All posts by Paul White

Homily – Maundy Thursday

Homily for Maundy Thursday 2021

Readings: 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

Leonardo Da Vinci has a lot to answer for.

When we think of The Last Supper it is difficult not to think of that depiction. 

I am sure you are right now.

Jesus and his disciples, all wearing brightly coloured and clean robes, artfully arranged along one side of a table, inside a room which looks like a palazzo, and with windows facing onto a Tuscan landscape.

The real scene, in an upper room in 1st century Jerusalem would have been, somewhat, different.  The room, less palatial, the robes more workaday and travel worn.  They probably sat on both sides of a more rustic table, without a thought to the poor artist.  The reality would have been less posed, more incarnational, more real. 

Even the title, The Last Supper, are not words that will be found in the bible or the lectionary.  Only two people present that night would have had any idea that it was a last supper and not just, well, supper.

Tonight, we celebrate not The Last Supper but Maundy Thursday, Commandment Thursday, Holy Thursday, the Thursday of Mysteries, Sheer Thursday.

A Thursday of many names and many meanings which can be understood on one level at a first reading but, as we dig deeper and seek to live those meanings out, may also sustain a lifetime’s discipleship.

There is the institution of the Eucharist itself.  The living Jesus giving us everyday items of bread and wine and making them into the body and blood of Christ in order to sustain the body of Christ which is his church.

Judas’ betrayal, with its themes of freewill and predestination which can cause all sorts of discussion at Lent courses.

Peter’s characteristic but, oh so relatable misunderstanding of Jesus and his subsequent headlong rush of enthusiasm. 

We have the commandment to love and serve one another, demonstrated by Jesus getting down from the table and washing the feet of all the disciples, including both Judas and Peter, one of whom was about to betray him to death, the other to deny knowing him and all of whom would flee at his arrest.  Jesus knew that, but still he washed their feet.

Feet.

In your mind’s eye, look again at Leonardo’s Last Supper and perhaps Google it later.  Feet may not be the first thing that springs to mind, but look under the table and there they are – some wearing ancient Birkenstocks and some looking bare. 

The painter makes those feet look as clean and fresh as the robes but, again, the reality was somewhat different.  They were probably dusty, dirty, battered and imperfect, perhaps even smelly.  Their feet were as fully human and varied and weird and wonderful as our feet. 

I know that some people are embarrassed about having their feet washed at this service, perhaps because they don’t want anyone to see their imperfections, their ingrowing toenails, their bunions, their verrucas, their athlete’s foot or, perhaps worst of all, their chipped nail varnish. 

That is the point.  We are not called to bring our perfections to Jesus for him to admire.  We are called to bring before him those bits of our lives that we would rather not be seen, not just our fungal infections but the deepest imperfections of our lives, and allow him to wash us clean. 

We don’t need to get our feet sandal-ready before we bring them to Jesus, rather we get ourselves service-ready by bringing the whole, messy, incarnational reality of our lives to him.  As my children would say, we need to get over ourselves, get over our English reserve and let God do what needs to be done to restore his image in us.

Because when we have been washed clean by Jesus, when we know ourselves to be truly and deeply cleansed by the one who took on the sins of the whole world, then we are freed to love and serve others in his name. 

Who is the Peter in your life?  Who is the Judas in your life?  Knowing what you know about those people, imagine washing their feet and seeing not their imperfections but seeing them as Jesus sees them, as he sees us. 

Tonight is Maundy Thurday and Jesus wishes to wash our feet.  Tomorrow, on Good Friday, his feet will be nailed to a cross for us and for the whole world.

Leonardo Da Vinci has a lot to answer for, by which, I mean that we shouldn’t allow his depiction of beauty make us forget the reality of the original events, because Jesus came to deal with our reality. 

But, and this is where I let the artist off the hook, when Jesus is allowed to deal with our reality then he transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, the travel worn into the glowing, the incarnated into the transcended, the imperfect feet which we all have into the beautiful feet on the mountain of those who proclaim the good news, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen. 

Sermon – Palm sunday

Sunday 28th March 2021Palm Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 11:1-11

On Thursday I had the immense privilege of being invited to speak about the Christian belief in the Messiah.

One of the things that was discussed was the fact that the Jewish people do not accept Jesus as the Messiah because they still expect that the one anointed by God to save his people will be a human, rather than a divine, saviour and that the salvation he brings would be the physical conquest of oppressors and the physical restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Against that measure Jesus simply did not measure up – in purely human terms he was a disappointing Messiah, and I think that comes across strongly in today’s Gospel reading about the entry into Jerusalem.

For two or three years prior to the entry into Jerusalem Jesus had been healing and preaching and telling people about his relationship with God the Father but now there was a sense that his ministry was reaching its goal and he was riding into the City of David to achieve something great – to do what he had come to do.

But what was his goal? Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? The crowd thought that they knew – they spread cloaks and palm branches before the colt on which he rode and they shouted:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

They thought that this worker of miracles, who so obviously had God on his side, had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to overthrow the Roman occupiers and to re-establish the Jewish monarchy and so restore the Kingdom of Israel to its rightful place as the home of God’s chosen people. When Pilate uses the term “The King of the Jews” in the passion gospel, which we heard last week, he is not giving it the spiritual quality that we now associate with that term – he thought, and the people thought, that Jesus had come to be the earthly King of the Jews and so the crowd greeted him as a returning king and as a saviour from foreign oppression –

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!

But what did Jesus himself think he was coming to do in Jerusalem? We know from earlier readings that he had a quite different understanding of what awaited him. In Mark 8 Jesus taught about what awaited him in Jerusalem and the end of his Journey:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” He said, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

If Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples did not understand what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem and had in mind the things of man rather than the things of God  then it is hardly surprising that the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem did not understand either.

The tone of the people at the City gate is one of triumph and great expectation – the crowd expected great things of this successor of King David. The entry into Jerusalem is like their favourite singer coming onto stage – the crowd are going to get what they want from this person.

And yet how quickly things change and how quickly the mood of the crowd changes.

Even before we get to the events of the arrest and death of Jesus I would suggest that, on a human level, even today’s reading ends of something of an anti-climax.

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

Jesus had passed through Bethany already that morning, as is mentioned at the start of the reading.   Bethany lay a couple of miles outside the walls of Jerusalem and was the village where his friends the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.  In order to go back to Bethany it is more than likely that Jesus and the disciples exited Jerusalem through the same gate that they had just entered it.

So Jesus had ridden into the city to great acclaim and to great human hope.  He was greeted as a returning King.  But what happened next?  Did he give a stirring speech to rally the crowd? Did he promise to kick out the Romans, depose the Herodians and restore proper Jewish rule to Israel, as the Zealots wanted?

No, he went for a visit to the Temple and, because it was getting late, Jesus and the Disciples left the city the way they had come.  They may have walked and ridden over the discarded palm branches left there by the crowd earlier.  Some of the people who had waved those branches with such hope and enthusiasm perhaps only a few hours earlier may have watched them exit the City the way they had come in.   

What must those people have thought?  Was this the promised Messiah?

Within only a few days Jesus was arrested and then taken before Pilate. I have no doubt that this arrest was in part motivated by Jesus clearing the money-changers out of the Temple and thereby threatening the money and power of the Sanhedrin and the Chief Priests. But I also suspect that the crowds who had expected Jesus to start an insurrection and throw the oppressors out of Jerusalem were disappointed in Jesus. Yes, he had overturned the money changers tables but other than that he had spent his time in Jerusalem preaching in parables, answering tricky questions meant to catch him out, praying and having supper with his friends.

This was not the sort of revolution the people wanted – they wanted a true man of action – someone prepared to kill for the cause, a true man like Barabbas.

And so when Jesus is arrested how quickly the shouts of the crowd turn from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”

Which, of course, we know that they did and, on a human level, we know that Jesus died on the cross.

I find it interesting that other faiths are keen to deny that the death was real.  Because if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the sacrifice for our sins wasn’t real and if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the resurrection wasn’t real and without the resurrection, as St Paul tells us, then our faith is in vain.

On a purely human level Jesus did not fulfil the expectations of the Jewish people for their messiah and, also on a purely human level, Jesus was either dead on the cross and his ministry was at an end or he somehow survived a Roman execution and snuck away quietly.

Which is why our expectation and belief in Jesus as the Messiah are not founded simply in the humanity of Jesus but also in his divinity.

Because it is only as God the Son that the death on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world makes sense, it is only as God the Son does the resurrection make sense, it is only as God the Son can Jesus ascend to take his place back at the right hand of the Father and it is only as God the Son can Jesus send the Holy Spirit to us.

We do have much in common with our Sisters and Brothers in both Judaism and Islam and I look forward to continuing to learn much more about both.

But, as I did say on Thursday, it is our belief in our nature and work of Jesus as Messiah which is our prime departure point.  Jesus was not the fully human Messiah that the Jews were expecting and nor was he a prophet of God in a line of prophets ending with Mohammed.  For Christians Jesus was a fully human being who died fully on the cross but he was also fully God the Son who transformed that death into new life through the resurrection and beyond.

We are now entering into Holy Week and, like today’s readings, it is a week of contrasts and emotions. It has drama, it has tragedy and, without wishing to spoil the ending too much, this time next week we will be celebrating the greatest victory of all. It is the most important story and the most important drama in human history and, amazingly, each of us is expected to play a part in that story and we have absolute freedom to choose our role, as we have also been reflecting in the Lent course.

Are we the crowd who, because of our disappointment with our own desires continue to cry “crucify him” or are we like the soldier at the foot of the cross who recognises both the humanity and the divinity of the one who hangs in front of us and proclaim in awe and wonder: “This man is really the Son of God.”?

Amen.

Sermon – Mothering Sunday, Lent 4

Sunday 14 March 2021

Fourth Sunday in Lent / Mothering Sunday

Readings: Exodus 2:1-10, Luke 2:33-35

This is, tragically, our second Mothering Sunday of not being together here in the church building.  That is slightly skewed by the fact that Easter is a bit earlier than it was last year. Nonetheless, when we were put into lockdown last March and, at that time, barred from being in church at all, I am sure that none of us thought, in our wildest speculations, that we would still not be here a year later.  Not much longer, God willing.

I always enjoy our normal Mothering Sunday services – especially when we have the school choir sing and the uniformed organisations attend and there are lots of parents and then, of course, there is the wonderfully chaotic time of the blessed flower posies being taken around the church.  It is truly a joy and I do pray that we can recapture some of that spirit next year and rebuild it into the future.

However, I am acutely conscious that service does run the risk of perpetuating or amplifying a certain image of motherhood, childhood, parenthood which may not be true for all and may even be a cause of real pain for many. 

Like most of us I receive an awful lot of marketing emails from loads of companies but this year, for the first time ever, I have noticed that many of them have given the choice of opting out of Mother’s Day marketing on the basis that some may find them difficult to see.

The reality is that apple pie and posies of flowers are not a universal experience of motherhood or parenthood. 

It can be a hard time for those who have lost a parent.

For those who may have had a difficult relationship with a parent.

For those who may have been abused by a parent.

For those who may have lost a child.

For those who may never have had a child.

Today we do think about the love of mothers but our readings from the bible both illustrate that it is more complex, and can be more painful, than we often like to admit.

Last week we had the ten commandments which were brought down Mount Sinai by Moses, but today we step back a little in time and hear the story of Moses’ infancy.

The story of Moses in the basket which is a story with which most of us have been familiar since childhood.  It is a wonderful story of a mother’s protective love for her child but, like most of the bible stories that we learnt as children, again a bit like Noah’s ark from a few weeks ago, there is always more to the story than we may first appreciate.

The story of Moses as a child takes place in ancient Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs and there had been a substantial Hebrew community living in Egypt since the time that Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers.  However, as the generations passed, Joseph was forgotten, the community of Hebrews grew and a new Pharaoh became afraid that this ethnic minority was becoming too numerous to be controlled.  First he put the Hebrews into slavery and then he ordered that all male babies be killed at birth by the midwives.  I did warn that it wasn’t all apple pie and posies. But it does get better because this is the point when a female conspiracy of resistance to Pharaoh’s inhuman orders kicks in.  First the midwives failed to carry out the order and claimed that the Hebrew women were much stronger than Egyptian women and always had their children before the mid-wives had time to get there! 

Pharaoh then ordered that all male babies be thrown into the Nile and that brings us to the starting point of this morning’s reading.  Moses’ mother gave birth to him and, rather than obeying Pharaoh’s command, she hid him from the authorities for three months.  However, as we know, babies have a tendency to get bigger and more noisy and thus Moses became more difficult to hide.  We aren’t told precisely the conditions that these people were living in but the conditions must have been tough because eventually Moses’ mother decides that she has no option other than to put Moses into the Nile.  But, as we know, she does not throw him into the Nile as Pharaoh intended; rather she put him in a waterproof basket.

I mentioned Noah’s ark a moment ago and, when God gave Noah the building instructions for the ark he said that it should be coated with pitch (Gen 6:14).  When Moses’ mother made the basket for him to go in we are again told that it was coated in tar and pitch (Ex. 2:3). We could think of Moses’ basket as a mini-ark.  God had saved his people from destruction through a Noah’s ark, and now he was saving them again through Moses in a mini-ark.  If one wanted to take that further it also got me thinking about the ark of the covenant which housed the ten commandments, intended to save the people, Mary as the Ark of Jesus and then Christ’s body the Church as the Ark of the world.  But that may be for another day.

Moses’ mother created this mini-ark, put her 3-month-old baby into it and placed it strategically amongst the reeds. 

Some of the children’s books and films make it look as though Moses’ basket floated down a torrential river and was only caught up in the reeds and was found quite by chance. In fact nothing could be further from the truth and Moses’ mother was much more careful and loving than that – she placed the basket where she knew it would be found and she had her daughter watch over the basket to make sure that it was alright.  How did she know it would be found?  Well, Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the Nile at exactly the right place to see the basket.  Now, I suspect that Pharaoh’s daughter coming to bathe in the river was not a random event but, rather, it probably happened either every morning or evening and everyone would know where and when it took place.  It certainly looks to me as though Moses’ mother knew exactly what she was doing and that she meant Moses to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter.

That probably sounds like a high-risk strategy – entrusting your baby to the daughter of the person who ordered all such children to be killed.  However, it seems that Moses’ mother was a good judge of character.  And this the where the next level of female resistance to Pharaoh kicks in – Pharaoh’s own daughter is not fooled for a moment about the racial identity of this baby (which is a little bit topical at the moment but I am not going there) and she immediately says:  “This is one of the Hebrew babies”.  She would have known about her father’s orders and she could, of course, have thrown baby Moses into the river.  But she didn’t and, although it was a risk, I suspect that Moses’ mother knew that she wouldn’t.

In some ways the next part of the story is even better – Moses’ older sister, who was watching over the basket the whole time remember, approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to fetch a Hebrew women to wet-nurse the baby.  Of course, she fetches Moses mother and Pharaoh’s daughter then pays her to nurse Moses until he is old enough to be taken into the palace.  So not only has Moses’ mother saved his life with her bold plan but in one fell swoop she has gone from hiding her baby from the Egyptians to being paid by them to nurse him!  A huge transformation brought about by a mother’s love for her child.   This whole episode is a great story of women cleverly resisting the immoral commands of men in order to save the lives of children and to bring life out of death.

On one reading that sounds like a happy ending – Moses lived, his mother continued to care for him and was even paid so to do.  But it still had its fill of pain.  Moses’ real mother only wet-nursed him, possibly only for a short time, and he then went to Pharaoh’s daughter and was brought up as her son.  So there was still separation and his real mother would still have had to watch her son grow up from afar – possibly only catching glimpses of him as part of the royal retinue from time to time.  We don’t hear of them meeting again in a Hollywood-style slow motion and tear jerking finale.  This was not apple pie and posies.

You will doubtless recognise our short Gospel reading as it is not long ago that we celebrated Jesus being presented in the temple at Candlemas and this is a part of the reading we have that day.

Although the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were unusual it appears that Mary and Joseph were doing all they could to be a normal family and to bring Jesus up fully in accordance with the Jewish laws and customs.  They took Jesus to the Temple to present him to God and to make the customary sacrifices.  Then they had the prophetic encounters with Simeon and Anna.  Simeon declared Jesus to be the promised saviour not only of Israel but also to be a light to lighten the gentiles.  Joseph and Mary marvelled at what was being said, and Simeon blessed them.  So far so good.  Then we have today’s words, which foreshadow that love is not without pain:

“…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

A sword will pierce your soul.

We only have to think of Mary at the foot of the cross, as Jesus handed her over into the care of another disciple before he died, to imagine that sword piercing her soul. 

We know that wasn’t the end of the story, but it must have felt like the end of the story for her.

I said last week that love for God and love for neighbour is not simply about fuzzy feelings of good will, but can be truly costly.  When God in the person of Jesus Christ went to the cross he was paying the ultimate price both of God’s love for humanity and of humanity’s love for God and for neighbour.  But there was other costly love there too – the costly love of a mother.

We are called to love those around us, whoever they are.  But real love is not just apple pie and posies – real love brings the risk of real cost, real hurt and real pain.  We can’t hide from that anymore that Moses’ mother could, Jesus’ mother could or Jesus himself could.

But we can offer our pain to God as the price we pay for being human and pray that, when we are most vulnerable, that those around us will sit with us when we need it as we would sit with them.  We love one another by being able to share both our times of joy but also those times when a sword pierces our soul.

Amen.

Sermon – Lent 3

Sunday 7 March 2021 – Third Sunday in Lent

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22

Although you can’t see them from here I am sure that most of you know that behind the High Altar, carved into stone, we have the Ten Commandments.

There used to be a large red curtain hanging behind the Altar. When I took the opportunity to peek behind the curtain I was amazed at the theological and architectural treasures which were hidden there.  A bit like the curtain of the Temple being torn in two, which symbolised the ending of the division between God and humanity, I was convinced that the barrier between us and those words had to come down.  Fortunately, the PCC agreed and down it came.

But I wonder whether in our heart of hearts, some of us are thinking:

The Ten Commandments – aren’t they a bit, well, [whisper it], old fashioned.  A bit Old Testament, a bit shall we say, pre-Christian or, even worse, a bit 17th century.  Surely, Jesus did away with all that, and summed it up so that we don’t have to think about it?

Well, yes and no.  Jesus, of course, did provide a summary of the commandments, which I shall come to in a moment, but he also made it clear that he had not come to abolish that which came before him and not even simply to fulfil it but, also to enhance it. 

The Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, the Ten Words are as much a part of our Scripture in the 21st century as they were to those who put them in this church, as they were to Jesus and as they were to the Hebrews in the wilderness at the foot of Mount Sinai.

It is easy to think as a list of commandments as restrictive and that the sort of God who wants his people to live by such a list to be rather controlling.  I want to suggest something a little different this morning. That the God who had literally just rescued his people from slavery in Egypt did not want them to become slaves once again but that he wanted to liberate them into a new relationship with him and with one another. 

The Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt for generations.  Joseph, of the many coloured coat, had been sold into slavery by his brothers but ended up becoming hugely successful in Pharaoh’s court and was later joined by his brothers and their families.  Although Joseph had been honoured in Egypt after he died new Pharaohs came and went, the number of Hebrews kept increasing and the Egyptians enslaved the people and even attempted genocide on them.  Sadly, anti-Semitism goes back a long way.

Moses led those oppressed people, who knew little of God and nothing of how to live as free people, out of Egypt on a trek to the promised land. 

When they came to the foot of Mount Sinai, at the start of Chapter 19 of Exodus, they had only been out of Egypt for 3 months. Before giving Moses the commandments God told him the purpose of this new covenant:

“…out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:5,6)

When the Hebrews looked at one another what did they see?  Hot and dusty former slaves who had just escaped death and were now sitting at the foot of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.  But what did God see when he looked at this people?  His treasured possession, something loved beyond compare and beyond price, a priestly people in relationship with their true God, a holy people in relationship with one another. 

And at the start of chapter 20, before the ten commandments are set out, God again puts them into the context of the freedom he has given his people:

I am the Lord you God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Ex 20:2)

Then we have the commandments themselves, which divide into two groups: four concerning our relationship with God and six concerning relations among people:

You shall have no other gods before me.”

Egypt was full of the worship of many gods, Isis, Osiris, Anubis and others.  The promised land ahead of them was full of the worship of the Baals.   Our world is full of many ‘gods’ seeking our worship.  But, number one, front and centre, God directs our attention and worship to him and him alone.  God is the magnetic north for our compass of worship, and if our compass is set properly then we know the way to follow.

You shall not make or worship idols” [I paraphrase a little]

This flows naturally from the first commandment and reminded the Hebrews, and should remind us, that the only thing worthy of worship is the creator of all things.  We know that the Hebrews were very quick to break this commandment, making themselves a golden calf to worship, and we can tut at their foolishness, but how many idols do we make for ourselves and which stand between us and our worship of God?

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”

Names are powerful things.  We are commanded to pray in the name of Jesus.  In some societies to know someone’s name is to be in relationship with them, or to have power over them.  If we take God’s name lightly or even use his name as a swear word then we are taking God lightly or even blaspheming him.  I wouldn’t use the name of my loved ones as a swear word.  If we truly love God and are in relationship with him then how can we also bring his name into disrepute?

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

We know that Jesus later sought to free the Sabbath from an overly-legalistic interpretation and said that the ‘Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ but this was never meant to abolish the commandment or the principle of Sabbath-rest.  A people who had been enslaved would not have known much rest.  God freed them from slavery and commanded them to rest.  That is liberation in the purest sense.  How good are we at keeping a Sabbath?  I know too many priests who claim to be too busy to take a proper rest day.  My response is always that (a) it is an actual commandment and (b) who are we to pretend that we are busier than God? God commands us to take rest seriously – why would we want to give that up and seek to enslave ourselves again?

And then we have the commandments about our relationships with one another:

Honour your father and mother.” 

In a society which we may think of as patriarchal it is interesting that both parents are mentioned equally here.  To honour our parents, as well as to honour God, helps keep us within a network of relationships in which we acknowledge that we are not the creators of all things – first came God, and then came our parents, and only then came us.  None of us invented the universe or was capable of creating ourselves.  Give thanks and honour to those who brought us into being. 

You shall not murder

This is one of the commandments that Jesus took further than the law of Moses.  It is easy, most of the time, not to murder someone.  Most of the time.  But Jesus said that even to call someone a ‘fool’ in our heart is as bad as killing them (Matt 5:22).  Wow.  This is the way of holiness.  We must not only not murder people but try to excise anger against them.  Perhaps to love them.  We are getting there.

You shall not commit adultery.”

Again, it is easy most of the time not to commit adultery.  Most of the time.  I am joking!  But Jesus amplified this by saying that to look at someone with lust is the same of committing adultery.  Our relationship with God and with other people doesn’t consist only of right actions but also right thoughts. 

“You shall not steal.”

If murder can include calling someone a fool and if adultery can include looking at another with lust then I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the command not to steal can include more than not robbing a bank at gunpoint.  How might we have stolen from others?  In our use of the world’s resources, in our economic treatment of those less fortunate than ourselves? One to ponder.

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour

To lie about someone in court could cost them their lives or their freedom but also to gossip about someone and to play even a small part in spreading falsehoods about someone could cost them their reputation or their friendships.  Lying about others does not come from a place of love and so it has no place in the economy of God.

You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour” [Again I paraphrase]

To lust after your neighbour’s wife, on Jesus’ interpretation would also be adultery and to desire your neighbour’s material belongings would be theft, on the deeper spiritual understanding.  In addition, to desire what others have means to be ungrateful for what God has given you and it elevates material things into idols which divert us from the worship of God.  In a world driven by advertising whose sole purpose is to make us covet or lust after the things we don’t have this may seem like the most minor of commandments, but it covers a variety of sins, including the ones to which we may be most susceptible. 

So, I would suggest that the ten commandments do not belong to a long-forgotten past which has nothing to say to us or our discipleship.  On the contrary, to know them and to truly live by them would be to set us free indeed.

But the bar is set high and, in places, Jesus seems to set the bar higher by making them a matter of the heart as well as a matter of our actions.

We know, I am sure, that Jesus summarised the ten commandments into two, perhaps corresponding with the two tablets or the two groups – that we are to love God with all our being and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

The commandments, the ten and the two, are utterly grounded in love – we love God by worshipping him and not giving our worship to anything which is not him and we love our neighbours by treating them always as we would like them to treat us.

But let’s not confuse love with fuzzy feelings which cost us nothing.  In today’s Gospel reading we saw Jesus whipping out the money changers from the Temple because of his burning love for God, and we know that that action fed into the chain of events which led to the crucifixion.  We should not let the word ‘Christian’ become a synonym for nice because sometimes radical love means going beyond mild niceness.  We also know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbours are not simply the people who live next door to us – we are commanded to love those who might be most unlike us, who might be opposed to us in numerous ways, and our love for them might extend to costly giving to ensure that they are treated in the way in which we would wish to be treated.

True love is costly.

We know that love is costly because God loved the world so much that he sent his Son to us and we know that love took him to the cross and beyond.

Because of that costly love and the cross of Jesus we know that we can live by the commandments – not through our own efforts and our own holiness.  Jesus was the only human to fully live out the commandments and by joining ourselves to him, who is also fully God, and by asking him to dwell in us and us in him, we have the grace to live fully in love towards God and towards one another. 

And when we fail in that, as we do every day because of our many imperfections, we pray for the grace and humility to say sorry, pick ourselves up and try again. 

Here’s a challenge.  For the rest of today love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself.  Give it your best shot.  And try again tomorrow.

In the name of Christ,

Amen.

Sermon – Lent 2

Sunday 28 February 2021 – Second Sunday in Lent

Readings: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 & Mark 8: 31–end

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”

It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that once you become a Christian everything will be right with the world, that nothing bad will ever happen to you and that you will get whatever you pray for. If you become sick then you will be healed, if you are poor then you will receive money and that you will never be depressed because God will always make you happy. Unfortunately there are at least three problems with that view:

  1. It is not biblical;
  2. It does not fit with our real world experience; and
  3. It belittles God.

One of the huge values of Lent is that it reminds us in no uncertain terms that being a follower of Jesus is not all about personal fulfilment without cost or effort. It is a season in which we think about the wilderness in which our faith is tried and in which we take up our own crosses and follow Jesus to Good Friday. As someone charged with preaching the gospel, which is a huge privilege and a huge responsibility, it is always tempting to gloss the sombre bits and get straight to the good news – and of course that is exactly what Peter tried to do when Jesus started to speak about his forthcoming crucifixion – Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus for being too downbeat – Jesus’ response was swift and to the point –

Get behind me Satan – you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.”

It is surely no coincidence that only last week we thought about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness and, although this was not explicit in Mark’s gospel account, that Jesus’ ultimate response was to rebuke Satan for trying to tempt him away from his God-given ministry. And today Jesus speaks to Peter in very similar language because Peter is also trying to divert Jesus from the hard yet unavoidable path that lies before him.

That response of Jesus is both an incredibly helpful yet an extremely challenging message to keep in mind both when preaching and when thinking about what it means to be a Christian – do we have in mind the things of God or the things of men? Are we speaking and thinking and living in accordance with the true depths of God’s message for us or are we paddling in the shallows for the sake of our mutual amusement?  There was a debate about Christianity on the radio recently and someone compared the church to a swimming pool – in that most of the noise tends to come from the shallow end.

I suspect that in Lent, at least, any attempt to avoid the challenge of the wilderness or to avoid the burden of our own crosses for the sake of the feel-good factor is a substantial failing to have in mind the things of God.

Vivienne and I have some friends: The wife was one of my friends with whom I trained for ordination and her husband is a former lay URC minister. One of the reasons that he is a former rather than a current URC minister is that he has become severely disabled by a virulent form of ME. ME is what the newspapers used to disparagingly call “Yuppie ‘flu” but if he ever met this man you would appreciate that a debilitating and chronic illness which has robbed him of much of the quality of normal life. For example he cannot sit upright for any length of time – when he and his wife travel by car he has to lie across the back seats surrounded by a selection of pillows and cushions that go everywhere with him. As soon as he arrives anywhere he has to commandeer the nearest sofa and again he lays prone amongst his pillows exhausted by the effort of moving from the car. At dinner time, he cannot sit at the table but has to lie across three chairs pushed together. And, when it comes to eating, he is a mass of food intolerances – he cannot eat wheat, tomatoes, cheese, sugar, fruit, he cannot drink alcohol and on and on the list goes. He has to carry his own supplies of special foods and drinks with him otherwise he would probably starve.

I spoke to him once about his condition and about its impact on his spiritual life. He said that being disabled is like being in a permanent wilderness – you simply cannot join in with the comforts of ‘normal’ society – you are often on your own, without comfort, left to your own devices. If we think about our own experiences I suspect that for each of us that it is at our times of being most on our own that the devil whispers in our ear to reject God’s call on our life. Now, if our time in the wilderness is short then temptation may be resisted but imagine being in that wilderness permanently – how do you resist the temptation to blame God for your predicament, how do you resist blaming him for failing to cure you through either prayer or medicine? How do you cling to the concept of being made in the image of a perfect and loving God when your self-image is one of brokenness and pain?     His answer has been to draw deep on the wells of Christian spirituality and, in particular, from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers were the earliest Christian monks who took themselves out of the cities and away from the comforts of normal society and went to live in the depths of the Egyptian desert. Like Jesus before them, and like us now, they faced the temptation to give up and walk away, to take the path of least resistance. There they wrestled with their personal demons but, over time and with much prayer and perseverance, many of them won through and discovered the joy of knowing God at a very deep level – way beyond the superficiality of much of our discourse about God they encountered the living God in the wilderness. Taking the example of their lives, their sayings and their experiences my friend said whilst his disability was a wilderness he now found it a blessing to be able to make his body into a hermitage in the wilderness and to there seek to encounter God.

So, for him, the wilderness of disability can be a place of encounter with God. That doesn’t mean that there is no temptation in the wilderness or that it is wrong to shake our fists at God when tragedy strikes but it gives us hope, it gives us a signpost, that on the other side of temptation and on the other side of grief and anger God is waiting for us and loving us and despite all our feelings of loss and abandonment he is already there with us in the midst of all the suffering guiding us towards the good news.

And there is good news because we know that whilst the cross of Good Friday is casting a long shadow across Lent death does not have the final word.   Yes, we have to endure the wilderness as Jesus did and yes we have to carry our own crosses to Calvary and there die with Christ. But if we die with Christ on Good Friday then we rise with him on Easter Sunday – we are a resurrection community and because of that we are also a Eucharistic community – a community of thanksgiving that knows always that Christ has gone before us, hallowing our path, and that Christ is with us always, to the end of time.

AMEN.

Sermon – 1st Sunday of Lent

Sunday 21 February 2021 – First Sunday of Lent

Readings: Genesis 9: 8-17, Mark 1: 9-15

Thank you again to Rev’d Christopher Miles for taking last week’s service.  I had the pleasure of joining in the service from home and it did come across better on Zoom than I sometimes fear that it does from this side of the camera, so it was good to experience that.  Although I do hope that we shall soon start moving back to worshiping together physically again in church – there will be resurrection!

The season of Lent started last Wednesday, and it started even though we missed the physical, sacramental, sign of being ashed.  As I said two weeks ago it is so important that we do not just make Lent a time of giving up chocolate or alcohol AGAIN and think that this is going to make us any better prepared for the events of Easter which lies ahead or any closer to God.  I know that for many of us lockdown has felt like a huge time of giving up so much and so we cannot bear to give up anything else.  But if we make ‘giving up’ our focus then we have lost the plot.  Lent is about deepening our relationship with God, adopting the discipline of being a disciple, so that week by week we can walk with Jesus the path which leads all the way to the cross, to enter into the darkness and pain of Good Friday, the silence of the tomb on Holy Saturday and experience the joy of Easter Sunday – and if that joy is confined to having a chocolate egg and a glass of wine then, again, we have lost the plot.

Treat Lent not as a punishment or even as an exercise in temptation which simply has to be got through, although there is an element of that which I’ll come to, but as a gift from God.  A gift of time and a gift of a season in which you are positively encouraged to draw closer to God, to pray more, to engage more with the bible, to cleanse your heart, your life, your soul from those things which stand between you and your relationship with the one who yearns to be in ever deeper relationship with you.  There are countless ways in which this can be done and none of them need be complex.  My suspicion is that the God who knows each one of us more deeply than we know ourselves knows exactly how each of us can best draw closer to him – it may be through prayer, through reading, through worship, through silence.  Our job is simply to clear the path of our usual distractions and seek to co-operate with God.  If we are distracted from God by chocolate, or meat or booze or TV or the internet then, yes, take the time to tackle those distractions by ‘giving them up’ for a season, but not as an end in itself – but as a means of letting go and letting God.  Focus always on the one who calls rather than on what you are called to let go of and the journey will be easier – look to the horizon rather than the bumps in the road.

I mentioned temptation a moment ago and this First Sunday in Lent is when we normally think about Jesus starting his earthly ministry, following his baptism, by going out into the wilderness for 40 days in order to wrestle with temptation.  The Gospel of Mark, which we had this morning, is notoriously concise in places and whilst Matthew and Luke give us the memorable stories of Satan tempting Jesus to break his fast, to accept an earthly kingdom and, most of all, to give up his calling Mark says very simply: “He was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”

C S Lewis says that Christians make two big mistakes when thinking about Satan: The first is not to think about him at all, the modernist approach which affirms only the nice and comfortable bits of faith, the bible and tradition, and the second is to think about him too much – those who think that everything is spiritual warfare and that the devil is to blame for cutting themselves when opening a tin of dog food. 

Mark seems to hit the C S Lewis balance – he says 3 words about the temptation by Satan, thus acknowledging the reality of the experience, but he says more words about Jesus being with the wild beasts and being ministered to by angels, which we seem to think about less. 

We know that Jesus got through his 40 days in the wilderness, that he resisted temptation, that he accepted the ministrations of the angels and that he returned to ‘civilisation’ to commence his ministry which, again, Mark gives us quite succinctly:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”

And that says just as much to us about the purpose and the season of Lent as Satan in the wilderness – the kingdom of God has come near – repent, turn around your life, get rid of those habits and distractions which keep you far from God and believe in the good news, the gospel, that God has come down to earth as a human to lift humanity back up to God. 

I could end there, but there is another story presented to us today, and it is one which speaks to me of hope in lockdown. 

Our first reading this morning struck me, at first, of being slightly incongruous.  Whilst we are setting out on the journey of Lent our reading from Genesis was about the end of Noah’s journey on the ark – God promises to Noah that he will never again destroy the earth by a flood and he sets a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of that promise not only to mankind but, interestingly, to God himself:

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant…”

The image of Noah, smiling at a rainbow, and surrounded by colourful smiling animals is one that we can all picture from children’s story books of the bible, of course normally preceded by a picture of happy animals going up a gang plank two by two for a jolly boat ride. 

But there is a bit more to the story of Noah than those two pictures tell, and I want to explore that briefly this morning.

The character and the story of Noah covers chapters 6,7, 8 and 9 of Genesis.  He is actually a much bigger part of scripture than we commonly imagine.  Interestingly Noah is also an important prophet in Islam, and there is both a Sunni and a Shia tomb for him.  Islam also credits Noah with a fourth son, in addition to Shem, Ham and Japheth, but who did not get on the ark, with the expected consequences. 

Turning back to Genesis, God created the world in chapter 1, and he said it was good.  In chapter 2 he created humanity in his own likeness and breathed his sprit into us, the very first Pentecost if you will.  But by chapter 3 the fall from God’s grace and presence had begun, in chapter 4 we have the first murder of Abel by Cain and then chapter 5 is a chronology of the generations from Adam to, yes, Noah. 

By the time we get to chapter 6, it seems that the wickedness of humanity knew no bounds and Chapter 6 v 6 says:

The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

God regretted creating humanity and his heart was troubled.  If we think that God is always impassive and unchanging then I am not sure how that theology copes with this.  The God who walked in the garden of Eden with his beloved creation is now regretting his action of creation.  I have occasionally regretted late night purchases on eBay but this is something else.

Anyway, God decided to bring the wickedness of humanity to an end with a great flood.  There are all sorts of theories about a great flood in the ancient world and about how it is mentioned in the Epics of Gilgamesh and so forth.  I am not going there today but it is interesting to look at and, for me, enhances rather than diminishes the biblical account. 

Fortunately, not all of humanity was evil and corrupt and Noah was righteous and blameless amongst all the people.  So, God commanded Noah to build an ark, he gave him the precise measurements which make for a large boat with several decks.

I have already mentioned the image of animals going into the ark two by two, but that is only half right.  In Chapter 6 v 19 God tells Noah to bring two of all living creatures into the ark but this is amplified in chapter 7 v 2 when God says that Noah is to take seven pairs of every clean animal and one pair of every unclean animal.  When you see two lions or two giraffes trotting up the gangplank you have permission to say “unclean”.  

And it is just as well that Noah had 7 pairs of every clean animal because, although I don’t want to get ahead of myself, when the flood receded and they came out of the ark the very first thing he did was to give thanks to God by sacrificing some of the clean animals.  You don’t normally see that in the picture books and you probably wouldn’t do it with only one pair!

Noah, and his wife, and his three sons and their wives and all these clean and unclean animals entered the ark.  Once the door was shut the only opening was one small window, one cubit square, right at the top.  Just think about that.  It is a fair-sized boat but it is now stuffed with 8 people and untold hundreds of animals – with one small opening.  The darkness, the noise and, yes, the smell must have been overwhelming.

When they got into the ark and shut the door it wasn’t even raining.  It didn’t rain for a whole week after they shut the door.  (chapter 7 verse 4).  Imagine the atmosphere by, say, Wednesday or Thursday of that first week…

But then it did start to rain.  And it rained for 40 days and nights.  A time which may sound familiar to us from earlier.  Speaking as someone who likes messing around on boats it must have taken some time for the ark to start to float and those initial movements as the water started to lift it but couldn’t quite, must have been terrifying.

Although this is hard to do on Zoom, and without looking at Genesis, any guesses how long Noah and his family and all these animals were in the ark for?

We have already had the initial 7 days of no rain and 40 days of rain, so any advances on 47 days?

The total answer is 370 days, or just over one year.

In addition to the 47 days in chapter 8 v 3 the water was present for a further 150 days before the ark ran aground on Mount Ararat on the 17th day of the 7th month.  But is wasn’t until the 1st day of the tenth month that other mountain tops began to be visible – so that was another 2 and a half months of remaining cooped up in that noise and smell and darkness, again with the boat settling on the mountain, and perhaps even sliding from time to time until it rested securely. 

Another 40 days after the mountain tops became visible Noah opened the one window and sent out a raven and then a dove.  He waited another 7 days and sent out the dove and it came back to him with a leaf.  He waited another 7 days and sent it out again and it did not come back.  Only then does Noah roll back the covering from the top of the ark.  The daylight and the fresh air must have been incredible.  But, even then, there is no unseemly rushing out of the ark and Noah waits until God says that he can come out.

370 days. 

But they came out again, Noah gave thanks through his sacrifice and, as we heard this morning, God promised that never again would he send a flood to bring us back to righteousness.

Instead he sent his Son, Jesus Christ.

We can do lockdown because Noah has been there before us and emerged giving thanks.

We can do the wilderness of temptation because Jesus has been there before us, not only resisting Satan but accepting the ministrations of angels.

We can even face death because we know that this story does not end at the cross of Good Friday but in the resurrection, in the ascension and in the renewed heaven and earth where God will once again walk with his children and we become his children by adoption and grace when we follow Jesus and clothe ourselves in him.

The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Repent and believe the good news.

Amen.

Sermon – 2nd Sunday before Lent

Sunday 7 February 2021Second Sunday before Lent

Readings: Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-14

I was most affected by a telephone conversation I had on Thursday morning.  It was a long call, with someone I hadn’t spoken to before, obviously I won’t go into details but their lives had been turned upside down in the last six months – not by Covid but by other personal tragedies. 

The person I spoke to has a Christian faith but they found themselves and their faith shaken to the core and they found themselves asking the question which afflicts many of us at some point:

How can there be a God if bad things happen to good people?”

I should start by saying that it is absolutely fine to say this out loud – it is even biblical.  Read the Psalms – they are a wonderful example of both praising God and questioning him at the same time.  About half of the psalms are about how wonderful God is and half of them are asking how he could be so harsh with his chosen people.  Seriously, read them.

The philosopher AC Grayling posed the challenge quite neatly – he said that if one believes that God is both all-powerful and all good then it is a logical contradiction for there to be suffering in the world. Either God cannot prevent suffering, in which case he is not all powerful, or he will not prevent suffering, in which case he is not all good.

The problem with this neat argument, and the problem which lies at the root of much of our fist shaking at heaven when tragedy strikes, is that our preconception of God as a deity whose function is to wrap his creation and each of his creatures in so much cotton wool that nothing bad can ever happen is fundamentally mistaken, and is not a view of God that one gets from the bible.

So why does God allow suffering? Let’s think first about the suffering caused by our fellow humans – wars, terrorism, preventable poverty, environmental destruction and so forth. In my view it is clear from the earliest chapters in the bible that God always intended mankind to have the freedom to choose how to act towards him and towards one another and that our freedom to choose is a fundamental part of our humanity.

A quick illustration: A few years ago Vivienne played the good fairy in a pantomime. As the story unfolded two of the characters decided to take a wicked course of action that would bring ruin to their brother but, in the end, the good fairy stepped in and made them change their minds by casting a spell so that they become good, albeit against their will. So, some wickedness was prevented but it was at the expense of their free will or their freedom to make a bad choice.

Now, you may say that it would have been good if God had acted like the good fairy and taken away the free will of, say, the 9/11 plotters and prevented that disaster from happening or if God had prevented the concentration camps by taking away the free will of the Nazis. But it only takes a moment’s thought to realise what a dangerous route that is. If God takes away the free will of other people to prevent suffering then, presumably, God would also take away our free will every time we made a wrong choice – if we drove too fast would God act as a speed limiter and make us slow down to prevent the suffering caused by an accident, if we choose not to donate blood one day and God knew that someone would die for want of that unit we would be marched like a zombie to the clinic to prevent the suffering of another. I think you can see where this is going – when God gave humanity free will he took the biggest risk ever because it meant that humans could always make the wrong choice, but it is the price we pay for not being automatons.

However, surely, a choice made to do good made out of genuine free will is of infinitely greater value than a person whose will is bent to God’s against their will to prevent suffering. So, to answer AC Grayling I would say that God is both all-powerful and all good but, from the moment of creation, God has chosen to limit the exercise of his power in the interests of giving us the room to be and become fully human.

So what about natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis and what about diseases like cancer or even Covid – why isn’t God preventing these and allowing the innocent to suffer?

Well, firstly and most importantly we inhabit vulnerable physical bodies in a dynamic physical world. Tectonic plates shift and cells divide and sometimes those things can create the conditions for life to arise and sometimes they shift and divide in the wrong way and create the conditions for death, even premature death. The bible itself actually mentions numerous earthquakes and there is no shortage of premature death there either so we shouldn’t imagine that we are thinking of things that were either unheard of or couldn’t be mentioned in scripture.

So why does God allow this? Well, firstly, shouldn’t we be asking: on what are we basing our expectations of God? If we try to make God into a good fairy who waves a wand and protect everyone from every tragedy then we will always be disappointed in that God. But, actually, shouldn’t we take our image of God from the bible? The bible certainly does not tell us that God wraps his people in cotton wool and never lets anything bad happen to them – on the contrary much of the story of the nation of Israel is about how they learned to recognise and to worship God despite the bad things that happened to them – held in slavery in Egypt, taken into captivity in Babylon, occupied by the Romans. Time and time again, in the psalms, in the book of Job and in the prophets there is recognition that we live in a fallen world, that bad things do happen to good people and that whilst we may shake our fist at God, ultimately the only answer is that he is Sovereign, he is in charge, that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

As educated Westerners we find that so frustrating because we want to be in charge and, if necessary, to serve a Freedom of Information request to find out what is going on but, as Christians, we are subject to a higher power, and I don’t mean the Archdeacon.

And as Christians we should also remember the element of faith: that death is not the end. I said a moment ago that we inhabit physical bodies in a physical world but we are also told in the bible that these bodies are like seeds that need to die in order to become transformed and resurrected bodies, in a resurrected and re-created world in which death is no more and where God wipes away every tear.

So, finally, Where is God in all this?

I would say in two places – we worship a God who does not stand far off from our suffering but rather a God who entered into our world and took suffering upon himself in the person of Jesus – the same Jesus who did not live a life of ease and comfort but who went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and who later took that wilderness experience all the way to the cross. In Jesus God did not avoid suffering and death but rather transformed it into resurrection and victory and the fruits of that transformation are for us to share. So humanity does not suffer apart from God, on the contrary God has been there before us and shared our suffering in the person of Jesus, God the Son.

But God the Holy Spirit is also there, in the midst of the suffering, in the actions of all the thousands of people who seek to help alleviate suffering. God is there in the free will decisions of human beings to care for and help each other. God is Love and when we demonstrate our love for others in need through practical action we are reflecting something of God’s love for us.

God is not to be found in the avoidance of suffering – that god is an idol no more worthy of worship than a good fairy in a panto, much as I love her. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ and, I hope, our God is to be found not in the avoidance of suffering and pain but in the coping with suffering and pain, in choosing to love and to be human and to be humane towards one another despite the suffering and pain and, like Jesus in the wilderness, resisting always the temptation to give up and despair when we are at our weakest.

When life challenges our view of God, as it always will, we need to constantly ask ourselves, in what image of God is my faith based? When that question comes do not think about God an abstract being apart from us who watches our suffering from afar, but think about Jesus, God with us, suffering, dying and rising again for us and think about God the Holy Spirit who motivates us to love others in their suffering and who can enthuse us to lift our eyes beyond our own suffering to the joys of the kingdom of heaven.

Having mentioned the psalms I will end on one that my caller loves and clings onto, Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

Amen.

Sermon – Candlemas

Sunday 31 January 2021

Candlemas – The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Readings: Malachi 3:1-5, Luke 2:22-40

I have a slight concern with the Church of England at the moment.  Actually, I have lots of concerns both for and about the Church of England at the moment, but today’s is this:

Sometimes I wonder if we are so keen for everyone to like us and hopefully to join us and hopefully to put a bit of money in the pot that we can keep the roof watertight that we make our faith all about the niceness and never about the challenge.  We always say: “Come as you are” but rarely: “Have you thought about allowing God to change you?”  We are happy to coo over the baby of Christmas but reluctant to let the lessons of the adult Jesus threaten our way of life. 

And although we are now over a month from Christmas, in fact today closes the season of Epiphany even for the most dedicated decoration enthusiasts, we are back to seeing Jesus as a baby, being passed around among the adults for them to wonder at, with the resultant temptation to sentimentality that brings.  But we must resist our brains being bypassed by this cute imagery to focus on, and listen to, what is actually happening here. 

Mary and Joseph were devout Jews and, under the law of Moses, Mary had come to be ritually cleansed.  Leviticus 12 says that 8 days after a son was born he should be circumcised and 33 days after that the mother should go to a priest and offer a lamb as a burnt offering or, if she could not afford a lamb, she should take two doves or two pigeons.  This offering was for the women to be purified from the ritual uncleanliness of childbirth and there were echoes of that tradition in the churching of women.

In addition, Jesus, as the first-born son, was being offered or presented to God, hence the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  This was in accordance with Exodus 13:2,12 – “Consecrate to me every first born male.” and “Redeem every firstborn among your sons”.  This was in memory and thanksgiving of the Passover in Egypt, when the first-born children of the Israelites were spared.  

So, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to fulfil these requirements of the law.  When people talk about Jesus being either anti-Temple or anti-Law it is useful to remember him in this context, not to mention his teaching at the Temple as a boy and his later zeal to maintain the Temple as a place of prayer by driving out the money changers. 

But, whilst the Holy Family were there, they had the remarkable encounters with Simeon and Anna. 

Simeon and Anna have at least two things in common, one minor and one major.  First it seems that they were both well on in years.  We are told that Anna had reached the age of 84 and, whilst we are not told Simeon’s age expressly, we are certainly given the impression that he is on the verge of death and has been hanging on for this moment.  God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah and, when he saw Jesus, Simeon’s words, are saying that he can now die in peace:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.  To be a light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

Simeon didn’t actually speak in the King James Version but these words are familiar to regular church goers as the Nunc Dimittis, which is part of our Evening Prayer and sung at Evensong. 

Although this scene could hardly be more Jewish, Simeon makes it clear that Jesus is not merely the consolation of Israel for which he has been waiting but is also a light to the gentiles, which is the whole, non-Jewish world. It is of course that imagery of Jesus as light coming into the world which we represent when we give a lit candle to the newly baptised and which we represent here today with our own candles for candlemas.

So far this all sounds quite positive but, and here is where we need to get over the cute baby imagery, even now there is a foreshadowing that this will not be an easy or pain free journey.  Speaking specifically to Mary Simeon says that Jesus will cause the rising and falling of many, which echoes Mary’s own song the Magnificat, that he will be spoken against and that even Mary will not be spared from having a sword pierce her own soul.  We only need to think about Mary standing at the foot of the cross to see the truth in that.

This baby will change things – it will change things for the powerful but also for you.  

Simeon’s words also contains echoes of the prophecy of Malachi, which was our first reading this morning, and this makes it even clearer that when the Lord comes into his Temple things are going to change:

“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come into his Temple…But who can endure the day of his coming?  Who can stand when he appears?  For he will be like a refiners’ fire…he will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver…then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…”

How is silver refined?  It is heated until it melts and all the dross is scooped off.  It leaves the silver purer but the melting and the scooping away of dross may not be a comfortable experience.  The coming of the Lord into his temple, which is what we see and celebrate today, is not intended to be a cute montage of older people celebrating a new baby which affects nothing.  Rather it signifies that the old order has passed away, that God is doing a new thing.

But Simeon and Anna have something even more important in common than their great age.  Both Simeon and Anna were blessed by the Holy Spirit.  We are told expressly in v.25 that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and we know that Anna was blessed by the Holy Spirit too as prophecy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit in both Simeon and Anna revealed to them that this baby Jesus was the Christ child and through them it was revealed to others – to Mary and Joseph, to others in the Temple and to us through the words of scripture.  We should never think that the Holy Spirit forces people to do things against their will – if Simeon or Anna had not been open to the work and prompting of the Holy Spirit in their lives they simply would not have been there and this encounter would never have happened.

So, today, let us not get distracted by cute babies.  Let us remember that when God comes into his Temple, which could be the Temple in Jerusalem, it could be this church and it could be the temple of your life, that things will change. Silver will be refined, but the burning away of dross may not always be comfortable.  Today we remember the epiphanies of Simeon and Anna, as they welcomed and proclaimed the coming of the Christ to the world, we give thanks for the insight granted to them by the Holy Spirit and we pray that the same Holy Spirit which rests on us through our baptisms and on the church because of Pentecost will also grant us the gift to recognise Christ and be unafraid to proclaim to the world the coming of the light of the world.

May the prompting of God the Holy Spirit lead us always towards Jesus who is God the Son who lifts always towards God the Father.

Amen.

Sermon – Epiphany 3

Sunday 24 January 2021

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Readings:  1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:21-23, John 17:20-23

If you have been joining me for morning or evening prayer over the past week then you will have noticed that we have been travelling through the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

If you have not been joining me for prayer during the week then I hope you have been praying in other ways, as suits you best.  However, if you have not been praying at all during the week then we need to talk.  Seriously, the only way we can grow in our relationship with God is by spending time with him in prayer and if we only show up once a week then how do we expect to grow as disciples?  That’s another sermon but if you want to speak to me about prayer then please do.  Prayer for the Christian is not an optional extra and it cannot be ‘contracted out’ to the Vicar, although he does pray for you nonetheless.

In the Anglican calendar today is actually the third week of Epiphany, and the reading set for today was Jesus turning water in wine at the wedding at Cana.  

I was going to make the point that when Mary spoke to Jesus and told him to make some more wine, these are the only recorded words in the Bible that she spoke to him directly, and I love the fact that it was to ask for wine.  Quite relatable during lockdown.  But I shall save that until next year, because if we can no longer get wine from France we may need another miracle.

But this year I do want to reflect on Christian Unity and the readings have been changed accordingly.  I am actually amazed that I have never preached on this before because it is something that is close to my heart in many ways and I do pray regularly for church unity, even when it is not the week so to do.

Fortunately, disunity amongst Christians is not the substantial issue here that it has been in our past.  In this country Protestants have burned Catholics and vice versa and in the history of St Mary’s Hadlow, which would have been Roman Catholic before the Reformation, the list of previous incumbents shows Catholic clergy being replaced by Puritan ministers and the toing and froing on that list during the 1500 and 1600s speaks volumes about an age of unrest and change. 

There is no doubt that, here at least, things have changed for the better on that front.  Plague years notwithstanding I have been delighted ever since arriving here to walk around Hadlow with our Catholic sisters and brothers on Good Friday, holding up the cross and praying together, with no one burning anyone.  I have also been delighted that St Mary’s is once again playing a full part in Tonbridge Area Churches Together.  In fact, it was only last Thursday morning that we had a Zoom call between church leaders of the Anglican churches, the Baptists, the Methodists, Hillsong, the River Church, the URC and the Redeemed Christian Church of God.  We all acknowledge and respect each other’s differences but all treat each other as being fully Christian, and we laugh together and pray together and events like Sunday Funday have been a great joint outreach. 

But, sadly, sectarianism is not confined to history.  In the memories of everyone here today we will be aware of division and hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and walls still exist between certain neighbour-hoods in Belfast.  In Glasgow there are similar divisions and, back in the days when we had pubs, I’m sure that a Celtic fan wouldn’t venture into a Rangers pub.

It has also been fascinating watching the world of American politics through the eyes of faith.  The evangelical Christians who endorsed former-President Trump could hardly have been more different in their words and prayers and behaviour from the Catholic priest who prayed at President Biden’s inauguration. Although I may be wrong, it is genuinely hard to imagine some of those evangelicals admitting that Catholics are properly Christian.  In fact, that is not solely an American phenomena.   I remember once going into a Christian bookshop in London and the person in front of me asked for a book by a particular author.  The shop assistant whispered that they did not stock it because the author was a Catholic.  The same shop also filed their books about Catholicism in the cult section.  So, we must never assume that Christians here are beyond such things.

Even if we do think that we are beyond disunity with our fellow Christians here at parish-level the sad reality is that at denominational level there is still substantial division.  I have already mentioned the upheaval of the Reformation and the fact is that the Catholic and Anglican Churches are still ‘out of communion’ with one another.  Although the Catholic church recognises the validity of baptism in our church it does not officially recognise our eucharist as being properly consecrated, not least because it does not recognise the validity of Anglican ordination.  A fundamentalist Catholic may well view me as a heterodox lay person, occupying their building and only pretending to celebrate communion.   Harsh but logical.

Many of you will be familiar with the Methodist Church, which obviously grew out of Anglicanism through the ministry of Wesley and his desire to make disciples of people outside the structures of the Church of England.  In many ways great strides have been made in healing the divisions between our churches – on a personal level, I work very closely with Sharon Lovelock from Higham Lane Methodist Church in the Chaplaincy at Hadlow College and there are many ‘Local Ecumenical Partnerships’ in which worship and buildings are shared, including at St Andrews in Paddock Wood.  But still, despite many years of talks we have failed to properly reunite at a denominational level, largely because of different views about the authority of Bishops but also, I suspect, because people get wedded to their structures which become more important that unity.  That applies both ways, by the way.

But what does Christian Unity mean, and when did dis-Unity start?

It is clear from our Gospel reading this morning that Jesus prayed that his followers would be ‘one’.  And the purpose of this ‘oneness’ is so that the world may see their unity and believe in Jesus.  In verse 21:

so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

and in verse 23:

 “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus doesn’t pray for unity amongst the believers just because it is nice to be nice but as a witness to the world – so that the world would believe. 

I have atheist friends who, when they look at Christianity see thousands of different churches and sects and denominations and they say that if you guys can’t agree amongst yourself then how are you going to convince me?  It’s a valid question and it seems to be the one Jesus was praying about.

But, despite even the prayers of Jesus, humans still have freewill and it is clear that divisions and disunity were a fact of Church life from the beginning.  At the Last Supper Judas showed the ultimate disunity by betraying Jesus.

In the letter to the Corinthians St Paul is extorting the church there to put their faith in Jesus before their preference or loyalty to any church leader, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, but it is clear that this arises from a situation of disunity where exactly this has been happening.  Although it is deeply human nature to prefer some people over others Paul is saying loud and clear that our unity is found in our identity in Christ.

So, the Church in Corinth had some internal divisions going on, but it is also crystal-clear from the New Testament that there were all sorts of other divisions going on – primarily between the Jewish followers of Jesus, headed by Peter and James and the gentile converts being made by Paul.  Although in today’s epistle Paul is seeking to heal such divisions it is also clear from elsewhere that he and Peter were not above sharp disputes from time to time. 

Following the closure of the New Testament period Christianity spread around the Mediterranean and, for the first 1000 years of church history, it is a story of self-governing churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome, which had differences but which were always in communion with one another.   However, when the Roman empire in the West collapsed and the Byzantine Empire in the East continued there was an ever increasing division between the church in Rome and the four churches in the East.  This culminated in the Great Schism of 1054 when communion was broken between what came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. 

Later, as mentioned, we had the Reformation and communion was broken between us and Rome and, since then, the history of Protestantism has been one of further division and even atomisation in which faith is only ever a personal matter and the whole concept of being ‘in communion’ with anyone or anything else seems meaningless.

It is sobering to think that the church which stood here in 975 would have celebrated a eucharist which was recognised throughout the Christian world but it is now not even recognised by fellow Christians in this country.  That does not feel like progress to me.

Breaking with one another is always done, I am sure, with the best intentions.  Either to seek to get closer to the true meaning of the bible, or to listen to a more inspiring preacher, or to take the faith to the people more effectively, or to attend a form of worship which speaks to us better or for a hundred other understandable reasons.

But if the Church is the body of Christ then it has always seemed to me that divisions in the church are wounds in the body of Christ.   Do we contribute to exacerbating those wounds or do we seek to heal them, to be one so that the world may see and believe?

And so we pray for unity, which echoes the prayer of Jesus.  But what would unity look like?  I don’t think that it unity needs to mean uniformity – all looking the same and worshiping in the same way.  Diversity, I believe, is fine – the body of Christ has many cells which work in different ways and for different purposes, but always for the good of the whole.  A Christian in mid-West America is always going to be different from us as we are from a Christian in Armenia or Ethiopia.  The body of Christ can cope with diversity.

But my prayer now and always is that we can be in communion with one another – that we can fully recognise and proclaim one another to be full members of the body of Christ – that all those who proclaim Father, Son and Holy Spirit are within the divine economy. 

If the kingdom is divided against itself then it cannot stand.  But if we are one, if we love each other and recognise each other and treat each other fully as members of the same body of Christ here in St Mary’s, across the breadth of the Church of England, and between denominations then the world will see and know that we are in Christ, that Christ is in us to the glory of God the Father.

So pray.  Pray regularly.  Pray for unity.  And don’t forget that unity with others always begins with unity in your own heart.

Amen.

Sermon – 4th Sunday of Advent

Readings 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16-end; Luke 1:26-38

Do not be afraid

There can be no doubt that this has been a year of fear and anxiety.  We have spent most of this year following all the rules and guidelines about preventing the spread of Covid, quite rightly so, but there is no doubt that the virus has caused many people not just to be cautious but to be afraid.  I have spoken to those who have spent so long shielding that the thought of venturing out and interacting with others on any level is a source of genuine concern. 

Now, fear can serve a positive purpose.  Bringing my children up I wanted them to have a healthy fear of playing with fire or getting into stranger’s cars. 

A healthy fear can keep us safe – it can stop us from getting burnt – but an unhealthy fear can hold us back – it can stop us from getting warm at all. 

So, I want to pose a very simple question this morning: Apart from Covid, what is it that you fear? 

And the supplementary question: How is that fear holding you back?

Because, we should make no mistake about it; we live in a society which thrives on our fear, and, in my view, much of that fear is unhealthy and cripples us as individuals and prevents us from fully reflecting the image and purpose of God in our lives.

What do I mean when I say we live in a society which thrives on our fear?

On a national level we are taught to live in fear of other nations, sometimes with more justification than others. For most of my younger life we lived in fear of the Soviet Union, to the extent that I remember my parents looking at brochures for nuclear shelters to go in the garden. That cold war fear between East and West saw hundreds of billions spent on defence whilst children in the third world starved.

Since 2001 we have come to fear militant Islam and have spent billions in campaigns in the Middle East with varying degrees of success.

In recent years I think we have been led to start fearing immigrants once again.  When poor and desperate souls wash up on the beaches of this very county in inflatable boats at least half of the media and the internet would have us believe that they have come to destroy our way of life – rather ignoring the fact that their way of life has often been destroyed first. 

The advertising industry is almost wholly based on making us fearful about what will happen if we do not buy their products. As parents we are taught to fear that unless we buy the right things for our children that they, and by extension we, will be failures and social outcasts.

And in many ways English culture makes us fearful – afraid that if we say the wrong thing to the wrong person using the wrong pronunciation that we will be adversely judged. Of course, the biggest fear for all English people is that of being embarrassed and when you are English there are simply so many ways in which one can be embarrassed!

What is one of the worst social faux pas that an English person can commit in polite society?  Talking about faith.  There is a cartoon doing the rounds which basically says that the best way to get a seat and plenty of space on public transport is to wear a T-shirt saying: “Let’s talk about Jesus.”  Can clear a bus in seconds.  But when we talk about the growth and life of the church we always need to ask the question, when did I last say anything about my faith to a non-Christian?

Fear holds us back.

Because of fear, we become increasingly curtailed in our thoughts and actions in both the public and private sphere.

We are not alone in that and many cultures have very strict rules about acceptable behaviour and some have very strict punishments for deviation which go well beyond English embarrassment. In the Jewish culture of 2000 years ago the punishment for adultery or having a child outside marriage was death by stoning – we know that Jesus encountered and saved a woman on the verge of being stoned for adultery.

But when the Angel Gabriel appeared to a young Mary he told her that God’s plan for her was to bear a child out of wedlock and not even by her betrothed. The consequences for Mary could have been huge – she was stepping well outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour. But when Gabriel appeared to Mary he also said something else:

Do not be afraid.”

I think that he was saying not only that Mary should not be afraid of the fact that an Angel had appeared in her room unannounced, although that must have been quite terrifying, but also not to be afraid of what God was calling her to do. God, through his messenger, was telling Mary to put her fears aside and to trust him and his plans for her and the world through her.

It is important to re-iterate, as I am always keen to avoid schmaltz and platitudes, that trusting God and his plans does not mean an easy ride.  Mary’s ‘yes’ made her into the bearer of God, it gave her the joy of the Magnificat, the wonder of the presentation at the Temple and the mystery of bringing up the child Jesus who  lingered at the Temple as a boy to teach the rabbis, but it also gave her the pain of journeying to Bethlehem and giving birth in less than ideal circumstances, it gave her the fear of fleeing to Egypt as a refugee from Herod’s killing spree and it gave her the pain of being at the foot of the cross.  Saying yes to God means finding our deepest joy in playing our part in his plan for us and for the world, but it does not mean a future free of pain or challenge.  That is not how God works.

But what if Mary had been overwhelmed by fear of the Angel or fear of her calling or fear of its consequences? I believe that God did not take away Mary’s free will and she could have allowed her fear to make her say no. How would God have worked out his plan for the world otherwise? Of course, we don’t know but if Mary had let fear rule the day I suspect that we would not know of her or Joseph or even the man Jesus at all.

But Mary said ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

This was not an act of weakness but a choice of great courage and strength, and one that changed the world forever.

Mary became the bearer of God, in Greek, the Theotokos.  In our first reading we heard an exchange about the dwelling place of God.  This was before the Temple had been built in Jerusalem and the presence of God dwelt in the ark of the covenant and moved around with his people.  If we believe that Jesus is also God then, in a very real way, by bearing him in her womb Mary became a new ark of a new covenant. Many people in the Protestant tradition are keen to downplay the role of Mary, at least outside school nativity plays, but the Angel told Mary that God ‘highly favoured’ her.  If God highly favoured Mary and choose her not only to bear him into the world but to nurture Jesus and to stick with him from the first to the last and beyond then who are we to say otherwise? 

A fearful ‘no’ is a dead end. A putting aside of fear and saying ‘yes’ to God prepares the way of the Lord into the world. In addition to Mary, many of the stories in the bible, and many of the saints’ lives throughout the history of the church, are the stories of those who put aside their fears and said yes to God despite the cost. It is only when we say yes to God despite our fear that the Kingdom of God, in us and in the world, can grow, because it will never be forced upon us.

What is God calling you to, how is he calling you to express, develop and live out your faith in this world? And what is it that you are afraid of and how is your fear holding you back from responding to God?

Let us truly hear the message of the angels to not be afraid and, like Mary, to let our yes to God bring forth Christ into the world.

Amen.