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 ‘cafĂ© 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.