of is that no-one once they have come into contact with God, as creator, redeemer or sustainer can remain unchanged. So if you too are seeing changes in your lives and are feeling uncomfortable or unsure about it – just hold on in there, for all will eventually be revealed.

Perhaps for me this period of unrest is just one of those moments, when I am beginning to realise that things are irrevocably changing and that life is not going to ever be the same again. In that case, I’m going to take a deep breath and say, ‘Let the transformation continue…’

O put your trust in God; • for I will yet give him thanks,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
Psalm 42:7