All posts by Janice Massy

Sermon – Baptism of Christ

Sunday 10th January 2021

Readings Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

I started trying to write this sermon on Thursday morning, not knowing quite how the world would look whenever, or indeed if-ever, I finished writing it, never mind by the time we came to this morning. 

Generally speaking I try not to talk about the sermon writing process when I come to preach.  After all, when you are eating sausages and eggs, or tofu for the vegetarians, you don’t normally want to know where they have come from or how they been made.

But I don’t mind saying that this is the hardest time I have ever known to try and write.  After 10 months of the ups and downs of dealing with the covid situation, which have included isolating twice because of family members having symptoms and not being able to get tests or results quickly, this third lockdown, and the other events of the past week, has hit me quite hard.  

Why is that, I wonder, surely I should be used to it by now?

I think it is because over Christmas we had the choir back in church, the vaccines were promised and I dared to hope, for a moment, that we were on a smooth slope back to normal life.

And then, of course, like everyone else we spent the week between Christmas and New Year stuck at home unable to go and see all our family and friends, which was a bit of a downer, and then it was only on Monday of last week that the new national lockdown was imposed.

My particular struggle, with the new lockdown, was what to do about in-person worship in church.  Unlike the first lockdown 

the government did not ban communal worship and the bishops were leaving it up to individual clergy and PCCs.  You all know where we got to on that and, as I said on my round-robin email, no one gets ordained in order to ask people not to come to church so that has been a real, almost existential, issue.  I have no regrets about reaching that decision, and doing so quickly in the circumstances, but it gives me no joy to be in an empty church building once again.  I know that the true church is the living stones who are you out there, but that doesn’t make it any less empty in here.  I want nothing more than to have you living stones back here and for the place to resonate with your voices once again.

But the new lockdown has also had other personal implications such as the children being home from school, possibly for many weeks, and considerable uncertainty about Annabelle’s end of year exams.

That was Monday and Tuesday.

Wednesday morning was a good and productive time in church, not only celebrating communion, albeit into a camera on my own, but also being able to serve at least five families from the foodbank.  Although tragic that we have to do that it felt good being able to do so.  

On Wednesday evening, which for me is last night as I write this, we had the incredible images from Washington DC of the mob urged on by Trump to invade the Capitol building.  Such sights I never thought to see outside of a movie.  People wearing Nazi T-shirts and carrying confederate flags storming the home of American democracy whilst elected senators feared for their lives.  Unbelievable. 

By Thursday afternoon, things in America appear to have calmed down a little and Congress has formally certified Joe Biden as the next President, although what Trump’s next move will be is anyone’s guess.

But the new covid death figures have just been released and, as I write, it is over 1100 people dead in 24 hours and a nursing home in Crowhurst reports that it lost half of its residents to covid over the Christmas holidays.

It is tough to concentrate on writing a sermon.

There is just too much big stuff happening all the time.

But something else also happened on Thursday at 4.00 pm.

I joined a Zoom call with 55 other members of the Sodality of Mary, many of whom are from the United States, and we prayed a rosary together for the healing of that nation.

And as we prayed I was, to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, surprised by joy.

Our two readings today have one person in common.  It is not Paul or Apollos or John the Baptist or even Jesus.

The one person, and I use the term advisedly, who appears in both the reading from the book of Acts and the Gospel of Mark is God the Holy Spirit, and does so in the context of Baptism.

In the book of Acts Paul returned to Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey, and there he spoke to 12 followers of Jesus who had been previously baptised.  It does not expressly say that they had been baptised by Apollos, who has gone off to Corinth, but that is the strong implication.  It turned out that they knew nothing about the Holy Spirit and that they had only received the ‘baptism of John’, as they put it.  So Paul baptised them again, presumably using the Trinitarian formula, and this time the Holy Spirit arrived in power and they started prophesying and speaking in tongues.  

Why did the baptism of John not work for the disciples in Ephesus?  We can only speculate but in today’s Gospel reading John the Baptist himself said that his baptism was only with water, whereas Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  Of course, John’s baptism worked for Jesus, but then the whole Trinity was present so John feels almost redundant in this process. 

Why did Jesus need to receive John baptism of repentance, when he was without sin?

Again, without knowing the inner mind of God we can only speculate but we know that the one who was without sin would also take on the sin of the whole world and, importantly, as Jesus was baptised with water he was also visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father announcing that this was his beloved Son.

Today we are remembering not only the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan but also the baptism of the 12 disciples in Ephesus and also, of course, our own baptisms.

And when we remember our own baptisms we are viscerally reminded that we follow where Jesus has gone before in this and in all things.  We are baptised with water and the Spirit because he was first, we share bread and wine because he commanded us to do likewise, we are resurrected because he was first and we are lifted into the life of God because of his ascension.   

But today we should especially remember that because of our baptisms, performed in the name of the Trinity, we too receive the Holy Spirit – that very same person of God who alighted on Mary, on Jesus, on the disciples in Ephesus, on the church at Pentecost and on the church throughout time.  

The Holy Spirit dwells within all the baptised, bringing forth fruits and gifts, which include not only prophecy and tongues, but also joy.  And when we make space and time for God, chiefly through prayer, so they gifts and fruits can show more and more fully in our lives.

Whilst it has undoubtedly been a difficult and sometimes shocking and sometimes depressing week I have kept praying – by myself, with others on Facebook and with my sodality priest friends.  It is only through that constant cycle of prayer and the constant exposure to the psalms and to scripture that I remain constantly exposed to God and to the work of the Holy Spirit in me.  And that is why, in the midst of it all, I can still be surprised by joy.

Remember your baptism.  Remember the Holy Spirit dwells in each of us because of our baptism.  That Holy Spirit draws us together and points us always towards Jesus who lifts us to the Father.  Pray constantly and ask the Holy Spirit to bring forth all the gifts and fruit he has in store for you.

Prepare to be surprised by joy.

Amen.

Sermon – Epiphany

Sermon Sunday 3 January 2021

The Feast of the Epiphany

Readings:  Isaiah 60:1-6,  Matthew 2:1-1

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

As most of you probably know, before coming here as Vicar I was a curate in the village of Woodchurch.  One of the lovely peculiarities about Woodchurch, which you may not know, is that it is situated in one of the least light-polluted areas of Kent.  There are so few streetlights there, or anywhere nearby, that at night the sky is truly dark and the stars can be seen properly.

One of the side-effects of it being so dark is that we soon learnt to take torches with us whenever we went out at night and it took a little getting used to not having to do that when we got to Hadlow.  But that’s another story.

Because the sky is so dark in Woodchurch it became the meeting place of the Ashford Astronomical Society.  Being a person of curious mind and many interests, I joined them for a while, and ended up with my own small telescope.  I think that some of the other members were a little non-plussed at being joined by a person in a dog-collar as they assumed that Christians couldn’t contemplate the age and size of the universe without having our faith shaken.  I soon put them right on that score.  In fact, I became quite good friends with the chairman and when he wrote a novel which included some religious elements he asked me to proof-read it for him.  But, again, that is quite literally another story.  Oh dear, I seem to have gone a bit Ronnie Corbett today.

Anyway, I soon learnt to enjoy spotting the planets in our solar system and the first time you can see the rings of Saturn for yourself it really is quite something.  Even now it is good to look up and be able to see Mars or Venus against the background of constellations.  

Of course, the reason I am thinking about this now is because just before Christmas there was an extremely rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, which made them look like one bright star.  It was soon dubbed the ‘Christmas star’ and there was plenty of speculation about whether it was an alignment of planets like this which was the bright star followed by the wise men from the East.

It is always interesting to speculate but, in the same way that our faith should not be afraid of science nor should we feel the need to explain away the miraculous in purely scientific terms.  The fact that the universe is billions of years old need not challenge our belief that it was created by a God who flung the stars into space and the fact that the prophecies of the wise men may have been fulfilled by an alignment of planets does not mean that it was not God who either inspired their prophecies or aligned the planets.  Or perhaps God did what he did with Mary and the Shepherds and sent an angel to lead the way.  

The point is that the wise men were lead towards their Epiphany of recognising the Christ child by being sensitive and obedient to the signs they were sent, regardless of the physics behind those signs. God works in the world both spiritually and physically and we need to discern and respond in both ways too.

This morning’s reading contains not simply an epiphany to the wise men but it also contains, I think, an Epiphany of Herod, but he chooses to react rather differently.

The Herod we are talking about is Herod the Great, not to be confused with Herod Antipas who was the one who had John the Baptist beheaded and played a role in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Although Herod the Great was King of Judea he was only a client-king of the Romans, who could remove him at any time.  Although he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem he was not much loved by the people who saw some of the Temple systems of money changing and so forth as favouring the rich over the poor.  Herod sat between his Roman overlords and a sometimes restive people who would love to see the restoration of Sion that Isaiah talks about and it seems this made him something of an insecure ruler.

Into this context there arrives in Jerusalem an unknown number of unnamed travellers from across the deserts in the East.  This, of itself, would not have been uncommon, I’m sure.  But they arrive asking a rather strange question:

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at it’s rising and have come to pay him homage.”

It is interesting to note that the wise men do not say that they have come to bring gifts to the child, but to pay him homage.  This means to bow down, as one would before a king or a God.  This is an important word which we shall see again.

We don’t know how Herod came to hear of these men with their unsettling question but when he did what was his reaction?

“…he was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him;’

One can see how an insecure King might be frightened by the news of a new king being born but why ‘all of Jerusalem’?  Although those words are not explained one can only speculate that Herod was such a tyrant that if he was afraid then everyone else had reason to be afraid too and, as we shall see, there was good reason to be fearful.

The wise men from the East had travelled many hundreds or even thousands of miles, as an act of faith worthy of Abraham, to pay homage to Jesus and yet, in his homeland, the news was greeted with fear.  His own people did not accept him, as the Gospel of John would have it.

Having heard the question from the wise men Herod gathered together his own band of wise men – the chief priests and the scribes.    He asked them not where the king of the Jews was to be born but where the Messiah was to be born.  This shift in language indicates that Herod understood that the men from the East were not just talking about Herod’s successor as client-king but about the one who was anointed by God to save his people.

Herod’s wise men did not consult the stars but the scriptures and the prophets and they confirmed that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.

What was Herod’s reaction to this news?  Interestingly he could have sent either his troops or his own wise men to go and discover the messiah for themselves.  But he doesn’t do this.  Why not?  Perhaps he is afraid that if his chief priests go and find the messiah that they will turn against him and his rule will be undermined.

Instead, he secretly summoned the wise men and told them to go to Bethlehem.  He said:

Go and search diligently for the child: and when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

There is that word homage again.  However, on Herod’s lips and in the context of his fear it rings hollow.

The wise men set out from Jerusalem towards Bethlehem and then, once again, they see the star.  When they see it stop over the right place we are told that they were ‘overwhelmed with joy.

The wise men reacted with faith at the rising of the star and with joy when it reaches it’s goal.  How different to the fear and weasel words of Herod.

The wise men enter the house, note that Matthew does not talk about a manger, and they see the child, not the baby, Jesus with his mother Mary.  There is no Joseph and no farm animals in this account, just Jesus and Mary.  What is the first thing the wise men do?  Of course, they knelt down and paid him homage.  This was the king of the Jews, the Messiah, whose star had risen in the East, and who they recognised, yes, through their actions and their gifts, to be king and God and one destined to die for his people. 

Having paid homage they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and they returned home another way.  Although today’s reading ends there, we know that the story did not end there.  When Herod learned that the wise men had pulled a fast one on him and not retuned to Jerusalem with the news about where to find Jesus he was infuriated and he ordered that all the infants of two years and under in Bethlehem be killed.  But he missed killing Jesus as his family had been warned to take him down to Egypt.  This may well put us in mind of the story of Moses and Pharaoh who also ordered the killing of children.  This is not a part of the Christmas story we see on cards or stamps but it is an important part of the story nonetheless.

So we have the same Good News – the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem.  But we have very different reactions.  The wise men have the faith to follow the star, they react with joy and they pay him homage.  Herod’s reaction is not faith but fear and not joy but fury.  Jesus is a king who came to die for his people whereas Herod was a king who ruled by killing his people. 

This season we have all heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, we know that he is the light come into the world and that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.  But God never removes our ability to choose how we respond to that Good News.  Do we stand in the darkness with Herod, clinging on to our false security and reacting with fear and fury to the prospect of change or do we travel in faith like the wise men and greet Jesus with joy and homage?

We all know what the answer is supposed to be to that question but I suspect that we all have something of the Herod in us – our real epiphany and homage comes when we can acknowledge that but ask God to do his best work in us anyway. 

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Amen.

Hadlow Advent Windows Trail

24 windows around Hadlow will be decorated throughout Advent with a Christmas theme. On each day of December a different window will be unveiled.

Follow the trail around Hadlow. Downloadable map here.

The windows will be lit from 4pm until 9pm. Trail maps are also available in St Mary’s Church, Hadlow Parish Council Office and some village shops.

View the windows open so far: Advent Windows Gallery

DateLocationDateLocation
114 The Forstal139 The Maltings
2Hadlow Pharmacy, High Street1415 Smithers Close
327 Maltings Close1525 Tainter Road
412 Littlefields, High Street1637 Maltings Close
5Court Cottage, Court Lane1732 The Forstal
6Court Cottage, Court Lane186 Smithers Close
7ASW, Latters House, High Street19Church Place, Church Street
8Parish Office, Old School Hall20Hadlow Bakery, The Square
9Natal House, High Street2138 Carpenters Lane
1010 Carpenters Lane22Walnut Tree Cottage, High Street
1119 Great Elms23Lyndale, Court Lane
1213 Maltings Close24St Mary’s Church

Hadlow Advent Windows

Do you have a window that could help light up Hadlow this December?

PressReader - Country Living (UK): 2017-12-01 - LIGHTING UP THE LANES

We are looking for homes to take part in an Advent calendar with a difference.

We need up to 24 windows in the village that can each be seen from the street, decorated with a scene on a Christmas theme. On each day a new window will be revealed – just like an Advent calendar.

Get the family involved! We want to make this a real community effort.

For more information or if you are interested in taking part, please contact Janice Massy or email: hadlowadventwindows@gmail.com

Advent Windows 2017

All Souls – Remembering Those We Loved

Monday 2 November

All Souls Day is when the church traditionally remembers all the dear departed.  In recent years we have celebrated a Memorial Service in the Spring, not least because the imagery of remembering our loved ones in the Springtime always feels more uplifting than doing so as the nights draw in.

However, it was not possible to hold that service last Spring and it would be a shame to miss it entirely this year.  We also don’t know what will be allowed next Spring!  

We are therefore intending to celebrate a Requiem Mass for All Souls at 12 Noon on Monday 2 November at the main altar in St Mary’s.  The Eventbrite link for this service is:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/requiem-mass-for-all-souls-tickets-126113018433

40 tickets have been allocated for this service, but it will not possible for everyone to be in the choir stalls so it will be necessary for people to exercise discretion and normal social distancing.

During the service the names of everyone to be remembered will be read out as part of the intercessions.  

If there is anyone you would like us to remember, please either email Rev’d Paul at pauljohnwhite@gmail.com or Janice at the office email address: office@stmaryshadlow.org.uk . We are happy to remember anyone you would like, regardless of how long ago. We are also happy to remember them whether or not you are able to come to the service.

Sermon – Trinity 18

11 October 2020

Isaiah 25: 1-9;   Matthew 22:1-14

Last week we celebrated Harvest Festival and, as is traditional here, many of you and many others brought bags full of offerings for our food banks.  In a normal year they would have been brought up to the altar and blessed and placed on and around the altar and the building and we would have seen how much there was.  But, of course, we are not in normal times and we didn’t feel able to do that. 

However, after the service, when I saw how much had been brought and left around the font I was truly amazed.  There were dozens of bags and boxes, literally overflowing with your generosity. 

I let everything decontaminate for a few days, no offence intended you understand, and then I took everything over to the Community Storehouse in Paddock Wood.  I don’t mind telling you that they too were overwhelmed by the amount delivered – and they were doubly amazed that it came from one congregation and one service.  A real testament to the fact that despite everything which has beset us in recent months there is still a vital Christian community in this place, eager to love and serve those around us.  I give thanks for that, the Community Storehouse gives thanks for that as do every single person who will be able to eat because of your gifts.  Thank you.

Who are the people who use the Foodbanks?  Well, this week I have also delivered food to two people in Hadlow for the first time.  One was a lady in her early 60s who had worked all her life but is not yet able to claim a pension.  Sickness has now prevented her from working but is not yet in receipt of universal credit.  Despite living in a supposedly civilised and wealthy country this lady had no money and no food and it took a string of phone calls from one agency to another before the vicar arrived with enough food to keep the wolf from the door for a little while.

The other were at the other end of their lives: a young family – husband and wife and a few young children.  The husband is self-employed and seeking to build his own busines but the collapse in the economy means that there is little business for him and, because he is self-employed he wasn’t able to be furloughed and the process for claiming benefits is more complex.  So, again, a family living in Hadlow who are trying to work hard for a living and yet their cupboards are bare and they have to ask for a handout to stop themselves literally starving.

The people who use the food banks are us.  In the event of illness or divorce or unemployment or a simple downturn in the economy each and any of us could end up in that situation – an empty bank account, an empty cupboard, an empty stomach and perhaps even hungry children.  Having to make a string of calls until you can get a modest handout of tins and pasta. 

As a Christian I am honoured and delighted that we as a Christian community can care for our neighbours by feeding them – it is a deep part of our call and our outreach.  But, as Christians, we should also be outraged by the fact that this is necessary in our society at all.  People in our own village are not on the brink of going hungry because we as a society cannot afford to feed them, it is because political choices were made to make people wait before their claims were paid out, and those decisions were made by politicians who have no idea how most people live.  Yes, we should feed the hungry, because Jesus tells us to, but we should also challenge why they are hungry in the first place.  As a Church I want us to support the Food banks to the hilt, but as a Christian I want to live in a society that doesn’t need food banks for anyone.

Today, and not co-incidentally, our readings talk about both banquets and tears.

The gospel story is not just about a banquet, but it is a wedding banquet – and not just any old wedding banquet but a royal wedding banquet, which Jesus offers as a parable for the kingdom of heaven.

You would think that receiving an invitation to a royal wedding banquet would be a cause of joy and pride and might even provoke a bit of dressing up.  But this does not appear to be true today, in fact the invitations were treated with scorn, even by some of those who turned up.

In this parable the king was giving the banquet for his son and he invited lots of guests, no doubt the great and the good of society, but it seems that none of the great and the good responded to their invitations.  So the king sent out his servants to gently remind them that they had been invited to this marvellous occasion but, despite this first, gentle, reminder, they still would not come.

Although they had ignored both the original invitation and the first reminder, which let’s face it is the height of rudeness, the king sent his servants back out to the great and the good, and this time he sent them with the menu, to try and tempt them in:

“Tell those who have been invited:  Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

I don’t know about you, but I would definitely have gone at that point, although it does sound a bit like the Atkins diet, but never mind.

But those invited would not come even when told the menu. What is worse they did not make even attempt to make polite excuses – rather they made light of it – they treated the invitations like a joke and some went off to their farms and others went about their business.  And, get this, others seized the king’s slaves, mistreated them and killed them.  Sometimes you hear people say that they are bringing bad news but “please don’t kill the messenger” – Well, these slaves were bringing good news – you are invited to a brilliant party with loads of good food and, still, those bearers of good news were killed.

Until now the king has been patient and gracious, and he cannot be faulted for trying again and again to get the great and the good to come to this banquet – but everything has been thrown back in the king’s face, and he is enraged and he destroys those who killed his servants and even burned down their city.

Many commentators see this as Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem itself in 70 AD and, by extension, the fall of Jerusalem as being God’s judgement on Israel’s rejection of his messengers, the prophets and, of course, Jesus himself, who was killed for bringing good news.

But this is not the end of the parable.  The king then sent out more messengers into the streets with instructions to invite everyone they find to the wedding banquet, and the messengers do exactly that, gathering both the good and the bad until, we are told, that the wedding hall was ‘filled with guests’.

So far, this sounds like a wonderful parable of God opening up the kingdom to everyone and, from one point of view, it would be jolly handy if the reading just stopped there and we could all feel good, but without being unduly challenged in any way.  But the parable does not stop there and we are challenged to think a little harder.

The king comes into the wedding banquet to see the guests and they have all put on their wedding garment; all except one man. Immediately on entering the banquet the king’s eye fell upon him. Calling him ‘friend‘ he asked him why he was there. It is the same question Jesus asks Judas when they come to arrest him on the night of the agony: ‘Friend, why are you here?’

But the man without the wedding garment was speechless and the king ordered that he be bound and thrown out into the darkness.

On first reading this sounds harsh and unjust, but it is useful to know that it was the custom at this time for the host of a wedding feast to provide all their guests with a simple white wedding garment and all the guests had to do was to slip it over their heads in order to graciously accept their hosts hospitality and play their role in the banquet.  The fact that this man was not wearing the garment suggests that he was actually treating the king’s invitation to the banquet with about the same level of seriousness as those who had originally mocked the invitations – he may have refused the garment at the door or perhaps even thrown it to the ground rather than put it on – he was at the banquet in body, but he was certainly not there in spirit, in fact he was sitting there as a continuing insult to the king by refusing to join in and the king responded by ejecting him.

In the Book of Revelation being clothed with the white robe is a symbol of being washed clean by the sacrifice of Jesus, and therefore of fully and completely accepting God’s invitation to the banquet to end all banquets.  We are all invited to that banquet and God’s greatest desire is for each of us to accept that invitation.  And yet, it is still always up to us to accept – and accepting doesn’t just mean not killing the messenger and it also doesn’t just mean turning up in body but not in spirit.  Accepting God’s invitation to the banquet means putting on the wedding garment, the white robe, and taking our place at the table and honouring the king and his son.

In the reading from Isaiah 25 we are also given the image of God hosting a fine banquet for all peoples, with the best wine and the best meat, and in verse 8 we are told that: “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces” and this may also remind us of the promise in Revelation 21 of another wedding and another wiping away of tears:

 “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them…He will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

The marriage supper of the Lamb is a feast of reconciliation; Sharing in this banquet is about becoming part of the grand work of reconciliation that the heavenly bridegroom inaugurates on the cross and which will be consummated in the heavenly banquet of which our Eucharist is a sign and anticipation.

For many people, even here in Hadlow, life can be a veil of tears and rather than having a banquet the cupboards may be empty.  But today, if you are crying, whether on the outside or the inside, know that God wants you to join him around the banquet table of his kingdom and if we accept the invitation and put on the wedding garment then his greatest desire is to feast with us, to be with us always and to wipe away every tear.

We are invited to gather around the Lord’s table and share in his banquet.  I can think of no greater invitation.  And it is not a plus one, it is a plus everyone.

 Amen.                                                                                     

   Paul White

Sermon – Trinity 13

Sunday 6th September 2020 – Romans 13:8-end, Matthew 18:15-20

It is a great joy for me to be preaching with people gathered here in Church this morning.  Although you will all have seen more than enough of me on your computer screens for the last three months, and some of you have been able to attend on Wednesdays, this is the first Sunday I have been able to celebrate and preach in front of real live people since my last pre-sabbatical service at the end of February.  An unprecedented and unexpected gap which I hope will not be repeated in my lifetime.

I mentioned the word ‘gathered’ just now, and it is a word which has been on my mind quite a lot for the last couple of months.  When lockdown first began, and when churches first had to get to grips with what it meant to be church and to do church in a different way, there was a great deal of talk about whether ‘church’ was the building or the people.  Whilst much of the debate was nonsensical, with people being accused of worshipping buildings, I think we have learned some important lessons which I hope we can continue to draw on as we go forward:

  1. For a traditional church I hope that we have learned that worship can still happen in non-traditional ways.  Over the years I wonder how much time has been spent discussing which hymn books to use, which musical settings to use, how the church should be decorated, which bibles to use, who should process where and when even, dare I say it, which coffee to have after church.  Suddenly, literally overnight, all that was swept away and our experience of church was stripped down to daily prayer and a weekly Eucharist celebrated remotely.  And yet somehow, despite all the shortcomings and difficulties that has presented, especially for those without the internet, we have hung together as a church and worship has still happened week by week, in dozens of homes, including those who are on Zoom today. 

I hope that we have learned from that the difference between the externals of worship and the eternals of worship.  A great deal of what we do in church, and what we talk about and what we worry about, has to do with the externals and, as we return to church, it would be too easy to become fixated on them once again.  However, I hope we remember that it was the eternals of prayer, God’s word and the Sacraments which kept us going. 

I pray that going forward our identity as a church can be founded from the ground-up on those eternals.  If we are solid in our relationship with God then the externals can come and go and change or be withdrawn entirely and we are still the church.  Although we are all keen, in one sense, to get back to ‘normal’ I genuinely hope that this experience has given us permission to hold the externals lightly, to be more nimble in our approach to change and therefore to be more willing and able to share the eternals of who and what we are with the wider world. 

2. There is another side to this coin, which I hope complements rather than contradicts what I have just said.  Whilst we have continued to be the church whilst dispersed in the world and meeting only virtually I hope that it has made us appreciate the importance and the strength of what it means to be the physically gathered church.  Being with other people makes a difference to the experience of worship.  I have used the analogy before but watching a play on the television or on YouTube is an entirely different experience from being in the theatre and in the audience.  There is something important about being in the same room not only where the action is taking place, but also with other people who are experiencing it with you.  This is a limited analogy because worship is never meant to be about watching a performance but about a collective action but there is something fundamentally human about being gathered together for a shared purpose which cannot be replicated on a screen.  So, if absence makes the heart grow fonder, I hope that the experience of being dispersed will help us to appreciate the privilege and the importance of what it means once again to be the gathered church.  Being the gathered church means we need to meet in a building, and that building should be fit for purpose, but that does not mean that we worship the building any more than those who go to the Oast Theatre worship the Oast buildings.

And today’s reading, as a matter of sheer providence, talks about the importance and even the power of the gathered church.

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

I hear so often people tell me that they can have a relationship with God, on their own and experience Him out in nature.  There is a long tradition of people living as hermits which suggests that it is possible to be a lone Christian, but everything else I encounter about the relational nature of God himself in the Trinity to the communal nature of worship which exists throughout both the bible and the history of faith, tells me that the default practice of our faith was never meant to be a solo activity but was always meant to be a gathered, communal, community, church-family event.

“Where two or three gather in my name…”

People can obviously gather for any purpose but here we are told that there is something important about naming Jesus as the purpose, the instigator, the focus of our gathering.  There is nothing accidental about the fact that our services always start by saying that we meet in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  We are reminded that for that time we are not random people gathered for a random purpose but that we have come together as the people of God and in the name of God.

When we do that Jesus says: “…there I am, with them.”

To gather in the name of Jesus is to make Jesus present.  We hear Jesus speak today in the words of the bible, the people of God are themselves the body of Christ and bodies work better when they are assembled rather than disassembled, we encounter the presence of Jesus in the eucharist, as each of us becomes more Christlike we should make Jesus more present to one another and the church which is gathered makes Jesus present to the world. 

The gathered church is the people of God, meeting in the name of God and assured of the presence of God.

That is why theatre analogies soon run short – a theatre audience of two or three is a pretty poor audience but two or three Christians gathered in Jesus name have the power to change heaven.

I beg your pardon, I hear you say, what was that little leap you just made?

A few weeks ago we heard the reading from Matthew 16 in which Jesus established Peter as the rock on which the Church would be built and told him that whatever Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven and whatever Peter loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven.   Roughly speaking, that the decisions and the actions Peter took on earth, whether it is healing, pronouncing the forgiveness of sin or whatever, would be honoured in heaven.  As the representative of Jesus on earth that Peter could speak in his name and his words would have effect on earth and in heaven.  As you might expect there is a great deal of theology in the Catholic church about the authority this bestows on Peter’s successor the Pope.

However, today, we hear those words again – whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Only this time they are not directed at Peter individually, but at the church local and militant. 

Two or three gathered Christians, meeting in the name of Jesus, make Jesus present and have the power to affect the life of heaven.  Whilst our worship life here may be a pale reflection of the eternal worship in heaven, and whilst it may feel even more pale either wearing a mask or via a screen, we are reminded today that this is not nothing, this is not incidental and neither it is merely social or external. 

We are truly the body of Christ, gathered around the word of God in the bible and encountering Jesus the living Word of God in his spirit, in his sacrament and in one another, and are reminded that what we say and do here matters, not only amongst ourselves but in heaven itself.

Sisters and Brothers in Christ.  This matters, more than we may ever appreciate this side of heaven.  Let’s not get hung up on the externals, but focus on the eternals in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

Sermon – Trinity 12

Sunday 30 August 2020 – Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-end

The world, by which I mean in this case the tabloid press, love a good ‘naughty Vicar’ story.  If a vicar is caught cheating on their partner or committing any kind of crime then you can bet that the press will be all over the story in a way that wouldn’t apply if the perpetrator did most other jobs. 

Politicians and celebrities get similar treatment but, even with them, that sort of behaviour is more expected and cheating on your wife is no bar to the highest of political offices these days.

I suspect that people love to read about Vicars going wrong either because it confirms their view that the church is hypocritical, preaching one thing whilst doing another, or they have a salacious interest in seeing those who hold themselves out as being ‘pure’ fall from grace.

How we love to put people in categories and, woe betide them, if their behaviour does not fit into our categories.  What clearer distinctions could be made than between pure and impure, between sacred and secular, between saint and sinner, between heaven and hell, between human and divine.  Surely, we tell ourselves, that these categories must be mutually exclusive and that to cross between them is either impossible or unforgivable. 

However real life is often messier than the categories we seek to impose upon it and, perhaps even more challengingly, the characters and the events we find in the bible, even the most celebrated and foundational, often demonstrate that God has no choice than to work his purposes through fallible, broken, human beings because that is all he has but, and here is the good news, being broken and fallible is no bar to also being forgiven and lifted up into God’s presence, indeed that is the whole point of God’s saving work on earth.

Our first reading this morning recounted the call of Moses to become the saviour of the Hebrew people, leading them from slavery and into the land flowing with milk and honey.  Moses is obviously one of the towering figures of the Hebrew scriptures and, along with Elijah, is one of two who also appear in the New Testament at the transfiguration of Jesus.  We know that Moses spent time in the presence of God, that he received the ten commandments directly from God and that the Red Sea parted before him as they fled from Egypt. 

By any reckoning and on any scale Moses must count as a ‘holy’ figure?  Of course, he does, but today we are reminded of some of the messiness of life.

The Moses we encounter today does not look particularly holy.  He is employed as a shepherd.  Nothing wrong with a bit of honest agricultural work, of course, and we often think of Jesus as a metaphorical shepherd or we may think of the shepherds of Bethlehem who were honoured to hear the heavenly choir announce the birth of Jesus. 

But the reality of being a shepherd, is one of hot, boring and probably often smelly work and quite different from the ‘holiness’ of being a priest like the owner of the flock, his father-in-law, Jethro the priest of Midian. 

Nothing about Moses the shepherd looks particularly holy and it is worth remembering how he came to be working as a shepherd at all.  In the preceding chapter of Exodus the young man Moses had witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and Moses killed him and hid his body in the sand.  He then fled to Midian in fear of his own life. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, Moses was a killer and a refugee and employed to look after a bunch of smelly sheep.  I doubt he looked or felt or smelt holy in any sense.

And yet God wasn’t confined by human categories or preconceptions.  When God chose to call someone into his service and onto his holy ground, he did not call the priest of Midian but this most imperfect of characters.

We know that Moses did not feel worthy of this call because his response was not “At last I have been recognised for the true person I am below this shepherding exterior”, rather it was “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?”

Who am I?

I often encounter ordinands both in real life and on Twitter who are awaiting ordination and I always have more confidence in the ones who say: Who am I? those those who say: Here I am, Lord!

God’s response to Moses’ question is the same as the assurance we are given in the service of ordination: “I will be with you” or “With the help of the Lord, I shall.”

It seems to me that God can do more good through the imperfect who know their need for the continual presence and help of God then those who think themselves perfect in their own strength.

Moses’ imperfection was no bar to being called to stand on Holy ground and to do the work of God.

In the Gospel reading this morning we also encounter the reality that holiness and imperfection often interact in ways which defy our comfortable categories.

Simon, like Moses, had also been employed in difficult, smelly and ‘unholy’ work although as a fisherman, rather than as a shepherd.  As God called Moses so Jesus called Simon and, in last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Jesus called him Peter, the Petrus or rock upon which the church would be built, that he would be given the keys of heaven and that whatever he bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven.  This should have been the apogee of Simon Peter’s transformation from unholy to holy.

But this week how things have changed.  The rock on which the church is built has become a stumbling block to Jesus.

Having just acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus now teaches the disciples what that actually means.  It does not mean the defeat of the Romans, it does not mean earthly success, it does not mean any kind of triumph.  For Jesus to be the Messiah means, first to suffer many things and to be killed and, only after that defeat, to be raised again to life.

It is clear that despite Peter’s ‘ordination’ as the rock of the church that he doesn’t yet understand the true purpose of Jesus and he tries to use his new-found authority to bind Jesus himself “Never Lord!” he said.  A far cry from “Your will be done.”

Jesus response is quite shocking – he not only calls Peter a stumbling block but he actually calls him Satan.  This bring to mind Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when Satan offered Jesus the easy way out of suffering and, of course, that is exactly what Peter is doing – he is tempting Jesus to avoid the suffering, go straight for the triumph. 

You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus tells all the disciples, not just Peter, that the way to follow him does not include the easy path, the avoidance of suffering, but that they must each carry their own cross and lose their own life, because that is the only way to find their true life.

Do we seek the cross or do we seek success or do we seek the true success that only comes on the other side of the cross?

There are many lessons to be learned from today, and from our imperfect situation at present.  But, for me at least, the lesson is this: perfection is not a pre-requisite for being called by God.  If God can call Moses then he can call you or I.  And being called by God, and even being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, is no guarantee of never getting it wrong.  If Peter can be called the rock one moment and Satan the next, can deny Jesus and yet still be forgiven, then rest assured that you are unlikely to annoy Jesus more than Peter did.

Our present situation as a church and as a world is messy and imperfect and often feels far from holy. 

Which means that it is probably just right for God to call us and use us and ask us to follow him.  But we have to be prepared to pick up our crosses and walk.

Amen.

Paul White