All posts by Paul White

Sermon – Luke the Evangelist

Sunday 18th October 2020

Acts 16:6-12a, Luke 10:1-9

Today, October 18th is the day traditionally kept to remember St Luke the Evangelist.

The title ‘Evangelist’ comes from the word ‘Evangel’, which means the gospel, and is a title given to St Luke as the author of one of the four gospels.

However it is sometimes easy to forget that he did not just write the gospel of Luke but he was also the author of the Acts of the Apostles.

Although I have not counted the words I understand that as the author of both Luke and Acts this makes St Luke the biggest single contributor to the collection of writings we call the New Testament, writing even more than St Paul. And we know that the same person wrote both Luke and Acts because in the introduction to Luke the author addresses himself to ‘the most excellent Theophilus’ saying that he has investigated everything and written an orderly account for him and in the introduction to Acts the author opens with the words ‘in my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do…’

So Luke and Acts are essentially a two volume work by the same author but they are different in character because the gospel is a careful reconstruction of events as told to Luke by eyewitnesses but a great deal of Acts is written from Luke’s personal experience of life as an early Christian and as a companion to Paul on his missionary journeys.

So, if Luke wrote more of the New Testament than Paul then how come it is always Paul that is referred to when we debate the more controversial areas in church life?

I think it is simply because Luke recorded events and stories in a quite self-effacing way and, although he let his priorities shine through those events and stories, as we shall see in a moment, he never wrote using the doctrinal voice that Paul did in his letters.   Paul was writing as a pastor to the churches in his care expressly telling them what they should and shouldn’t be doing and so his personality and his doctrine are unmissable in his writings, whereas Luke’s presence as the unseen author of Luke and Acts is much more subtle.

Nonetheless he was obviously an incredibly important figure both in the development of the New Testament and in the life of the early church and so it is right that today we should think a little more about him and some of his priorities that did shine through his writing.

He is said to be a native of Antioch and must have acquired some considerable skill in contemporary medicine, and was referred to as a Physician . We know nothing about his family background but he was probably a gentile convert possibly first to Judaism and then as a follower of Jesus. He became attached to St Paul as his diarist and recorder but also his personal doctor. Luke joined Paul on his second missionary journey, their story beginning about 50AD – and took them to Philippi, Rome, Caesarea and ultimately to Jerusalem.

In 2 Tim 4 v 11 we read Paul’s rather lonely words: “I have no-one with me but Luke”- and we can assume that Luke was not only his medical advisor but a friend who gave him much needed support and advice.

As a physician Luke is the patron saint of doctors, as you might expect.

However, you may not know, that Luke is also the patron saint of Painters and Artists and he is often depicted as a painter with brushes and a palette and is even said to have painted the first icon of Mary. Whether or not that is literally true it is certainly true that Luke displays an artistic eye in his gospel writings as he beautifully depicts scenes from the life of Jesus and it is also true that some of the greatest paintings in the world have been inspired by Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus, or the shepherds coming from the fields to the stable after the vision of the angels, or of the visit of the Magi.

I said a moment ago that Luke’s gospel was written as a result of his enquiries of those who were eyewitnesses to the events and traditionally, it is thought that it contains the reminiscences of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Bible scholars tell us there is clear Jewish style and flavour about the language of the early episodes – the annunciation, visitation, birth, visit of the Magi, the presentation and Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which may all reflect the influence of Mary. And in case you think that is mere fanciful piety don’t forget that Mary was present at the start of the book of Acts and if that book is a first hand account by Luke then he would have been present too and speaking to the mother of Jesus could well have been a primary source for him.

Imagine, for a moment, this cultured, educated physician and gentile convert speaking to an older Mary about the events of the annunciation and the nativity while he scribbles away with his writing implements, and then perhaps he goes to speak to Simon Peter about how he was first called to be a follower of Jesus, and so on until his orderly account is written.

Now each of the four gospels has their own particular flavour or style and it is clear that Luke emphasised some aspects of the message of Jesus more than the other Evangelists.

It seems that Luke has a special concern for the poor. It opens, very nearly, with Mary’s song which talks about filling the hungry with good things, the birth of Jesus takes place in the humblest of circumstances, Joseph and Mary are shown are poor when they present him in the temple, there is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. There is the suggestion that if we give a party we  should always include some poor people among the guests and Luke’s version of the beatitudes ( 6 v 20-36) also reflects sympathy with the poor.

It is also interesting to notice Luke’s account of the early Christian communal living (Acts 4 v 32) – and the heavy punishment visited on Ananias and Sapphira because they hold back part of the sale of their property from the common fund.

Many women are introduced into Luke’s gospel and Acts. We can note his account of the women who travelled with Jesus and his disciples – Mary Magdalen, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna and many others. Luke portrays Jesus as addressing women with courtesy. Luke’s gospel carries more stories that involve women and children than the other gospels.

It was women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus but found his body gone. It was Mary Magdalen and a small group of women who went and told the disciples that Jesus body had gone.

As a gentile convert it is also clear that Luke had a special heart for those who found themselves outside the bounds of mainstream Judaism and it is within Luke that we find many stories of the calling and redemption of Zacchaeus the tax collector, the Roman centurion who had faith, the story of the prodigal son which has so much to say about God gracious patience for those who have left the fold.

And, as a physician, Luke also has many, many stories of healing – although not of physical healing done by fellow professionals but of a much deeper healing that can only be brought about by God through faith in Jesus.

There is a strong tradition that Luke lived into old age, dying aged 84 years and was buried at Thebes from whence his relics were transferred to Constantinople in the year 357.

So, today we celebrate the Feast of St Luke – physician and evangelist. These roles are inseparable – for an evangelist tells the good news of salvation and salvation means healing. The root of the word salvation is the Latin word salvere – to be well, to be in good health, to be whole. Salvation is not just of spirit in the world to come, but salvation is of body and mind as well.

But although we celebrate St Luke we should also be sensitive to the fact that he was self-effacing, that the stories he wrote down were not about him and his ministry. As an Evangelist he was about the Gospel and the Gospel is all about the good news of Jesus Christ. That because of who Jesus was, God born on Earth, and because of what he did for us in his life, in his death on the cross and in his resurrection we can be made whole once again. I suspect that if he were here now, St Luke would not want today to be all about him but he would point beyond himself to the ultimate healer and physician Jesus Christ and he would urge us to heed the words of his gospel to us this morning:

“The kingdom of God is near you.”

So. draw close to the kingdom of God as it draws close to you, know that you are deeply loved, deeply forgiven, deeply healed and when you leave this building later this morning go out like the apostles to take the good news of Jesus Christ and his healing love to all those around us.

In the name of Christ,

Amen.

Sermon – Harvest Festival

Sunday 4th October 2020

Deuteronomy 28:1-14, Luke 12:16-30

I love Harvest as a time of year – the colours, the smells, the tastes and, in my family many birthdays, do make it a joyous time of year.  But the theme of the Harvest readings, and therefore of the sermon, can be a little predictable.  It is usually along the lines of being thankful to God for the good harvest and offering some of the harvest of our lives back to him as a gesture of our thanksgiving, to be shared with those less fortunate than ourselves.

Nothing wrong with that.  I have commended it to you many times in the past and I suspect I shall commend it to you in the future.  We should be grateful to God and we should care for those around us – loving our neighbours as ourselves is a fairly fundamental part of our identity as Christians and that should be the case not only at Harvest, but every day and in every moment. 

We live in a largely wealthy part of a largely wealthy nation during one of the most stable and peaceful stretches of history.  Speaking generally you understand, we have a lot to be grateful for in this part of the world and at this period in history and, when you are feeling blessed, it is so much easier to feel both grateful towards God and generous towards your neighbour. 

Our reading from Deuteronomy talks about the blessings God wishes to bestow upon his people if they obey him and follow his commands:

You will be blessed in the city and in the country.

The fruit of your womb and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock will be blessed.

Your basket and your kneading dough will be blessed.

You will be blessed when you go out and when you come in.

Your enemies will be defeated and scattered.

Your barns will be blessed [we shall mention barns again in a minute]

The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity. 

In fact, that last word is an important clue – this way of thinking is deeply related to what we could now call the ‘prosperity Gospel’.  The prosperity Gospel says that if you do one thing, which is normally to send a donation to the proponent’s TV station, then you will be blessed many times over in return.  Normally the only people who get rich out of the prosperity Gospel is the people proclaiming it, and it normally preys on the poorest in society, which seems like an inversion of the real gospel to me.

Nonetheless, there is still a persistent thread of theology, which we encounter today, that if the people do the right thing then material blessings will follow.

I don’t want to offend or shock anyone here today, but have you ever seen the film The Wicker Man? 

Even if you haven’t, I am sure that most of you know the gist of it.  A naïve policeman, played by Edward Woodward, is lured to a strange island where, to cut a long story short, he is sacrificed by being burnt inside a large wicker effigy in order to ensure the island’s harvest and future.  Modern versions of this story can be found in the films Midsommer and a series on Sky at the moment called The Third Day. 

If the people do the appropriate things then, in return, the land will be blessed and prosperity will follow. 

So, if I can put it this way, the theology of Harvest can contain a lurking danger of both neo-paganism and the prosperity gospel – of believing that we have been blessed not because of the unconditional love and goodness of God, but because of our own efforts and sacrifices and obedience.  We have been good and, therefore, God has rewarded us and, therefore, we shall share a small portion of that with the poor.

It is easy to see why the successful farmer in the gospel reading was feeling a little smug.  He, presumably, had worked hard in planting his crops and had produced a good harvest.  It is what farmers ought to do.  On the basis of the theology we find in Deuteronomy the farmer probably felt that he had been blessed by God because he had done the right things.  It was his response to being blessed that was wrong – rather than sharing what he had with those in need he did what any self-respecting oligarch would do – he bult a bigger barn and got ready to kick-back and enjoy a long and happy retirement.  But God had other plans for him and it turns out that his blessing was short-lived because he was not truly thankful towards God.  As you would expect in a normal Harvest sermon.

But there is another potential danger in the theology of Harvest which may be more pertinent to us today, which is this:  It is easy to feel blessed by God and generous towards others when things are going well for us.  When the harvest of our fields or the harvest of our lives is bountiful then we do feel as though God is smiling upon us and, in order to avoid the fate of the foolish farmer, it is easy to give the poor some grain from our barns.

But, what do we think about God when the harvest fails or when the harvest of our own lives is not what we would have wished for?  What do we think about God when the land seems blighted with pandemic and anxiety?  What do we think about God when we are laid off, or unwell or feel like a failure when judged by the standards of prosperity?  Do we feel perhaps that God has abandoned us, that we have not lived up to our side of the ‘if’ bargain in Deuteronomy or even that some kind of sacrifice has to be made in order to redress the balance?  That kind of thinking is never that far beneath the surface and I still remember lots of lurid headlines about HIV / AIDS being God’s punishment for homosexuality. 

But, as Christians, our understanding of God should come first and foremost from our understanding of Christ.  Was Jesus a success in material terms?  No, he was born into a poor family as a member of an oppressed people in an occupied country – he preached continually that people should put love of God before love of money and, after only three years of ministry he was put to death as a criminal.  In earthly, prosperity Gospel, terms he reaped a poor harvest indeed and yet we worship him not only as the Son of God but, in Trinitarian terms, as very God himself.

What does Jesus say to us today, in these times of anxiety about covid and the risks of recession and unemployment?  Does Jesus say that we need to make sacrifices in order to enjoy the prosperity of the land or that we should guard ourselves against hard times by building bigger barns to hide our wealth in?

No, Jesus gives the most counter-cultural answer possible.  He says:

Do not worry.

Do not worry about your life.

Do not worry about your body.

Do not worry about your clothes.

Worrying will not add an hour to your life.  On the contrary we know now that worrying will probably shorten our lives.

Do not set your heart on what you will eat and drink; do not worry about it.

The pagans run after such things.  I mentioned the pagan theology of The Wicker Man and here Jesus mentions explicitly that to worry about material wealth is a pagan activity. 

We are not to worry about them.

Why not?  Because God already knows what you need and see how he looks after the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. 

That does not mean that Christians cannot eat or be clothed or be healthy.  But, Jesus says, seek first the kingdom of God and these things will be given to you.  That does not mean that will we have all we want, or that this is some kind of prosperity gospel exchange, but it does mean that God will give us what he knows we need. 

But we need to seek the kingdom, the kingship, of God before our material wealth and comfort. That is a challenge bigger than most of us are ready to admit.  Our society, as much as Jesus’s society, lauds the wealthy farmer with the big barns and would look askance at the farmer who gives away next year’s profits.  Jesus challenges our relationship with money much more than he challenges sexual orientation and yet the latter is held up by some as a shibboleth whilst the former is quietly glossed over because it is uncomfortable for us wealthy Christians. 

As I said a few weeks ago in my email to the church, we need to let go and let God.  Throughout history and around the world people have faced much greater threats then we face day to day – whether it be bombs falling from the sky or being fed to the lions in the Coliseum, and I don’t mean the one in London.  If the earliest Christians had let anxiety or uncertainty or hard times turn them against the God we see evident in Christ then there would simply be no church now.  Jesus let go and let God and it took him to death on the cross.  But, and I have already mentioned a program called The Third Day, and we know where Jesus ended up on the Third Day – risen in glory and paving the way for us back to the Father. 

That is where we are called and where we are headed. 

If you are feeling anxious – do not worry – God loves you.

If you are poor – do not worry – God loves you.

If the harvest of your life is not what you expected – do not worry – God loves you.

During the good times but also during the bad – do not worry – God loves you.

Follow Jesus and seek first the Kingdom of God – and your harvest will be one of eternal life.

Amen.

Paul White

Sermon – Trinity 16

Sunday 27th September 2020

Phillipians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Today, there can be no doubt, we are all experiencing a huge range of emotions.

Firstly, and most importantly, I am sure Nicky will agree, we are gathered with joy as the church in this community to hear God’s word, to celebrate Sunday as the Day of Resurrection and to embody and experience Christ’s presence amongst us, between us and within us.  Despite the trying times which lay both behind and before us the church, and all Christians, should always be filled with joy, not only because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but because Christ is risen and, because of that, we shall shine like stars before His face.

But joy is not the same as happiness and nor does the presence of God’s joy mean that we can never experience or express sadness, anxiety or any other emotion and, as I say, I am sure that there are many different emotions here this morning. 

Personally, there is happiness at seeing Nicky again, and I am sure that is shared by us all.  I haven’t celebrated with Nicky since February, (wow, that is 7 months ago now), and most people here haven’t been physically present with Nicky since the start of lockdown and then, of course, her departure to the remote shores of Mereworth, West Peckham and Wateringbury.  A far-off place in a distant deanery. 

But today, a bit like the Rolling Stones on a pension fund tour, the old team is back together again, and it is great for us all to see Nicky and for me to minister with her this morning.

I remember vividly the first time I spotted Nicky here in St Mary’s.  I have no doubt that Nicky is already very good at this but, as a Vicar, you tend to get very good at spotting new faces in the congregation. 

Anyway, one day I saw Nicky, and her hair, sitting about halfway back on my right-hand side.  This was in February 2016, which is not that long ago, but also feels like several lifetimes.

As soon as the service ended, I made a point of saying hello to this new young person, and I quickly learned that Nicky was a student at St Augustine’s College, studying for ordination.  Not only that, but she was looking for a church to come and do a placement as part of her ordination training and she was checking us out as a possible candidate.

Well, listeners, I snapped her up and her placement started here that September. 

But as we met to discuss and plan Nicky’s placement our conversation also turned to what came next for her in terms of curacy.  I don’t think I am giving anything away if I say we felt this may be a good place for Nicky to serve her curacy and we both started putting out feelers to both the diocese and the college to see if it could be done.  It could.

Nicky joined us first as a lay worker over the Summer of 2017 and she was then ordained deacon on the 30 September that year.  Almost three years ago to the day.  Although it is always the plan that curates will serve three years before moving onto their own parish I wonder how many of us believed on that wonderful day in Rochester Cathedral that almost exactly three years later we would be saying goodbye now, especially in these circumstances.  But I am getting ahead of myself slightly.

During Nicky’s deacon year she preached, she did all the roles in the liturgy which are reserved for the deacon, and which I am doing for her today as she presides at this service which is rather wonderful, she continued with her post-ordination studies, she learnt the things she would have to do later as a priest but, most of all, she settled into the life not only of this church but of this community, and she did so admirably.

On the 29 September 2018, nearly two years ago today, many of us returned to Rochester Cathedral once again to see Nicky be ordained to the order of Priest or Presbyter.  The next day, back here at St Mary’s, Nicky celebrated her first communion, and I preached, much as we are doing today.  I’m sure Nicky won’t mind me telling you that she was a little bit nervous that morning, because there is a lot to remember and think about and hold together whilst also worshipping and leading others in worship, but hold it together she did, as she continues to do.

Curacy is a time to learn and experiment and start new things, all of which I am delighted Nicky was able to do whilst with us.  Nicky brought her crafting skills to bear on things like Knit and Knatter, which became Café Plus, and her love of children to Messy Church, which were good for old and young alike.  She also reached out to the village with things like the thousands of woollen poppies which were created for an amazing display at Remembrance Day that year.

This is in danger of sounding like a Eulogy but Nicky found a place in the heart of Hadlow, and that is a wonderful thing.

The grand plan was that by the start of 2020 Nicky would be coming towards the end of her curacy and would cover my Sabbatical with Mission Aviation Fellowship to Africa, that we would continue to minister together on my return whilst Nicky then started her hunt for a place to be Vicar.  That sort of worked and sort of didn’t.  We didn’t expect covid to wipe out my sabbatical and we didn’t expect the diocese to ask Nicky to look after Mereworth on my return.  But the good news is that Nicky did apply to be Vicar of Marden and they did have the good sense to appoint her.

Which is where the mixed emotions return, because although we are happy to see Nicky here again today it is tinged with sadness because we are also saying goodbye and God bless as she is transformed from one degree of glory into another and departs this diocese and crosses the border into Canterbury and into a new parish, a new church and a new community.  Marden’s gain is our loss and it is OK to acknowledge that and be sad about that.

But, as I said and as you know, a curacy is always meant to be temporary and the ultimate goal is always to train and release someone into the place where they will minister as Vicar.  Saying goodbye is sad but doing so in circumstances where they are moving on to the place where they are obviously called marks the end of a successful curacy and so we can bid Nicky farewell also with real gladness in our hearts, joy if you will, that God called us all together for a season and a reason, but He continues to call and to work out his purposes in us and through us. 

It has been a delight and an honour to minister alongside Nicky during this time of her curacy and it is with sadness that this chapter in all our lives comes to an end but it is also with joy and some pride that we dispatch you to Marden and I look forward to being at your licensing service there next month.

I am sorry that I haven’t addressed our readings this morning, so I am just going to offer one small final reflection.  Although curates and vicars dress the same – although Nicky’s DMs are much more exciting than mine – and most people outside the church don’t have a clue about the difference, nonetheless there is a big difference in the way people treat you in church, both for good and for ill.  One of the big differences is that people look to the vicar as the person with all the answers in all sorts of matters from the spiritual to the much less spiritual.  It is too easy for some vicars to let that go to their heads and to start thinking of themselves as someone who knows all the answers.  This morning’s reading from Philippians reminds us that Christ himself, who is equal with God the Father, humbled himself to the point of an ignominious death when he came amongst us and, therefore, we ought not to think too highly of ourselves but continue to work out our salvation with ‘fear and trembling’ for it is God who works in us to fulfil his good purposes.  I am sure you would never do either of these things Nicky, but never be overwhelmed by your new role, nor let it go to your head, and think that you can do everything or know everything because we can only do what we do with God’s help and to fulfil his purposes.  And God’s purposes may not always be the same as our purposes or the purposes of the dozens of different interest groups you will encounter in and out of church. Always be yourself before God and not who other people want you to be.

So, I wasn’t kidding about mixed emotions this morning.  We have Christian joy, we have the happiness of seeing Nicky today, we have the nostalgia of her curacy, we have the sadness of saying goodbye mixed with the pride of seeing her going to a good home, mixed with the fear and trembling of working out our salvation day by day but, when we do that, knowing that God continues to work his will through our lives wherever he calls us to be which, I hope, brings us back to joy.

It has been a real joy being with you Nicky and I offer you every joy and blessing as you journey on.

Amen.

Paul White

Sermon – Patronal Festival

Sunday 16 August 2020 – Revelation 11:19-12:6,10;  Luke 1:46-55 by Rev’d Paul White

There can be little doubt that 2020 has been an unexpectedly challenging and difficult year for everyone and, although some things are gradually opening up again, you only have to watch the news to know that we are not out of the woods yet.  We proceed but we do so with caution.

Personally, the lockdown started about three weeks into my sabbatical and only a few days before I was due to fly out to Kenya.  I had had my jabs and even started my security training, learning which people with guns to be wary of and that if the bullets started flying not to hide in the car but to take shelter behind a mound of earth if possible. That could come in handy at the next Deanery Synod.

But, as we know, lockdown happened, the flights were cancelled, Nicky was keen to continue the experience of running things on her own and so I was left wondering what to do in a world which was suddenly closed.

Apart from finally getting around to reading Proust I did two main things during April and May, one physical and one spiritual.  On the physical front I worked in my garden virtually every day, clearing a really overgrown border and planted a rose and lavender bed.  On the spiritual front I sought to enter more fully into the rhythm and discipline of daily prayer and to broaden my diet of prayer.

I had been aware of a group of Anglican priests, male and female, called the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests, for a couple of years previously, not least because one of the people I trained with is a founder member.  I had made contact with them in that time, but their meetings never quite fitted with parish commitments here, and so it didn’t happen.  But, one of the unexpected side-effects of lockdown has been the rise of online worship and the Sodality started meeting and praying together online, and that made it possible for me to participate. 

So, I entered into an almost Benedictine rhythm of daily prayer and physical work and I discerned that I wanted to be a part of this Sodality.  Fortunately, the Superior, Fr Richard, agreed and I was admitted as a member on the last Sunday of my Sabbatical.  I mentioned broadening my diet of prayer and this included praying the Rosary, which I did every day during May in preparation for my admission. 

Of course the reason I am speaking about this today is because we are thinking about and celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary as the patron saint of this our church of St. Mary’s.

But, I am acutely conscious that this is a topic which splits opinion.

I suspect that as soon as I even mentioned that we are celebrating Mary today that a number of you thought something along the lines of “What is all this Popish nonsense?”.

Some Anglicans appear not to want to think about Mary at all, despite her huge importance in the story of our salvation, and her own discipleship which went from conception to the cross and beyond. 

If you are tempted to dismiss any thoughts about the importance of Mary then you should probably start with the person of Jesus, because what we think about Mary must be affected by what we think about Jesus. 

One of the central tenants of Christianity is that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. We talk about Jesus being the Son of God, or God the Son, so frequently that it trips off the tongue.   We sometimes also remember that Jesus was the Son of Man, or a human being. But how often do we think of Jesus as the Son of Mary? Perhaps we do at Christmas but, to be honest, most nativity plays are, thankfully, short of realism and there is little real sense that Mary has given birth to Jesus and even less sense that this same person will feed, clean and look after this baby on their dangerous flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, that on their return to Israel she will continue to raise him through childhood, adolescence and onto adulthood, that she will sit at the foot of the cross and watch her son die when nearly all his followers had fled and she will still be with the church at the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ divinity comes from God, and from being God himself, but his humanity came from his mother Mary – Mary is humanity’s link with the humanity of Jesus.

We should also remember that Mary was chosen by God the Father to give birth to God the Son. The Angel Gabriel told Mary that she had found favour with God.  Out of all humanity, she was the one chosen to carry God in her womb.  Who are we to dismiss whom God has chosen?  In Orthodoxy Mary is often called the Theotokos or God Bearer and in the Rosary she is called the Mother of God. Whilst that may cause some uneasiness the theology is completely sound – Jesus is the Son of Mary, Jesus is God the Son, Mary is the Mother of God the Son.

 By any measure the Mother of God should feature in our faith and we should not be embarrassed that the Virgin Mary is part of our story. God the Father choose her to bear and to raise God the Son and her response to God of “May be unto my according to your will” is one that she passed onto Jesus as we see from the prayer that he taught us “thy will be done” and one that we would do well to take to heart in every aspect of our lives.

But it would be wrong to see Mary as purely submissive. The song of Mary, the Magnificat that was today’s reading from Luke, is not a song of quiet submissiveness but is one of exuberant joy: 

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

How wonderful both to magnify the Lord and to rejoice in God – what a soul to be so alive to the love and blessing of God.

 But there is also a recognition that what God is doing through her and through Jesus will upset the status quo and will turn accepted values and norms of society upside down:

 “…he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.”

The person who says such things is no mere submissive vessel, but is a powerful person in her own right.  This is the person who brought Jesus up.

 Over the years and at various times and places Christianity has been the faith of the wealthy and the powerful but that is changing. The biggest growth area for Christianity is in Africa and in Asia where converts to Christianity are often the poorest and are often persecuted for their faith. They would recognise the power behind the song of Mary, they would recognise that by joining himself to humanity through the person of this poor girl God is doing something new and radical and for us to recapture something of that radical ness may revitalise something important about our faith.

The Magnificat is not just something nice to sing at Evensong but it was Mary’s revelation that the baby she had been chosen to carry was going to change the world forever.

The reading from the Revelation of St John also contained the imagery of a pregnant woman about to give birth.  Interestingly, unlike the nativity plays I mentioned, this reading does not shy away from mentioning the agonies of giving birth.  I should know, I have stood near someone doing that twice. 

Revelation is obviously a challenging read, because it is written in a very different genre from, say, the gospels, and there is no doubt that it can be read in many ways and on many levels.  However, the mistake some people make when reading this book is to think that it is only talking in a prophetic way about things to come in the future.  Another way it can be read is the heavenly view of things which happened on earth.  On that basis the gospel accounts of Mary giving birth to Jesus and then fleeing from Herod tell the nativity story from the human perspective whereas St John’s vision tells the same story but from the perspective of the birth of Jesus being part of the battles in heaven.  That reading would make Mary into the pregnant woman in Revelation and it is on that basis that Mary is sometimes referred to as the Queen of Heaven and shown wearing a crown of 12 stars.

You may be quite happy to accept Mary as the Mother of Jesus and all that entails, but you may still wonder about the Mother of Priests thing.  Whilst there is much else that could be said there I was really intrigued by a part of Revelation 12 which immediately follows todays reading, but does not form part of it.

There is a battle between the woman who has given birth to the child who has been taken up to the throne of God and the dragon, but the dragon cannot overpower the woman because of the help she is given both by God and even the earth itself.  Then, it says, that the dragon was so angry that it went off to wage war against the rest of the woman’s offspring – and her offspring are those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimonies about Jesus.  (Rev 12:17).  This is something really worth pondering, and is not something I had really thought about before.  If we interpret this story as being about Jesus and Mary then this verse says that this woman’s other offspring are those who follow Jesus, i.e. the church.  If we are sisters and brothers with one another and with Jesus then what does this make Mary?  The mother of the church, the mother of priests, because we are a kingdom of priests. 

We should not be afraid of Mary. We should liberate her from the confines of the nativity play and recognise her as a fellow human being but one who was chosen by God to give birth to God. Without her story, both human and divine, our story would be very different.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 7

Sunday 26 July 2020 – 1 Kings 3: 5-12; Matthew 13: 31- 33, 44- 52 by Rev Paul White

“The Wisdom or the Judgment of Solomon ” – if you mentioned that to most people then, if they had any idea what you were talking about at all, they would probably think of the story of Solomon having to decide between two women which of them was the real mother of a baby – as you doubtless know Solomon’s judgement was that the baby should be cut in half but the real mother loved it so much that she would rather hand the baby over to the other woman rather than see it die, thus proving her identity. (1 Kings 3:16- end).

DNA tests hadn’t been invented then. Although the King Solomon method would have made the Jeremy Kyle show more interesting.

What may be less commonly known about Solomon’s wisdom is that it is not a characteristic which appeared by accident, more DNA if you will, rather it was a gift that he expressly asked God to give him.

In our first reading we heard that God appeared to Solomon in a dream. I have often thought about the way God communicates to people in dreams in the bible, and I think it is a somewhat neglected subject. But today I want to touch on the question that God asks Solomon in his dream:

‘Ask what I should give you.’

Rather than asking for long life or riches or even for love Solomon replied:

“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people,

able to discern between good and evil;”

This response pleased God so much that he did give him an understanding and discerning mind, as we have heard, but he also gave him all the things he hadn’t asked for – hence also being as rich as Solomon and having a thousand wives, although no one mentioned the thousand mother-in-laws.

So Solomon listened to God in his dream but God also listened to Solomon. The gifting and the calling of Solomon to be a good and wise king was not simply an imposition by God but was the result of a dialogue.

I sometimes wonder whether we are afraid of listening to God or even asking God to speak to us at all because we are afraid of what he might ask us to do – ‘go and become a Vicar!’ or ‘go to Africa!’ I tried, Lord, honestly, I had the tickets and the malaria tablets!

But God doesn’t simply impose his will upon the unwilling – that is not what a truly loving Father does. Part of the process of being someone who seeks to follow God’s will is about identifying and naming our own will, because when our will works in accordance with God’s will then great things can happen.

A number of times Jesus, who is as much God as the God who spoke to Solomon, said to people: “What do you want me to do for you?” (e.g. Matthew 20:21 & Mark 10:51).

Often when I am leading morning or evening prayer I give people a space to bring their deepest prayers and petitions before God. Those deep desires which we may hesitate to name out loud for other people to hear, but which God longs to hear.

‘Ask what I should give you.’

or

‘What do you want me to do for you.’

Imagine if God, Father, Son or Holy Spirit, posed that question to you now, how would you reply?

In this churchy context it is easy to jump straight into the pious answer and say something like ‘end world hunger’ or ‘bring world peace’ but the question posed to Solomon, and the questions posed by Jesus, are expressly personal.

What can God do for you?

It may be equally easy to jump to the selfish answer – a new car and a million pounds would come in handy, thanks God.

But, if we can be like Solomon, even before he became wise, and steer a middle course between the pious but impersonal and the selfish but impious and ask how God can bless us so that we can be the best versions of ourselves and therefore be a blessing to those around us then perhaps there can be growth.

In our gospel reading from this morning we heard how unpromising and tiny beginnings can lead to great things: the tiny mustard seed can become the place of habitat and shelter, the yeast which is almost invisible to the eye can cause a whole batch of dough to rise.

When describing the kingdom of heaven in metaphors or parables Jesus could have spoken about a great king commanding an army to drive out the occupying forces of sin but today, and for the last three weeks, he talks of seeds and tiny beginnings. We have encountered the seed as the word of God planted in the soil of our lives, the good seed and the bad seed growing up together until the harvest and today the kingdom of heaven itself as being something which seems tiny and inconsequential but which turns out to be worth everything – even the pearl of great price which we should be willing to give up everything else for in order to acquire.

How do we plant that seed, grow the kingdom, acquire the pearl of great worth? Perhaps the leaven will land in your life through being willing to listen out for God in all the circumstances of your life, even in your dreams, to be sensitive to the growth to which he may be calling you but also to be willing to enter into dialogue – to tell him what he can do for you.

And if one life can flourish and grow by drawing closer and more attentive to God then it is possible for many lives to flourish and how wonderful it will be when God and the world looks to us and sees not a disparate group of weeds and an unploughed field but a productive harvest or an overflowing net of good fish ready and worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is not simply a place we enter after judgement, God willing, but is a kingdom that can grow and flourish and bear fruit amongst us in the here and now.

What can God do for you?

What can you do for God?

Amen.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update

In line with Government advice, we regret that all church services and non-essential meetings in St Mary’s have been SUSPENDED WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT and all churches closed until further notice.

This includes all Sunday and Wednesday church services,  Messy Church, Coffee Pots & Tiny Tots, Bell Ringing, Choir Practice, Cafe Plus, Saturday Coffee, Lent Group, Friends Together, Who Let the Dads Out, Drumming, Yoga, Historical Society, and  Hadlow Orchestra.

This website contains resources to help you worship from home and services are live-streamed by Rev. Nicky Harvey every day.

We appreciate that these are anxious times for everyone and, although the church is not going to be functioning normally, we are still here for you. If anyone needs any pastoral contact please do not hesitate to contact with Rev Paul or Rev Nicky.

Letter from Rev’d Paul about Suspension of Church Services