Sunday, 8 November 2009


Remembrance 2009

Missing the point

Two things have struck me in this past week or which relate to this Remembrance Sunday observance which we have all come to be a part of today. Firstly I was musing on a time when, on a day with colleagues we spent some time discussing what we would be doing this Sunday and how we would approach Remembrance day (sometimes we need a bit of prompting or we can end up saying the same thing again and again).

Anyway, in the course of conversation with these colleagues one of them talked about how when he was a curate the Vicar who was training him would have the press come and attend his Sunday services on remembrance day because this Vicar wouldn’t do anything special for the Sunday and would always spend his sermon railing against what he called ‘a glorification of war and violence’ and the papers came to report year on year how this Vicar responded to Remembrance Sunday. This prompted one clergyperson in the group to become quite agitated about how Remembrance Sunday does glorify war, and how the Church of England makes too much of it. I was just about to chime in with some kind of, probably less than measured response to this, when another person in the discussion just said ‘nonsense’ and the conversation stopped there.

Of course it is nonsense, we don’t gather around the cenotaphs and war memorials of our communities to celebrate war, but to mourn, to give thanks for those who sacrificed themselves that others might live and that we might enjoy freedom.

One the privileges of being a Vicar is getting to listen to people’s stories, and some of the most moving experiences I have ever had have been the stories which those who fought in the great wars of the last century have shared. None of these men and women have ever given a hint of being glad to have been at war, in fact their stories are overwhelmingly sorrowful and often painful to recall. They don’t talk of the glory, they talk of how unworthy they felt to survive when all around them their comrades were falling, they talk of the pain of losing friends and family, they talk of narrow escapes, and the strength of friendships made in time of war.

There are stories where people have acted with great bravery in wartime, and where the actions of valiant men and women have been glorious and praiseworthy, but none of them have ever said to me ‘I wish it would happen again’. Some people may lament the loss of closeness that was a part of working together to defeat an enemy which was under the influence of and evil dictator, or the loss of the comradeship that came from the will to survive. But there is no sense of the glory of war.

It seems to me, and it comes powerfully from all the conversations I have with those who have served not only in the Second World War, but in countless conflict since, that there is no glory in war itself, no desire to be at war, no longing to fight in these people. But there is a sense of pride in having served their country, a sense of gratitude for the life which they have, and often a sense of guilt that they did survive when many others didn’t.

So those who think that this important time of year, this remembrance season, exists for the glorification of war have completely missed the point.

This time is, as the name of it suggests, for Remembering. We who have not experienced the pain and the fears of war have a debt of gratitude which we bear towards those who have. Who fought for our freedom, who gave themselves. We will remember them.

We remember those who were broken by war, those who lost loved ones and those who upon their return found themselves, and find themselves, in need of care and support – the care and support offered by such groups as the Royal British Legion. We call to mind our need to continue to support these people, especially through our giving to the poppy fund. We will remember them.

We remember the good thing which we have, the freedoms we enjoy, and the price at which these freedoms come. We will remember them.

We remember those still serving, and fighting in wars all over the world today, those who put their lives at risk as part of their calling to serve in the armed forces. We will remember them.

And we remember that all of our freedom comes from the God who gave his only son to take away the power of sin and death, to replace hatred with love, and fear with perfect freedom. We will remember Him.

Which leads me onto the second thing which I remembered whilst preparing these thoughts – this time it was my daughter, Katherine, who at six years old (a couple of years ago now) wanted to know a bit about our gathering by the Cenotaph in the village where I lived in Cambridgeshire on remembrance Sunday morning. She asked me ‘is tomorrow forgiveness Sunday, daddy?’

And with the wisdom that sometimes only comes from children I think this is very much a part of what our remembering is about. We remember Christ’s call to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As we seek to heal the wounds which break our relationships with those who have historically, and are now, our enemies we commit ourselves to peace and to the healing of the nations. We commit ourselves to the fight for justice, and truth, and love and faith, which is a part of our calling as Christians.

We recognise how our fallen human race so often finds itself at enmity with one another, and we ask for forgiveness for those times when we have held hatred in our hearts, we ask for the strength to grow in forgiveness that we might be people of peace. We forgive others their trespasses, as we know that God forgives us our trespasses.

And perhaps, even after all this time, some need to forgive themselves for not feeling worthy of the life which they have been given, knowing that many worthy men and women have perished in war. There is the striking image in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ of the young soldier, now old, who goes to see the graves of the men sent to take him home following the push into Europe which led to the end of Nazism, where he turns to those around him and asks ‘Was I worth it? Am I a good man?’ A concern that haunts many who have survived. Today we give thanks for their lives, their examples, all they have contributed to the life of our communities and our country, and we say that ‘yes, you are worth it’.

And for all of us, we remember that God believes we are worth sacrificing himself for. In our reading we heard that ‘greater love has no-one, than to lay down their life for their friends’. Jesus laid down his life that we might be forgiven and freed from the evil of this world, from the burden of sin and guilt. God considers us his friends, and that no life is wasted.

We gather here as those who have not missed the point, who come not to glory in war, but in truth, and hope, and faith and love and peace and with a profound sense of gratitude for our lives, for our freedom and for the cost which bought us that freedom.

We will remember them.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

God So Loved The World

This is the longer talk I prepared as a favour to a friend. I enjoyed writing this, it's not a great Biblical Exposition, more a lengthy statement about where my faith comes from - by which I mean that it says something about the base level of what I believe....

God So Loved The World

It’s the best known sentence in the best selling book in the world. Travelling around the country you will see it plastered outside Churches, you’ll find it on the sides of buses, in London it is all over the tube system, if you have nothing better to do than stay up late watching American Football there will always be someone who stands up waving a big placard with a the reference to it whenever a touchdown happens or a field goal is scored. It’s there in great big letters ‘John 3.16’ in the NIV it says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” and in the translation most loved by those who quote it, the King James (or ‘Authorised’) Version it says “ For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”.

For most of us it was probably the first Bible verse we ever memorised, it is so well known that even many non Christians could quote it. It is a statement we take as an essential fact in our Christian faith, the foundation of our understanding of who Jesus was and what God has done for us.

But what does it really mean?

On one level it’s obvious, it means what it says – God loved the world, and he sent his son,– who we know to be Jesus – and his son gives us the way to eternal life. But you wouldn’t expect us to stop there for a Team Evening Worship, so we won’t.

When a Bible verse, or story, or passage is familiar to us we can often lose some of the impact of what it means. We can also be too quick to take it at face value and not allow the depth or the wonder or the strangeness of a particular idea to surprise, challenge or inspire us. I think it’s probably the case with this most well known of Biblical statements. It really is a wonder, an amazing statement of God’s intent for us, and of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. And in order to get to grips a little more with this amazing statement it might help to look at where it comes from, theologically and Biblically.

You’ll find this amazing verse in John’s Gospel, as you know, in Chapter Three. It is part of a conversation between Nicodemus (who ‘came by night’ to talk to Jesus) and Jesus. In fact it is the latter part of the conversation and follows on from some equally amazing statements about being born again and being a part of God’s kingdom – but that’s a talk for another time! The important thing to note is that unlike most of the teaching in our Gospels which is done via story, parable and miracle this is teaching given by Jesus, directly to a member of the ruling Jewish council. This is something worth listening to, I mean REALLY listening to.

The fact that it’s in John makes it part of one of the most beautifully constructed and carefully created books of Theology in our Bibles. In the IVP Dictionary of Biblical Theology it says that ‘The Gospel of John and the Letter to the Romans are the Mount Everests of Biblical Theology’. Whilst Matthew, Mark and Luke share many similarities and overlaps, which is why they are called ‘Synoptics’ – same viewpoint, John stands apart. The commonly accepted dating of John’s Gospel puts it later than the other three books, and indeed probably later than all of the other Biblical books. It probably appeared around the turn of the first century, rather than in the middle. John’s Gospel seems to be very much the product of years of theological reflection, of sharing the stories of Jesus, of prayer, and it is probably the work of a community of early Christians who gathered around the disciple John who gave his name to the Gospel. That extra time gave the author, or authors, a lot more breathing, thinking, praying and writing space. The Greek in which it was originally written is carefully constructed, fluent and poetic. The style in which it is written is much more fluid and careful than some of the other rougher Gospels such as Mark. The aim of John’s Gospel is carefully set out and clearly stated in the very last verse of the last chapter:
Chapter 20. 31 "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

So if John is, in some ways, a pinnacle of theology, and John 3.16 a high point within that, if there is a desire that John is writing that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ then we should take serious notice of what this says.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Let’s break this down:
  • God loves the world
  • God gave his Son
  • Whoever believes shall not perish…
All may seem pretty obvious. But lets think about them for a moment. We are told that God loves the world. I think that even the best of us often view this as a kind of given, we take it for granted pretty much. We hear it often, it’s kind of why we do what we do as Christians, because God loves the world, isn’t it?

But that simple statement has so much more behind it. When the Bible talks of God’s relationship to the world it’s not just about God being proud of his work in creation. It’s not that God likes what he’s done and wants to keep any eye on things, keeping his hand in as it were with humanity. God LOVES the world, and for a being whose very nature is love (as the first letter of John says in Chapter 4v16 “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”) For this God, our God, to love the world is to share his very nature with the world, to be involved, to be invested in the world and its well being, and to be involved with the human beings who reflect and mirror his image.

And that leads on to the next part. God sent his one and only Son, his only begotten, the one who his God in human form, sharing the divine nature, being one with the Father. Now it’s a whole series of talks to wrestle with that theology, to consider the Trinitarian nature of God, who is only One God yet is known in human form and shares our human nature. But what I want to highlight here and to focus on now is that in the context of this verse it is part of God’s love for the world that sends His son, part of himself, to share our lives and to draw us back to God.

In those few words ‘that he sent his one and only Son’ we see the summary of God’s love for and involvement in the world. We see a God who refuses to be detached from the pain and suffering of the world, who doesn’t leave us to stew in our sin and to bear the inevitable fatal consequences of sin. We have a God who gets his hands dirty, who is a part of the everyday stuff of life, who by his very nature is part of the world he made. And Jesus, God made man, Immanuel, God with us is the epitome of this. Jesus isn’t sent out like someone being sent off on a mission but is an expression of God and God’s love for us. He is God himself walking among us and is willing to do what it takes to combat sin and its effects on our world.

Which leads us on to seeing again the wonder of the sacrifice made, as it says in our communion services ‘once, for all, upon the cross’ and the wonder of the resurrection where Jesus was restored again to life with God. Every time we repeat ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son’ we are not saying that Jesus came on a day trip, or to have a look around. We are saying that he became one of us, that he taught and shared the love of God in word and deed, that he made real the love of God in the everyday, the ordinary, and that he suffered and died in such a way that it changed the very nature of reality. That in his sinless death he took the effects of sin, the wages of sin, upon himself and made it possible for us to live beyond death.

Which leads us on to the last part of this particular verse. “…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”. All we have to do to share in God’s great gift of love and life is to accept it. We use the term believe, but it means so much more than ‘think it is true’. If we truly believe in something we give heart and soul to it. If I say I believe, for instance, that so and so is the greatest musician of all time that means not just that I think this is a good idea, but that by my own life and action I align myself with this truth. I give myself to this belief – I try to convince others that this is the case, I listen to their music whenever possible, I go to concerts, I might even buy the t-shirt. OK, it’s a trivial example, but it makes the point. When we say we believe in Jesus it’s not a case of saying that we are in line with the official teaching of the Church on Jesus, or that we understand and accept the theology of incarnation. On the contrary it’s not the understanding that is important, it is the living. The implication of knowing God’s love for the world and knowing that Jesus came into the world to make the love known and to make it real is that it changes our own alignment. We accept the gift of life from Christ and we long to share it with the world.

And there’s more. As well as this particular verse it is important to consider where it comes in the passage… Not just as part of a conversation Jesus has with this learned, important man, but as part of a teaching that calls us to make Jesus known (the Son of Man must be lifted up), and to remind us of God’s attitude to the world.

From this passage we see that God’s attitude is not one where he looks at us with a jaundiced viewpoint, but that he looks at us and loves us. Without going into a detailed blow by blow look at the whole passage I just want to look at the next verse in the passage. If John 3.16 is the most well known in Scripture then perhaps John 3.17 is the most neglected! It’s easy when there is a well known verse to forget what comes next and this next verse serves to enhance what has been said in that wondrous, well known, verse 16. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but that that the world might be saved through him.”

God’s attitude is always to look at us with love. God is prejudiced! He always prejudges us with grace, forgiveness and mercy… And the purpose of his incarnation in Jesus Christ is not to make us feel bad about ourselves, or to convince us of our evildoing but to reach out to us with Grace. The technical term is ‘Prevenient Grace’ the Grace that goes before us, that meets us where we are.

Jesus came that we might be met by that Grace, that we might be embraced by it, that we might know his life through it. It may convict us of our sin, but only that in order that we can know his love and forgiveness, not to terrify, exclude or indeed condemn us.

And if that is our attitude to faith, that it begins with the love of God, and that God’s love is made real in the form of the Son who was sent into the world, and that God longs for all to share his life then that is a very different starting point than that which much of the Church seems to come from. Rather than criticising the lives or attitudes of others, rather than threatening with hell fire or the wrath of God, rather than using our ‘status’ as God’s beloved children as a way of feeling ‘one up’ on those who don’t believe the things we do, rather than any of this we will begin with love, with a feeling of gratitude for all God has given and done for us and we will long to share that with a world that God loves. We will long to share it with a world that God gives himself to. We will long to share it with a world that God gave himself for.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

St Luke

This last Sunday Morning's sermon was on St Luke. Here's what they got...

St Luke (2009)
St Luke the Evangelist…

When I lived in London, which was some time ago, there was a visit from an American Evangelist to Earls Court Arena. He was coming to bring his ‘healing ministry’ to the UK – his name was (and I assume still is) Morris Curello. London was plastered with huge posters which had pictures of abandoned wheelchairs and dropped crutches, and various medical impliments discarded in the wake of this man’s healing campaign.

There was some controversy over these posters because a number of people said they degraded those who were wheelchair bound, and in the Church there was an adverse reaction to what was derogatorily referred to as ‘Faith Healing’. Derogatory because faith healing seems more to do with the person that has such a ‘ministry’ than the God who Christians believe is the great healer, or Christ who is referred to as ‘the Wounded Healer’. And for Curello the greatest criticism levelled at him was that he emphasised the work of the Holy Spirit in performing astounding ‘tricks’ of healing at the expense of those firstly who weren’t healed and secondly of the God who we describe in Trinity.

That sets the scene for today! You may be wondering why this reference to healing ministry to begin our thoughts for this Sunday service this morning. Well, today is St Luke’s day, St Luke writer – according to tradition – of the third Gospel, St Luke who, tradition (and a late 2nd Century document) also says was a healer, a doctor. St Luke, companion of St Paul who is also patron saint of doctors and all those in the medical profession.

So I thought it worth kicking off my thoughts today on the theme of healing. Even though the writings of Luke – commonly accepted to be both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles – don’t make a particular issue of healing in themselves. They don’t show a particular bias towards healing miracles at the expense of say, parables, or other teaching, or even other miracles. It seems that to Luke healing was a wider issue, of which we will say more later!

Whilst Luke talks of Jesus healing and writes of the miracles of Jesus they always have a meaning, a depth behind them. At the start of his ministry, in Chapter Four of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus having been thrown out of the synagogue for speaking with such authority then goes on to perform an exorcism and the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law which proves that he has authority over demons and sickness. In Chapter Six of the Gospel of Luke Jesus has a debate about the Sabbath, then proceeds to heal a withered hand on the Sabbath, showing himself to be Lord of the Sabbath.

In Chapter Seven Jesus heals a centurion’s servant to show that even those outside of the Jewish people are able to share in the life of God. In Chapter 10, today’s reading, Jesus sends out disciples to preach the Gospel and heal, not as a magic trick but to show and to share the presence of the kingdom, the reign, of God.

I could go on, and often do, but the accounts of healings and miracles we have in our Gospels don’t exist for novelty or to impress people into the life of faith, but as signs of God’s work in the world.

There are arguments in the Church today about whether such miracles are still possible today, or whether they were only for what we would call the age of the apostles, the early Church. I believe they are possible and indeed happening, but I’ve not seen any, or as someone said a day or two ago on Twitter – a website I use – “I believe miracles are not only possible but happening, but I can't attest to any with confidence.”

Actually, the miracles we see day to day are those we take for granted. The health and healing that comes through the skills of our medical staff, doctors and surgeons. The freedom from depression and loneliness that comes from love and support given by both professionals and communities. The everyday miracles of generosity and grace and love and faith that take place in a thousand unseen ways in our parishes and in towns and villages and remote places in our land and throughout the world.

And I believe healing is not just about feeling better, or having a miraculous experience, God’s healing as well as coming about through the work of inspired medical practitioners can take place at the deepest level. I have seen people healed of their fears and bereavements and brokenness through prayer and through the love of Christ. People may not necessarily get better, but that doesn’t mean that their brokenness is not healed, or being healed. And in some cases I have seen people embrace death as healing, longing to meet God and to let go of the pain and suffering that comes from sickness and disease.

We confuse healing at its deepest level with the spectacle of the Morris Curello’s of this world. God is at work beyond the brokenness of our bodies and though there may be times that he does act in an obvious and visible way God is at work constantly in many ways we cannot see. In our healing services here in the Five Alive Mission Community we would welcome God choosing to act miraculously and spectacularly, but most of us know God to be infinitely more subtle and gracious than that.

So on this St Luke’s day we give thanks for the one who shared the story of the greatest healing of all, the healing of all creation in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection. As Christ has restored us to the fullness of a relationship with God our loving heavenly father and as he has brought us new life through his own suffering and new life, we give thanks that he continues to work in us is more ways than we can imagine or fully know.

And we give thanks that for St Luke his concern was to share the good news with us, to let people know about Jesus and to inspire us to do the same. And we can do that in all sorts of ways – they may not be spectacular, they may be subtle, they may feel understated or even ineffective, but every act of love, forgiveness, grace and mercy that we perform through the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit is another way in which Christ is made known and in which the kingdom of God is made real in, through, because of and for us.

May we be those who continue to know God’s healing in myriad ways, and may we know the love of the wounded healer Jesus Christ, and may we share that healing with those we meet, and live with, and whose lives we touch. Amen.

Time for a sermon, again

Proper 24 (2009) Year B RCL Principal

The Big Picture

Have you ever seen a sunset so striking that it stops you in your tracks – not literally perhaps as this might not be a good thing when driving! But I have a vivid memory of a sunset which came at one of those moments when I was feeling rather jaded and found myself driving up towards our vicarage when we lived in Eltisley near Cambridge. Of course it’s rather difficult to put into words, but that won’t stop me trying – the Sunset was dramatic, colourful, beautiful – the clouds were gathered in such a way in one part of the sky that they seemed to be pointing to something in the distance, as they changed colour from grey to white, to purple, to red, to orange – there was something quite overwhelming about them.

And on that theme of sunsets, I remember vividly a Sunset on one of the last days of our holiday in France a few years back – it was certainly as beautiful, if not more so and very striking. So much so that Jo (my wife) and I tried to take some pictures of it – knowing that we couldn’t capture the wonder of such a sight, but wanting something to hold on to the memory with.

I only bring this up because we had a trawl through our vast collection of photos a few weeks back, and when we had the film of that sunset which we had been desperate to capture developed – knowing that the photos would be inadequate to sum up that evening, we were even more disappointed to discover that we had put a black and white film in the camera and all of our holiday shots, including the sunset, were monochrome – they didn’t even begin to offer any idea of how that Sunset had thrilled and impressed us.

I mention this because it seems to me that, like a black and white photo of a beautiful colourful sunset, our picture of God is often woefully inadequate – not even beginning to measure up to the reality of God, the splendour and awe of our God or the many shades and nuances of God which we glimpse in scripture and through the history and teaching of the Church. Nor can we grasp the difficulties and depths of holding fast to God through any event until we really experience.

It is such a limited understanding of God that can cause us to question what God does – and why. I encounter many people who ask ‘why did God do this to me’ or ‘why does God let x or y happen?’ when the only answer is that God doesn’t manipulate our lives like a divine chess player and when he does act it is often to remind us of his love and presence in both the joys and acts only for our best when he does.

This understanding of God, one in which God is shown to be manipulative, punitive and even capricious, is one which seems to echo through the story of Job, this story of is prefaced by a discussion, which was one of our readings last week, between God and the devil in which Satan is offered leave to test Job and see if he will remain faithful through adversity. What you may not know is that the preface is probably a later addition to the story of Job – an attempt to make sense of Job’s experience for the later readers of the piece. The original story has no reason for Job’s trials and no happy ending.

In many ways thinking of the story of Job without the easy to understand beginning is a more honest way of approaching the reality of suffering – the original writer of this ‘parable of suffering’ (for there is no indication that this is meant to be seen as a relating to real events, but a kind of fable to consider the difficulties of suffering, and why the righteous seem to suffer as much as the ungodly) – wanted us just to consider the mystery of suffering, and that no matter what the faithful go through they can retain their faith in God – as Job does.

But our later interpretive extras have taken the mystery, the struggle, out of the story, and they have limited its perspective. To a certain extent they have attempted to take the mystery away from God. We are determined to find reason in everything, questioning God and demanding from God answers. It is as if we are trying to sum up a sunset in black and white photographs. Job resists this, honest about his pain and his distress he does not try to explain it away, or give easy answers. Instead in today’s reading he is honest about the mystery of God and about his own struggle with all that he has gone through. He acknowledges however the limit of his ability to understand, and doesn’t try to force his view of God into some kind of pre-decided way of looking at things.

How often do we try and contain God – expecting God to be a certain thing, trapping God in our images and stereotypes and claiming that this or that is what God would want. People use their own version of what God is like to justify all sorts of activity and behaviour, and often miss the challenge contained in Scripture that reminds us that we are made in the image of God, yet we are so ready to make God in our own image…

And so we are reminded today not to limit God by expecting God to fit into understanding, or to even expect to be able to know the mind of God. We are reminded that to even know the little we do of God is a great privilege and a responsibility – a privilege because, as we were reminded in last week’s lessons – ‘ what are mere mortals that you are mindful of us’ and a responsibility because our calling as Christians is to spread the knowledge of God, to proclaim the ‘Good News’ of a God who loves us and who gives us of himself and cares for us.

So instead of demanding from God – demanding answers, demanding reasons, demanding justification, demanding that things stay the same, that we have comfortable lives, demanding things our way – we are called to consider again what God demands of us…

And our Gospel for today brings that home to us. Here we have another well known passage from the Gospel of St Mark we see Jesus challenging a rich young man as to his attitude to his wealth. I don’t believe (and some of us have heard me say this before) that Jesus is making a blanket condemnation of the wealthy, but he knows that for this one young man, who is seeking God, his wealth is a barrier to truly knowing and following the living God. Jesus explains that God is not know in religious observation, or even in devotion to the scriptures and to the principles of faith. Jesus explains that God is known in the heart.

I have talked with many people about faith, and been asked many times why I stay with faith. Those with intellects considerably greater than my own have rejected Christian faith on the grounds that nothing can be proved. My only response is that I am not simply concerned with knowing about God, I want to know God. To know God as my father and creator. I don’t want to know about the theology of who and what Jesus was and is, but I want to know Jesus. To know him as my saviour and my friend. I don’t want to know about the Holy Spirit but I long to know the Holy Spirit and the power of the Spirit at work in me, changing me and making me more like Christ.

This is the demand made of us, not that we decide what God is like, an inadequate black and white sunset picture of God, but that we open ourselves up to a God who longs to know us and to change us.

And the demands on all of us are the same – if we ask to know God we should beware of what that might mean. If we truly want to know God we should be prepared to have our world changed. If we truly seek to follow Christ then we should be prepared to give all we have to follow him. If we are truly open to the prompting of God’s Holy Spirit, then we should be ready to embrace the mystery of God, and to be led into new places as we explore that mystery.

We cannot continually ask of God, without expecting God to ask something of us. Perhaps we need to consider that which prevents us from truly following God, perhaps we need to see our faith in a new way, perhaps we simply need to sit down and read our scriptures to see again the God who is there and who longs for us to know him. Then we will embrace that mystery and be drawn on to be more like our saviour Jesus Christ. May God grant us grace that it might be so. Amen.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A sermon for Proper 22

Proper 22 (2009) Year B RCL Principal
Turning things Upside-down

I am going to indulge myself for a moment and talk about my children! Firstly my little girl Katherine. For those of you who have heard all of this before please feel free to switch off for a moment! Katherine is eight next month and she is an absolute joy not always easy, but so full of life and creativity and a desire to know things. Jack is very similar, lively, thoughtful, exploring, fun, with a great sense of humour. He has been at school now for a couple of weeks and apart from coming home very tired, he is enjoying the whole experience, making friends and generally making the most of things. I must admit, though, that I never realised just what an effect having a child would have on me. I come from a large family – large in the sense of lots of us – and have always known what it is like to have younger siblings and nephews and nieces and cousins etc etc around. I am surprised how much Katherine and Jack have changed our lives (not just in practical terms, such as sleep, having to picking up nursery, getting to and from school, meeting up with their little friends, spending lots of money and all of that!) but how my attitudes and understandings have changed.

And I can go on about her for ages, as many know – how exciting it is to see themlearning about everything around them, and to hear them trying out words, and telling me what everything is, how much fun it is to see them playing. The list goes on. I am, I’m afraid to say, the perfect example of the doting dad. But then I am like hundreds of parents before me, and like hundreds of my contemporaries.

But this isn’t always the case, and certainly hasn’t always been the case. In lots of ways we have the luxury of enjoying the childhoods of our offspring, we live in a society relatively free of disease, where education is encouraged and valued, where children are seen as something special.

In poorer countries, and throughout history, children have been viewed very differently. In Jesus’ day children were often considered to be something of a waste of space. When a family had a child they were a drain on the often meagre resources of the family. They needed food, clothing and care until they were old enough to work. It was then that they were really valuable.

In lots of ways our society’s view is the result of the romanticised vision of childhood that came from the Victorian images of children. It was our Victorian forebears that became obsessed with the innocence of childhood, and how precious children were. This is a good thing, I’m not offering a criticism of it! But as childhood deaths decreased, as our society was able to care for children and foster childhood as something important and valuable for itself – we lost this hard edged viewpoint of children being valuable only when they could pay their way.

I’m not suggesting that parents were heartless and felt nothing for their children, but that when life is hard, people can get harder, and it can be difficult to feed extra mouths.

Into this situation Jesus speaks. Jesus turns these viewpoints around, he values children, he shows them affection, he even says that we have to be like them in order to enter the kingdom. We must receive the kingdom of God as a little child in order to enter it.

So what does this mean? Well, children are reliant on being provided for – every one of Jesus hearers would have known that. Jesus is telling us that there is nothing we can do to gain the Kingdom except to receive it. We cannot earn it, we cannot win it, we cannot deserve it – all we can do is take it.

Again, Jesus turns expectations upside-down. So much of conventional religion is based upon earning a reward for religious observance, or for attendance, or for good works. To Jesus, just as a child was unable to earn, to provide for itself, so the believer must take what is offered. It is summed up much more technically in Martin Luther’s emphasis on sola fides – through faith alone. It is only when we can receive from God, let go of our pride and our cynicism, our reticence, our self indulgence, our sin – only then can we truly receive from God the measure of his grace he longs to give to us, only then can we enter into his kingdom here on earth in all its fullness.

The question to ask is whether our own expectations actually get in the way of our Christian life and the life of our Church? IF we don’t expect God to work in our villages, in our lives and in our Churches then God cannot work there.

The Christian life is, or should be, full of surprises. As we discover more about God then we will be constantly surprised at who and what he is, and all that he can do for, to and even through each one of us. The Christian life is an adventure, filled with the fullness, the abundant life that Jesus said he came to bring.

And in order to experience this abundance we are called again to do one thing – to be child-like in our acceptance of God’s will for our lives.

It is important to remember, though, that we are not called to be child-ish, but child like. Called to take life with the seriousness, but absolute joy that children exhibit as they grow up and explore the world. Called to question, to challenge convention, to ask why, to laugh, to cry. Being like a child is about stripping away the baggage and things which weigh us down, and coming to Christ as we are, it is about admitting our need for and dependence upon Christ. It is about being willing to learn, and being willing to change.

In many ways it is about doing things the way Jesus did, that is, differently. In the beginning of today’s Gospel reading Jesus starts with ‘you have heard it said…but I say to you’ – he challenges convention, and even sets the standards higher than the religious authorities of the day. Jesus calls us to be like him, willing to reject convention, willing to do things differently to society, willing to be different.

So, the challenge is there for us. To receive the kingdom. And what do we have to do – to accept it as the free gift it is, to enjoy it, to value it.

And when we are able to do, that God is able to give to us all that he longs to. And with that grace from God then we can live lives to the high standards he calls us to, we can be those who not only know about God’s kingdom, but know God’s Kingdom.

In the wonderfully ironic way of the Christian Faith, our highest calling is to be like a child. In order to be great we must be like those who are the least – in Jesus day that was children. The Kingdom of God belongs to those such as these.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

St Giles & Proper 18 Combined!

A quick word of explanation - it's the nearest Sunday to the Feast Day of St Giles who whom our local Church is dedicated, so we have a special service to remember our 'Patron Saint' and to celebrate our Church life together. This one came after a fair amount of wrestling with the passage, and some help from Twitter friends (I go by @revdal on Twitter if anyone wants to follow, I will reciprocate). Anyway, I wanted to keep the usual Sunday readings rather than using the 'Common of the Saints' readings for 'Religious' (ie Monks) so I needed to think about the two. I have to say, as the first few paragraphs I hope make clear, there was a very natural link.

This one's not been preached yet, it may change in the telling.... If you say something in the next fourteen hours or so it may find its way into the final sermon, a work in progress!

Year B Proper 18 (2006) RCL Principal
St Giles’ - Open & Welcoming

So, who knows who St Giles was?

My first patronal festival here at St Giles means that I really felt I had to do a little bit of homework on who the great man himself was and why our Church might have been named after him in the hope that I could find something to say about him as we think on the part we have in this community and in our village. So I did a little bit of homework, and it turned out to be only a little as my first instinct was to turn to a book called ‘Exciting Holiness’ which said all I needed to get the thought processes going:

Giles was a hermit who died in about the year 710. He founded a monastery at the place now called Saint-Gilles in Provence which became an important place on the pilgrimage routes His care for the wounded and those crippled by disease resulted in his becoming the patron saint of such people both to Compostela and to the Holy Land., particularly of those with leprosy. Leprosy sufferers were not permitted to enter towns and cities and therefore often congregated on the outskirts, where churches built to meet their needs were regularly dedicated to Giles.

What made me stop and think was that we have a Church dedicated to someone known for his welcome and his care for those in need. For the outcast and the unwanted. Something I think is at the heart of what it means to be God’s people here in Kilmington. And in our welcome and care for our community I believe we build on the foundations of saints such as St Giles and their desire to reach out and to show the love of Christ to their community.

Having said that, though, a look at our Gospel – and it is that I want to preach on despite the excellence and value of our passage from the book of Proverbs– a look at our Gospel gives us more than enough substance for a whole raft of sermons. Though I will try not to stray too far over my self-allotted 10 minutes or so for this sermon.

It is a well known passage, the story of a Syro Phonecian Woman who approached Jesus with a request to heal her daughter, and was dismissed by him until she came back with the exquisite riposte ‘even the dogs get to eat the crumbs under the table’ – a phrase that has sunk deep into the spirituality of the English as our Prayer Book has included it as the foundation for what is known as the ‘Prayer of Humble access’. “We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under thy table” we pray in our Communion services as we recognise our own sinfulness and the response of God’s grace despite that sinfulness.

But it is an uncomfortable story, at least it should be if we look at it closely. We believe in a Jesus who said words that come up in so many of our services and sermons ‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ and a Jesus who welcomed and touched the outcast, the leper, the sinner – yet in this short passage we are shown a Jesus who rejects a woman because of her lack of status and her national heritage. He goes so far as to allude that she is a dog – ‘it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs’ he says in verse 27 of Mark chapter 7. Not terribly flattering, in fact downright insulting. But the woman does not leave it there and her quick response about being allowed to take the crumbs under the table causes Jesus to change his mind and offer healing to this woman’s daughter.

But this time it is not the woman and her persistence that I want to commend. I want to consider exactly what it is that Jesus did in that encounter.

Some preachers, and indeed many normal people I have met, contend that Jesus was testing the woman who came to him – that it was an attempt to elicit faith from her that would make the healing of her daughter possible – for again and again in the Gospels we have the refrain ‘your faith has made you well’ or ‘your faith has saved you.’

I have to say, that if this was Jesus’ aim it was done rather cruelly, by dismissing the woman and insulting her. Remember this was a woman who meant nothing in first century Palestinian society – she wasn’t a Jew, she was a woman and she had no husband or sons to give her value in society’s eyes. It was a case of ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for jewish society! She was consigned to widow-hood with an equally valueless daughter and wasn’t worth bothering with. If Jesus was testing her he did it by adding to her sense of worthlessness and lack of importance.

On the other hand, perhaps (and many find this hard to accept) Jesus made a mistake! Perhaps his understanding was that he had been called to bring the Jewish people back to God and that the Gentiles had no place in that plan. Perhaps at this juncture in his ministry he had to think again about the mission God had given him and reconsider his role over and above the calling to bring Israel back to God.

I find this far more plausible. And far more encouraging. And in keeping with the Gospel records with who and what Jesus was.

The main argument against Jesus making a mistake and having to correct himself is that he was God and therefore infallible. Yet the witness of our Scriptures is that though the people who knew him described him as God and worshipped him, they could also only talk about him as a man. And the teaching of the early Church was that in Jesus Christ we see someone who is fully God and fully human – someone who was, as the writer to the Hebrews says, exactly as we are, yet without sin.

And it is not for us as human beings to know everything! In fact, if we knew everything we would no longer be human but something else, some kind of super-human, or ultra-human, or something alien and beyond human.

This is not what the Bible says. Jesus was as we are. Those who shared his life saw him hunger and thirst, they saw him get tired, angry, confused about his mission and ministry, they saw him weep at the death of a friend. There is no picture of a serene Jesus wandering about Galilee with a sort of divine filofax the spelled out in advance what he would be doing each day (the seven visions before breakfast approach) and exactly how his mission was to develop. Our Biblical witness is of a Jesus who struggled, who felt pain, who was saddened. Who did everything we did, except sin.

And that perhaps is the crux of the issue, for many people confuse Jesus making a mistake with Jesus sinning. And my conviction is that Jesus didn’t sin, I believe wholeheartedly the Biblical witness, yet this story is given to us to show that he did make a mistake. Perhaps the sin would have been if he had continued to turn the woman away, if he didn’t listen to her response and refused to heal her daughter because of her status and her race. Yet Jesus heard, and his response is a telling on – ‘you have answered well’ – or to put it more colloquially, perhaps ‘good answer..’ The translation of the Bible known as the message, putting Scripture into contemporary language says this for Mark 7 29 & 30
Jesus was impressed. "You're right! On your way! Your daughter is no longer disturbed. The demonic affliction is gone.
Jesus sees a new aspect to his mission, to reach out to all people for God’s sake, and from this point in our Gospel he states his commitment to the world and not just the Jewish people.

I believe this is why the author of Mark’s Gospel follows this story with another encounter with Jesus where someone’s who has been deaf and unable to speak since birth has their ears and mouth opened ‘Ephphatha’ says Jesus – meaning ‘be opened’ – perhaps a reflection of his own experience in that previous encounter, as he found himself opened to the power of God’s work in the world.

So what can we learn from this today? Why go into so much detail with what is, in actual fact, quite a short story in our Gospels?

This story gives us a glimpse of what it is possible for us to be! If Jesus is always beyond us, never making mistakes, never having to change his mind – then we lose the fact that we are called to be like him and we constantly say to ourselves that is beyond our reach to be like Jesus. Again, this is not the message of the Bible, we are called to be transformed into those who are Christlike by the power of God’s holy Spirit. That is our calling as followers of Christ, and this story reminds us that it is possible and that we can make mistakes and seek to be those who are sinless.

This wonderful passage also reminds us to be open to the unexpected, and willing to change our minds, just as Jesus was and did. It reminds us that the movement from making a mistake to actively sinning comes from stubbornness and the unwillingness to see where God may be at work.

Lastly we are shown that in God’s scheme of things there are no outcasts, even those who society rejects, who have no apparent value are those who can receive God’s amazing, unmerited, overwhelming gift of love and life.

May we be those willing to learn, willing to accept our mistakes, and longing to be like Christ. Ephphatha – be opened. May we as those who are dedicated to Christ, and who have this wonderful church dedicated to St Giles, be opened to the love of God and be open to the needy, the poor, and those so in need of Christ’s life.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Another sermon...

I went a bit mad this last Sunday and ended up doing three different sermons at three very different services, so here's the one from the 'main' morning service, based on the Gospel Reading for Trinity 3/Proper 8

Year B Proper 8 (2009)

Turning things around

Irishman walks into a bar with a pig under his arm ‘where did you get that’ asks the barman? I won it in a raffle’ replies the pig….

Firstly, I am allowed to tell Irish jokes because I'm Irish (kind of). Second, at the risk of taking one of my favourite jokes to bits too much, I like this joke because like all the best jokes it thwarts our expectations! Jokes are funny (if they are funny) because something happens that we weren’t ready for! Likewise the things which stick in our minds from the Bible are the things which turn the world upside down, that remind us that there is more to this faith business, and especially to this Jesus chap, than we could contain in all of our theologies, philosophies, traditions or ideas.

And if you need any proof of that, let’s look at the Gospel reading for today. It’s one of those familiar Gospel readings which we can loose the impact of because it is so well known to so many of us.

It is, of course, two stories, two events woven together, where each has an impact upon the other. They share a common theme as well as a common place – actually they share a number of common themes but I want to talk about one – the way in which Jesus does the unexpected, and makes people whole even as he makes other people uncomfortable as he does so.
Firstly we have Jesus crossing over the lake of Galilee where he has just come from the encounter with a demon possessed man who was known as legion. From that chaos he comes to a different type of chaos! The crowds are desperate to see him, they want to be near him but, it seems, are kept from getting too close by the disciples who find themselves on bodyguard duty! Still the clamour of the crowd surrounds him.

Into this clamour comes one of the local religious leaders – a man given the name Jairus. I say given the name because it seems to be a made up name meaning ‘one who will be enlightented’ or ‘God enlightens’ – a reference perhaps to the purpose of this carefully crafted story. Anyway, this man, this leader is obviously important enough, or distressed enough, to be let through to meet Jesus. And there is good reason for his distress, his daughter is sick, to the point of death, and he doesn’t know where to turn. Despite the suspicion towards Jesus that we have from many of the religious authorities it seems that some are open to the idea that Jesus may have something of God’s purposes about him. Or perhaps its just desperation…

Having said that, plenty of people turn to us in the church when they go through desperate times, many of who have very little understanding of our faith or of the Church and we would do well to learn from Jesus’ example. He went, no discussion, no questions, he went. He saw a need and responded.

But on the way something happens. A woman who had experienced bleeding for twelve years presses in and touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, or perhaps one of the tassles on his cloak that Jesus (as an orthodox Jew) would have worn. And at the moment she does this she is healed.

And in the midst of the crowd, in the midst of the clamour, in the midst of this urgency to get to this young girl’s sick bed, Jesus stops. He stops and takes time to talk to this woman who has sneaked up, probably hoping not to be noticed, he takes time to talk to her, to affirm her, and to send her on her way with a blessing.

I can imagine Jairus wondering what’s going on, and we catch a glimpse of the disciples’ exasperation at Jesus saying ‘who touched me?’ “Lord, not sure you’ve noticed by everyone and his mother are touching you at this particular moment – you are in the middle of a big crowd, lots of people are doing the touching thing.” Admittedly, that is something of a paraphrase by you get the idea!

But Jesus says ‘no, someone touched me’ not jostled, or bumped into, they touched me. And, I suspect somewhat anxiously the woman says ‘it was me’. And what does Jesus do? Does he say ‘OK, well that’s fine then, another one healed, hooray, lets move on’. No he takes time to tell this fearful woman that it was her faith that healed her.

For twelve years this woman had been excluded – her bleeding made her unclean so unable to worship in the synagogue that Jairus was a leader in. She would have been untouchable or whoever was near her would also be excluded from society until they went through certain ritual purifications. For twelve years (the same time as Jairus’ daughter had lived) this woman had either been scorned, or been invisible.

Jesus takes time for her.

I don’t think it’s labouring the point to really look at this. It’s in these moments that we see Jesus more clearly. In fact the miracle here is not so much that the woman’s bleeding was healed, but that Jesus heals her pain too, by taking that moment to affirm the faith she had. He doesn’t take the super-religious route of saying ‘you really shouldn’t have touched me because I am now ritually unclean, you know’. He doesn’t take the busy-ness route of saying ‘Well we have something very important to get to, so off you go’. Jesus doesn’t respond to the pressure around him to move on, even though there was an urgency in Jairus’ plea. Jesus recognises that God is in control, and meets each moment appropriately. Open to the touch of the Spirit Jesus takes time where needed to bring out faith in someone who was a write off in the eyes of the society around her.

And it doesn’t take much to realise that this is part of our calling as the people of Christ too! To resist the pressures of speed, urgency, agendas, time. To resist the pressure of the society around us and take time for faith – for our own faith, and to affirm the faith around us. And not just the faith of those who are in the club, or who we like, or who we would hope to draw into our fellowship. Our calling is to have eyes which see faith in the most unexpected and unlikely places, and to respond to that faith wherever and whenever it appears.

And then Jesus goes on to the place where he was originally headed, and does what he was planning to do, he prays for Jairus’ daughter.

But even here the unexpected happens. When told the girl has died, he dismisses that and says ‘she is not dead, but sleeping’. Of course, in a society such as Jesus’ where death was much more commonly seen, and most people would have experience of bereavement and loss, they would have been pretty much used to seeing death, and the idea that this girl was asleep was enough to make even the professional mourners laugh. But he takes no account of the laughter, and steps out in faith to touch this young girl and speak the worlds ‘talitha cum’ – little girl get up. He addresses her and she is brought from death to new life, he turns reality for that family and for that little girl upside down.

And this is what the word of faith can do. For the woman who had been without a life for twelve years, and for the twelve year old girl on the edge of death all their expectations are turned upside down.

That’s a real cause for rejoicing and for laughter – better than the best joke! That the word of faith, the right word in the right place, brings life and hope and love.

And again the parallels are obvious, these are stories given to us to encourage and inspire us, to enlighten our eyes of faith. We are called to speak faith into situations of hopelessness, to bring the life and light of Christ into all parts of our world. We risk being laughed at, we risk the scorn of those who see the world otherwise. We will need to resist the pressures of a world that is too quick to move on, or to write people off, but we are those who are to bring Christ, no matter what the cost, to a world so in need of him.

May God give us grace to speak faith into all life, and to know when to respond, and to hear his voice as he leads us from death to life, from despair to hope and from darkness to light. Amen.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

And There's More....

This month's 'thought from the Vicar' as printed in the parishes paper...

Didn’t We Do Well?

After last month’s thoughts, which might have seemed negative but which were not meant to, I thought I would – or indeed should – offer some of the reasons why I find myself constantly encouraged by the Mission and Ministry lived out by our Parishes within the Five Alive Mission Community.

Did you know, for instance, that the national average for population attending Church in the UK is roughly 5%, of which about 3% attend Anglican Churches? In our villages that number is between 6 and 11% of the population attending our churches with some regularity, and when you add in our brothers and sisters of Baptist and Methodist Churches in the Mission community that number rises even more. Not that it is the numbers themselves that are important, but the fact that our church fellowships remain at the heart of our village communities. We are genuine community churches, existing for the benefit not just of those within our walls, but for the whole of our villages.

A wonderful example of this has been very evident for me in some of the funerals I have been privileged to lead recently. The welcome and concern shown for families and friends of those who have died has been moving and inspiring to see, not only that but when there are specific requests made – whether it is playing a clip of someone recorded for a cassette of ‘village voices’ or accommodating 200 bikers – the church communities will go the extra mile in trying to make these things happen.

Also within these church fellowships there is a real desire to be more than ‘Sunday Christians’ – our midweek services, study groups, special events, community lunches, coffee mornings and more all point to a desire to make our faith known day by day and to live out the truth of what we believe. The fact that so many of our church members are involved in crucial roles in our village communities, and that many of them are involved because of their Christian commitment, is a great testimony to the everyday faith we share.

And though I realise I am risking a little too much ego massaging I want to finish with one more thing. Our churches are thinking and doing churches. People ask questions about faith, they challenge and encourage their Clergy, they take part in debates and discussions. This is a sign of what the prayer book of 1662 calls a ‘true and lively faith’ and is very encouraging for those of us who minister here. But it doesn’t stop with words, the Christians in our churches are keen to act out their faith, often in very quiet ways, without fanfare or even thanks in some cases. I am moved to see just how faith is put into action in so many ways in our fellowships.

That is why I feel encouraged by all of the churches in the Five Alive Mission Community, and why I feel privileged to be the Vicar here. Thank you for all you do.

Some recent articles

I have continued my series of articles on 'Demystifying the Church' and think it's time to catch up with what has gone into the local 'Parishes Paper' which serves these five villages. The first one is from February, sorry for delay in posting. Anyway, here goes:

Why are there no flowers in Church for Lent?
Demystifying Church part 2!

The Christian year has a number of ‘big’ festivals – our most important celebrations of special events in the history of the Church. We remember special Saints (such as St Peter, St Paul, John the Baptist, St George, St David, St Andrew etc) throughout the year, we remember the birthday of the Church at Pentecost (Whit Sunday) and we remember important parts of the life of Jesus. The most important festival of the year is Easter, remembering the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus closely followed by Christmas when we remember His birth. These celebrations were considered so important by the early followers of Jesus that they set aside time for preparation before them - leading up to Christmas we have the time of Advent, and leading up to Easter we have the period of Lent.

These times of preparation were called ‘fasting’ because people would stop eating rich foods, such as meat and eggs and cheese and would stop drinking alcohol. This was in order that they might concentrate on the important meaning of Christmas and Easter before actually getting to the big day itself.

Lent is also a reminder of what Jesus went through when he spent time in the desert praying before he started his work of proclaiming the Gospel which we call his years of ‘public ministry’. During this time, which the Bible describes as ‘forty days and forty nights’ we are told he went without any food, and was also tempted to give up on doing God’s work and to do as he pleased but he resisted. This is such a significant story that since the earliest times Christians have tried to follow Jesus example and to have a time of self-discipline and prayer before Easter. Lent was also the time that people would prepare to be Baptised on Easter day, so those who were joining the Church would spend forty days learning about the Christian Faith before they became members of the Church.

Because of this it was thought important that the whole Church should have a more solemn time leading up to Easter, therefore we change the colours of our Altar Cloths and vestments to purple (called our ‘penitential’ colour) and we remove the flowers from the Church. We have this time to remind us of all that Jesus went through in his life, especially at the start of his ministry, and leading up to his cruel death. It means that when we get to Easter, our greatest celebration, we don’t take God’s love for granted but we rejoice that God did love the world so much that he gave Jesus to die to take away our sins.
And the new one for July
Liturgy: services and praying together – Part 1

One of the great treasures of the Church of England is its liturgy, at least that’s what a number of commentators say about the services we use. Though many of us have experience of Churches which don’t use a set form of words for services, the Church has been using ‘Liturgy’ since the first century to give order and shape to worship. The reason we use certain words is not that we learn services by rote and parrot them off every week, but to give space within these structures to pray using the prompts and familiar order.

There are certain elements we find within all Anglican worship. The service will usually contain a form of confession, a prayer for the day or week of the Church’s year called a Collect, readings from the Bible (often accompanied by a sermon or thoughts based on those readings), prayers for the world (commonly called Intercessions), the Lord’s prayer and a form of blessing; either said by a Priest or all said to one another such as in ‘the Grace’. A Holy Communion service – also known as ‘The Eucharist’ or the Lord’s Supper – will contain all of the above plus a prayer over the bread and wine, and other elements which stretch back to the beginning of the Church’s life such as the Peace, Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

1662 and all that…

Many of us would consider the prayer book of 1662 a gem amongst the written forms of worship that the Church has used over the centuries. In itself it created for hundreds of years a sense of identity and order in worship that was uniquely Anglican. In the past fifty or so years, however, much more research has been done by all of the major church denominations into the foundation of worship stretching back to the early days of the Church. One of the concerns of Liturgy is to ‘proclaim afresh’ the belief of the Church in a way that people understand and relate to, whilst being true to our roots in faith. Whilst beautifully written and still very much at the heart of Anglican Tradition the 1662 prayer book lacks many important elements of worship. Archbishop Cramner, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, was adamant that worship should always be in ‘the vernacular of the people’ and shouldn’t alienate worshippers with arcane or archaic words. The revisions of the BCP which took place over the next hundred and twenty years were often as much to do with making statements about politics – within both church and state – as with theology. Amendments were made to the shape and content which Cramner himself did not wish for, and the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which made the BCP the sole prayer book authorised for use in England was as much concerned with stamping the authority of the re-established Monarchy on the Church and of subduing the non-conformists as with binding the Church of England together.

Modern Times!

In the 1960s and 70s members of the mainstream denominations began working together to discover how worship had shaped the early Church. Using manuscripts of worship services stretching right back to the beginning of Church they found certain elements which were considered crucial to certain services, particularly Holy Communion. The prayer invoking the Holy Spirit at Communion (epiklesis) and the sharing of Peace were two things which had been dropped from the BCP, the first because it looked too much like the Roman Catholic Rite the second because the rich refused to touch the poor in Church and wouldn’t share the peace with them. These were quickly brought back into general use as they were considered Biblical practice, indeed the first letter to the Thessalonians had instructed Christians to ‘greet one another with the kiss of peace’ – which soon became a handshake in British tradition!

These revisions in worship were, and are, concerned with bringing the Church back to the practices of our forebears in faith, whilst at the same time making worship accessible and relevant for a 21st century Church. Though there is much more variety available within our services, the shape is constant between all types of service. Rather than having one form of prayer following the BCP 1662 our services have what liturgists call a ‘family resemblance’ which gives a feel of Anglican worship whilst also having a sense of local identity and making allowances for local practise. If you look closely, though, you will find that similar shape within all of our services, Holy Communion, Morning and Evening Prayer (both contemporary and traditional), Morning Worship, Baptisms, Weddings, Funerals and even Family Services all contain the elements which make our services Anglican in such a way as to express our common life and faith.

So next time you take part in worship, look out for those things which make up our worship, and remember that in sharing these words and actions we share the faith of our brothers and sisters stretching back over hundreds of years, even as we carry on their life and witness in our daily lives giving glory to God in all we do and say!

Monday, 29 June 2009

St Peter's Day Sermon

Muck Models...

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. In my last Diocese there was a Bishop’s annual garden party where I would always say hello and make small talk with the Bishop for a minute then make myself scarce and chat to colleagues. I did have a tremendous day yesterday listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury speak at the Dioceses’s 1100th anniversary, but more of that soon, I didn’t actually get to talk to him or chat to the many other Bishops and Archbishops around in Exeter yesterday.

There is one exception to this – I used to know an Archbishop quite well. He was a very unprepossing man, diminuitive 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 Edmunsbury 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!

This evening we celebrate the festival of St Peter, though strictly it is tomorrow (we are allowed to move some festivals of the Church to make a big thing of them), it is the patronal festival of this Church (which for those of you who, like me, don’t know these things and need to look them up, I will save you a job – its a celebration of the day a Church was dedicated and (I think) consecrated for worship). In the past few years St Paul has also been honoured with St Peter at this time, as we consider 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.

Today we consider St Peter in particular. 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 evening, 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!

This is also the weekend around which many begin their ordained ministry as many Dioceses around the country will be ordaining Deacons and Priests to serve the Church of God. It is the anniversary of Ordination for both Anne and Myself and we celebrate our calling as part of the ministry of the whole people of God.

So it’s a bit of a special event today! We celebrate lots of different things, the Church of St Peter here in Dalwood and our part in the Five Alive Mission Community and God’s worldwide Church, the ministry of the Church exercised by all God’s people amongst which we have our Orders of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, and of course St Peter himself.

But over and above all of that, we celebrate Grace, God’s life and love poured out on us. Something which I heard Archbishop Rowan Williams talking on yesterday, with a warmth and graciousness that I found profoundling moving, and some of which I want to share with you now. And I must give the Archbishop credit for leading me to what I am about to say, and apologies if I have misrepresented anything!

In order to do that I want to share a bit of Peter’s story with you. From the Gospel of Luke Chapter 5 – not part of the set texts for this festival, but the beginning (in many ways) of Peter’s journey with Christ; the background to this is that Peter had taken Jesus out from the shore of Lake Gennesaret in order that Jesus could preach to the crowds:
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’

What a strange reaction, it seems! Here we have what is often referred to as ‘the miraculous draft of fishes’, so many that the nets break, and Simon Peter’s reaction...

“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’.

Eh? Perhaps its one of those stories that we have heard so many times that it loses its impact upon us. I don’t know about you but the sight of fish, even a lot of them, doesn’t immediately bring me to my knees in penitence. There are lots of things which do, and more that should, but not fish! This seems a strange way to respond to a miracle.

But perhaps not. This miracle is not really about improving the fish catch, or about showing Peter new skills as a fisherman. It’s a sign of grace. Jesus is sharing God’s abundance, God’s desire to give beyond our wildest dreams. This miracle is not about fish, but about grace. It says, to quote Archbishop Rowan ‘this is a gateway to a new world’. And when Peter glimpses this grace, this life, this wonder he falls before Jesus recognising his unworthiness to be a part of it. Peter is then drawn into this new world, and continues to share in this grace as he shares in a new life being someone who fishes for people to invite others into a relationship with the love and grace of God seen through Jesus Christ.

The stories of this great saint are not celebrated each year to make us feel worthless in comparison.. We remember Peter as a deeply flawed human being transformed by the power of God and called into his grace in order that he 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 began his journey in faith he had little idea of where God would lead them, as he grew in faith he grew also, it seems, in the knowledge that what God required of him 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 and all the saints 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!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Ascension Day Sermon

Ascension Day (2009) Eucharist

Goodbye, God bless

Ascension day seems a funny day to celebrate. A strange time to have a feast (which of course our Communion is here this evening)! Because, if you think about it, it’s a celebration of something quite difficult.

Have you ever had that feeling of saying goodbye to someone that hurt so much it made you ache? Sixteen years ago Jo and I, who had had an on-off relationship for a few years, found ourselves living in London and York, and at the end of a weekend together we would have that awful goodbye as one of us got onto a train to leave our respective cities. It was probably this ache, this loathing of separation that meant that she came out with the best proposal ever – oh well, we might as well go for it then.

I’m sure for all of us we can understand that pain, perhaps in a smaller or greater degree. Saying goodbye to someone we care about, letting go of them and trusting for both their well-being and the well-being of your relationship with them can be difficult.

It should, to a certain extent, have been the same for the disciples, having had the pain and despair of losing Jesus which was replaced by the joy of the resurrection and the days they got to spend with Jesus afterwards, they were again losing him. Ok, so this time there wasn’t the agony of seeing him suffer, nor was there the same kind of fear that they had experienced before their encounters with Christ – the fear of being caught, the fear of dying, perhaps even the fear that it might all have been a waste of time. But at the same time, Jesus was leaving, and they had no idea when he was to return. There was the promise of his return, but though they hoped for its immanence they had no date, no time, and no firm promise that it would even be in their lifetimes.

So this feast is a strange celebration. We celebrate the loss of Jesus from the Earth – the end of his earthly bodily ministry.

BUT – if we read the Gospel for this evening again we don’t actually get the feeling that the disciples were particularly glum! In fact the reading we had from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 24 ends with these verses (V 51-53) “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

Not the actions of those who were filled with despair – so either Luke was an early example of a spin doctor – pretending all was well when it wasn’t – or there was something else happening to the disciples – or Apostles as they are now rightly called, being those sent out by Jesus.

What happened? Well the promise of Jesus return obviously did offer some hope and comfort, and they knew – it had been proved to them – that Jesus was a man of his word. He’d said he was to be raised from the dead, and he was – obviously a fella you could trust.

But more than that they were now people of purpose. People who knew their calling, who knew what they were to do, who knew that God had a task for them – and would equip them to fulfil it.

Before being taken to be with God (however that was accomplished – and I don’t really think it is worth spending time arguing about the world being round and surrounded by space and wondering where Jesus went etc etc – life’s too short to worry about some things… ) Anyway, before Jesus went to be with God he charged the Apostles with being witnesses to the ends of the earth. Those are the exact words from Luke’s account in the book of Acts. Witnesses – those who had seen and who were to proclaim the good news that Jesus himself had proclaimed, those who were to live and act as Jesus had, those who were to be Christ-like in the world.

And not only that – this sense of purpose came with another promise – one we read about at length in John’s Gospel – the promise of ‘power from on high’ – the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, the comforter, the advocate, the helper. The Spirit was to be poured out in a new way, a way that would give authority and power to their message and that would equip them for all they were to do. It was this power that would sustain them through all they faced, it was this power that would assure them of the reality of the presence of God, it was this power that would make it possible for them to go to all places and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And they held to that promise, and after some gentle prompting by a couple of (euphemistically named) ‘men in white robes’ (Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven…?) they returned to Jerusalem to await the fulfilment of this promise.

That is why they weren’t torn by this parting – Jesus was leaving, but he was staying, the Spirit would bring that sense of Christ into every moment – just as he had said it would. And so they waited.

Perhaps, if they were anything like me, the waiting was the hardest part. Perhaps not – after all, they were in the temple continually blessing God. They allowed this promise to sink into their hearts, and they waited. And we know the end of their waiting, we will celebrate it in just ten days on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit was poured out, not just given but lavishly shared with signs and wonders, making everything the Apostles and the early Church was to accomplish possible.

Yet today – how many Christians are filled with that joy? How many of us find ourselves continually blessing God? We are those who know the promise, who in our baptism and our Christian life have the gift of God’s Spirit every day. We have the same potential to change the world, to live in the joy and wonder that was promised by Jesus so long ago.

Yet we are so often the ones who seem to mourn Jesus loss. We are the ones who seem to feel separated and distant from him… It’s true it has been many years, and Jesus hasn’t returned, it’s true that the history of the Church has not always been illustrious or uplifting – but it is equally true today as it always has been – Jesus has not left us alone. If we are open to the life of God, open to his Spirit, then we too can know the fullness of what Jesus promised, and we can have the assurance that one day we will see God face to face.

But it means we have to trust, to rely on faith, to be willing to do what God would have us do. It means, sometimes, waiting on God and listening for the voice of God. It means being willing to move, perhaps to change, and to take risks of faith.

All of this, though, can lead us to a greater joy, an enlarged faith, a sure and certain hope, and a life filled with the love and grace of our powerful, loving, intimate and awesome God. This is the reason we celebrate on this strange day – and I hope every day in our Christian lives.