Saturday, 20 December 2008

A Carol Service Sermon

Christmas Carols 2008

Turn away from the lights

Many of you will know that i am a biker. I do like motorbikes, and take the opportunity to ride whenever i can – and I’m not one of these fairweather bikers, oh no, I will ride wherever and whenever, whatever the weather. And today I got to ride my bike for a couple of hours, which has topped me up, fix wise, for a few days, though you will all, I am sure, be pleased to know that I am riding extra carefully due to the slippery roads at the moment!

But, and some of you may have heard me say this before, there is something you have to watch out for in the darker times of the year. Lights. You see, in a car it doesn’t matter quite so much where you look, your big metal box will keep going in the direction your steering wheel points it, but on a bike, much of your direction comes from where you are looking, because a bike is steered by the way you sit and lean, not just by the handlebars. So where the eye leads, often unconsciously, the bike follows.

Which means that in the winter months, you have to be careful not to be distracted by the lights of the traffic on the other side of the road. You have to keep your focus on the road ahead and not be constantly looking around. Which is quite difficult for someone like me who tends to be distracted very easily. My mum calls it ‘being butterfly minded’ – which is true, if I’m honest.

If you look around at this time of year you will see lots and lots of lights. We’ve got some here in the Church. You only have to drive up through the villages to see an amazing selection of lights on people’s houses, it seems to have become the thing to have more and more lights on our homes at Christmas time and whilst driving around the Mission Community you might wonder if UFO’s had landed with all the lights there are around this time of year.

But I’m not one of those who says ‘bah humbug’ at this, i love the ways that people make such an effort around Christmas to brighten things up. It is, of course, the darkest time of year and we may well feel in need of a little brightness and warmth to drive away the cold and dark nights. I am all in favour of joy, life and light at Christmas, i think it is a great celebration of hope and happiness.

And God knows we need life and light in the world in which we live. It’s easy to have a negative view of the world, seeing what comes at us through the media and some of the things we experience in out lives. We can be forgiven for thinking of the world as a dark place.

But despite this, often in the middle of it, Christmas sheds light, a time of celebrating the good things in life – and if that means plastering houses in lights, or making that extra effort then I think that’s a good thing.

But as Christians we don’t just concentrate on the obvious things at Christmas, we enjoy the festivities (or we should anyway) and we can join in with the various traditions of Christmas that have sprung up over the past few years.

But this is not the whole story, and just like me on my motorbike we shouldn’t be distracted by the lights and keep our focus there. We look beyond the obvious and we remember the reason behind our celebrations.

Whilst we say a resounding ‘yes’ to the things which are good about Christmas – the emphasis on family, on giving, on generosity, the joy and happiness of this time to year. We also realise that Christmas is about God’s resounding ‘yes’ to each one of us that comes through jesus Christ, his Son, sent to show the love of God to the world.

Again and again I am struck by the wonder of Christmas – summed up in the best known verse in the Bible, John’s Gospel Chapter 3 verse 16 – God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not die but live forever.

It was God’s love for the world that was the reason he was willing to take on human flesh – to go through everything that we go through. It was God’s love for the world that sent Jesus, vulnerable as any human baby is vulnerable, to grow up and show us how to live, and to pay the price of sin.

Jesus is the true light of the world, beyond all the glitz and glitter of Christmas, he is the the light of truth and hope and love. For those of us who know him, then he is the focus of these coming celebrations.

And the joy that comes from knowing him, the truth of his love and grace is greater than any other joy and truth. It’s the reason that we re-enact the story of Christmas every year, it is the reason that no matter how many times i find myself singing these carols and hearing these readings that the wonder is still there. It’s the old old story (to quote a hymn) which never becomes tired or boring. It’s a time of ancient truths which are relevant to each one of us here and now, no matter what we are going through.

Because knowing that Jesus came as one of us – not a pretend human being, but just like us – and felt the joys, sadness, pain, celebration, laughter and tear that all of us feel means that God isn’t out there somewhere distant but right here with us – he knows what it is like to be hungry, lonely, afraid, confused, grieving, sick.

We don’t have a God who doesn’t care about us, but the message of Christmas is that God loves us completely – even though he knows us completely!

Imagine what that is like, to be loved completely, without reservation. Think of the person you love most in the world and how that feels and multiply that by a thousand times and you won’t even touch how much God loves us.

That’s why we celebrate – that’s why the lights and the decorations and the trees and the presents and the carols and the services and the parties and the lunch and everything else all mean so much – because God is in the middle of it all. God is with us – which is what the title Emmanuel means.

O Come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.

Amen and Thanks be to God.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Sermon for a cold morning

This was the sermon last week...

Preparing The World

This week I watched a movie about Father Christmas which I enjoyed very much, it was the third one in the series known as ‘The Santa Clause’ movies – called the ‘the escape clause’ and had a very positive message about love being the focus of Christmas, and that the true magic of Christmas wasn’t about toys or commercialism, but about family and friends, about giving and caring. There are many people who feel the same about Christmas time, and the Church should encourage such thoughts as Christmas approaches, but as the shops are packed, decorations are going up, turkeys are being chosen (or nut loaves depending on your preference), carols are being sung, parties are happening, presents are being wrapped, postmen (and women) are complaining, plans are being made, TV guides are being searched for all the best programmes - into the middle of all this comes a voice:
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

It’s not a very loud voice, compared to most of the noise of Christmas, in fact it’s easily missed. It seems to be the quietest voice of all in today’s Christmas - but that doesn’t mean it’s not there -
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

It’s so quiet, but it’s insistent, it keeps on calling, even when hidden it keeps calling, even covered in wrapping paper, tinsel, presents, cards and decorations it is still there. Even drowned out by carols it calls. It is the message of Christmas that we as Christians have, the original message of Christmas, the reason this whole thing exists…
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

It is easy to loose the central message of Christmas in our modern world. Though there are many positive things said about loving, giving, peace and hope in the general Christmas message that comes out from our TV screens, our movies and our media the essential message is more than that, the Christian message is that Christ has come, that Christ still comes (in those we meet every day) and that Christ will come again.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

John the Baptist, in our passage today, said more than just ‘The Lord will come’ more than just ‘at some time it will happen’ but Christ is coming. There was an immanence, an immediacy about his proclamation that made people listen. John’s message of God being close brought people from near and far to hear what he had to say. John’s message was one that got people’s attention, that made people respond, that made the reality of God come closer for them. It is the same message that we are called upon to proclaim today, the same gospel, of Immanuel, of God with us that John brought to the people all those years ago.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

But how is this message to be proclaimed? Where is John The Baptist for the 21st Century? Who’s task is it to prepare our world for the coming of Christ?

It’s our task. We who are the Church have the job of proclaiming Christ to our generation. There’s no escaping it. Part of the reason the voice is so quiet is that many of us - myself included - enjoy Christmas as it is. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is a good message, there are plenty of positive things about the modern Christmas, plenty of enjoyable things. But it’s not enough to just let everyone get on with celebrating Christmas in the usual way -we have a message that adds to Christmas, that draws more from the celebration, that offers a greater hope to humanity. Our Christmas message is one which stretches throughout the year, which lasts forever, which can change hearts, minds and lives.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

So we prepare the world - by proclamation and by living the good news of the Gospel of Christ. Our message is one of new life, of the peace of God, of God’s love for every individual, of the need to love our neighbour. Our message is a positive one and is one to be spoken and one to be lived. It is important to remember that it is not only our words that spread the gospel, it is our lifestyle, it is the way we are God’s people, as well as those who say we are God’s people.

And so a world which tends to speak a language of self-concern and self-advancement, of oppression and injustice, of having and wanting is given a new language, one which is based on words of love and grace, of giving and caring. In this way God’s word is again living and active - and Christ once again is brought near. By our lives and our words we prepare the way for the entry of Christ into the lives of people who do not know him. In this way we prepare a world which is unprepared for a God who cares for them, who is willing to die for them, who loves them with everything he is.

In some ways, however, the world can never be ready for Christ. The message of the gospel is a surprise and always will be. The message that God comes to us in the weak, the humble, the hurting, the needy, is one that shocks, that is unexpected. Our God is a God of surprises. Our God is a God who chooses to work through us, to rely on His people to prepare the way for the working of His living, active, dynamic spirit. God puts into our hands the responsibility of preparing the way.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

If I were God I’d want to do it differently - something big, something noticeable - something in neon, perhaps, with a loud soundtrack - maybe multimedia, a few thousand angels and a really big sound system. But I am not God, and our God has chosen us to show and tell the message.

There is a story of a statue of Christ found in a ruined Church. The hands and feet of the statue had broken off in the devastation that had destroyed the Church. That statue was never repaired, though, those who found it said that it reminded them that we are the hands and feet of Christ in our world.

We are the ones responsible for bringing the message of Christmas to the people around us. This may not involve saying anything to them about faith, but by the way we act towards them, as we seek to do what Christ claimed he was here to do:
“…to bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…to let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”

In our own way, then, we are the ones who make straight the way of the Lord, who create a path through the barriers in the hearts of women and men who do not know, or want to know, Christ. We are the ones who bring Christ into the wilderness of lives that long for the love of God to come in.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

So let’s prepare ourselves and our world for Christmas. In preparing for it let us open ourselves to what God, by the Holy Spirit, would do in us and through us. Let us celebrate the fact that Christ has come near, and that Christ wants to be a part of our world and our lives today. Let us celebrate Christmas because we have good reason to celebrate and because the Kingdom of Heaven is among us, the same Kingdom that can be likened to a banquet or a wedding feast. The same Kingdom of Heaven that is echoed in our celebration of the Eucharist. The same Kingdom we can celebrate in our parties and our Christmas dinners. Let us proclaim a message of good news, the gospel of Christ as we enjoy Christmas and as we Prepare the way of the Lord.

Now to God alone be all majesty, might, power and dominion, in the Church and throughout the world now and evermore. Amen.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A sermon for Advent Sunday

Advent 1 2008 Year B RCL

Looking for the Light

Have you started dreaming about what presents you hope to get for Christmas yet? Have you started thinking of the wonderful reaction hope to see on the faces of friends and family as they open up the gifts you bought them. Are your expectations high? Us human beings are pretty good at building up our expectations - a theme that is particularly pertinent as we dream of the wonderful gifts we hope to receive and as we tell ourselves that we’ve finally found the perfect present for the person who has everything.

Unfortunately most of these expectations seem to be dashed as we find our new video game, gardening equipment and expensive jewellery have become badly knitted jumpers, funny coloured ties and an abundance of hankies with your initial on the corner - and that the inventive and original gift you gave is exactly the same as that which three other people gave as well. Our expectations never really seem to be live up to.

God never seems to live up to our expectations either. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, though. If I were to turn to Isaiah 64, one of the readings set for today, but not one of this readings we are using for today’s theme of looking for light, we would read a prayer that begins:
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil...”
This was how the Israelite prophet Isaiah hoped that the Messiah would appear, in glory, bursting through the gates of the sky to reveal the power of God to all the nations and to exalt his chosen nation Israel. This was the hope of the people who heard the prophet Isaiah, or the third prophet called Isaiah as we believe this part of the book comes from. These were those who pictured the light of God as a blinding light, an overwhelming and challenging light, those who thought that the messiah was to be the Messiah of the Jews, a warrior Messiah who would rid Israel of its oppressors and make it a nation to rule over the Gentile, a powerful force who would show Yahweh’s power to the world. In this picture the Messiah will be "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."- a strong leader, one who would carry the power of God to put down the rebellion of human hearts against God.

Israel had good reason to hold these expectations, they were the chosen people of God, connected to him by a covenant that bound them together. Yet by the time of Jesus they had been exiled not only once, but twice and were under occupation by Rome and under Roman rule. What had happened to the land that God had promised them? Where was the light in their darkness?

It was perhaps natural to expect God to redeem them, to send a Messiah who would be the Saviour of the Jews, to restore them to their land - to fulfil the promise that God would save and redeem His people. This was the hope that had been built up over hundreds of years, it had become a longing - a longing for a redeemer who would liberate the Jewish people and exalt them so that they could take up their rightful place as the chosen people of God. They understood the writings of the prophets to point to the one who would, as Isaiah wrote “rend the heavens and come down”, they believed they were waiting for a political Messiah, a mighty Messiah of power to meet their need for freedom from their Roman oppressors.

It wasn’t that their expectations were wrong, they were the result of a certain way of seeing the promises of God, they were expectations of a certain kind held because of a certain situation. It wasn’t that these were bad expectations, or false ones - but that God often doesn’t live up to our expectations - in fact God holds to a very different way of doing thing than we do, a way we do not easily understand and which we often find difficult to grasp, a way that is often surprising and confusing, and often the opposite of what we would expect or hope for.

And it is because of this thwarting of expectations that we celebrate the birth of Christ every year. In fact, we celebrate a God who came in human form, who was born vulnerable and lowly, who lived the life of an itinerant preacher, teacher and healer and who died, almost in obscurity, an agonising and dishonourable death. It is this God that we think of at this time of year as we move towards Christmas, and this Christ, this Messiah, who rose again and whom we long to see and who we long to come and live with us, we think of in this season of Advent.

Jesus wasn’t anyone’s idea of a Messiah, he turned things upside-down, Jesus shows that he has a different understanding of God, different expectations. He brings out a meaning other than that which had been expected He talks of justice, freedom, salvation for all - not just the Jews, God has redeemed and saved his people, but his people are all of the inhabitants of the world he created. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the light, not just for God’s original chosen people, but for the whole world.

And this theme of expectations goes on throughout scripture. These expectations comprise new values, new hopes - they are about love, wholeness, self-sacrifice, servanthood and justice, they aren’t about political power or favouritism but about God’s love poured out on to all humanity, God’s free gift of grace. This is the light of the world, the light which we are all called to live by and the light we are called to shed throughout all the world. And all of this is unexpected, undeserved, the result of a God who takes our expectations and goes further than we could ever expect, it isn’t that God doesn’t live up to our expectations but that our expectations could never live up to what God has in store for us.

God can do more than we ever ask or imagine, God is a God of surprises who bursts out of our unimaginative bonds and can bring us to new life in him. God calls us to dream and to set our hopes high and to seek Christ in one another and the world in which we live. These are the expectations to aspire to, to let ourselves be gripped by God and to be set free to serve Him in love and to dream dreams of the kingdom of God, and of the return of Christ into our lives - this is the advent hope and we start by expecting it today.

But what are our expectations this Advent-time as we lead up to another Christmas? Do we expect the same routine of TV, Carols, Mince pies, Shopping and all the paraphernalia that goes with modern Christmases? How low are our expectations? Low expectations are the kind God must find it hard to break out of, ones that not only have missed the point but that give Him nothing to work with.

It is easy for us to look back with the benefit of hindsight and say that the Jews were wrong, that they had false expectations, that they were misguided, and many Christians do make such negative assumptions - but those we read of in scripture were seeking God and the fulfilment of His promises, faithfully searching for the end of God’s plan - today many in our world seem to have given up looking. Have we lost the vision of God’s upside-down kingdom, have we let go of the hope of a Messiah, Yeshua, the Christ who redeems our world and longs to draw all people to Himself?

This advent season I hope we can all take the time to examine yourself and look at your expectations - be prepared to have them dashed, but try and give God something to work on to start with – let us together long for the life and light of Christ be shed abroad. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen

First sermon in new parishes!

2 before Advent (2008) Year A RCL Principal

Risking our Talents

It’s somewhat nerve racking to be preaching a first sermon anywhere – but especially in one’s new parishes. This is the point where people could start thinking ‘oh my goodness, what kind of Vicar do we have?’ – Which may or may not be a good thing!

And it doesn’t help that the reading set for today, the Parable of the Talents, is one of the more difficult parables we could encounter! It’s not difficult to understand, the two servants who were willing to take a risk with the talents they were left with are rewarded, the one who lost his bottle and buried his talent in the back garden is punished. That’s clear enough, it’s what it might mean for us that might make it more of a difficult parable to deal with!

The Revd Ian Paisley is reputed to have preached on this particular parable once, and to have been interrupted as he talked about the place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. One older woman in the group who were listening responded with ‘what about us who don’t have any teeth’ to which Paisley responded ‘Madam, teeth will be provided!’ I’m not sure how much truth there is in that story, but it does seem to illustrate how literally some take these stories, and actually how powerful they can be in shaking us up! If we allow them to, that is…

Jesus has a habit of shaking people up with his parables. He doesn’t tell nice, easy, comfortable stories that allow us to settle back with a warm glow and think ‘it’s alright, I am saved, a happy Christian with nothing to worry about’. Pretty much every parable Jesus tells has something of a sting in the tail, a challenge for us to take away with us, and something to make us consider what it means to be a Christian and how we live our lives of faith.

Of course, there is more to each parable than we could ever explore in one sermon. It seems that every time I read one of Jesus’ parables I find myself considering another aspect of my faith and my life. These amazing stories consist of layer upon layer, meaning within meaning. Jesus’ storytelling ability is exceptional, drawing his hearers in with familiar images – sheep, seeds, bread, sons and fathers, servants and masters etc etc – then turning expectations upon their heads as he brings a new twist to these familiar situations and creates stories that serve to highlight the nature of the kingdom of God and of God’s relationship to us and our relationship to him and to one another.

So any reflection I give on this parable is bound to tell only part of the story, and I don’t claim to have any definitive explanation, or to have the only meaning or the only way of interpreting the parable.

But let’s return to the text in hand…

I must admit to feeling a fair amount of sympathy with our single talent fella in today’s parable. The text (certainly in the words of that unfortunate servant) suggests that the Master is a hard man, and someone who might not take kindly to the loss of a talent . Here is this servant entrusted with a significant amount of money, enough that if it were lost he couldn’t afford to pay it back! So he plays it safe, it is buried so that it can’t be stolen or, maybe, lost in a sudden economic downturn. Perhaps this servant was more canny than we think, and resisted putting the money into Northern Rock or Leeman brothers… But I’m straying off the point. Essentially, this servant’s fear is what motivates him, or rather de-motivates him. The other servants take risks and their risks are rewarded, first by the return on their speculation and then by the master on his return. This servant, though, is told that he is wicked and lazy and is cast out to, and as I quoted earlier ‘outer darkness, where is will be wailing and gnashing of teeth’.

Such a powerful story should stir up in us questions of our commitment, and what we do with that which is entrusted to us. Yes, to use the pun, whether we believe it or not we all have talents, we all have gifts which God has given us. These talents might be something we have never considered as a particular gift – and there are a huge number of people who tell me ‘it’s just what I do’ without realising that their ministry and their talents enhance the worship and the life of the Church. Flower arrangers, cleaners, those who set up for worship, those who read or lead prayers in services, our musicians and choir, those who help on committees, those who care for the children in our churches, those who care for their neighbours, those who pray at home for the Mission and Ministry of the Church, and for the needs of their communities and the world, those who do administration, those who collect for Christian Aid, or the poppy appeal, or children in need, those who offer hospitality, those who listen to friends, family, neighbours, those who offer lifts, those who encourage, those who support village and church events, those who write to prisoners via Amnesty International or to MPs or who give their time, money, or energy to the church and local community, the list goes on and on, and I’ve only just scratched the surface in that list – apologies if I’ve missed you out! All of these things and more involve putting our talents to use, and no matter how small you may feel your contribution is, it is a contribution, and it has an effect.

It’s those who take no risks, those who don’t reach out even to friends and neighbours, those who cut themselves off from the world and from God, its these people that Jesus seems to be criticising so harshly. It’s these for whom teeth may need to be provided!

For those of us who call ourselves Christians, who seek to live by the principles and standards that Jesus Christ calls us to, we have a responsibility towards one another in the body of the Church, and beyond that to the world which God sends us out to heal, to love, to serve, and to share the Good News of faith in. Each one of us has a part, for some of us it will be a quiet, perhaps even unnoticed contribution, but if we are involved in building up the Church and in building up God’s people in any way whatsoever, we have a part in the Mission of God. If we are engaging with the world around us in any way at all, we are serving the purpose of the God who reaches out to the world.

So, in my first Sunday as your Vicar I want to offer you an encouragement – not to undervalue yourself and your talents in the service of God and of God’s Church and God’s world. But as this parable does, I want to offer a challenge too – to consider whether you are using your talents as you perhaps should be. Or whether fear has you burying them away and preventing God from using them, and indeed you, for his work. We, as a church and Mission Community, are going to have to take risks, to look at what we do and whether there are things we should and shouldn’t be doing if we are to grow and gain a return on our talents. I don’t know yet what that might mean, but when the time comes may God find us faithful in offering again to him our talents, our time, our prayers and our faith. Amen.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Year A Proper 21

A follow up to the Moan Moan Moan sermon...perhaps a bit more sympathetic!

Year A Proper 21 (2008) RCL Principal
Seeing from the other side…

Last week I preached on moaning, and talked about how good we, and by we I mean most human beings, are at moaning. It doesn’t matter what our usual temperament, or whether we are generally happy, give us the chance and we will be away, grumbling about the weather, the economy, the government, the way things aren’t what they used to be, the Church, the world, whatever.

This train of thought was inspired by the Israelites in this amazing story of the Exodus. Freed from Egypt following the 10 plagues, brought through the red sea without even getting their feet wet, they seemed to follow that up with a protracted campaign of complaint. At least that’s what the text seems to say. First of all we have complaints over bitter water, which is sweetened by God and made drinkable, then complaints over the lack of meat and bread in the desert. We had that almost incredible moment when they seem to say ‘it was OK in Egypt really because the food was good’. No matter that they were in slavery, no matter that at the end their children were being murdered, that they were being beaten and oppressed – they got meat and bread. Now I am as fond of meat and bread as the next person, as is obvious, but when compared to being free or being enslaved, even I would take the freedom and get on with sorting out the meals later. It reminds me of a picture I was sent yesterday which said in large letters ‘never underestimate the power of stupidity in large groups of people’.

And as we continue the story in today’s reading, we see more complaining, this time again over water. It seems as if the people collectively have forgotten just what God has done to get them to this point – they have forgotten his provision, his miraculous works and the way in which he has continued to care for them no matter what happens.

But, having said all that, we can if we look see a little of why they might react in such a way. They had to flee Egypt, with just what they could carry – some of which had been thrust upon them by terrified Egyptians just glad to see the back of them. Remembering that this was not the age of mass communication, there would have been many amongst them that probably had very little idea of what was going on. Many of them I expect were simply following their neighbours and friends and simply going with the flow, with no idea as to quite where or why they were going anywhere at all!

So imagine how many of them might have felt. They haven’t had particular instruction as to how long the journey will be, they probably weren’t quite sure why Moses led them to the Red Sea, but were mightily relieved when they got across it, they might not have known about what happened at the Spring but were happy to have water to drink, and then were probably bemused by both the Quails and this strange doughy substance on the ground in the mornings. So now they continue to wander in the wilderness and start to get rather concerned about where the next drink is coming from – for in a desert there is something of a deficit in water and with its rather essential part in their continued survival I expect there was a fair amount of anxiety in the camp, which soon translated into anger and complaint.

And on the other side of this is Moses, who gets the word from God, who has been at the centre of events, who himself suffers from a certain lack of confidence yet who has been called, somewhat reluctantly, to lead this rag tag brigade of somewhat disaffected folk to the new land.

But he’s the one who is expected to have the answers, he’s the one who everyone turns to, the one everyone complains to, the one who feels at the sharp end of things.

And he sees the frustrations of the Israelites, he hears the voices raised in anger, the questions, the concerns, the grumbles.

So he comes before God and again is called upon to perform a miracle, he strikes the rock and water flows out. God has again provided.

And we can perhaps see some parallels with our own Christian lives, and perhaps there’s a word here for those of us who take responsibility for leading our congregations!

Sometimes it can feel that our walk together in faith is somewhat lacking in direction! Its hard for a Church to share a vision, we all come from different backgrounds, different experience, different understandings of our faith. We are united by our desire to worship God and to know Christ, but we may all have very different ways of expressing this and we struggle to work together to make our Churches places where all are welcome and all feel at home.

It can sometimes feel as though there should be someone who holds it all together, and that role is often taken by those of us who have a responsibility for ordained ministry in the Church. And it is true that to a certain point we are responsible for leadership and guidance in the Church. But unlike Moses we don’t have the voice of God in our ear, we don’t spend quite so much time in the direct presence of God, and I personally (unlike Moses) have never had to wear a veil to shield those who meet me from the brightness of the glory of God.

No, in the Church we believe that there is only one who knows the big picture, and that is God, and we are all responsible for the life of the Church. I can see why people often turn to the Clergy to complain about the state of the Church in general, or to express their concerns and their anxieties – but in the end we all have a responsibility for the life and witness of Christ’s Church. We are all called to share the life of Christ with others, we are all responsible for making our Churches places which shed light to our communities and in our world.

In our Gospel reading for today we have a picture of two sons who are asked to help their father in the vineyard. One says ‘no’ and yet goes to help, the other says ‘yes’ but doesn’t actually do anything. In the end, says the passage, it is the one who does something that is obedient to his father, rather than the one who says something but doesn’t do anything. And though this story was particularly aimed at the religious who claimed to be following God but wouldn’t heed the call of Christ, unlike the prostitutes and tax collectors who weren’t considered worthy – it still has a message for us.

We are to be a Church that says and does! We all together have to put our faith into action. We are not to complain about the way things are and then do nothing about it! Nor are we to blame our Clergy and lay leaders for failing to build up the Church and have more people taking part in our services, or failing to get interest going in the Church or whatever. Though those of us who have responsibility for leading services, for pastoral care and for visiting will do our best to fulfil those duties, we are (in the end) not those who will fill our churches. People will be attracted to our fellowships by those who are seeking to share faith, and who are enthusiastic about Christ. And often the contacts will come from our everyday living, from friends, family and neighbours.
We are all in this together, God has called us to share in this task of living, loving, faithful following and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ – may he also give us the grace to do it.

The Lost Son

Part of a series of talks on parables for our longer teaching sessions at Team Evening Worship

Luke 15

Coming home – the parable of the lost son

Jesus was a consummate storyteller. It may seem obvious to us now, but the way he used parables was, though not unusual in the ancient world, certainly striking and filled with a depth and meaning upon meaning that even now through the ages resonates with us as we try and know him more and seek his will and the Kingdom of God that he proclaims.

And today we are faced with one of the most striking and, in some ways to the leaders of his day, disturbing parables that he told. The parable of the prodigal son, as it is known, or perhaps more accurately the prodigal father or the lost son (as it is headed in the New International Version that we have here).

Of course, like most Biblical passages, it helps to have a bit of background, a bit of context to add to our understanding and, whilst we could probably never know the definitive meaning of any parable – as every time we read one new meanings come out – it might help us grow in our appreciation of all that is in this parable.

Actually its worth expanding a little on what I mean about seeing other meanings at different times. Its not that I think we can decide what a particular passage or parable in scripture is about and then read the meaning into it – on the contrary my understanding of the inspiriation of Scripture is that it was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and when we read with the help of the Holy Spirit we are going to see what God is seeking to communicate to us. That’s why I believe we need to approach Scripture with heart, soul, strength and mind – to engage our brains, but also to pray our way into the Bible and feel what the Bible is saying to our Spirits and our hearts too. I think Christians don’t always engage their mental circuits when opening their Bible, cos it’s scripture innit, but that we should intelligently view the Bible and take on board the wealth of historical, literary and textual criticism. On the other side I think that many of us who open our Bibles don’t actually ask for God’s assistance in getting to know what’s in God’s book! Nor do I think we feel the pain, joy, awe and wonder of the words in our Bibles often enough, but engage in a purely rational or intellectual way.

For example, as we will see in the parable for this evening there is a lot about how God relates to us as a father – or in other parts of the bible as a mother, friend, lover – and we file away that this is one of the images that scripture uses about God – but how does that make you feel? When I think of the overwhelming love I have for my children and, no matter what they do, how I just want to hold them sometimes and tell them I love them, for no other reason than the fact that I do. When I think of how I related to my own father when he was alive. When I feel all those complicated, overwhelming feelings that the word ‘father’ brings to me, I tend to turn all of that off when I read that God is my father ‘oh, that’s nice’ thinks Alastair, moving swiftly on.

But if I feel that God is my father, it makes me want to weep and laugh and dance and collapse with wonder all at once. To know that God loves me more and better and more powerfully than my own father did, that the good and bad I saw in my own father is just a pale imitation of the fatherhood of God, and even that my own imperfect, faltering attempts to be a dad pale into insignificance when I consider God’s parenthood towards me. Wow! That doesn’t just make my brain hurt, it hits me in the heart and in the soul as well! I feel more than I could ever put into words, I mean, just, WOW!

And that’s what Scripture should do to us, for us, in us. That’s what parables are there to do. They say to us ‘this is ordinary, stuff about coins and sheep and dads and mustard seeds and yet look deeper, feel this, think about this, let God speak to you through this, struggle with it, laugh about it, cry because of it, let it in.’

So with all that in mind, lets take a deep breath and look at the parable of the lost son.

This parable is the last of three parables with a common thread. It’s a giveaway in the NIV because they all have headings ‘the lost sheep’, ‘the lost coin’ and ‘the lost son’ – I suspect you have spotted the connection… But there’s more, of course there is otherwise you wouldn’t pay me the big bucks to talk about it!

What really holds these things together is just how daft the actions within them are! I mean, leaving behind 99 defenceless sheep to go and look for one foolish animal that’s strayed off, or turning the house upside-down to find one coin and then having a party to celebrate, or standing looking for your profligate, waseful, ungrateful son and welcoming him back even though he has squandered your money and reduced himself, through his own fault, to a lowly pig-herder. Really, this doesn’t make sense.

And these parables aren’t meant to make sense, they are to remind us that God’s response to the lost, to those who, perhaps deliberately have placed themselves out of reach, who have strayed, who have walked away is to reach out to them, and to welcome them back even if they themselves don’t feel they deserve welcome and forgiveness.
As such, this wonderfully crafted story is the pinnacle of these parables of the lost. It shows a father who is prodigal – for prodigal actually means generous to a fault, generous beyond reason – and that is what we see.

So lets break this parable down a little bit. Let’s hope for a glimpse of the depth and emotion and spiritual challenge that is in this parable.

We start off with ‘there was a man with two sons’ and an echo of biblical stories of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. It’s turned upside down, though, because there is no sense of the younger brother triumphing, but being laid low to the point of returning to the father in humility and sorrow and of the older brother being welcomed to the feast as well. But more of that in a moment. Jesus starts, as many parables do, with a recognisable situation – and everyday event, the family. We then see this son becoming rather disloyal to the family ‘give me my share of this estate’. Now in effect he says ‘I don’t want to work on the farm, and I can’t be bothered to wait until you croak – let me have what I’ll get eventually anyway so I can go off and party’

So dad divvies up the money and older brother stays, loyally, to work on the farm whilst we hear that younger bro ‘squandered his wealth in wild living’. Sounds like fun, but like most wild living things eventually turn out badly, the money runs out, the ‘friends’ who were always around when there were parties and there was fun to be had mysteriously vanish and there is nothing less.

So it’s off to be a pig farmer. Now that in itself is worth remarking on, there is nothing more gentile than a pig farmer, and Jesus was telling this story to Jews, those who knew themselves to be a part of God’s chosen people. These people were on the inside, and the gentiles were on the outside! Yet here we have a son of Israel reduced to the most gentile state, having lived entirely for himself he ends up caring for animals that are unclean, and therefore becomes unclean himself. It gets to the point that he’s even willing to share the food with the pigs. I mean, as far as being a faithful Jew is concerned, how low can you go?

But he comes to his senses, as the text says in verse 17 and there is a real sense of repentance, of sorrow for his actions and alongside a certain degree of self interest (the hired men get to eat better than I do!) there is also a sense of having made a mistake and acknowledging that. It’s an important point, because it is that turning around that makes a difference – he doesn’t rely on his one time status, or his background as a son, his position of privilege in the household. He says ‘I am not worthy to be called your son’. He also states ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you’ as he recognises that his behaviour doesn’t just go against his father’s love for him, but against the way which God has called him to live.

So there’s this long, humiliating walk home. And what does he find at the end, a censorious father who berates his son for his wastefulness? A cold return home and menial duties? Oh no, we see a father who is waiting for his son and who runs to embrace him! This is not your typical early middle-eastern family behaviour, no if you’ve seen ‘the Jazz singer (the Neil Diamond version rather than the Al Jolson) you will see a remnant of what happens when you go against father’s wishes in a strict Jewish household. There’s the ripping of clothes (a symbol of mourning and loss) and then there’s the back turning, the exclusion, the being made an outsider.

But not this father. It’s hugs and kisses, the best robe and a party at which the chunky calf is the guest at the feast. It’s a tremendous picture of welcome and celebration, my son was lost and is now found – he was dead but is alive again.

And this is what we’re to feel, this sense of coming home of welcome. It seems obvious that this parable is meant to parallel what happens when we turn to God again, when we see our own sinfulness and recognise our unworthiness, this is the welcome we receive this is our adoption as daughters and sons of God. Perhaps its particularly endemic to liturgical churches, but our confession often seems to be ‘just something we do’ at the start (or after the sermon) in our services. I doubt we think of the angels rejoicing in heaven over our repentance, or of God throwing a party to celebrate our turning back to him, but that’s what these parables say. You’re home! Welcome back! Wheel out the fattened calf….no, not the Vicar…the one who makes such great steaks! It’s party time ‘I’m accepted, I’m forgiven’ we sang a few minutes back – have we really let that sink deep into our hearts and our lives, into our bones and into our spirits – God has been waiting for you and I to come back to him and has accepted us without reservation.

That’s what I mean about letting this parable speak to our hearts, soul, strength and mind. It’s not just so we can have a good doctrine of repentance and forgiveness, but so that we can feel and know ourselves forgiven and embraced by our loving God. This is real, this story says in a much more striking way than any theological treatise could that we are welcomed into God’s love and God’s life when we turn to him again. Wow again!

And we go into the end of the parable, which I could spend a long time on, but won’t. We see the older son come back in from a days work in the fields and finding a party in full swing – a party for this waster of a little brother who went off and had lots of fun whilst the loyal, faithful, hardworking son stayed home and kept going.

The other son’s response is understandable, how many of us would feel so gracious towards someone who was so sinful and yet was welcomed back into our fellowships with such rejoicing! Lets put it another way, if we knew that at the very last minute someone as evil as, say, Hitler, turned to God with true repentance and was forgiven? It’s not a comfortable thought, really, but we can’t rule it out if we truly take God’s infinite love and grace seriously. Now, I don’t know how God will sort out that kind of thing in eternal terms, but our Bibles challenge us to believe that it is possible for all to be forgiven, just as each one of us has, as the letter to the Romans says, ‘sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.

This is the profligate, prodigal grace of God. This is the love which the father has lavished upon the human race! This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus has made possible.

We don’t find the ultimate reaction of the older son, but he too is welcomed to the feast, and is reminded that the father’s riches were there all the time for him to share and to have a part of. For those of us who follow, those of us who strive to remain faithful, this is a reminder that God’s riches are here for us now, if we ask for them. When we look at those around us who seem to be growing spiritually we shouldn’t ask ‘why have they got what I haven’t?’ but rather ‘Father give me the grace I need to grow in faith’. God is always willing to share his riches with us, to give us his gifts, to embrace each one of us, sometimes we just need to ask.

So, again, a parable with so much to teach us, and as I said I don’t have the definitive meaning of it – but I want to encourage you to look again at scripture and let it speak to you, to all of you not just to your mind or just to back up what you want it to say. Open yourselves up prayerfully to what God has to say to you in the Bible. Let God live and move and act in, through and with you.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Moaning... a sermon for Proper 20 Year A!

Year A Proper 20 (2008) RCL Principal

Moan Moan Moan

We are all very good at moaning. Lets be honest. There’s nothing most of us like better than a good moan. We might not naturally be inclined to moan, we may be quite happy with our lot, we might be the type of personal who is settled with what she or he has, but if we get the chance, nearly all of us like to really let rip at a good moaning session.

PCCs have a reputation for being such events. In your average stereotypical PCC meeting, the Vicar moans about wanting to change lots of things and not being able to, then the people moan that the Vicar wants to change everything and in the end very little happens. Then the Vicar and the PCC go home and moan about being on the PCC and wondering why it all happens, and I suspect the Lord groans too.

Not that this is the case in our PCCs here, actually I have to say, and I am being sincere, that most of our PCC meetings are productive and, though sometimes tiring and often containing what we might call ‘a full and frank airing of opinions’ we usually find we have much to be thankful for and over the past few years in these villages our PCCs have accomplished a huge amount, for which I am thankful.

But, to get back on track, we often moan about what we do or don’t have – in the Church that may be a congregation! It may be a shortage of finance. It may be a lack of volunteers to do this or that event. Sometimes having a moan can be very therapeutic, and as we realise that others share our views we might even get on and get something done about it!

Of course, the most common complaint I hear is that ‘things aren’t like they used to be’. For every generation this has been the cry of those of us who remember the past with a certain nostalgia and a feeling that, even when we don’t’ remember it, things must have been better once, because (whether the facts actually agree) it feels as though things must have been better once.

And that feeling is common to the human condition, I remember once reading a psychology paper that said that we have a built in feeling of things having once been better – a sort of existential angst. This, of course, can be found at almost the beginning of our Scriptures – with the story of the Garden of Eden, and the idyll of Adam and Eve, lost through disobedience and the entrance of sin into the world. The Bible tells us that this is the foundation of our feelings of disaffection, our certainty that things were once better – they were.

But as for moaning, it seems that no-one equals the children of Israel on their journey which we call ‘The Exodus’. Only last week I was talking of the joy and power of the crossing of the Red Sea, and that this is a defining moment in the Jewish faith, a place of liberation and celebration as God freed them from slavery and a life of oppression and abuse and set them on a journey to the Promised land.

Yet here they are, just a little later, moaning. Well, we may have been beaten, abused, had our children murdered and been worked to death – but at least we had decent grub. Slavery was acceptable when we didn’t have to worry about food, and now here we are in the wilderness and we’re starving.

It seems that despite what they had seen, despite what God had done for them, they didn’t really grasp the idea that God provides. Just before this episode they had found themselves at a spring of brackish water, which was bitter, and God had ‘sweetened the water’ by telling Moses to throw a piece of wood into it. It’s not like they were short of provision from God – and yet they complained.

And God’s response to this? It’s to keep giving, giving to the undeserving, giving to those who complained, because he had promised to care for the Israelites, and to lead them to a new land, a new life, a new hope.

It seems to me that many Christians think they deserve something more than they have from God. ‘I have faith’, or more commonly ‘I’m a good person’ they say so why doesn’t God reward me? It’s almost as if by being a Christian, by trying to follow Jesus, we consider that we are doing God a favour. Somehow our walk of faith is good news for God!

Well, I think God is overjoyed every time we turn to him, when we seek his face, when we show our love for him in praise and in serving him and serving others. When we live lives of love, when we give our time to God to use as he wishes, when we open ourselves up to God. Yes, I’ve no doubt that this delights our heavenly Father’s heart.

But we are doing God no favours.

The very fact that we can turn to God, that we can come before him in prayer, that we can serve and worship him is a privilege, not a right. Our Christian life is only possible because of what God has done for us, not because of anything we have done! ‘We love’ says the first letter of St John ‘because he first loved us’. God was the prime mover, it is God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s undeserved and unlimited love towards us that makes our Christian lives even a vague possibility. We shy away from hardship, we demand that Church, or our Christian lives, or time for prayer, or fasting, or our giving is done on our terms, and these often done begrudgingly, but God has given us everything, and our service to him and to others is a trifling amount compared to the Grace he has shown us.

And more, when we complain, when we hark back to ‘how things were’ or when we turn our noses up at those who we consider less worthy than us (as in our parable for today) or worse, do not show friendship or reject from our fellowship those who we don’t’ consider to be proper Christians, or who haven’t ‘put in the hours’ that we have to the Church, then we are mocking God’s grace and questioning God’s mercy.

I pray that we will all have a sense of how unworthy we are of God’s great love and grace. not because I think that God wants us to feel small or insignificant, because that certainly isn’t how God feels about us. God loves us completely, enough that he would give his only Son to take our sins and the death that sin brings upon himself on the cross. No, I would hope that we would know the love of God, as St Paul says ‘the height and depth and breadth’ of it in order that we might be inspired again to serve God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind. In order that we would see sharing our faith not as a trial, but as an advernture, as something we just have to do because of all that has been done for us. I pray that in seeing all that God has done for us we will stop worrying about the way that things are done at Church, or begrudging time spent at services, or not wanting to be a part of another meeting or another group but that we will long to seek God with everything we are, and serve him in every part of our lives.

God is, to paraphrase one advertisement, the giver that keeps on giving. It is with his grace, his love, his Spirit, his strength that we can change this world, when we have such a sense of God’s grace that we long to spend time with God and with telling others about God.

May we know God’s grace, and have such a sense of his mercies, that our lives are filled to bursting with the love of Christ. Amen.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Cross the Red Sea....

Year A Proper 19 2008

Set free!

One of the frustrations of reading through the Bible the way we do Sunday by Sunday is that we often, like this week, have three amazing, awe-inspiring and challenging readings and then don’t have time to address all of them in the sermon – or rather if I tried to, then we would be here for most of today, if not most of the next week and maybe beyond…

Not a great way to be remembered, as the Vicar that went on and on and on and on….

Which of course I am never guilty of – ahem.

So it falls to me to try and pick perhaps one theme or idea from these readings and use that!

The most vivid and powerful image comes from Exodus as we hear that story that so many of us know well, the crossing of the Red Sea by the people of Israel. If we really think about it it’s a bit of a shocker, the wiping out of a whole army by their being covered by the Red Sea. We recoil in horror at the images on our TVs and in the papers of genocide or ethnic cleansing – both in history and still going on today, but we often don’t think about the horror of some of the stories in our Bibles.

But if shows that the Bible is not a selection of abstract thoughts and sayings, but something rooted in the earthy, disturbing, hard and difficulty world we live in – stories from history, yes, but also stories which are very real and which speak today to a world still filled with violence, fear, slavery and freedom.

We can’t deny the brutality of some of our Biblical stories. We can’t pretend that some of what is explained as the will of God in our Scriptures doesn’t exist, and nor should be pretend that it doesn’t horrify or at least disturb us. The more we get to know our Bibles, the more we will see of people struggling to make sense of the world around – especially the darker and more difficult parts of the world. The Bible doesn’t seek to put a gloss on the world, but is the record of the struggle to bring meaning and understanding to painful and horrific events. It also celebrates those times which lead to freedom and hope, even when the events that surround that seem bloody and violent to our modern sensibilities. For these people, our ancestors in faith, the salvation from certain death that the drowning of the Egyptian army represented showed the power of a God who delivered on his promise of freedom. It was a miracle.

I’m not going to try and explain how the parting of the Sea might have been accomplished, using spurious science or a historical rewrite of geography to talk of the ‘Reed Sea’. Nor would I presume to try and explain away this miracle recorded in scripture! I think the important thing to remember when we allow this passage to speak to us, and allow ourselves to be challenged by it, is to think about the meaning behind it and, if you prefer the phrase, the ‘moral of the story’.

That’s not to dismiss the difficulties behind it, but to remind us that our Bibles were written from the perspective of ‘a bigger picture’ – of looking for God in every part of life, and of being honest about the highs and lows of this world and believing that God has some part in both. That’s not to say that God manipulates every event and every moment – if that were the case I would never have to wait for a bus again – but that God is involved, God cares about what happens, and God is with us in all things in life.

For the Children of Israel there had been and there would be many times of trial and difficulty alongside the moments of triumph and in those moments where they could see their dream of freedom and hope become more real they rejoiced.

In many ways the crossing of the Red Sea mentioned in this story for today is the turning point in the journey of the Israelites – it marks the move from slavery, and the threat of slavery, and freedom for the God’s chosen people. Having come to Egypt to be saved from famine they found that as their nation grew the Egyptians saw them as a threat and enslaved them. God’s blessing upon them seemed to have brought them only jealousy and hatred. The Exodus of the people from Egypt, under the leadership of Moses, was the moment where God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would settle in a new, promised land, would finally come to be.

It was this that they remembered at the Red Sea. As God brought freedom from slavery, as God led them to safety from the threat of the Egyptian Army, as God rescued them from the potential genocide that Pharaoh’s troops would surely bring. That is why in Exodus 15 Miriam, Moses’ sister proclaims ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…horse and rider he has thrown into the sea’. It’s not out a sense of delight in bloodshed, though there may have been some rejoicing in the fact that those who had oppressed and murdered the Hebrews for so long had received their ‘just desserts’, but Miriam’s declaration is a declaration of salvation, of freedom ‘The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation’ she sings.

God had done more for the Israelites than they could ever have imagined, and no matter how our eyes may look at it now, for the children of Israel it was the difference between life and death, between slavery and freedom. God had set them free!

And we too are those who have been set free. We too have had the chains of slavery broken by death – only this time it was not the death of an angry and hostile army, it was the death of the only sinless man this world has ever known. It was the death of the one who is God made flesh, the lamb of God. If we find the death of the Egyptian army unpleasant, we should find the death of Jesus Christ, the way in which he took our guilt, our sin, our death upon himself all the more offensive. It should inspire us to anger, to guilt, to despair, but more than that is should fill us with a deep sense of gratitude at the grace of God which made this possible. Blessed be the Lord God, for he has become our strength and salvation.

We have been set free through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we should, we must live in such a way that shows that in our lives. If we truly allowed these scriptures to sink in, to affect us as the wonder and magnitude should affect us, then it would transform our attitudes to all that we do, to all that we have, to all that we are.

Though, of course, as I say week after week, it is the Spirit, the touch of God, that makes these stories real to us, that gives us the grace to realise all that these wonderful, disturbing, transforming scriptures mean and which inspires us to change and to live as those who are redeemed from slavery and bondage to sin and death, and to be those who can, with God’s help live lives of grace, of being forgiven and of forgiving others – even seventy times seven!

May the word of God dwell in us richly, and continue to make us the people that God calls us to be. Amen.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Another sermon - two in one day!

Year A Proper 18
Being Church

I don’t know what your perfect Church would look like!  A lot of people who call me about baptisms and weddings in the team mention how much they want their service to take place in this building or that building because it is such a lovely Church.  And their concern in many ways is about the building…

I think many of those who visit our churches, though, are pleasantly surprised that what makes our Churches such good places to be a part of is not how well kept they are, or whether they are architecturally wonderful, or even if they look like Churches are meant to look.  It’s the warmth of the welcome, the genuine love that many of our congregations have for each other, and a desire to follow Jesus that makes our Churches special.

I am sure there are still many things we could do to make our Churches better – both the buildings and in growing together in faith and love to strengthen our Christian community.  I know of some churches who have radically re-ordered their whole church, who have added various technological aids to worship, from video projectors and computers to variable lighting and sound systems.  For some of our Churches the addition of heating has been a radical move forward!

Some Churches have taken on more of what is known as a ‘café church’ style, both in adding comfortable chairs and good coffee – a real plus in any Church in my opinion!  They have also considered what makes people feel comfortable and uncomfortable with coming to Church and are willing to take risks with the shape and content of services in order to give people a place to explore faith and where they feel welcome in Church.

Until a couple of years ago I used to spend the bank Holiday weekend every August in the wonderful surroundings of Cheltenham racecourse.  Don’t worry, though, there is no need to concern yourself that your Clergy are either being paid too much and like to spend it on gambling, or that we have way too much time on our hands and like to waste it with frivolous trips to dens of iniquity…

I spent the weekend, along with about 20, 000 or so other Christians, praying, worshipping, listening to various seminars, enjoying music from a variety of Christian Artists, chatting to various theologians, speaking to some very influential Christian writers and speakers, and seeing some very powerful art.  This was at an Arts festival, one of the Christian festivals that has been very much a way of reconsidering what it means to be Church, over the past thirty years and its called Greenbelt.  Greenbelt was part of my spiritual landscape for nearly 20 years, and perhaps had more influence on my own Christian journey than any other thing except the great privilege of being ordained to serve the Church of God.  It is enjoyable, often stimulating, usually challenging and provides an opportunity for many Christians to consider the real meaning of their faith and to think about how to apply their faith to their everyday lives.

Because Greenbelt is so enjoyable and so profound, and because there is very little quite like it even in the Church there is a fair amount of idealisation about it.  People describe it as the ideal way of being Church – one writer said that heaven will be like Greenbelt, but with better loos.
But it is not.  Greenbelt is a great place to be, but it is not Church.  It is a wonderful mix of idealism and pragmatism, of hope and frustration, of faith and questioning.

Which brings me on to our reading for this morning.  Of course, as you know, our Bibles are a fascinating, disturbing, sometimes confusing but always exciting mix of the idealistic and the pragmatic.  And our selection of verses for this Sunday is a wonderful example of how this can be the case even within one passage. The danger, of course it that is easy to fall into a false distinction of what is ‘spiritual’ and what is realistic when we look at the Bible – as what might seem very idealistic, is actually something we have to take very seriously for our daily walk with Christ.

We see this clearly in St Paul’s writings.  Paul is probably the greatest pastoral theologian the Church has ever had or will ever have.  He is writing without boundaries, without anything to work from except his Jewish faith and the inspiration of the Spirit.  For him there was no bible, just the Jewish Scriptures and the teachings and stories of Jesus passed on through the early Christians.  St Paul sets out exactly what the Church is and should be, but is quick to address the very real situations that people are writing to him about, unafraid to tackle difficult issues and yet setting out what God is calling the early Christians to be.
Today’s reading is a wonderful mix of the pragmatic and the idealistic – from the idea of not being indebted except to owe each other the debt of love, to the admonishment to avoid revelling and drunkenness, debaucher and licentiousness, quarrelling and jealousy and instead to allow Jesus to be as close as the clothing you wear.

But Paul doesn’t separate the practical and pastoral from the ideal and spiritual – they are all one.  As Christians, someone said, we live with our head in the clouds and our feet on the ground – a good image of what it means to be seeking to live as Christ’s followers – and particularly as the Church of God.

Likewise in Jesus words today we have very clear instructions as to how to deal with wrongdoing in the Church – it is to be dealt with face to face, then between a small group in the fellowship and if necessary to the whole body.  Then he goes on to talk about the immense power Christians are given to bind and loose – terms to do with the spiritual battle with evil that all Christians are engaged in.  Finally Jesus reminds us that as his body, where only two or three are gathered he is there, that is what makes the Church what it is – the presence of Christ.  This is, of course, not to say that Jesus is not with us individually in the whole of our lives but to remind us that there is something special about gathering together, and that Christ is at the very centre of our meetings as Christians.

As an aside, I must say though that though we are promised that even if only two or three are gathered Christ is with us, that is not an excuse for us not turning up to Church because the numbers don’t matter!

But in these two relatively short readings for today we are given a challenge – a challenge not to set our sights too low as a Church.  It is easy to focus on the struggles we have as a Church community, on our attendance or financial difficulties or building needs and become distracted from the core of our role to be the body of Christ and to share the Gospel in this village and in the whole of our lives.
We are called as a Church to be realistic – about our shortcomings, the things that need to change, the difficulties we face.  We’re called too to be realistic about the good things, our place in the heart of this community, the pastoral work that is undertaken not only by clergy but by many members of this congregation, our family ministry, our building development.
At the same time our realism shouldn’t make us forget our dreams as a Church.  We are called to seek God’s vision and to live up to the ideals that Christ has called us to.  We may not do terribly well, we may fail continually, but God’s Spirit calls us to be open to the ideal as well as being rooted in the practical.  We are called to strive to bring Christ into every area of our lives, and to make our faith a part of everything we do and say.
As a Church we are called to bear with one another, to love, to care.  We are called also to, as Paul says. ‘wake from sleep’ and to work together for the proclamation of the Gospel.  Often the possibility of Church growth may seem far away, but we are called to persevere, to trust in God and to support one another as part of this fellowship.
And in the end it all comes down to one thing.  Everything we do as individual Christians and as a Church must come down to this. 
“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ or as it says in another translation ‘Let the Lord Jesus Christ be as close as the clothes you wear’.  When we allow Jesus to be that close to us then our dreams of faith can become reality.

A sermon - Proper 17

Year A Proper 17 Principal

A few weeks back I talked about how we picture Jesus – some of us seem to be stuck with a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ picture – all tied up with Victorian Kitsch and nicely scrubbed children gathered around a blue eyed saviour – some picture a revolutionary, shouting insults are the Pharisees, whipping traders from the temple courts, others prefer a more intellectual picture, with Jesus debating with scholars and scribes.  The list goes on – and having preached on this once I don’t plan to save myself the trouble of preaching by just saying the same thing again.

One of the points I wanted to make, among others, in that sermon was to say that our picture of Jesus, whatever it might be, cannot ever be enough – there will always be more to discover, more that challenges us, more to inspire and disturb.  And so it should be.

And it resonates in today’s readings too if we consider our pictures of God and our understanding of scripture.  We again are challenged, called to consider the demands of faith, of the life of faith, of Jesus’s call to us to be faithful, to be followers, to be his people.

Of course, the Bible is a precious gift – God allowing us to share in truth through Scripture  - but as well as familiarity and comfort, when we find ourselves facing the truth of God’s radical agenda, with the God of fire and of life, the God of hope and of freedom, when we see this God in scripture, then the Bible should shock us, disturb us and make us think again.

But we have to be open to this confrontation – as we see in our reading from the book of Exodus, Moses meets God in this vision of the burning bush but in order to do so he has to turn aside – he has to take time out, to set aside what he is doing, and then he finds himself on Holy Ground, and removes his shoes.

Moses has to act, to turn aside, to be open to the voice of God, and on meeting with God has to be willing to change something – a small thing, perhaps, removing his shoes – but it was a recognition that he stood somehow in the presence of God.  And its not like he was anywhere particularly special, just out in the desert tending crops.  But this was the place where God was (as I’ve said before, the phrase ‘angel of the Lord’ in the Old Testament, has more to it than our understanding of Angelic beings, and refers much more to the actual presence of God)

And from this response to God Moses is called, challenged and sent out to do something that will change the whole course of human history.  He is to lead the children of Israel from slavery to freedom – to head up the Exodus from Egypt – to speak God’s word to Pharaoh, and to be there for what is the defining moment of the Hebrew nation, the journey to the promised land.  It is this journey that brings about the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, it is during this journey that God’s people will receive the first law, it is during this journey that they will be fed by the bread of heaven, it is this journey that makes Israel what it is.

All from this turning aside, and from meeting God and responding with God.  Small steps of faith which changed the world.

And our faith must follow this pattern.  Of being open to God, turning aside and listening, responding and following.  That journey for us must begin with scripture.  When we open our Bibles we are in the presence of God.  We may not take off our shoes but there is a need to turn aside and make time and space to encounter the Bible and allow it to encounter us.  Perhaps we need to consider more what it means to read and be read by our Bibles – to look beyond those parts that we are comfortable with, beyond the stories we know so well, to see those parts which will, as we pray and read and meditate, change us and lead us further into God’s truth.  If we really look at the Bible it will surprise us –  for instance, as I encourage confirmation candidates to do - read a whole Gospel at once and think again about what Jesus is like!  As I mentioned at the start, you will be surprised -  in today’s Gospel reading, for instance, Peter was shocked by Jesus (explain context, just after his ‘confession’).  Jesus reacts with passion, and anger!  Perhaps that’s not how we think of Jesus (gentle, meek & mild).  But, like most Scripture, can shock and surprise us.  For Peter it must have been a bit like being slapped.  He was only saying how strongly he felt about Jesus, only trying to express the fact of how important Jesus was.  The reaction he got must have been something of a surprise.

It’s easy as a Christian to go our own merry way – it’s only through prayer and reading the Bible that God can shake us up.  And GOD DOES SHAKE US UP…

Are we willing to be shaken up?  If we follow the Christian way we will be – it’s not always about ‘what I am comfortable with’ or ‘what I like’.   Our faith is demanding, its not an easy ride – look for instance at the standards which we are called to live by in today’s lesson taken from the Epistle to the Romans

Romans 12.9-21
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 
and there is more 
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
High standards indeed, and its only through learning in prayer, in reading scripture, in knowing the love of God and the power of his Spirit that any of this is possible. And we need to be willing to do things differently, to heed the call of God no matter what that might cost -   Sometimes we do things differently in our parishes, Sometimes we try something different in our meetings, in our groups.  Sometimes we need to be willing to think again about how we meet the needs of our communities and what we must do to be open to them and to serve our villages.

If we are open to God working in us, through us, because of us, then we will find that sometimes we are stopped short.  Sometimes God will do something which makes us stop in our tracks and think again. Like Moses in our first reading, confronted with a burning bush that speaks to him – God can speak in the most unexpected ways.  OR Like Peter, who is strongly rebuked for what he says, despite the fact he is sure he’s saying what is right to Jesus.

Christianity is NOT the easy way.  Jesus is blunt, it’s like taking up a cross and carrying it, knowing that the way is full of pain.  BUT the rewards are beyond our imagining.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Wrestling with Angels

Proper 13 (2008) Year A RCL Principal
Wrestling with Angels

When I was younger – in my early Teens, I think, there was never anything on TV on Saturday’s apart from Grandstand or ‘Dickie Davies’ world of Sport.’ As someone who didn’t appreciate spectator sports, this used to leave me frustrated and annoyed! There was one thing that grabbed my attention, though, (and considering it was 25 years ago now, it must really have grabbed my attention!) and that was the Saturday Afternoon ITV wrestling! This was in the days of ‘Big Daddy’ and ‘Giant Haystacks’ – it mainly involved huge men grunting a lot, running around a ring and jumping on each other!

But it was the sense of theatre, the make-believe aspect of it that really caught my attention. I was naïve enough to think that they might really be fighting – my illusions have since been shattered! But apart from that aspect of the make believe there was a sense of unreality about it – it seemed to be a game, not real, something that didn’t really hurt, despite the moans and groans on the TV. Of course, I now know that none of it was real, and the US wrestlers have taken the whole theatrical aspect of wresting to extremes with ‘WWF’ and ‘WCW’ (ask my nephew if you want to know what that stands for). But wrestling, at least any wrestling outside of the Olympics, has connotations of falsehood, unreality about it.

So I wonder how it felt to Jacob! There by the brook of Jabbok he settles down to rest and is wrestled by ‘a stranger’ who fights with him all night. Perhaps it seemed like a dream, it is certainly a strange picture. Jacob is waiting upon God, seeking reassurance and guidance before meeting his brother Esau after many years estrangement. Remember – Jacob had tricked Esau out of his inheritance, he had taken the blessing meant for the eldest son, and had gone ‘on the run’ as it were, fearful of his brother’s vengeance. Jacob had been tricked in return, though, and found himself with two wives: having been promised one sister, his first wedding was to the other, and he had to wait to marry the woman he had hoped for.

But Jacob had overcome his difficulties, he had turned his back on treachery, and deceit and had sought to do as God commanded. In the course of this he had become a successful man, he had built up large flocks, and owned land. As time had past, however, this had not been enough, and he felt the need to be reconciled to his brother. So he set off back to the family lands to meet Esau and to ask his forgiveness. In the earlier part of this chapter we see his fear about his brother’s reaction, we see him sending gifts ahead of himself in order to express his penitence, we see him worrying that he literally might not make it out of an encounter alive – after all, the last time they had met Esau was ready to kill his brother there and then.

So Jacob goes away to pray, to wait upon God, to seek God’s help.

And what happens.

A stranger comes along and wrestles with him!

But Jacob doesn’t roll over without a fight, he struggles back, even when the stranger cheats and dislocates Jacob’s hip. He holds on to the stranger and will not let go of him until he tells Jacob his name.

Of course, to those of us who know the story, we can say ‘yes, Jacob was wrestling with God’ – or more accurately with an Angel, because in the Old Testament Angels are the solid manifestation of God, not separate beings but, in some way, mini-incarnations of God. Yes, Jacob wrestled with an Angel, and was willing to keep struggling, even when things became difficult, when things became painful

And in return, he was blessed. He had seen God face to face, in some way at least, and had prevailed. He had wrestled with an Angel.

And it seems obvious that this offers some parallels to the nature of prayer in the Christian life.

To go back to the TV wrestling – there’s a fair amount of prayer that comes from the big daddy school of prayer – lots of grunting and groaning, and awful lot of noise, great theatre, wonderfully entertaining – but where is the substance??? It’s easy in ministry to make our prayer wordy and impressive, and look back after a service and say ‘actually did I really say anything there????’.

There is a place for formal prayers, for liturgy, for prayers that are led for us – but not as a replacement for our own prayer.

Real prayer, to be honest, is hard work. If we take prayer seriously, our Bible story tells us, then it’s going to be like wrestling with God.

Prayer is not about saying the right words, or about being in Church. Prayer is learning to wait on God, to listen, to be willing to be quiet – to be open to God working.

And that can be difficult, because when we are praying, and I mean really praying, we may well encounter God. We may find ourselves struggling in prayer. We could be struggling over finding God’s will, we could be struggling over having to leave something behind, we could be struggling with God because we have things that are blocking our relationship with Him and God wants to move us on in our faith.

There are as many reasons why prayer can be a struggle as there are people in this world – we may all have our reasons – but ultimately the question comes back…

Do we want to meet God? Are we willing to take the risk of finding out more of who God is?

Because, like Jacob, if we do meet God – we will be changed. We may suffer, because in the face of God’s holiness, God’s power and even God’s love we can feel battered and bruised, emotionally if not physically. But we will be changed – and ultimately we will be blessed – because we will encounter God and we will prevail.

And we will see the generosity of a God who is actually willing to come and meet us, who wrestles with us not because he is difficult, awkward or obstinate, but because by wrestling with us he allows us to see him more and more, and he can touch us with his grace and generosity because he is close to us.

And if you wish to see a little of God’s generosity then I will finish by pointing you towards our Gospel reading for today – as Jesus is confronted with a hungry crowd and has only five loaves and two fish with which to feed them. He looks to heaven, blesses the food, breaks it and feeds all five thousand men (plus women and children who aren’t included in the headcount, apparently), then there are also twelve baskets of leftovers at the end.

That’s the kind of God we approach in prayer, abundant, loving, caring, willing to cater for our needs. But that’s the God also who we wrestle with, who as he reveals himself to us strips away the things that prevent us from being close to him, sometimes painfully. This God is willing to meet us in our prayers – but are we willing to face the consequences??

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish far more all than we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)