All posts by Paul White

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.

Sermon – 3rd Sunday of Advent

Gaudete Sunday 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

As you have no doubt already guessed today is slightly different from the other Sundays in Advent.  Rather than lighting a purple candle we have lit a pink, or a rose, candle and today I get to wear my fetching rose, or pink, vestments.  This represents a shifting of the mood from strictly penitential and preparational, to something lighter and, yes, more joyful. 

Today is called Gaudete Sunday, and it takes this name from the Latin introit: “Gaudete in Domino semper” – or ‘rejoice in the Lord always’.  So ‘gaudete’ means ‘rejoice’ and today is sometimes called ‘the Sunday of Joy’, which is a rather splendid name.

But, before we go too far we need to be honest.  This Sunday of Joy poses us with a serious question.  What does it mean to be joyful, to rejoice always, when life is actually pretty tough?

As we approach the end of 2020 I think it is uncontroversial to suggest that this has been an extremely hard year for most people.  Covid has cut a swathe through our country, through the world and through many pre-conceptions.  Vaccines are on the way, which is magnificent, but in this country alone around 500 people a day have been dying for some time.  Around the world 12,500 were dying daily last week and over 1.5 million have died in total.  When large numbers of people are involved there is always the temptation to de-personalise them, to deal with them as statistics and charts.  But every one of those people was a real, living, person made in the image of God and they leave behind those who mourn for them. 

In addition to those who have died or been very ill there has been a substantial shut-down of our society which has caused real damage the economy, unemployment and poverty have increased and will continue to do so for some time. Lockdown has damaged children’s’ education and social isolation has caused all sorts of mental health issues.

On top of Covid, which has affected most of the world, we are also uniquely challenged in this country by Brexit and, in Kent, we are challenged more than much of the country.  Regardless of how you voted in 2016 it is both remarkable and unsettling that we are only 2 weeks from leaving and we still don’t know what that is going to really mean for us, and it ain’t looking great. 

In addition to both Covid and Brexit it is also winter.  I flipping hate the winter.  Some people seem to like the comforts of log fires and hot chocolate but I can’t stand the dark and the cold.  There was a reason I wanted to go to Africa for my sabbatical.  Which was cancelled because of Covid, after only 10 years of waiting.  Just saying.

If you are familiar with Venn diagrams I have often thought of myself, recently, as sitting somewhere at the intersection between Covid blues, Brexit blues and winter blues.  Vivienne says that I can be a miserable sod sometimes and, I think it is fair to say, that this year and over the last few months I have often felt pretty miserable about the state of lots of things. 

Hello, my name is Paul.  Sometimes I wear pink dresses in public and sometimes I feel a bit depressed.

But today is the Sunday of Joy and what did the reading from 1 Thessalonians say?

“16 Rejoice always,”

Surely, when it says ‘always’ it must only mean when things are going well for us, when we are feeling happy, when all the external circumstances of life are just as we would want them to be.  Right?

Not quite.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 

Wow.  Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God.

I won’t deny that this is a hard teaching for us 21st century Christians to accept.  Arabic speaking Muslims have a phrase you may have heard: “Inshallah” – this means ‘God willing’ or ‘If God wills it’ and the word Islam itself means submission to the will of God.  I would respectfully suggest that Muslims have a much more highly developed sense of accepting God’s will in their life, whatever the circumstances.

But this is not, and should not be, an alien concept to Christianity.  We even have our own Latin phrase for it, Deo Volante, and I just happen to have a framed version of that phrase which I found in a Dungeness art gallery. 

I have even stayed once in a monastery in Crawley Down called the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.

Deo Volante, God willing, the Servants of the Will of God.

How uncomfortable are we feeling right now?

Surely, as modern people living in an affluent part of a reasonably affluent country, if something is not going well for us, if circumstances are not to our liking, if we are feeling down, then there must be something that can be done about it.  We can complain to someone, we can work harder, we can take pills, we can get therapy.  Surely, we can control our circumstances and when we have adequately manipulated the world to our exact liking we can then be allowed to be happy.

But have we become so used to manipulating the circumstances of our lives to achieve our own happiness that we have stopped looking for the will of God?  The Inshallah, the Deo Volante, the Will of God which manifest themselves in our circumstances are all subjugated to our will.

How can we truly rejoice in God’s will if we spend all our time being unhappy with the circumstances that God gives us?

Perhaps we have forgotten joy in the pursuit of happiness?

Because, perhaps, happiness and joy are not the same thing, and perhaps that is the cause of our confusion, our modern malaise.

Happiness, I would suggest, is a surface emotion.  Happiness comes and goes like a wave lapping at the shore.  A bit of roast lamb may bring happiness whereas vegan hotpot may cause it to recede.  Happiness is related to our circumstances as a wave is related to the wind which passes over the surface.

But joy, I would suggest, goes much deeper than happiness.  If happiness is the ripples on the surface of the sea then joy is a deep undercurrent.  Joy is not an emotion, it is a state of being, and it is not something which changes with our brain chemistry it is given to us by God and, indeed, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

          “19 Do not quench the Spirit.”

We definitely live in difficult, troubled and troubling times.  But, here is the thing which challenges me and should challenge you, so did Jesus.  The world in which Jesus was conceived when Mary said yes to the Holy Spirit was a dangerous place; Mary only just escaped being divorced and possibly charged with adultery because Joseph listened to the same Holy Spirit and, when he was born, Jesus only just escaped the Slaughter of the Innocents, the world in which John the Baptist was preparing the way for Jesus was a dangerous place and John lost his head and we know that the world was dangerous for Jesus as it condemned him to die on the cross.  Yet despite the abundance of danger, despite the outward circumstances of life often being less than ideal, the story of God got told because of the people who looked for the will of God in the situation they found themselves in and found their true joy in saying yes to that, regardless of the pursuit of personal happiness. 

So, on this Sunday of Joy, I think that we can learn to find joy and thence can learn to rejoice when we stop trying to bend God to our will and make Him in our likeness and start learning to look for the will of God in the world as it is, say yes to His will for our lives in this world and allow him to remake us in His image.

Rejoice always, I say to you, rejoice.

Amen.

Sermon – 2nd Sunday of Advent

2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

One of the wonderful things about being a vicar is the sheer variety of people that you get to meet. When dealing with people who are not part of the church, but who may be arranging weddings or funerals or baptisms, I find myself sitting in a millionaire’s drawing room one moment and an hour later in the midst of such poverty which you would not believe exists in the midst of this village.

And there is also a huge variety of people within the church, and I want to think about two particular types of Christian this morning.  I should emphasise from the outset that I am thinking about the whole Christian community that I encounter, not just you lovely people in Hadlow, so don’t sit there trying to put names to descriptions.

The first is the type of Christian who is absolutely convinced that God did not exist within a particular church or community until they showed up.  They are certain that only they have encountered God properly, that only they know how to worship properly, that only they know the bible properly.  Everything which has happened in that church or in that community before they showed up is worthless, that all the other people there claiming to be Christians aren’t Christians really, they are only church-goers, and they will never be proper Christians until they have encountered God in the same way as they have.  God’s blessing, they believe, rests on them solely and uniquely.  In them God is doing a new thing.

The second type of Christian I want to mention today is the complete opposite of the first.  They personify the first half of the prayer of humble access – “I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table.”  They hardly believe that God notices them, let alone believe that God has a unique plan and purpose for them and their lives.

So we have the hubristic Christian who is here to save the world on their own and we have the ever-so-humble Christian who doesn’t think that they matter in God’s plan for the world at all.  In my humble opinion I think that both of those extremes are missing something important and that something may be hinted at in today’s readings.

Our gospel reading this morning came from Mark.  Interestingly Mark’s gospel does not start with the nativity story about Jesus, there are no angels or shepherds or magi or Joseph or Mary here, rather Mark begins his account of the story of Jesus not with Jesus, but with John the Baptist.

Actually it is not quite true; Mark actually starts much further back than that, with chapter 40 of the prophet Isaiah:

I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.  A voice of one crying in the desert, ‘prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him;”.

So, Mark is saying that John the Baptist represents the fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah that someone will be sent to prepare the way for the Lord.

Now, if anyone were ever qualified to say that God’s blessing rested richly upon them, that God wanted them to do a new thing and that they were, in fact, the very incarnation of God on earth, it would, of course, be Jesus.

Jesus is the one person who could, legitimately, have turned up and said “You’ve messed up big time, nothing you’ve done in the past has led you to where you need to be but don’t worry, God the Son is here and we’re going to start again from scratch.”

But that is not how Jesus arrives and starts his ministry at all.  Although it becomes clear throughout the gospel that in Jesus God is doing something amazing and new, although in unexpected ways, here Mark goes to great pains to show that Jesus is part of the continuing story of God, which reaches back into Israel’s past relationship with God.

John the Baptist is placed squarely as the fulfilment of Isaiah and his role is to prepare the way for Jesus by calling the people to repentance and baptism and, although I don’t want to spoil January for you, by baptising Jesus himself.

Here we are shown in the space of a few short verses, that John’s roots lie in Jewish prophecy and tradition and, of course, so too does the Lord for whom he is preparing the way.

This rather begs the question of why Jesus needed the way prepared for him.  A more hubristic God wouldn’t need messengers or forerunners, he would simply get on and do things and heaven help those who don’t get into line.

I believe that Jesus needed the way prepared for him not for his benefit but for the benefit of the world.  People move on sometimes in small steps and the world would not be ready to receive the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit until it had first seen and experienced John’s baptism with water.  In God’s plan the world simply was not ready for Jesus until John had been, and both were part of God’s continuum.

And after Jesus, and the first Pentecost, that continuum continued with the history of the church – the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of the Nicene Creed.  One of the most obvious features of the most hubristic Christians is that they dismiss the vast majority of church history as a history of errors, which they have now arrived to correct.

But I take seriously the belief that the church is a holy body created by God for the purpose of continuing the work of Christ on earth.  That is not to say that the individuals within it are without sin, as is all too obvious and awful from so many stories of abuse, or that the church itself is incapable of sin, which is shown most obviously in the sin of schism and division between denominations.  But despite our sin and humanity God continues to work in the world through the church and we all stand in an apostolic line of succession, going back to Jesus and John in our baptisms and to the earliest days of God’s relationship with the world.

I constantly give thanks to see my name at the bottom of the list of vicars of Hadlow, not only because that is an immense privilege in itself, but because it reminds me in no uncertain terms that I stand here not alone but as part of 800 years of documented priestly ministry, and I hope and I pray that one day in the distant future my name will simply be another rung in the ladder, another small part of God’s story in this place.  Those who were here before me each prepared the way for those who would come after and I hope to prepare the way for those who come next.  In a small way each of us on that list acts as both John and Jesus.

But, of course, that doesn’t simply apply to vicars – all Christians stand in that continuum of God’s story.  None of us are doing this on our own and none of us can pretend either that no one went before us or should be proud enough to believe that all that has gone before is wrong and only we have the answer – that’s not what I see in Jesus.

So, what about those with excess humility – the person who thinks they are of no import to God or the world?

The good news is that the same answer applies.  If being part of God’s eternal story should curb too much pride in our own importance, then it should also build up those who think they are of no value.  Every single baptised person is part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and we are all part of the body of Christ.  There is no one whom God did not know from the beginning and there is no one who is not of immense value to God.  To feel or believe that you are too small or insignificant is to forget that God created you in his image and that he wants each of us to be his adopted children of light because of our relationship to him through Jesus.

There is a part in God’s plan for the world and his kingdom unique to each and every one of us.  Don’t be so humble that you miss it or so proud that you forget those who prepared the way for you.

Although, rhetorically, that may be a good place to finish, I need to take one final but important step.  If we are each called to recognise those who have gone before us and to prepare the way for those who come after us then it may be worth asking for whom are we preparing the way.  The lessons of the last few weeks remind us that the story of God does not conclude with his church going on ad infinitum.  The big picture is that God’s story concludes with Christ’s return – Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.  

John prepared the way for Jesus,

Jesus prepared the way for us and

we prepare the way for Jesus.

Amen. 

Sermon – Christ the King

22 November 2020

Today is the 22nd November which means that Christmas Day is only just over a month away. Given our current uncertain and parlous state I expect that many of us are thinking about Christmas with varying degrees of joy and apprehension.

But, as I alluded to last week, although Christmas is not far away chronologically there are still two important Church seasons to come first.  One is Advent which starts next week, and Advent, like Lent, should be season of prayerfully waiting and preparing ourselves to remember Jesus’ birth into the world.   Sadly, it almost goes without saying that most of the world tramples over the true purpose of Advent and are so bored with Christmas by the time it actually arrives that they chuck out the tree on Boxing Day.  It should not be so with us.  Regardless of how locked down we are in December let us keep Advent properly this year.

But there is another season to complete before Advent, and that happens today. 

Although it is easy to miss it because of special events such as Remembrance Sunday, for the past few weeks we have been travelling together through the Kingdom season and we have been listening to and thinking about Matthew’s parables concerning watchfulness, patience and using our God-given gifts to best effect so that we shall not only be ready to greet the master when he returns but so that we shall be ready to give a good account of the time and talents that have been entrusted to us.

And today we reach the end of that particular journey as we come to the feast of Christ the King and we see Jesus not as a baby in a manger, nor as a preacher nor even as a resurrected man but as a King sitting on a throne in heavenly glory. But not only as king of a renewed creation but also as the judge of us all.

Now I accept entirely that this is an image of Jesus and an aspect of Christianity that does not feature too highly in our church or our society at present.  After all we live in a post-modern world in which all values are relative, no values are absolute and therefore no one can be judged one way or the other. On Facebook I saw a story about a man of 45, i.e. 7 years younger than me, who had just become a great-grandfather. You heard that right – a great-grandfather – his grandchild had themselves just become a parent at the age of 12. I made some quite innocuous comment about this and one of my vicar friends chimed in and said that I was being too judgemental.

In a society which has only a constitutional monarch it is hardly conceivable to think about judgement being handed down by an absolute monarch and, therefore, the image of Christ returning as King and Judge can be side-lined either as medievalism or as belonging only at the crankier ends of the church.

But in my view to side-line Christ as King and Judge does our faith a grave injury for at least 3 reasons:

Firstly it ignores the fact that this image is not merely the product of a few random verses of the bible that have been leapt upon by the nutty brigade – rather it is a central tenet of our faith which, as I said last week, we proclaim each week in the Nicene Creed and shall do so again in a moment.

Secondly to ignore Christ as King is to take away the end of the Christian story – admittedly the end of the story does not always make comfortable reading, and I will come back to that in a moment, but to ignore the end because it makes us uncomfortable is surely the ultimate wimping out not to mention a betrayal of our baptismal calling to be transformed by our communion with Christ; and

Thirdly, but in many ways most importantly, to ignore the whole concept of judgement is to let ourselves off the hook – if we buy into the concept of Jesus as no more than a spiritual indulgent uncle who will simply usher us into the presence of God regardless of how we have lived then what possible incentive do we have to change from what we are to what we are called to be?

Without judgement what is the point either of repentance or transformation?  Yes, God accepts us all as we are, but he does not want to leave us where we are.  Rather we are called into God’s presence precisely in order that we might slough off our sin, be changed into his likeness and do the things he would have us do.

Gosh, I have mentioned the words sin and judgement in the same sermon. If I disappear during the week you will know that I have been taken to a CofE political re-education camp – please send bread and wine!

So on what basis does the returning Christ the King judge us – how does he separate the sheep from the goats – those who belong to his flock and have heard his voice and those who have not?

In today’s gospel reading the people are judged and sorted using one simple criteria – the extent to which they have loved and cared for the poor and disadvantaged in society.  Have they fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, taken care of the sick, visited those in prison?  Christ is clear – those who have done those things for the least in society have done them directly for him and they will be rewarded with eternal life.  Whereas those who have ignored the needs of the outcast have effectively ignored Christ and he will ignore them for eternity.

What is especially interesting about this basis for judgement are all the things that are not included, but to which we often ascribe such importance – the debates about sexual orientation with which the church ties itself up in knots about would make you think that it is a primary issue directly related to salvation and yet it receives no mention here at all. There is no mention here of denomination or even religion, no mention of worship style or belief about particular issues.  There is certainly no mention here that we are saved on the basis of who we are against which is how many Christians sadly seem to treat their faith.

The sole basis for Jesus’ judgement here is the extent to which we love others and how we demonstrate that love in practical action – that is the salvation issue – not what we believe in our heads or profess with our mouths but what we do with our hands for those most in need.

The more theologically minded amongst you may now be thinking that this all sounds a bit like salvation by works rather than by faith.  Surely, you may say, if we have faith in Christ then we don’t need to do any good works such as looking after the poor and needy in order to be saved.   The answer is that faith in Christ is in many ways a prerequisite for being part of this story but if that faith does not lead to the fruits of love for others then to what extent was faith ever more than skin deep?  As St James, the brother of Jesus, said in the second chapter of his letter: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” and as St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “…if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Our love of God, our faith if you will, is one half of the equation and it is our desire to worship and encounter God that brings us here on a Sunday.  But our love of others, especially the poor and needy and those most unlike ourselves, is the other half of the same equation and it is that love which should empower and motivate us to serve Christ in those around us when we are not here.

I know that as individuals and as a church there is lots of good charitable work going on here.  We have certainly sought to feed the hungry locally with our foodbank here, our support of the Paddock Wood foodbank and supporting the needy internationally with our support of MAF, the Delhi Brotherhood and others. 

But I wonder whether we sometimes think of such charitable work as merely an optional extra to our faith – a nice thing to do if can afford it and if we have the time.  Is our charitable giving, not to mention our charitable thinking, the first thing to go when pushed?

Today we are reminded, as boldly as it could be put, that our charity for others is not an optional extra but is a primary salvation issue and the basis on which we shall all be judged.   If we believe that Jesus was born into the world as a baby and are happy to celebrate that next month, then we must also believe that Jesus will return to the world as our King and Judge and we shall face him and he shall ask – ‘did you feed me, did you clothe me, did you give me water?

What is your answer?  What is our answer?

AMEN.

Paul White

Sermon – 2nd Sunday before Advent

15 November 2020 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

I don’t know whether you have ever seen it but there is a T-Shirt available which expresses in a very succinct way the message that it is possible to take from this morning’s readings – the T-shirt says: Look busy – Jesus is coming,! 

Now, of course, that slogan is meant as a joke but it contains both an important truth about our faith as well as a significant misunderstanding.

The important truth is that God, in the person of Jesus, is coming, and that with Jesus comes judgement – especially judgement about how we have lived our lives in response to the Gospel – and that judgement has consequences that last for an eternity.

In this post-modern era in which all values are relative and no values are absolute the image of Jesus as judge is not one that seems to receive much prominence or even much credence in today’s church.  And, if I am being brutally honest with myself, that image is not one that features at the forefront of my theology on a day to day basis.

However the concept of Jesus returning to judge the world is not limited to just a few passages of the bible and of interest only to the hellfire and brimstone brigade – it is, in fact, one of the central tenets of our faith and one that we repeat each week in the words of the Nicene Creed:

“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”

Now if you are told that someone is coming to see you it is not unnatural to ask when?   If Vivienne and I have someone coming over for dinner, which we don’t anymore for obvious reaons, we like to know when they are coming firstly so we can have some food ready and secondly so that we can make the place look a bit respectable.

So, if Jesus is coming back, when is it going to happen?  That was a question that exercised the early Church a great deal as the first disciples believed that it would be during their lifetimes and when that didn’t happen the church had to work out what it meant to be a church-in-waiting, a church that exists between the first coming of Christ that we will be celebrating at Christmas and the paruosia or the return of Christ.  This led to the two main answers that we saw in today’s readings and which also appear elsewhere in the NT:

The first answer is that it is futile to try and guess when the second coming will happen – it will happen in God’s time and, put simply, God does not work to our timetable! 

As it says in Psalm 90:4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” 

Some Churches (not Anglican ones in the main) do spend an inordinate amount of time working out and then announcing the exact time and date of Christ’s return – but of course those dates pass and the followers get disillusioned and Christianity as a whole is slightly embarrassed by the whole activity.  As it said in the reading from 1 Thessalonians: “…about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

The second answer is that because we don’t know when it will be we have to remain watchful and faithful at all times and that we will be judged at least in part on extent to which we have continued the work that has been entrusted to us.

Importantly we should also not lose sight of the fact that whether or not Christ returns to judge the world during our physical lifetimes is actually of supreme unimportance – because even if that does not happen for another 100,000 or 1,000,000 years as far as each of us are concerned we will experience the moment of judgement after our own death and, of course, like the return of Christ the moment of death is likely to come as a thief in the night without making an appointment.  As it says in Psalm 90:12:  “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

But what are we to do whilst waiting for the day we meet Christ, whenever that will be?  Well, whilst parables should always be handled with care, perhaps we are given some parabolic hints in the gospel reading this morning.  As we heard the owner of the three slaves was going away on a long journey but he knew that he will be coming back and he wanted his wealth to increase whilst he was gone – so he gave some money to each of the three for them to invest and grow.  Whilst these men are slaves they are not the menial labourers that we may associate with that word but, rather, they are obviously highly trusted stewards as the sums involved are surprisingly large.  The average days wage for a labourer in Roman era Judea was 1 drachma.  100 drachma equalled 1 mina and there were 60 minas in a Talent.  This means that 1 Talent was equivalent to 6,000 days or 16 years wages for a labourer – and the most senior of the three was entrusted with 5 talents which would have been 82 years wages!     We are not quite talking A Rollover Jackpot on the National Lottery but we are still talking about very large sums of money and the slave owner wanted that money to be wisely invested while he was gone.

The first two slaves kept themselves busy and they both doubled their master’s money while he was away – we are not told exactly how long he was away for but 100% return is good in anyone’s books.  The master congratulated and rewarded the industrious slaves saying that they will have charge of even greater things and can now “enter into the joy of your master”. However, the third slave failed in the task given to him – he simply dug a hole in the ground and put 16 years of someone’s salary into it and later handed it back to his master without even receiving any interest on it.  This man was deemed a “worthless slave” and his investment fund of 1 talent was handed over to the more productive fund manager and the worthless slave was thrown out of the household into the outer darkness.

On one level the moral of this parable is easily accessible – if we use the gifts that God has entrusted to us wisely then those gifts will increase and we can offer the growth back to God and we will share in the joy of our master by entering into the kingdom of heaven; conversely if we bury and neglect our gifts out of fear or laziness then we will have no part of the kingdom as we have done nothing to increase the kingdom.

Given the message of this parable it is easy to see where the “Jesus is Coming, Look Busy” mentality comes from and we can probably all sometimes be guilty of thinking that the more we do the more acceptable we make ourselves to God.

Of course, the point is that it is not about looking busy nor is it even about being busy for the sake of busyness.  God is not fooled by our outward appearances or by any good works that are motivated out of making ourselves look good. 

Rather God looks first and foremost at the motives in our hearts – if we live every day in genuine expectation of meeting Christ, and in the knowledge that any moment could be our last before we face judgement, then I believe that that constant contemplation of the reality of Christ in our day to day lives will transform our hearts and that purified hearts will lead, inevitably, to a transformation of our actions and motives.  Our desire to put God’s gifts to good use by loving action towards others will then become a fruit of our ongoing salvation and not a cause of our future salvation.

Unfortunately that sentiment does not fit quite so easily on a T-Shirt.

I said a moment ago that we need to treat the parables with some caution as they are not meant to provide straightforward answers or, if they are, we may not be asking the right questions.  It is easy, if we are not careful, to form the impression that the return of Jesus is coming at an unexpected time in order to catch us out in order to cast us out.  I don’t think that God wants to jump-scare us.  I believe that God’s greatest desire is for us all to enter into his glory and that is why we are told be diligent and vigilant. 

As it says in the 1 Thessalonians reading:

“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

Amen.

Paul White

Sermon – All Saints Day

Sunday 1 November 2020 Revelation 7:9-17,  Matthew 5:1-12

Today is All Saints Day; All Hallows Day to give it an older name, which immediately follows All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  I can’t claim to be too sorry that Halloween was a lot quieter this year than it normally is.   Although it may not be good theology, I always like the idea that today the army of all the saints rides into town and chases out the army of mischief from last night. 

I do have a certain fondness for All Saints Day, not only because it reminds us that we are part of a story which is much larger than we can fully know this side of heaven but, more prosaically, because I served my curacy at All Saints Church in Woodchurch, who are therefore having their patronal festival today – many blessings on them, especially as they welcome their new Rector.

This time last year, give or take a week, the family and I were just starting our half term holiday and had motored our narrow boat from Alvechurch up to Birmingham.  Lots of people in the South have all sorts of preconceptions about Birmingham but, let me tell you, when you arrive there by boat and can tie up in the city centre it is a great place to be.  On Sunday 20 October we all went to church in the morning to a new church in a converted warehouse in Gas Street.  The family loved the modern worship there, although I did feel a little bit sorry that none of the worship leaders could afford jeans that didn’t have rips in them.

How old does that make me sound?

Anyway that evening, as a slight antidote from modernity, I decided to seek out Evensong at the Anglican Cathedral.  On my own.

After Evensong one of the vergers said that if I fancied going to a rather bigger and fancier service then they were all going straight down to the Roman Catholic Cathedral to celebrate the beatification of Cardinal, I should say Saint, John Henry Newman, who had been made a saint just the week before in Rome but who had long connections with Birmingham.

Let me tell you, dear listener, I went to that service.

If the morning worship at Gas Street was a bit like having Rice Krispies for breakfast and evensong at the Cathedral was a bit like having a bacon sandwich then celebrating the making of a new saint at the Catholic Cathedral was a three course meal, with the finest wine.  It was a sumptuous affair.

For those that don’t know St John Henry Newman started life as an Evangelical Anglican having had a conversion experience at the age of 15.  This was in about 1815.  He went to Oxford and was ordained as an Anglican clergyman at the age of 23.   However the Anglican church was in something of a parlous state at the time and it’s worship life had been reduced to a rather lacklustre prayerbook services.  Newman and his contemporaries at Oxford wanted to revitalise church life, to make communion a more central part of worship, to beautify the churches and to recapture the sense that the Anglican church was a branch of the Catholic church, in fact a via media, a middle way, between Protestantism and Catholicism.  Through a series of Tracts, written to the church in order to educate them about such things and through the Oxford Movement which placed clergy in parishes open to such ideas, the Church of England underwent something of a seismic shift, although not without legal battles including clergy being prosecuted.    Most of the things we take for granted here at St Mary’s are a direct result of the changes wrought at that time, and therefore at least the indirect result of the work of that new saint. 

Over time, however, the Church of England itself took other steps which increasingly disillusioned St John Henry Newman that there could ever be a middle way between Protestant and Catholic and he eventually decided that Catholicity could only be found in the Roman Church and he converted.  He was later ordained as a Catholic Priest, became a Cardinal and now a Saint.  He gives me some small hope that an Anglican Priest can become a Saint, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

I’ll come back to that in a minute. 

Although St John Henry Newman is one of the newer Saints of the Church, in many ways he fits a mould which at least looks a little bit saintly and ‘other’ and does not bring saintliness too close to home.  Which I why I want to mention an even newer one who was beatified on 10 October this year.

This is Carlo Acutis, who was born in 1991 and died in 2005 at the age of 15 of leukaemia.  Although his parents were Italian he was born in England.  So we are essentially talking about an English schoolboy who was both born and died within all our lifetimes.  Which I think brings the possibility of saintliness a bit closer to home.

Like many boys of his age Carlo was a bit of a computer geek.  However, unlike most other such boys, he used his computer skills to promote the gospel and he was particularly dedicated to the Eucharist saying:

the more Eucharist we receive, the more we will become like Jesus, so that on this earth we will have a foretaste of heaven”

When he was diagnosed with leukaemia he wanted to go on pilgrimage but became too ill too quickly; when the doctors asked if he was in pain he responded that “there are people who suffer much more than me” and when he died he asked to be buried in Assisi, as he was dedicated to St Francis. 

It is easy to feel that the internet is the opposite of holy, and in many places it is, but the Bishop of Assisi said of this young man:

“This is a youngster of our time: a model of holiness for the internet age,”

When we think about Saints we don’t just have to think about people from long ago and far away – here we have a former Anglican clergyman and a computer geek schoolboy, both elevated to Sainthood. 

However, I do have a slight reservation about the way in which the Roman Catholic Church measures saintliness which is this: in order to be canonised as a saint in the Catholic church there needs to be evidence of two or three miracles either performed by the person or as a result of prayers of intercession made in the name of that person, and these were provided in both the new Saints we have just mentioned.

Personally I think that this sends the wrong message about the nature of sainthood because if sainthood is confined to the makers of miracles then this puts the saints into the same category as super-heroes – we may look up to them but we can never aspire to be them because we know that we do not possess super miracle powers.

But today, I want to give a very simple message: everyone in this church is called to be a saint. The word saint comes from sanctus which means holy and the bible says that we are called to be holy, because God is holy. And the word holy comes from the word whole (with a w) – we are called to be whole people because our God is a whole God.

Interestingly the Eastern Orthodox church does not proclaim its saints in the same way as the Catholics. Firstly the Orthodox church makes it clear that it does not make saints at all, because saints are made only by God, but the church merely recognises that a person has co-operated with God’s grace to such an extent that his or her holiness is beyond doubt. And that one sentence holds the vital clue to how each one of us can progress along the path of holiness – to co-operate with God’s grace. When we do what God wants us to do we become whole people, holy people, saints.

Throughout the beatitudes Jesus makes it clear that we are blessed by God and draw closer to him and his kingdom when we confound the expectations of the world. The world respects strength, a stiff upper lip, for us not to suffer fools gladly. But the way of Jesus, recognises that we are closest to God not when we are full of ourselves but when we are empty and acknowledge our need for him, when we confront a world of war with the way of peace, when we seek justice and pursue it. There is nothing here about possessing super powers of healing but everything about allowing God’s ways to take precedence over our own. To co-operate with God’s grace.

And then in the reading from Revelation we are given an image of the multitude of white robed saints standing in the presence of God, who have come out of the tribulation of the world and from whom God will wipe away every tear.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that they are somehow in a totally different category to you and I and that we can sit here and think about them in an abstract sort of way. As baptised members of the Body of Christ in this place you and I and everyone here are called on the journey to sainthood, to standing in the presence of God amongst the multitude.  And that does not mean that you have to try and copy the lives of the saints from the past. On the contrary you can only become a saint by co-operating with the grace of God in your life in the here and now. And don’t tell me that you are too old or too young or too busy – God can transform you in an instant or in a lifetime. He only needs your co-operation with his grace.

Don’t forget I never said that the call or the journey to sainthood was easy – but I did say that it is for everyone!

When you exchange the peace this morning, however socially distanced, let the scales fall from your eyes and recognise not only all the saints in heaven but all the saints gathered here today.

Amen.

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