Sunday, 29 June 2008

Peter & Paul

Lousy Choice (of followers)?

I am not in the habit of hanging around with Bishops or Archbishops – I have a healthy (Biblical) respect for those in authority, but I don’t make a thing of trying to meet up with them, or catch their attention. At the Bishop’s annual garden party I always say hello and make small talk for a minute then make myself scarce and chat to colleagues.

There is one exception to this – I used to know an Archbishop quite well. He was a very unprepossessing man, diminutive in stature, though very much great of heart. I knew him in the last years of his life, having been the Archbishop of Uganda, predecessor and friend of the African Martyr and Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum Bishop Leslie had returned to the UK and became Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich before returning to Cambridge.

Bishop Leslie Brown had done a huge amount in the reform of liturgy in the Anglican Church, he had been the first Archbishop of Uganda and oversaw the foundation of the province there and led it in its early years. In his later years at Westcott House, where he was a part of the worshipping life of the College, his eyesight was failing and a number of us had the joy of reading to him on a regular basis and chatting over pretty much anything with him. He was a sensitive, intelligent, wise and spiritual man, and a man of great humility.

A story which sums up this humility is one that he told at his enthronement as Bishop of Eds and Ips (as St Edmundsbury and Ipswich is known. Leslie told of a time when in Kampala he went to the Cathedral and found a young boy playing with the mud near the Church. The boy was very involved in moulding and shaping the mud and Archbishop Leslie was fascinated so he asked what he was doing. ‘I’m making a procession for the Cathedral’ the lad said – then pointed to the figures made of mud – ‘there’s the choir, there’s the dean. there’s the vergers, there’s the clergy’. ‘Oh,’ said Leslie ‘Where’s the Archbishop?’ ‘I haven’t got enough muck for an Archbishop’ replied the boy. This response, said Leslie, kept him humble!

We all need reminders every now and then of what we are made! We are a collection of elements that – through some great process divinely inspired – has evolved into living, breathing, speaking people. As the words for the Ash Wednesday Liturgy say ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’.

And yet, out of these unlikely elements God is able to do great things. We may not be perfect, we may not feel we are very special, but God thinks we are amazing! In many ways, its not believing in God that is important in the life of a Christian, but the knowledge that God believes in us!

Today is the festival of Peter and Paul. It’s a day where we honour two of the founders of the Church, two martyrs, two apostles, two men used by God to change the world. And though Paul was very keen to stress that all God’s people are Saints, we call Peter and Paul Saints in a special way as we recognise and give thanks for the contribution they have made to the life of the Church and the importance of that contribution even up to today.

We remember that Jesus said of St Peter that he was the Rock upon which the Church of Christ would be build. We remember that he was told that he would carry the keys to the kingdom of God – hence the popular image of ‘St Peter at the Pearly gates’ so beloved of cartoonists and writers. Peter is the one who, in our reading for this morning, confesses Jesus as the Christ, a startling revelation that is the basis for Jesus statement that Peter is the rock that Peter will turn out to be!

We remember that St Paul was added to the apostles by divine call, having heard the voice of Jesus and been struck blind by the light of Christ he went on to write letters which form much of the Canon of scripture and as a Pastoral Theologian steered the early Church in its formation as he spread the good news of Jesus Christ and as he reached out to the gentiles in a way that the early followers of Jesus weren’t keen on doing!

Yet we remember too the unlikely materials that God built these two great saints from. Peter, a fisherman, often shown in the Gospels as the one who speaks before thinking, and who ‘dashes in where angels fear to tread’ as it were! It is Peter who cuts of the ear of the high priest's servant, it is Peter that contradicts Jesus immediately following today’s Gospel reading and who is rebuked with those words which must have been so painful to hear – “Get behind me Satan...” It is Peter who denies Christ three times. It is Peter who dashes into the tomb without waiting to be confronted with the folded grave clothes left behind by the risen Christ.

Paul fares little better, again and again in his letters he speaks of his own unworthiness and sinfulness. Despite his high standing in the pharisaic tradition and his great Jewish heritage, Paul sees that his persecution of the Church and his religious zeal made him an enemy of Christ and that it was only the divine intervention of that vision of Christ which made possible the transformation of grace which was the start of a new life in Christ. Paul – or Saul as he was known – was the one who looked after the coats for those who stoned Stephen, who was charged by the high priest with rooting out these delinquent Christians from the synagogues, who needed to hear the voice of Christ saying ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ before he could be changed into the faithful follower of Christ he would turn out to be.

The stories of these two great saints are not celebrated each year to make us feel worthless in comparison.. We remember Peter and Paul as two deeply flawed human beings transformed by the power of God and called into his grace in order that they might change the world.

And we remember that in the same way we are called to transformation – to leaving our past behind, to recognising that God wants to use us, and being open to that touch of Grace that can turn everything around!

We may feel that we are ‘muck models’ of faith, but in the end it us up to God to make us who are were meant to be, to make us more than the nothings we may convince ourselves we are. God chooses the most unlikely people to work for him – just look at your clergy if you are in any doubt of that – and he calls us all to be open to his transformation, in order that through us the world may be changed. Through our prayers, our worship, through our action and through our own faithfulness God can and will do great things.

I suspect that when Peter and Paul began their journeys in faith they had little idea of where God would lead them, as they grew in faith they grew also, it seems, in the knowledge that what God required of them was faithfulness and the willingness to go where he led, no matter what it cost.

May we have that same faith and be faithful to God. May the examples of Peter and Paul serve not to create a sense of unworthiness, but a sense of partnership in the work and life of Christ which has stretched from the first followers of Jesus until now. May we allow God to reshape us, and through us reshape the world. Amen!

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Year A Proper 4

Here's a sermon from a couple of weeks back....time to catch up again!

Genesis 6.9-22; 7.24; 8.14-19
Psalm 46
Romans 1.16,17; 3.22b-28[29-31]
Matthew 7.21-29
Preparing for the floods

Flooding is an uncomfortable subject at the moment, and our hearts go out, I’m sure to those who have experienced the terrible flooding and devastation in Burma and who have not been helped by the reluctance of the military rulers to allow any help. Likewise the threat of flooding for those victims of the Chinese earthquake who may find themselves in the path of a deluge from either the unsafe dams in the Sechuan province or the rising lake waters due to heavy rains is a cause of concern for all of us and our prayers and donations towards aid funds are very necessary at this time.

And its this kind of reminder that can make our Bible readings for this Sunday all the more powerful and distressing as we consider them today.

Not that I want to make a simplistic leap from the very real and painful realities of our world today and the Bible stories set for this week. Nor am I lessening what is happening to our brothers and sisters in Burma or China by comparing the events – on the contrary the real power of the story of Noah in our Old Testament reading and the ever-so-familiar parable of the wise and foolish builders are made even more striking when we consider the genuine danger that floods and the power of water pose even in our technologically advanced world where we seem to think that we are safe from the powers of the natural world. If only that were the case!

Water is commonly used in Scripture to impress upon the reader the power of the natural world, and the ultimate authority God has over the universe. From the very beginning of the book of Genesis we are to be awed by God’s might and power – as the Spirit of God hovers over the waters before the creation story. God demonstrated his creative power and authority over everything by controlling the waters, in the Genesis stories, and creating earth, sky and even land from the waters.

For those in the ancient world there was little which was more awe inspiring than water, the sea seemed to stretch on forever, indeed it was considered that the ocean would take unwitting sailors to the end of the world. Ships, no matter how mighty and well built they were, were still subject to the power of the waves. Floods could take away everything a person had, and the rains brought life, or death depending on when and how heavily they came.

So the God of the mighty waters who created the earth from the oceans, who could wipe out humans and animals with the rains, who led his people through the Red Sea from slavery to freedom, and who could withhold the rain from Israel during the time that the Hebrews deserted his service and worshipped Baal despite Elijah’s calls to be faithful, this was a God to be worshipped and feared.

This is the God of the flood in Jesus parable of the wise and foolish builders. On the one hand it’s a pretty straightforward story that most of us know so well, including the song with actions! But like most parables there’s a lot more to it than the meaning that might spring out at us.

Jesus is probably talking about building near a wadi pronounced wad –ee)– a watercourse that is dry in the hot weather, but rapidly fills in times of wet weather and flows with such ferocity that it can sweep away anything that gets in the way. Like those who farm on the fertile slopes of a volcano, or on the flood plain of a river, it was a risky business to build near a wadi but the rewards were great, the land would be good for grazing and growing, and water could be stored for use later. Those who knew they were building near one of these watercourses took sensible precautions and it would be a very foolish person indeed who didn’t make sure the foundations of their house were stable and able to withstand the inevitable flood waters.

Be prepared! Unlike so many of the floods we hear about on the news, in our own country and throughout the world, this parable is concerned with something which the foolish builder should have seen coming. It’s not a surprise…

There is a further twist to the parable – if God is the God of the flood then he is the one who controls the mighty waters – he is both the power of the flood and the rock which keeps the faithful safe.

Which should bring us pause for thought.

Jesus calls us to live lives founded on his word, and to trust in God. This parable is more than just a warning to make sure we believe the right things and live the right way, its saying something about being prepared for the power of God.

We are to build our lives on the rock of Jesus Christ, we are to have a faith which is founded on his truth and his life. Perhaps the flood that is coming is not one of destruction, but one of the power of God and we need to be prepared for that.

Things are changing in our Churches, in our team, in our parishes. I truly believe that God is at work in our fellowships and that great things are happening and will happen in the coming weeks, months and years. God’s Holy Spirit, that Spirit which Peter proclaimed at Pentecost as being ‘poured out’ is at work in our lives here and now.

We need to be prepared, to make ourselves ready for the work of God in this place.

It starts with examining ourselves and our lives of faith, asking questions about what we, both as individuals and as Churches can do in order to hear and understand the way that God is speaking to us. Prayer, worship, Scripture, living lives that glorify God, loving God with all we are and loving our neighbour as ourselves – all of these are the foundation on which we are to build. Perhaps as Church fellowships we need to ask questions of ourselves and what we do as Church, and what we should be doing to advance the kingdom in our communities.

It is different for each Church and for each one of us, there is no blanket recommendation, but a call for each one of us, together as the body of Christ in these villages, to pray and to consider where God is leading us.

I sincerely believe that God is doing something which will transform our Churches, and that we are called to stand firm and to trust in his power. Not to be swept away, but to use that power to change, to grow and to inspire our fellowships. For those of us building near the wadi of God’s Spirit we need to be rooted and grounded in Christ, and ready to respond to the rise in the river.

It’s a risky business being here near the watercourse, but we can trust in the words of God from Isaiah 43

18 Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.

19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.


Friday, 13 June 2008

A sermon for Trinity Sunday

The Sunday clergy dread preaching on.... I get the feeling that I may well have preached this all before!

Trinity Sunday

How does the Trinity help?

Today is Trinity Sunday, so I am going to talk about the Trinity. But I am not going to try to explain the nature and meaning of ‘God in Trinity’. I am not going to tell you that God is like a Shamrock with three leaves, or explain one of the Church’s profoundest teachings using the image of a Triple Decker chocolate bar or of toothpaste with three stripes in - all of these things do not do justice to the depth and wealth of theological thought around what exactly it means to describe God as ‘The Holy Trinity’

Neither, you will be pleased to know, am I going to try and explain any of this theological discussion around themes such as ‘what is the trinity’ or ‘how do the persons of the trinity exist together’ nor will I be exploring the words ‘consubstantial’ and ‘co-eternal’.

The reason I won’t be looking at the doctrine of the Trinity is because, if we’re honest most of us, myself included, would say that the idea of the Trinity is somewhat confusing, that phrases describing God as ‘three in one and one in three’ leave us feeling a bit bemused. Many of us get by without ever really considering what it might mean to describe God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, or ‘Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer’ as some prefer to say. The doctrine of the ‘Trinity’ is not first and foremost in our minds when we turn up at Church to worship God, a God who we strive hard to understand even at the simplest level.

This doesn’t mean I think that the idea of the Trinity is unimportant or irrelevant - just that greater minds than mine have made attempts to explain the meaning of the Trinity and have done a much better job of it as well.

This doesn’t mean either that I find the idea of the Trinity boring or unhelpful, on the contrary I believe that God being revealed as Trinity, as ‘three in one and one in three’ is the most exciting thing about Christianity - it makes our faith a dynamic, awe-filled experience - it offers a very different way to understand and know God to most other systems of belief.

It’s just that I don’t want to talk about doctrine and theology - I want to say a little bit about why I get excited about the God of the Bible - about God who is revealed as one and three persons - about a God who is too big for even our imaginations to contain. I don’t want to talk about the nature and meaning of the Trinity, I want to talk about what we can learn from the very idea of God as Trinity - a very different theme.

So, what can we learn from the Trinity? Well first and foremost the Trinity teaches us something about the importance of relationships. It tells us that the first thing that ever happened in the universe wasn’t creation, or a cosmic battle between Good and Evil. The first thing that happened was a relationship, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I’m not going to try and explain how this happens - but it strikes me as foundational to our understanding of the foundation of God - that God lives in relationship.

This should influence how we feel about ourselves. We are made, says the Bible, in God’s image. If we are made to reflect God then being in relationship is part of who we are – we’re not made to stand alone or to struggle by ourselves, we are made to share - to live in community, to relate to one another and to live in the love of God.

In the light of this our relationships take on a whole new dimension - no wonder Jesus said it was important to love our neighbour as ourselves - because in doing that we are reflecting the very nature of God. If we take this seriously we have to value the relationships we have, our friendships, our neighbours, those who go to Church with us, even those we do not like or who think differently from us - even our enemies. We are called to live in relationship with them, we are called to live in love with all people. This is no small thing - it is the very foundation of who God is and who God has made us to be.

The second thing that the idea of the Trinity has to teach us is about the importance of integrity. Integrity is a word that has been made very popular in the past few years - I’ve seen books on it by psychologists, business writers and Christians. It’s a trendy word. But don’t let the fact that it’s overused distract us from its importance. God lives in integrity. That means that thought there are disparate parts within the Trinity, though we describe God as being ‘in three persons’ God is still one, God is still ‘whole’.

Integrity means being whole, it means bringing together all of our internal parts and reconciling all our differences. I know of some Christians who faithfully attend Church, they say all the right things - they are models of ‘perfect Church members’ but when you look at how they act they seem to be different people away from the life of the Church. It’s not that they are bad or deliberately rebelling but that they do not apply their faith to the rest of their lives.

They may be managers who don’t always do what is best for their employees, they may fiddle their accounts, they may not stand up for what is right when pushed into a corner. Whatever the situation, what is lacking is integrity.

Faith should not be a part of our lives, but the whole of our lives. Integrity means we reflect God’s nature as we apply the whole of our lives to being like and loving like God. It means we consider our bodies, minds, hearts and souls to all be in the service of God. It means we give our all to God and seek what is right for ourselves and for others. It means learning to be whole.

My third point about what the Trinity can teach us is this - it’s a mystery. We have to know when to give up trying to understand things that are beyond us. We ask questions of God, about God and because of God and it is perfectly right and proper that we do so. No, more than that, it is good and we should always be applying our hearts and minds to search for truth. Ultimately, however, there is a time to give up - to cease asking questions and just accept that some things are as they are, and there’s no changing them and no understanding them. This is a difficult point to reach, but one which we all need to get to at sometime - it is an acknowledgement of our humanity - that we are finite, limited by our time, place and nature. It also means letting go and letting God - of resting in the knowledge that God is bigger than all of this.

The Trinity teaches us that, when it comes down to it, God is God. God is beyond our grasp, beyond our imaginations and our plans, beyond what we want God to be. God is unknowable, and yet God allows us to glimpse what he is really like - God allows us to use names like Father, Mother, Friend, Companion exactly because he understands our limits and wants us to realise that he is without limit. The names and ideas we have about God are only glimpses, we have to realise that God is a mystery which we will never fathom.

My prayer for all of us is that we will grow in our understanding of this God who is trinity and that the hallmarks of our Fellowships will be tolerance, love, a quest for truth, wholeness of life and a willingness to let God be God.

And to God who is ever Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom all power, might, mystery and majesty belong. To God alone be glory in our lives and in the Church. AMEN