Thursday, 30 September 2010

St Michael & All Angels sermon

St Michael & All Angels (2010) RCL Principal

Problems with Angels

Let me start with a confession. I have a problem with Angels… Not that I mean I have Angels under the bed or falling out of cupboards or anything like that, but I struggle with the whole culture of Angelic beings that has sprung up both within and beyond the Christian Church. Guardian Angels, Healing Angels, Warning Angels. New Age Spiritual Beings. All the Angelology (if that is a word) that I’ve heard about since I was a child. And this obsession with Angels isn’t a new thing – the Church wasted far too much time in the medieval era talking about how many Angels could dance on the head of a pin, or what the exact order of rank in the nine heavenly choirs is.

The problem I have is that so many of the descriptions that people give of Angels, and the new age obsession with some form of Spiritual beings, and those wings of the Church (no pun intended) which have complex teachings regarding Angels seem to have little or no Scriptural substance to them. And, to be blunt, if it ain’t Bible, it ain’t Gospel. The focus of our reading of Scripture should be the working out of God’s wonderful plan of salvation, and the application of God’s living truth to the world we live in and the way we live.

So there’s a certain irony to the fact that forty percent of the Churches God has called me to serve here in our Mission Community are dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. And even more so that the first major feast we observe following Kate’s ordination, and therefore the first Communion service at which Kate presides is the feast day of St Michael and All Angels. Perhaps God is trying to teach me something!

I followed a link to a site on the Internet courtesy of the Bishop of Texas which did make me think again. It was an encyclopaedia of Feast Days of the Church and started with a wonderful introduction to this day written by someone called James Kiefer.

On the Feast of Michael and all Angels, popularly called Michaelmas, we give thanks for the many ways in which God's loving care watches over us, both directly and indirectly, and we are reminded that the richness and variety of God's creation far exceeds our knowledge of it.

I don’t dismiss the possibility of the reality of Angels, certainly because Scripture, and Jesus himself, refers to them. I’ve not seen them, but if I only believed in what I saw I would be a very sorry excuse for a Minster of God’s Gospel, and steward of the mysteries of the God beyond all understanding! If we were to trawl through our Scriptures we would find a number of references to Angels in the Old Testament and the New. Often appearing in visions, and in the Old Testament almost certainly meant to be God appearing in some kind of human form there is an allusion, thought not completely clear that there is an order of created beings that worship God and serve him. Calling again on the words from the online guide:
The Holy Scriptures often speak of created intelligences other than humans who worship God in heaven and act as His messengers and agents on earth. We are not told much about them, and it is not clear how much of what we are told is figurative.

With this in mind we also have the visions of Ezekiel, Daniel and St John of Patmos in the Revelation which give some more ideas. Michael is referred to as an Archangel and leader of the armies of heaven. He slays the Dragon in the book of Revelation, often causing confusion in some artworks with St George! Again the question of literal or figurative language comes up, and I have to ask – what does this add to my understanding of a God who is intimately involved in this world, in an earthy, real and everyday way. My problem with Angels isn’t actually whether they exist or not – that’s a question far beyond my ability to answer – but whether they are a distraction from the reality of faith that needs to be lived out everyday!

But on this feast Day of St Michael and All Angels which is also a celebration of the ministry of our new Priest in the Five Alive Mission Community, I do believe there is something to learn from this whole ‘Angel thing’ that we can apply to our everyday life and faith.

I liked the introduction from James Kiefer which reminds us that within our faith and in our Scriptures there are mysteries beyond our understanding. We need reminding sometimes that we don’t have all the answers, that human beings with all our cleverness and Theology and knowledge cannot grasp all the mysteries of this universe, or indeed of our faith.

The very act of sharing this Holy Communion, this service of thanksgiving we call the Eucharist presents us with one of the deepest mysteries of our faith. As Kate prepares to preside at this service for the first time she leads us in the mysterious sharing of Bread and Wine which somehow for us becomes the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Anglican Tradition we don’t believe in Transubstantiation, which means these elements literally become the blood and body of Jesus, but we do hold to what we call the ‘real presence’ – that Jesus is here, shared in bread and wine. The technical term is ‘Consubstantiation’ which I am more than happy to discuss at length later!

In her role as Priest Kate shares with us the mystery of the Eucharist. Priest’s are often called ‘stewards of the mysteries of faith’ which means not that we want to keep things mysterious and secret, like some kind of society where arcane knowledge is passed on through the generations, but that we carefully lead in prayer, presiding over certain rites and rituals of the Church even though we can’t describe exactly what is going on or what happens!!! In faith we hold to God’s reality made present here in the bread and wine and in our sharing, just as in faith we proclaim God’s special presence in the bond of marriage, and we proclaim (along with our lay sisters and brothers who also perform this ministry) the mystery of eternal life in the face of death at funerals.

These are mysteries beyond our explaining, yet we continue to carefully share them. Perhaps not being able to sum up the how, why and wherefore is part of the gift of them to us. As James Kiefer says
‘we give thanks for the many ways in which God's loving care watches over us, both directly and indirectly, and we are reminded that the richness and variety of God's creation far exceeds our knowledge of it.’

Also, our meditations on Angels can remind us of our essential calling as Christians. The word ‘Angel’ comes from the Greek word ‘Angelos’ (from which we also get the word ‘Euangelion’ from which comes the title Evangelist) in turn the Hebrew word is Malach. Essentially it means messenger. Angels crop up a number of times in Scripture, both in visions and in meetings, to share something of God’s purposes and plans in humanity.

Angels share with Abram his wife’s impending pregnancy, they ascend and descend the ladder that Jacob sees in a dream, they proclaim the coming birth of the Messiah to Mary and they sing of God’s peace shed abroad to all people at the birth of Jesus.

Again, in her Priestly ministry Kate bears that responsibility for bearing and sharing the message of Jesus, in word and deed. In this Holy Communion, the proclamation of forgiveness of sins, the offering of blessing she is messenger of the good news of God in Christ, present with us through His Holy Spirit. But, as I said on Saturday, it’s not just Kate’s responsibility to share that message, it belongs to all of us as the Body of Christ.

In this Communion God offers his grace, his sustenance, his power as he feeds and nurtures us not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of the world. If anyone wants to know why I hold this Eucharist so highly it is because Jesus is shared here, not just in bread and wine but in prayer, in song, in sharing of God’s word. But not only that, the purpose of the Eucharist is summed up in the last sentence our Priest will utter in this service – GO in love and peace to serve the Lord. We are sent as Angels, as messengers of the Gospel, to share the Good news, the Evangelion, in all we do and say, indeed to be the message as well as the messenger.

So Angels can remind us of the mysteries of God beyond our understanding and of our own calling to share that mystery and the message of Christ in our everyday life as Christians. Perhaps I shouldn’t have any problems with Angels whatsoever.

An Ordination Sermon

It is very unlikely that I will ever get to preach at an ordination again - but last week I had the immense privilege of speaking at the ordination to the Priesthood of our Curate, the Revd Kate Woolven. It is worth following the link to the lessons for the day before reading the sermon here....

Ordination Sermon – Kate Woolven

What a privilege it is to be here. Celebrating the ordination of Kate as priest within the Church of God as part of the people of God! Today is a good day, and a wonderful ocassion. Already in the weeks Kate has been with us she has proved herself to be a competent, compassionate, warm, funny, thoughtful, faithful, spiritually mature and committed minister – and I still keep being told how good her sermon was at the last Mission Community service we held! Now we share in the next stage of Kate’s journey of being and becoming who she is called to be under God. We are here to support her as Bishop Bob ordains her to the office and work of a Priest within God’s Church. Alleluia!

Kate takes on this role of priest in a changing Church that sometimes seems to be struggling with a changing world, and a changing role within that world. Yet in the midst of that change she – and we – hold on to truths that are eternal, and we continue to listen for where God, through his Holy Spirit, leads us. And in the midst of a changing world we would do well to hold on to the truths which we believe to be unchanging – the life and teaching, the death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God revealed in that story of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit of God still living and active in the Church and in the world, and in the lives of faithful people seeking the will of God.

And somewhere in all of that comes the Church. A Church which, though flawed and sometimes broken, is still loved by God. A Church which gives us a spiritual home, and from whose authority we who are called to be priests receive a calling to serve the people of God and minister to a world that cries out for the life and light of Christ.

So, what is this priestly role to which Kate is called? What is it particularly that we celebrate here this afternoon? For some idea of that we have to turn to our Scripture readings for today – taken from those suggested for any ordination service. I could speak at length to any of these passages, and got very excited reading them in preparing for this sermon, but I want to take one thing from each of them partly because I promised that this wouldn’t be a long sermon – and more importantly because all that we do here, in Kate’s ordination and in sharing bread and wine in this Holy Communion is so filled with meaning that I don’t need to layer too much on top of that!

In ordaining to the priesthood we carry on in a perhaps undefinable way the calling that Jesus gave to his disciples in the Gospels, and particularly in our reading from John’s Gospel chapter 20 that Priests proclaim peace, and forgiveness from sins. One of the great privileges of being in this ministry is the sharing of peace in the Eucharist, and being able to offer both absolution and a blessing on behalf of the Church – carrying on with sharing the breath of God in the Spirit that Jesus breathed upon his disciples. Though that breath sweeps not just through those of us called upon to be priests, but through all Christian people – but more of that in a moment.

What else particularly are we ordaining Kate to in this service? Well in my days as a university Chaplain a colleague of mine used to talk of the role of a Chaplain as ‘keeping the rumour of God alive in Academia’. But that equally applies to the everyday life of a priest. We are called to keep the rumour of God alive, sometimes to say those things which are uncomfortable and sometimes declaring the light, life and light of God against the darkness of the age. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me” says our passage from Isaiah “because the Lord has anointed me...” and the reading from Chapter 61 of the book of Isaiah goes on to talk of proclaiming good news to the oppressed, binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberty to to the captives and release to prisoners, comforting those who mourn and givng gladness and praise instead of mourning and ashes. But we also read that the day of vengeance of our God is proclaimed alongside the year of the Lord’s favour. The priest doesn’t always get to share good news, some of the things she or he is called to share might be difficult to say and even harder to hear. As you may have heard me say before, the Holy Spirit is the comforter of the afflicted, and afflicter of the comfortable. In prayer, study of scripture, pastoral care, sharing of the sacraments we speak out the word of God as we are bidden, and we cannot flinch from sharing the hard truths about our Church, about the true cost of taking up the cross of Christ, about the discipline that is inherent in being a disciple as we follow the way of Christ.

And there’s an uncomfortable, or potentially uncomfortable thing I think I need to say in response to the other reading of our three – that wonderful reading from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter four. And I hope this comes under the heading of ‘speaking the truth in love’ that Paul mentions....

The priest isn’t here to do your faith for you.

Though we celebrate Kate’s gifts and talents, and we rejoice that God has called her to this place to excercise the ministry of being a Priest and a Curate in our Mission Community. Though we hold to the ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons to serve and minister to, within and beyond the Church of God. Though we rejoice today that Kate’s journey has brought her to this place and that we in the Five Alive Mission Community get to share that and to support Kate in her ministry, even as she blesses us with all that she offers. We remember that in the Church of God no order is higher than another, that no calling is greater than another, that we are all a part of this wonderful body of Christ who have Christ alone as our head. Through our shared life in baptism we all have a vocation and ministry to serve and to share and to live and BE the Gospel.

St Paul writes ‘EACH of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift’ – not just the priests, or the bishops or deacons of the Church but each one of us. Even as we celebrate Kate’s calling and benefit from her leadership and service we remember that every one of us has a place within the Mission and Ministry of God’s Church. We all have our God-given gifts, we all have a part to play.

As Priest, part of Kate’s role and responsibility will be to foster and nurture the spiritual life of the people of God. This is in order that, as Paul writes, we may no longer be children. Small children, as we know, need everything done for them – but it isn’t long (and I speak from sometimes painful experience) before they are striking out, making a bid for independence and wanting to do things for themselves. So it should be in the body of Christ. Kate has her part within the body, just as all of us called to ministry and leadership have a part, but it is not her (or my, or any Priest’s) role to do Church on everyone’s behalf. As a representative of the Church she will preach, lead, preside at the Eucharist, Bless, Absolve and offer pastoral care and prayer – but it is the responsibility of all God’s people to find their gifts and offer them in the service of Christ and his people.

You may or may not be amazed to hear that I have heard the words ‘It’s good that you’ve got a Curate, another Priest, that’ll be a help to you’. In response to which I often want to say ‘actually it’s a help to you’. Kate in her priestly role is here to support the work that WE, the Church are doing, to reach out to those beyond our congregations, to live and proclaim the love of God in Christ. But she is here in partnership with each one of us as together we make up this wonderful, strange, challenging body we call the Church.

So we rejoice that God has called Kate to this work. We rejoice in the celebration of the life of this Five Alive Mission Community. And we rejoice that together we have such a great salvation to proclaim. May God join and knit us together as we are equipped for service, evangelism, worship and let us pray that we will be built up in love for the sake of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, our living head.

Bless you Kate in this ministry – in a wonderful place, with wonderful people. And God bless us all in his body, the Church.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

St Giles Patronal Festival Evensong

St Giles Patronal 2010

Saintly Calling

It’s a pleasure to be gathered here with the people of God to celebrate our patronal festival at this evensong this evening. A pleasure because our remembrance of Saints, and today we remember particularly St Giles of Provence, is an uplifting way of reminding ourselves our our heritage of faith, and because a patronal festival reminds us of our heritage and history in this place, and calls us to faithfulness as God’s saints here and now in our parish and as part of our Mission Community.

As I said this time last year (though I would be interested as to who could remember that, I had to look it up). We have a good example for us in St Giles of Provence whose feast day was actually on Wednesday of this week just gone. Little is known about him apart from his birth in the early 7th Century, probably to noble parents who were Athenians, and the foundation of a monastery in Provence, in a place now know as St Gilles-du-gard between Arles and Nimes in South East France. The stories talk of him being nourished by the milk of a Hind, crippled by the arrow of a Frankish king and therefore the ‘patron saint of cripples and lepers’ as it says in one history, and of his service to the poor and needy.

Churches of St Giles are often dedicated to the saint because his feast day was the nearest day to the opening of the church or because they are churches particularly welcoming to outcasts, often found on the outskirts of a town or on a pilgrimage route. I suspect this Church was first dedicated on or near the 3rd of September so we find Giles our patron, meaning our guardian saint.

That tradition of welcome and embrace, particularly of outcasts and the needy, is though, the best legacy our naming. It is that which should inspire us rather than devotion to any one person in our church history!

Despite how it may seem Christian faith doesn’t – or perhaps shouldn’t - really go in for hero worship. Yes we have many ‘Saints’ in the tradition of the Anglican Church, which comes from our Roman Catholic roots, but they are remembered with veneration not in order to place them on to pedestals, but to inspire and to challenge us in our own walk of faith. These ordinary-but-special individuals, often deeply flawed yet deeply faithful, are fellow-pilgrims on our journey of faith. Their passion should be our passion, they are brothers and sisters not set apart but alongside us as we seek to live the Gospel in this time, this place, amongst these people here in Kilmington.

That wonderful short but powerful reading from the Song of Songs (also called the song of Solomon) is a cry of love from the heart. “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm” is the passionate cry of human love which can be translated into our devotion to and love for God. St Giles in giving up all he had and following a way of poverty, chastity and obedience is simply an example of the way we should all, with God’s help through his Holy Spirit, live. We are called to lives of simplicity and obedience, of faithfulness and mutual love.

Our Scriptures again and again call each one of us to faithfulness – not just a chosen few, but each one of us. When Paul refers to ‘The Church’ he is referring to the people of God, not a building (for there weren’t any Church buildings) or an institution or organisation. Paul also frequently refers to ‘Saints’ – by which he means all those who have accepted the life Jesus offers and who are being transformed in the power of the Spirit into the likeness of Christ.

On this Patronal day, when we celebrate St Giles – we don’t simply celebrate that one man, we celebrate the people of faith who have lived and prayed and worked and worshipped here in the village of Kilmington over many years. We don’t just celebrate the Vicars, or the Readers, or even the Curates – wonderful as they may be. We celebrate the Churchwardens and PCCs and Vergers, the bellringers, flower arrangers, church cleaners, those who have been baptised, married, buried here, those who have played the organ or been in the choir, those who have read lessons and led prayers, who show the mission and ministry of God in this village with acts of love and kindness, those who have come faithfully week by week, to pray, to think, to learn, to grow and to live and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

They, and we, are the Saints of St Giles.

The Christian faith doesn’t divide us up into who is more or less worthy of God’s love, or of respect. Each one of us are saved sinners, being sanctified – made holy – by the Grace of God. For just as the Bible tells us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God’ it also tells us that each one of us, saved by faith and rooted and grounded in Christ, are being built into the Body of Christ with the risen Jesus as our living head.

Another common name for a Patronal Festival is a Dedication Festival, so called because it is the day that the Church was dedicated and consecrated for worship. Let us use this dedication festival to be a people so dedicated to Christ, and so consecrated for worship that not just on this day, or just on Sundays, we are bearers of the life and light of Jesus Christ. In our second reading for this evening – readings taken from those offered for festivals of the Saints – we see St Paul writing with passion ‘Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. ‘ If each Christian person echoed such passion, and the passion that leaps out from the words of the Song of Songs, then our Churches would be living, active, attractive, challenging, inspiring places in which people would continue to encounter our living God.

So in the light of our Patron Saint Giles, and following on from the great heritage of faith that has been shared with us here in Kilmington and in our Mission Community, we have an opportunity to put our own journey of faith into perspective. We, like the saints, are followers of Jesus Christ our living Lord. Are we like them willing to allow God to transform us through his Holy Spirit into the the disciples he calls us to be? Are we willing to give our all for Christ, no matter what the cost?

If we want our Church to grow in faith, if we want to reach out to the world around us, if we want more people to be a part of the life of our Parishes then it’s not going to be your Clergy that do that, It will be the prayers and faithfulness of the whole Church that will make it possible.

We must pray for one another in our common task of living and sharing the Gospel. The Saints give us examples not of spiritual heroics, but of what it is possible for each of us to do in the power of the Holy Spirit and bathed in the prayers of all God’s people. So let’s recommit ourselves to prayer and to each one of us finding our vocation and ministry within the Church, through the Holy Spirit and in Prayer we can all fulfill God’s calling to us to live faithfully and to share in the task of bringing the Gospel to this world that God loves so much.

As St Paul says:
this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God.

The sermon this morning....

Proper 18 (2010) Year C RCL Principal

Grow Up!

One of the subjects that comes up again and again in our household, as is probably the case in any household with small children, is ‘growing up’. What do you want to be when you grow up? Is one of those questions that Katherine and Jack seem very happy to keep replying to, despite giving different answers most times its asked. Or there are comments about ‘how grown up they look’ or ‘aren’t they growing up fast’. Most of us have probably heard all this before and if we don’t remember people saying it to us, then we probably remember it being said to our children, or grandchildren, or other family members or friends.

And scripture is quite keen on the subject too. St Paul talks of Christian faith needing to mature, in 1 Corinthians 3v21 of needing to move from ‘milk to meat’ in our spiritual journey as a child needs to be weaned. Paul also talks in Ephesians 4 v 15 of ‘growing up into Christ our head’. Jesus too, whilst instructing us to be child-like, never calls us to be child-ish, and in fact calls us to be mature in our faith, to be willing to make sacrifice, to truly consider the cost of our faith, and to be open to losing everything for the sake of the Gospel.

Crumbs, Christian life is hard.

On a purely personal note I am reaching the end of my second year in these parishes, and though it has been and continues to be very rewarding, it can also be really hard. This isn’t a complaint, and if it had been too much I wouldn’t be wanted to stay! But it has been a tough couple of years. I have to say that I have been on quite a steep learning curve in my personal, pastoral and professional life. I know I’ve not always been right, and there have been some things I could have done better, things I didn’t do as I should have, and things I wish I’d known when I arrived. But I hope and trust that I have learned and grown in my time here, as many of those in our Parishes have done also.

Our parishes are going through major changes too, in personnel, in our times and styles of services, in the fabric of our buildings and the organisation of our Mission Community. Many of these changes have been overwhelmingly positive but alongside that we have lost some very special people, we’ve struggled with the issues facing our villages today and we’ve had pain and sadness alongside the joy and the rewards of our ministry.

For those who think that this Christianity lark is a doddle and that Churches are havens for the weak, a short time in our villages would soon show what a nonsense that is.

I have had people say to me that ‘religion is a crutch’ and that it props up those who are too weak minded to carry on without some kind of spiritual panacea. Actually, if we were to carry on that metaphor I would say that religion isn’t a crutch, but a stretcher, because the only way we can truly encounter God is by being carried there by his grace, and through grace alone.

But those of us who have actually committed to following Jesus know that it is difficult to be a Christian. It’s not a way out of the ‘real world’ but a way which makes us sensitive to the pain and brokenness of our society and the world around us. Christian faith doesn’t make us immune to suffering or pain, in fact it more often than not makes us more aware of the suffering of others and prevents becoming apathetic or uncaring towards one another or the world.

But none of this should surprise us. Being a Christian is hard, and today’s Gospel reading is quite clear about that. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches. Jesus compares following him to setting off to war, or preparing a major building operation, not something to be taken lightly, and not something to be undertaken without planning to see it through to the end. Even more so he says ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’.

Crosses would have been a relatively familiar sight to the people Jesus was speaking to. A grisly, agonising and long lasting form of execution it was used as much as a deterrent to those thinking of disobeying Roman law as a way of punishing lawbreakers. Crosses were put in prominent places where people would see them, and before each crucifixion the condemned would be forced, as in the Good Friday story we know so well, to carry their cross to their place of execution – a very public spectacle.

So Jesus refers to something that is both familiar and shocking to try and give some idea of the cost of discipleship. There is no hint in this passage, or indeed in any of Jesus words, that being a disciple is an easy option, or the route to a cushy life. In fact throughout the Gospels Jesus talks of his own homeless status, about the need to endure suffering, about the threat of persecution, about working hard and about absolute devotion to God’s cause – a devotion that is equivalent to hating family, friends and even life itself.

But this suffering is not an end in itself, it often comes as a part of the life of the disciple, part of every life – but we don’t follow in order that we might suffer, but we endure suffering that we might be faithful. Our call is not to suffer, but to remain true to our faith and to the truth of Christ no matter what we endure.

And even from suffering God can bring life. Jesus suffered and died on the cross that he might defeat the greatest suffering, that of death and the power of sin. Then through his faithfulness was brought back to life again through the power and the love of God.

“But what has all this got to do with being grown up?” you may ask. Well, Jesus doesn’t want us to have a na├»ve, blind, infantile faith, but to take on board the very real, very difficult, even very painful cost of being a Christian. One of the commentators I read on this passage tells us that Jesus is encouraging us to have a mature, reflective attitude to our journey of faith.

For those of us who remember the pains of growing up, of finding the world to be less and more than we had imagined as children, of discovering that things weren’t quite as much fun when we became adults as we thought they would be as children, we are reminded that Christian faith shouldn’t have a rosy or incomplete picture of the world. Being mature means accepting responsibility for our own journey of faith, being willing to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, and to behave and respond to the world in a thoughtful and appropriate way.

In the church that means that we all take responsibility for the ministry of the Church and no longer hope to be spoon fed by someone at the front, or that the work of ministry will be done only by the ‘spiritual grown ups’ we call clergy and readers. St Paul says, we ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’. – we all have some responsibility for our own spiritual growth, our education, our calling to serve in the name of Christ here in Stockland and the other villages in the Mission Community to which God has called us.

It means being willing to take up our cross and follow.

Let’s pray not that we might escape all the troubles of the world, but rather that through everything we may endure and be faithful, allowing the potter to reshape and create something new, fashioning from the struggle something beautiful and filled with purpose. That we may mature through good and bad and grow up into Christ our head. And let’s pray that we will have the faith to see God at work, even when it seems the struggle is too much.

May God bless us in all we endure, and give us strength, faith, hope and love.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

What was I thinking about around Trinity time?

Actually this is the first Sunday after Trinity, Proper 5!

Year C Proper 5 (2010) RCL Principal

Psalm 146
Galatians 1.11-24
Luke 7.11-17

The Big Picture

I don’t know if you have ever seen the magic roundabout, a rather surreal children’s TV show from the 1970s that was made into a computer generated movie a couple of years back. It was a very strange show, but great fun, and even my children aged 5 and 8 enjoyed reading a book we found in a Church jumble sale about the characters going on a picnic – which I am happy to go through in detail if anyone would like to later!

The most wonderful part of the magic roundabout was the characters, Ermintrude the cow who loved singing, Dougal the dog with a fondness for sugar lumps, Brian the snail, Mr Rusty, Florence and Dylan the rabbit. Dylan is my favourite, he is, to say the least ‘laid back’ – a guitar strumming hippie with a fondness for words like ‘wow’ and ‘cosmic’. I have been accused before now of being the Dylan of ministry, and giving an impression of being laid back and generally spaced out – at the time it was meant as something of an insult, but looking back I’m not sure that, if it were true, it would be a bad thing to be the Dylan of ministry! For one thing, the frenetic pace that seems to have been part of our ministerial life here in the team would probably benefit from something of a more laid- back attitude. Though I don’t think that will be happening in the near future. And also I wish sometimes my attitude were a bit more ‘cosmic’.

Because, and this is the reason for the long preamble, today’s readings from Galatians chapter 1 and Luke chapter 7 offer a wider perspective on life, a cosmic perspective if you like, than those of us caught up in our day to day lives are wont to have.

Look at what St Paul writes, in Galatians – by far his most obviously passionate letter, and probably his first – he tells us in verse 15 of chapter 1 that God had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace – he saw the bigger picture. He could see something of God’s plan. How many of us would describe our Christian life as set apart by God? How many of us talk in terms of being chosen by God? Paul is in no doubt that this is the case, and sees himself and his role in relation to Jesus – he has a cosmic perspective. The opening words of today’s passage, starting at verse 11 say
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
That gift of revelation is still the foundation of our faith. We see Christ through Scripture, through the sharing of bread and wine in our Holy Communion, in our worship and prayer together. The revelation hasn’t changed – for no one can conjure up the life of Christ in oneself, it comes only through the Holy Spirit working in our lives. Paul knew that, he saw his sense of calling in the light of the glorious life of God, promised to all those who believe and who are open to Christ living in them.

For Paul, all the authority he needed came from his own encounter with Jesus Christ, he didn’t need the blessing of the Church, though we see that he sought it later on in his ministry, he didn’t need clever arguments or tricks. Paul was certain of his calling, and his vision was straight from God above. It was this that gave him the confidence to proclaim Christ and to live the Gospel he was called to.

How different would our proclamation be if we were that bold, and had that sense of being called before the world began to God’s service? If we truly had the feeling of our worth and value before God. Yet that is our calling, and that is the boldness we should have – for God has chosen us. If we consider that Paul changed from being Saul of Tarsus, persecutor, hater of the church to the one who would be transformed by Christ as the apostle that made it possible for us, the Gentiles, to be drawn into faith – how much more can we expect of God here in Stockland, or in our Mission Community, or our Deanery or Diocese.

To have a ‘cosmic’ viewpoint is to start to see that God is bigger than even our imaginings, and able to do far more than we can conceive or plan. Again and again in our meetings and in conversations I have around our parishes I hear expressions of concern, even despair, for the future of the Church. People ask me what we can do to build up the Church, as if I knew, or to attract young people, or grow more disciples. Actually I do know, and it is not in programmes, or plans, or events or Sunday schools, or youth ministry (though they all may play a part). The Church will grow when we let God be God, when we open ourselves to doing what God wants, not what we want. When we let go of the trappings of religion, and turn to faith in Christ.

And it will mean a whole new perspective from all of us! And I include myself in this… A way of looking not at how we can keep going with what we have, but how we should be moving on with what God wills. For God can change things, God can transform our Church, our world – and until we realise that, our Church is bound by the past and we will be those of little faith who Jesus railed against so often.

In our Gospel reading for today we have another calling to have a cosmic perspective. We have the raising from the dead of the young man in the town of Nain. Like all of the stories know as ‘the miracle stories’ this short passage is here to inspire us and to inform our viewpoint, to give us a new vision and perspective!

Here we see the power of a God whose love is stronger than death. There is nothing that God cannot do, and as Jesus touches the bier and calls the dead boy to rise the young man indeed does rise from death. Not to the immortal resurrection which we will all one day share in, but he is returned to life again on this earth.

Again, this story shows us that God is bigger than our limited imaginations can conceive. We may not be bringing the dead back to life week by week – but we do have new life to live and to proclaim. Again, if the perspective of the Church was informed by an understanding of that compassion and power of God which comes from this story, how much would we be able to achieve? How much more value would we attach to our faith? How much more excitement would we have about this wonderful, amazing, cosmic faith of which we are a part?

I have no doubt it would do us no harm at all to have a somewhat more cosmic view of our faith. To have a sense of our calling coming straight from Christ – not just the calling of our ministers, but of all God’s people. Called to proclaim this God who can change the world, who can even bring the dead back to life, whose love is more than we can ever understand, and whose life is on offer to all.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Letting the outside in and the inside out…

It's been far too long since I have inflicted a sermon on you, and this blog is looking sadly neglected. Here's a sermon from a few weeks back! I may well post a few more in the coming days.

Easter 5 (2001) Year C RCL Principal

Acts 11.1-18
Psalm 148

John 13.31-35

Letting the outside in and the inside out…

Early one morning a young man received a telephone call, rather unusually God was at the other end of the line. Hello there, said God, I’m coming to see you today.

Rather excited this young man set about clearing up his flat, tidying up, dusting, hoovering etc etc After a couple of hours of this the flat looked fantastic – and he sat down to wait.

The doorbell rang and, extremely excited, the young man ran to the door – to find one of his friends in tears, they had just split up with their boyfriend and wanted to chat. Very apologetically they young man said he was expecting an important visit and unfortunately couldn’t help. The friend left.

A couple of hours later the young man was feeling peckish, so he made himself a sandwich – and after eating it jumped as the bell rang again – he sprinted to the door, only to find a homeless person there asking for some food or drink. I’m sorry said the young man, I’m expecting someone any minute now – I can’t help and he closed the door.

Some time later, it became evening, and fed up of waiting the young man made himself some supper and sat down in front of the TV, the doorbell rang again and he opened it to find, a Christian Aid collector asking for the envelope which had been dropped off a few days before – sorry said the young man, I don’t know where it is and I’ve not got time to look for it now as I’m expecting someone important soon. The collector went on their way.

Eventually the young man nodded off on the sofa, to be awoken late in the evening by the telephone ringing he picked it up and heard ‘hello, God here’. The young man couldn’t contain himself and shouted – “you said you were coming to see me today and I’ve waited in for you – where have you been?” ‘What do you mean says God – I’ve been to see you three times today and each time you’ve turned me away.”

It’s not a true story, of course – but a sketch I used in Church when I was younger – trying to get the message across that sometimes we need to think carefully about where God is and what God is trying to tell us. And it ties in well with our readings for this week – or at least I think it does!

Sometimes we in the Church think too small – we put God in a box, or try and contain God within the four walls of our Church buildings – we decide what is and isn’t of God and from God and we seek to trap God in our own perceptions and ideas.

Take the Book of Common Prayer, which we use in so many of our services. We use the prayer book because of the dignity and beauty of its language, because it can aid our worship and add to our understanding of God. It is document of great profundity and depth. But if we were to say that it was the only language we could use to talk about God, and if we were to become ‘prayer book fundamentalists’ then we would be seeking to contain the very idea of God and make claims about the Prayer book that would be unsustainable – claims about the words we may and may not use about God, claims about what God is like, claims about how the world should be.

Our liturgy, like our faith, must be dynamic and must move and grow as our understanding of God moves and grows and as our culture and our world change so must our faith and the language we use to express our faith.

In our reading from Acts for today Peter admits that his narrow ideas of faith were in danger of cutting him off from the will of God. His insistence that the Good News of Jesus Christ was for the Jews, and only for those who were willing to accept the Jewish way of life, could have stopped the Church reaching out to all people. Those who declared that God was only for the circumcised – i.e. only for those who took on Jewish faith first – were guilty of wanting God to work on their own terms, of wanting God to be as they had always known him and of wanting faith to remain as they had always practiced it. It was through that vision of unclean foods being declared clean that Peter’s eyes of faith were opened to a vision which included all people – even the gentiles. Our reading from Acts records Peter’s words:
“I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?'”

Perhaps when we are tempted to claim that God is only present in a certain kind of service, a certain kind of practice, a certain way of seeing and doing things then we should ask ourselves ‘who am I that I could hinder God?’

In the same way that our young man at the beginning missed the point, that God visits us in ways we might not expect or want, there is a very real danger that we might miss the point – and indeed miss the work of God – by demanding that only x or y is the way to be Church and that there is only one way of being the body of Christ.

In fact the very thing that should be our priority, the very thing that will draw us beyond ourselves is given to us in our reading from the Gospel of St John that we heard just now. Jesus says
34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'

It is love that will open our eyes of faith. A willingness to love beyond our own boundaries, an openness to love God and our neighbour, and the willingness to see God in others, even those beyond where we might expect to see God!!!

And this love must begin in our Churches in order that it might be nurtured and grow and spread to our communities. I am often asked by concerned members of our Churches – how can we make our congregations grow? Well the way we will attract people to our churches is through love, and through dedication to God and to one another. This will draw people to want to know about our faith, and the one who is the source of all life and love – God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And we have ample opportunity to put our love into action in these Parishes – I see every day the commitment of Christians in our villages to the life of the community, to their families, to their friends and neighbours, to the life of our Churches. We also have a great place in which to put this love into practice – our Mission Community

Many of you will have heard me say that apart from the appeal of these five villages and the life of the Churches in them, the most attractive part of this position, from the point of view of a priest applying to serve these Parishes, was the formation of the Mission Community. Beyond the obvious benefits of support and increased resources which come from working together – we have a very real opportunity to put the command of Jesus into action by loving one another as Christians in this Five Alive Mission Community which exists not to take away from the life of individual parishes but to support them and offer the possibility of working together to show the love of God to our villages.

And so we have been given a very real opportunity to learn to love one another and to work together – but none of this will happen if we are not open, as St Peter was, to the vision of God, to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We will not grow, we will not flourish if we do not love, we will not survive as the Church if we are not prepared to think big, to listen to God and to be willing to see God wherever, whenever and in whoever God chooses to appear.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Today's sermon

Year C Easter 2 (2010) RCL Principle

Doubt is good!

Poor Thomas – always remembered as the one who needed proof. The one from whom we get the saying ‘Doubting Thomas’ – a saying still used in a Biblically illiterate nation, with generations of people who don’t understand phrases, or at least don’t know the root and deeper meaning of phrases like ‘Prodigal Son’, ‘Treasure in Heaven’, ‘faith like a mustard seed’, ‘Job’s comforter’ nor many others that most of us have grown up with.

Thomas, remembered because he couldn’t accept the stories that the others were telling – because he didn’t happen to be with the others when Jesus appeared. Doubting Thomas because the fantastic events recounted by his friends were too much to grasp, because he needed more.

But let’s be honest here, how would you or I have reacted? Jesus was dead – really dead, cold and in the ground kind of dead. For those of us who have lost anyone to death then we know something of that loss, that devastation, that emptiness that comes with bereavement. Death is so very final – and the loss stays with us. We don’t like talking about it – in fact in many ways it is the last taboo that our society has. But it is a reality that changes us. Even thirty years or so later I miss my grandparents and the compassion and encouragement they showed me in my formative years, and thirteen years after my father’s death I still have days when I miss him terribly – his wicked sense of humour and forthright way of expressing his opinion (and that’s putting it politely).

We know how it feels, most of us, to have lost someone we care about. It was summed up perfectly for me by a colleague from Washington DC who, as we talked about our role in leading funerals said, simply, ‘Death Sucks’.

And that’s how all of the disciples must felt. Devasted, lost, afraid of what might happen to them, very aware of their own mortality I’m sure. Their grief and loss were so overwhelming that they gathered together in the upper room, comforting and supporting one another. All but Thomas. They all saw Jesus, all felt his breath upon them, heard his blessing of peace, shared in that moment of resurrection.

But Thomas didn’t.

For Thomas the devastation was still real, the feelings still raw.

No wonder the disciples excited babbling about seeing Jesus alive again, about him reappearing in the upper room made no sense, no wonder he wanted some kind of proof.

And Jesus, graciously, lovingly, openly gives him what he needs. It’s worth noting that we have no record of Thomas taking Jesus up on the offer of checking out the holes in his hands, feet and side but worships him. He doesn’t persist in his doubt, but declares Jesus his Lord and his God.

But would we have been any different? Would we have walked into that room of excitable disciples and said ‘yes, of course Jesus is alive’?. I’m not sure I would.

I get the feeling that Jesus’ comment ‘blessed are those who have not seen me but still believe’ is not so much a criticism of Thomas but an encouragement to us. We don’t have that chance to see Jesus for ourselves, but the witness of Christians through the ages and the conviction of the Holy Spirit is the foundation for our statement that Jesus is alive!

If I’m honest, I have days when the whole resurrection of Jesus thing is beyond my grasp intellectually. I cannot, as they say, ‘get my head around it’. But I can get my heart around it! Firmly I believe, and truly, that Christ is Risen! I allow the faith of the Church and the truth of the Gospel to hold me even in my doubts.

If anything, the story of Thomas gives us the freedom to doubt. It shows us that the doubt is not the enemy of faith, but that we need to hold on to those glimpses of Jesus to get us through our times of questioning and struggle. And we can see throughout Scripture that Thomas is in good company – St Paul struggles with what the Gospel means, some of our Old Testament heroes are constantly trying to get to grips with the demands of faith and the calling of God, and even at the Ascension, when Jesus is there we read, in Matthew 27 v 18 ‘And they worshipped him, but some doubted’. Doubt is a part of what makes us human, and part of what makes up our faith.

It is important to remember, doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is. Struggling with, thinking about, asking questions regarding Faith is part of truly engaging with the amazing, pretty much unbelievable, reality that faith and a relationship with Jesus brings us.

If we really consider all that the disciples went through then we can see that Thomas’ response isn’t at all abnormal. But Thomas went past his doubts – though I suspect that like all of us he didn’t leave them behind completely. The tradition and belief of the Church is that Thomas like all the Apostles went out to proclaim the Gospel – in fact it is believed that he founded the Christian Church in India which still exists to this day – the oldest Denomination in India, called the Mar Thoma Church. His faithfulness and desire to share the news of the living Christ took him to another land, and it is believed that like most of the Apostles St Thomas was put to death for his faith.

We need doubt in the Church – but we need it alongside faith. Our willingness to ask questions should be alongside a desire to know Jesus better and to open ourselves up to his touch and his life. We struggle through the difficult times in our walk with Christ but we keep walking with him – carrying the cross he calls us to bear as we follow the one who bore it first.

And like Thomas, no matter what our doubts, we continue to worship and to proclaim Jesus. We share the good news of our risen, loving Lord in all circumstances and no matter what the cost. Thomas went out and declared his faith, sharing the risen life of Jesus with those he met; how many people have we shared that resurrection life with lately?

Reading this account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance excites me because it tells me it is OK to doubt, and that Jesus meets us with his grace, and with outstretched arms. It challenges me too, and should challenge each one of us, to consider our part in the Mission of God – our own calling to live and to be the Good news of Christ, bringing his life to a world so in need of his life.

Will you let the story of Thomas the Apostle, Thomas the Believer, Thomas the friend of Jesus inspire, challenge and motivate you? If so, how – for if we allow God to talk to us through this Scripture we may find comfort in our doubts, but we also hear again the calling to be faithful and to live in the light of the risen life of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.