Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon – Trinity 13

Hand Washing – 29th August 2021

James 1: 17 – End   Listening and doing; Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14, 15, 21 – 23  True cleanliness

  1. Introduction.          How many times a day do you wash your hands?   For myself, I haven’t tried counting but it must be at least a dozen times and perhaps a lot more not to mention the use of sanitizing gel.  When I was at a boarding school, in the junior house we had to line up on the way to a meal and pass Matron, showing both sides of our hands to show that our hands were clean.   I guess I am one of only a few people here present who has done an NHS hand washing course with its practical test at the end.  As a hospital chaplain I had a personal clip-on sanitiser, so that after visiting patient, if we had shaken hands, I could readily disinfect my hands before going to another patient.  Perhaps we have some sympathy with the Pharisees’ remonstration with Jesus, that his disciples were not washing their hands before eating!   Sometimes I get a little annoyed with a person when I ask a question and the person’s answer is to a different question to the one I asked.  It may seem to you, that Jesus even deliberately ignores the Pharisees’ question, apart from a reference to cleanliness and in response asks them a question.   If either of these points resonates with you then this sermon is for you as we look more deeply at today’s Gospel and at the end briefly tie it in with to today’s Epistle.

2. Pharisees’ question.         As Jesus points out, the Pharisees’ question is not directly based on the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, for us, the Old Testament.  Rather it is based on the interpretation, known as the Talmud, originating from the time of the priest and prophet Ezra of the 6th Century BC and continuing perhaps 200 years or more into the present era, comprising both written interpretation, known as the Mishnah, and the oral tradition, known as the Midrash.  Mark as the gospel writer also expands on the Jewish practice at that time.  The practice of hand washing, washing of food bought in the market and washing of cooking and eating vessels was all good and accords with what is common practice today by many of us, especially in this Covid pandemic.

3. Old Testament.      Without even going into the interpretations in the Talmud, it is worthy of mention that there is much in the Old Testament about washing including especially washing of hands and feet. Many of the references are to the required practice of the priests that they should not enter into the Tabernacle or Temple without washing their hands and feet, in order to appear clean in the presence of God.   The general thrust of this is therefore ceremonial rather than that of hygienic practices by the general population.  Thus, as Mark states, the interpretation in the Talmud was seen in ceremonial terms.

4. Jesus’ response.  Now let’s consider Jesus’ response.  First let us remember that Jesus was an itinerant preacher, saying on another occasion, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8 v 20).  We are very accustomed to our houses and flats, all with running water.  However, in my younger years, I lived in two villages with no running water.  In one, in Rutland, we lived in a cottage, dependent on a hand operated pump outside the house.  There was no bath or hand wash basin, just a sink where we washed up and washed ourselves.  In another village, in East Sussex, we had a piped water system in the bungalow, dependent on the rainwater collected from the roof into an underground tank and then pumped by a hand-operated semi-rotary pump, into the roof tank.  I am sure that as a boy I did not wash my hands 12 times a day!  Jesus and his disciples had even less provision, perhaps eating a meal outside, a mile from a well.   I can well understand that Jesus and his disciples didn’t always wash their hands before eating

Secondly, remember that Jesus said in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, “I have not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfil them”.  Jesus had been brought up in a good Jewish family, obedient to the requirements of the law, as seen in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel.  He was often challenged about healing people on the Sabbath.  He went deeper than the written law, to the principles underlying the law.  He knew that in particular, the Pharisees, the strictest law-abiding Jews, were often out to trap him.

On this occasion Jesus holds on to the principle of ceremonial cleanness, that is, what is pleasing to God, and challenges the Pharisees on the grounds of fundamental unholiness, of the breaking of the commandments.  He is not denying that hand washing is a good thing but that it is not the basis of establishing a right relationship with God and in that respect, it is quite trivial in comparison to the major moral aspects of the law, in particular the ten commandments, which we have writ large on the E wall of the chancel.

If you wish understand the full thrust of Jesus’ teaching, then sometime this week read the whole gospel passage from Mark 7 v 1 through to v 23.  As you can see in the Sunday newssheet, today’s reading, is as one commentator has put it, ‘rather like a shrink-wrapped supermarket fish’, with its simplified selection of verses.

5. Application.           How do we apply today Jesus’ teaching in his response to the Pharisees’ challenge?   We should not neglect good hygiene, using sanitisers, washing our hands, having Covid vaccinations.  We should do these things so that as far as possible we remain in good health and therefore are not a burden on other people and also, out of concern for one another that we are not passing on infection to others.   What we are doing is living out the second commandment of Jesus summary of the law, ‘loving our neighbours as ourselves’.  We need to see that all people are made in the image of God, whatever the colour, race or religion of the other person.  Our relationship with God should motivate our relationship with one another, and I believe to a large extent it does.  But as we look out at the worldwide scene, we see in so many countries that this is not so.  There are personal and corporate struggles for power, there is little concern for those who ‘get in the way’, in that struggle.  We are particularly concerned at present about the desperate situation in Afghanistan, where those who sought a new freedom and way of life, now live in fear of their lives.  

Let us not be quick to condemn the legalism of the Pharisees or even the Orthodox code of living of Jews today.  We live in this country, as in most countries, circumscribed by a mass of law, regulation, codes of practice and formal guidance.  We live in a complex technological age with huge populations.  As someone involved in writing of international standards, in my case, relating to lightning protection, I am conscious that I am contributing to that mass of requirements.  I try to do it bearing in mind a concern for the safety and wellbeing of people, both directly from the effect of lightning strikes and indirectly in care of the buildings in which people live and work or are served by, with a particular responsibility for churches.

I said at the beginning of this sermon, that I would refer briefly to today’s epistle, from the epistle of James, whom I said in my sermon in July, was almost certainly not the James the son of Zebedee, but possibly James, son of Alphaeus, another apostle of the 12.  One can sum it up by saying that we should be good listeners and good doers.   In other words, we should not be in a rush to speak but rather be willing to listen.  Sometimes in parish ministry, someone has said to me something like, “Christopher, thank you so much for visiting me two months ago when I was going through a difficult time, you were so helpful to me then.” I think back to the occasion and realise that I hardly said anything. By articulating a problem, the person has seen the solution.   Secondly it is not enough to leave Church today saying, ‘That was an interesting sermon.  We need to ask ourselves, ‘What am I going to do differently as result of that sermon.’

Jesus was a man of prayer, thought and action, listening to God the Father, guided and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.  Let us like him see the underlying principles of our religion and act on them.

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 10

Sermon: 10th Sunday after Trinity8th August 2021

By Kelly Parsons

Readings: 1 Kings 19: 4-8;    John 6: 35, 41-51

At the beginning of my discernment process, I completed a course called hearing God’s Word, Speaking God’s word.

For the final assessment of this I was required to plan and preach a sermon in church.    This was the first time I would preach in church as part of Sunday worship. 

Paul was very kind and said I could look at the readings and pick the Sunday I would like to preach. 

I have found it is in my nature not to pick the easy route and true to form I said to Paul, ‘Let’s just agree a date and I will preach on whatever the reading is.’ 

The reading was Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones.  Not an easy reading for a nervous first-time preacher. 

Later when I met with Pamela, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and she asked about my preaching experience.  I told her about the course.  She commented on the course and how it was an easy way to introduce people to sermon writing especially as you can choose the readings.  When I told her what my first sermon was on, she laughed and said, ‘you have passed.’

This week I found myself in a similar situation.  After agreeing that I would lead and preach today in Paul’s absence, I looked at the reading.  The readings from John 6 are spread over four consecutive Sundays and this period in the church is dreaded by clergy.

John is not a story-teller and his gospel lacks the imagery of the other three.  Many find the language repetitive and even boring.  John asks more questions than he answers.

So then, what is the purpose of John’s gospel ?

If is dreaded by clergy and congregations alike, then why do we have it in the lectionary?

This simple answer lies within the book itself.

All of the Gospels have a purpose and John’s is no exception to this rule.  Once the purpose of the gospel is understood, it unlocks the other passages.

John 20 verses 30-31: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

The purpose of John’s gospel is to persuade the reader to believe and tell others that Jesus is God’s Son, is sent by God out of love for us and to give everlasting life to those who believe in him.  

With this in mind let us return to the passage read today:

I am the bread of life that came down from heaven, says Jesus. 

A familiar enough phrase for us in today’s church.  It is part of the Eucharistic prayers that we say most weeks.

The people respond to Jesus with a challenge.  This is a common pattern in John and we see this throughout John 6.

The people argue that Jesus cannot be the bread from heaven as he has two human parents – Mary and Joseph.  At the time the people are showing that they are confused and this confusion can quickly lead to anger and violence. 

These people were not followers of Jesus and were not naturally attracted to him in the same way that others were.

 I will touch on this again later.

They feel that Jesus is contradicting himself.  They know of his human origins yet now he is saying that he came down from heaven.  They cannot unite the two ideas that Jesus can be both fully human and fully divine.

This is a deep theological concept that is covered in Christian Doctrine.

What they missed was that what Jesus was saying was not about identity.  But what he is giving.

Jesus did not say, ‘I came down from heaven.’  He said ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’

Jesus does not respond directly to the questions raised. Jesus directs his answer not to the question they ask as, at this point he does not want to get into a debate over identity and authority.  Religious authorities of the time were obsessed with these themes.

Rather, Jesus wants them to understand what he is saying.  By eating the bread of life you are entering into a loving relationship with God and will be sustained and transformed through death. The bread is the dying flesh of Jesus that he gives for a world where death reigns. 

This relates back to the purpose of John’s gospel: to persuade people to believe in Jesus and have life in his name. 

Returning to the point I mentioned earlier.  Some people were just naturally attracted to Jesus.  They left everything to hear Him speak. 

1 John 4 verse 9 tells us that God first loved us.  Through creation God put love in our hearts.  Creation happens all the time and God’s love is present in the world. 

In the creation story it talks about creation through the Word of God.  Then the word becomes flesh and is tangible, visible in Jesus.

Those who followed Jesus recognised the Word within Him.   The inner love that he carried because they carried it too.

Verse 44 says, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.

This statement tells us that Jesus is working together with the Father

In ancient spirituality the love of God was thought to be a fire that rose in a person’s chest and came out through their eyes.  This would allow the person to recognise whatever was of God on the outside because of that inner love of God was part of their own being.  Those who did not have the fire in their eyes had been thought to have lost the love of God and their hearts hardened.  The are not able to see the light of Christ.  The were not drawn to Jesus.  

In John’s gospel the religious authorities are described as having hardened hearts.  Instead of being drawn to Jesus they question and challenge what he says. 

I think that we are drawn to each other as a church family because we recognise the Holy spirit in each other.  We feel comfortable learning together.  Exploring and developing that deeper relationship with God.  John’s gospel equips us with responses that can be given when we carry the love of God out into the world. 

When we talk with those who do not recognise the love of God.  This whose hearts may have hardened.  God can work through us to rekindle the fire in their hearts.

Jesus continues this debate with the people even though he can feel hostility rising. Even though he knows that love is not in their hearts.

When we read this story, we have the best seats.  We already know that Jesus dies for us and the giving of his flesh brings eternal life. The meaning  for us is already clear.

John picks the interactions that he included in his gospel carefully to reinforce the message that he is sending.  Which means that it lacks some of the imagery of the other gospels, however, its importance is clear:  John’s gospel gives us the tool to see the whole bible as a book of life that gives life. It gives us a sold grounding to our faith.

The gospel of John is read in the church on consecutive weeks because it was meant to be read as a book – from cover to cover to fully understand the message,  not in passages.  Each part builds on the strength the evidence of a life-giving faith.

What Jesus was saying to these people and his followers was challenging. 

These people were experiencing the story as it happened. Some walked away.

Others stayed.  They stayed because they believed that Jesus had the words of eternal life and they wanted to know more.

John may be challenging and there may be stuff in there that makes us want to walk away.  To select a gospel that is easier to read and relate to.  But to have a relationship with God, to have a deep friendship with Him, you have to stick with it. 

All good things require some application.  Learning to play an instrument, singing, flower arranging or running 10k. It doesn’t just happen overnight.  So let’s make that promise, that application to have a relationship with God that is deep and meaningful. 

Let’s read the Gospel of John and listen to what he says. 

Amen

Sermon – Trinity 9

9th Sunday after Trinity

1 August 2021

Ephesians 4: 1-16, John 6: 24-35

“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Our two readings this morning pose us with some interesting questions – why do we follow Jesus and what does it mean to be part of the church?

Just before the events in today’s gospel reading Jesus had miraculously fed 5000 people with five small loaves and two fish.  With that small beginning, and a prayer of thanks from Jesus, the people ate their fill and there 12 baskets of leftovers.  I have preached on that before and it should encourage us that, no matter how straightened the times and no matter how meagre we think our gifts are, when they are offered to Jesus in faith then impossible things can happen. 

There is no doubt that the crowds were impressed with this miraculous sign and, after they had finished eating, they declared Jesus to be a prophet and wanted to make him King, by force if necessary. (6:14,15).  But that was not what Jesus intended and he withdrew to the mountains by himself.

There then followed an interlude of the people realising that Jesus has gone and some climbed into boats to sail around the Sea of Galilee (or the Lake of Tiberias as it is also known) and go looking for him in the fishing village of Capernaum.  If you ever go to Israel then it is still possible to visit that same village, which is named in all of the gospels, and there is a wonderful modern church with a glass floor through which you can view the remains of what is believed to be St Peter’s house.  Presumably the crowds headed there because they knew that Jesus and his followers were often there and that is, indeed, where they found him.

Although Jesus knew that this crowd had been impressed by the sign of the feeding of the 5000, and wanted to make him king by force, he also knew that the crowd’s motives for following him were mixed:

Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” 

If you look closely at Jesus’ encounters he often challenges people to look at their motives for doing what they are doing.  In Mark 10, and elsewhere, Jesus asks the question a number of times: ‘what do you want me to do for you?’

By challenging the crowd, and by posing that question to individuals, Jesus encourages them to look deeper – to see if there is anything beyond their surface motives.  Perhaps their obvious need is their real need – as the blind man who wanted to see again – but Jesus still wanted him to name that need.  Or perhaps, like the crowd here there may be a variety of needs but Jesus wants them to stop and think and ask who and what they want in this situation.

Jesus’ challenge to this crowd looks quite rude – he is saying that they are only following him because they enjoyed a free lunch and, if they hang around, they may get some more free food.

I feel quite sorry for them – they are following Jesus through both wilderness and across the sea and he is accusing them of being freeloaders.

But then, of course, he takes them deeper into the true meaning of who he really is – not simply an earthly prophet or king or even a dispenser of free food which, no matter how much you eat, will never fulfil you forever. 

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

The crowd then pose Jesus a question:

         “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

The answer is simple and refreshing:

         “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

To believe in Jesus is the work of God.

But the crowd weren’t happy with that.  Despite the fact that they had already seen the feeding of the 5000 they wanted another sign and, despite what Jesus had already said about physical food they wanted him to feed them again, like the Hebrews had been fed with manna from heaven in the wilderness.  

Perhaps Jesus was right to think that they only wanted more free food.  Perhaps also the crowd here are representing another temptation for Jesus, by getting him to prove that he is equal to Moses or to prove his divinity 

If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread

The crowd are repeating the temptation of the devil.

Which brings Jesus to the denouement of this toing and froing:

I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The crowd have been on quite a journey: they ate their fill of physical bread, they have spoken about the miraculous bread from heaven which fed their ancestors in the wilderness and now Jesus says that he is that bread from heaven and, if they do the work of God by believing in him, then they will never truly want for anything again.

As those who seek to follow Jesus in the wilderness now we know that he feeds us week by week in the bread of communion and, for us, that bread is as physical as the loaves on which the 5000 dined, it is also as light as the manna in the wilderness and it is also Jesus himself, broken and shared for our healing and union with him and with one another.  

Which brings us briefly to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  As always with Paul there are layers of meaning to be mined and these 16 verses could keep us occupied for a month.  For today I simply want to identify the theme of church unity and it’s purpose.

In verses 4 to 6 Paul names the seven ones:

One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God

 I can’t help thinking that if the churches, and denominations and factions spent a little longer dwelling on those seven ones then we may move beyond our man-made differences and see our essential unity which, of course, is in the God who calls us and feeds us with the bread of heaven.

The purpose of that unity in the church is not to impose uniformity, on the contrary each calling and part of the body needs to be different and needs to be fully itself, but that the whole body should grow together as one, that we should move from being spiritual infants who are blown around by every fad and trend, by cunning, deceitfulness and scams and, as Paul says:

“…we will grow in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is Christ.  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does it’s work.”

Ligaments are rarely the first thing we think about when we think of a healthy body, but if the smallest supporting ligament goes wrong then it can affect the health and happiness and work and mission of the whole body.

Why do we follow Jesus and what does it mean to be part of his church?

I follow Jesus because he feeds my soul eternally with the bread of life and to be a small supporting ligament within the body of Christ is the greatest calling ever.

We are the body of Christ and we called to build up that body by sharing the body amongst ourselves and by being the diverse yet united body of Christ in the world.

Lots to think about.  But, if you remember nothing else today, remember this:

“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 7

Trinity 7 – Christ the Good Shepherd

18 July 2021

Readings Jeremiah 23:1-6, Mark 6:30-34, 53-end

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A couple of years ago Vivienne and I arrived home at the Vicarage and parked in the drive.  One of the flowerbeds at the front was a bit less full of plants than it is now and we noticed that there was something a bit odd about it.  There was a rather large sheep standing on it.  You can’t pull the wool over our eyes. 

I guessed that the poor thing must belong to the people who keep sheep just behind the pond and, sure enough, they came over with a van and with some good shepherding and some dumb luck we managed to get her in the van and home.

Pope Francis once said that he wanted priests who smelled like their sheep, well I certainly smelt of sheep that day.

Although there are plenty of sheep in this part of Kent, and we see lots at the College too, I served my curacy on the edge of Romney Marsh which is sheep-central, and even has its own breed of sheep named after it.  In places like Ivychurch and Fairfield the churches stand in the middle of the pasture and the flocks graze amongst the headstones and will wander into church if allowed.  

Dotted across the marsh you will see small, 10ft square, brick-built structures, called Lookers Huts.  There are only 20 left now but, at one time there were up to 350.  They were used as primitive shelters by the Lookers whose job it was to look after numerous herds of sheep over a large area.  They would spend a long time living on the marsh with their flocks and the huts would double as their shelter and their tool sheds.  They were hardy men who dedicated their lives to looking after their flocks, and I suspect that they also smelled, quite strongly, of their sheep.  Although before we get carried away and elevate them to Christ-like status as good shepherds of their flock I was also intrigued to read that the Romney Sheep were bred not to jump over the ditches and drains but if you got a feisty one that was causing trouble then the Lookers were not averse to having lamb chops that night, so the analogy only goes so far.

This week’s readings both use the imagery of the people of God being his flock who need to be cared for by good shepherds.  

Jeremiah says that the people charged with looking after God’s people in his time, both the political and the religious leaders, have gone astray and, therefore, the flock has also gone astray:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.”

God promises to punish those who have led the flock astray and then he makes three further promises – firstly to gather the scattered flock back together:

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold” 

secondly to raise up new shepherds:

“I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

And last, but by no means least, God promises to raise up a new ruler from the House of David:

“I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Jeremiah lived and was prophesying at around the year 650 BC and, in referencing King David, he is looking back about 400 years to the time when Israel had been a united, strong and proud nation and straight after David was his son Solomon who was wise and wealthy and Israel was at its height of power and influence.  

But by the time of Jeremiah things had gone badly wrong – Israel and Judah were separate nations, they had suffered a series of ineffectual rulers and the stronger nations around saw them as a weak target.  The Babylonians carried many away from Jerusalem as slaves and Jeremiah himself is believed to have died in exile in Egypt.  The ‘flock’ was not regathered again for over 100 years and was gradually regaining its status when the Roman Empire invaded from the other direction.  We are familiar with hearing about the uneasy peace between the Roman and Jewish leaders from the New Testament but, very shortly after the close of the New Testament period, that uneasy peace broke down into rebellion by the occupied people and suppression by the Romans which resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the razing to the ground of much of Jerusalem.  

Today, the 18th July, is the Festival of Tisha B’Ev in Judaism which is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar when they remember that destruction of the Temple, but they also remember all the other calamities which have fallen the Hebrews, up to and including the Holocaust.  

Following the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, once again the flock of Israel were scattered and this time the diaspora did not last 100 years but almost 2000 years, but from 1948 that flock has once again been re-gathered.  Interestingly some Jews also regard Tisha B’Ev as the time when the Messiah will be born – the righteous branch from the line of David – as an antidote to the calamities of Israel.  

Which, of course, brings us to Jesus.  Although it is clear that Jesus did not drive out the Romans or act as King and Shepherd over his flock in his lifetime, in fact we just saw that things got worse for Israel only a few decades after the crucifixion, as Christians we are working with a longer time-scale – the coming again of Jesus – and with a bigger flock – not just the Jewish people but all those who are joined to that flock because of our call by Jesus.  

In our reading from Mark the apostles had previously been sent out by Jesus to preach and teach and heal, and now they were returning to him and telling him everything they had been doing.  One could see here the apostles both as the new trainee shepherds who had been out and about learning how to care for the flock, but one could also see them as Jesus’ flock coming back to gather around the good shepherd.  

Jesus’ first concern is for the pastoral well-being of the apostles:

He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”

The apostles may be the trainee shepherds but here they are Jesus’ inner flock, and he can see that they are worn out by their first taste of ministry, they need some rest and recuperation, even just some time to eat.  So they went off on a boat.  Don’t worry, I am not going to talk about boats again.

But the needs of the people for healing, for comfort, for hope, to have a new Shepherd, are so great that they run around the lake and get to the landing spot before Jesus and the apostles.  

Although Jesus loves his inner-flock and wants to be pastoral to the apostles, when he sees the crowd he sees a larger flock who also need him:

“…he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

We sometimes talk about the passion of Christ, which means his suffering.  To feel compassion for someone doesn’t just mean to feel a little bit sorry for them, it means to enter into their suffering with them.  Real compassion is the ultimate form of empathy.  God in Jesus is never dispassionate about the suffering of others but is always compassionate, which found its ultimate expression in his passion on the cross.

You may have noticed that there has been a great deal of sheep and shepherd imagery in this sermon.  It wasn’t that subtle.  When I was at theological college I was taught to avoid this if possible as I was told that it is terribly insulting to modern people to compare them with sheep, for all sorts of reasons.

Nonetheless, our bishops have croziers which are shaped like shepherds’ crooks and we do think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I know I have shown you this picture before but this the icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd, which I made at college, and it is made up of 3000 smaller pictures, including some of Annabelle as a baby.  They are all individual people with their own lives and personalities but as we zoom out the bigger picture is that they find a greater identity as part of the flock of the Good Shepherd.

So, let’s never feel insulted at this pastoral and ovine imagery but let’s rejoice that we are part of Christ’s flock here, let us listen out for the voice of our Good Shepherd as he seeks to regather us into a greater fold and let us always know that no matter how far off we are scattered, and no matter how much we suffer, Jesus the Good Shepherd has compassion for us and calls us home.

Amen.  

Sermon – Trinity 6

Trinity 6 – A prophet beheaded

Sunday 11 July 2021

Readings: Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29

There was once a great and united kingdom.  However, as its glory days passed and its power waned it was divided into ever smaller constituent parts, each with its own government.  The part of the kingdom which controlled the capital city was ruled by a quixotic man who was married to a strong woman who controlled his actions from behind the scenes.  The court of this leader was morally bankrupt but when people of faith dared to ‘interfere in politics’ by questioning the dubious moral choices of those at the top then he could be cruel and merciless.  

I am, of course, talking about Israel at the time of Jesus and John the Baptist and Herod Antipas.  

At the beginning of our gospel passage news has reached Herod’s ears that a man called Jesus is going about performing miracles and healings and everyone is wondering who this Jesus is:

“Some were saying, John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead…But others said ‘it is Elijah’ and others said ‘It is a prophet like one of the prophets of old.’  But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

These are the words of a guilty conscience.  Herod knows that he killed an innocent, holy and righteous man and he is afraid that John has been raised from the dead.  Fans of Shakespeare may be reminded of Macbeth being haunted by the ghost of Banquo.

As we know, John the Baptist was a fierce preacher and proponent of a return to holy and clean living.  He saw Jewish society being corrupted.  Thinking about our imagery from the prophet Amos this morning, John the Baptist was holding a plumb line, or perhaps a spirit level, up to the society of his time and found that it had gone wonky.  At the top of this part of Jewish society was the Herodian royal family, who lived more like mini-Caesars than as observant followers of God.

Herod Antipas was married to Herodias who had previously been married to his half-brother.  John the Baptist was outraged by this quasi-incestuous marriage and he voiced his indignation to Herod by saying:

It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

And indeed Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 forbids a man to have sexual intercourse with his brothers wife, although, interestingly Deut 25 commands it when his brother died without leaving a son, although that is not the case here.

Although these prophetic words are spoken to Herod Mark tells us that it is his wife Herodias who takes most offence:

“And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him.  But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.”

Although Herod had John arrested and taken into custody Mark tells us that Herod may actually have done this to keep him safe from Herodias. 

Of course, John the Baptist is not the first biblical character to incur the wrath of a queen for daring to speak out about their morality – there are real echoes here of the prophet Elijah and his denunciation of Queen Jezebel in 1 Kings, and that is far from accidental as many view John as the returning Elijah, heralding the messiah.

So Herod seems to have John in protective custody but not only did he know that John was a righteous and holy man but, it seems, that Herod was intrigued, if confused, by John’s teachings:

When he heard him he was greatly perplexed,and yet he liked to listen to him.”

It would have been very easy for Mark to have portrayed all of the Herodians as being almost like cartoon villains, but here we are being told that despite all his other faults that there was something going on inside Herod which recognised that there was something special in John and wanted to protect that from harm.  I am reminded here of the way in which Pontius Pilate, and in that case also his wife, recognised the holiness of Jesus.

But despite Herod’s apparent desire to protect John an ‘opportune day’ came for Herodias.  It was Herod’s birthday party and the Herodians had a reputation for knowing how to party.

And as one would expect everyone was there – in our translation it says “the courtiers, officers and leaders of Galilee” – in another translation it sounds even grander as it says : “his lords, military commanders and magnates of Galilee.”  Anyway, you get the picture, anyone who was anyone in the ruling class in that part of the world was invited to this birthday party.

And like all good parties it really got going when the dancing girls arrived.  Although in this case, and perhaps this is indicative of the slightly strange, not to say inbred character of the royal household, the dancing girl is Herod’s own step daughter.  Actually it is even more complicated than that:  She seems to have been Herodias’ daughter by her first marriage and was therefore Herod Antipas’ niece (on her father’s side), his grandniece (on her mother’s side), and his step daughter by marriage to Herodias.  I hope that is clear.

Some commentators have been shocked at the thought that a Jewish king would have a young girl, especially one of his relatives, dancing to entertain a group of men at a party like this, but it should be fairly clear by now that the monarchy at this point had rather departed from traditional or devout Jewish values, and of course that is exactly what John was telling them off for!

In this atmosphere of general debauchery the young girl danced for the men and we are told that is ‘pleased’ Herod, so much so that he promised her half of his kingdom.  I suspect that this was not the polite sort of pleased – this was not a round of applause at the end of seeing a good play – the fact is that Herod Antipas and no doubt many of the men there were extremely pleased at this girl dancing for their pleasure and it was in that atmosphere of drunken, not to say, erotic pleasure that Herod makes his rather rash promise to give her anything she desires, up to half of his kingdom.  And it probably says something about her age that the girl has to go and ask her mother Herodias what she would like and, of course, that is the moment for Herodias to get her revenge on John the Baptist.

Herod has painted himself into a corner – he has given his word in front of all these people.  To break his word and, at the same time, to continue to spare the life of someone who had been so outspoken against his household, would have been the ultimate act of weakness, which is the last thing that any ruler can afford.

Herod was deeply grieved, but he knew he had no option and he sent for a guard to behead this holy man.  And we then have this most grisly scene, in the middle of a feast the guard returns with John’s head on a platter and he hands it first to the young girl and she hands it onto her mother.  One writer referred to this feast as the evil twin of the last supper, and it is easy to see why.

But for me, today, the tragedy of this story is not simply the execution of John.  Herod did not just put John to death – I believe that he put his own better nature to death.  Herod knew that John was a holy man and although John reminded him of his own sinfulness he liked to listen to him.  Despite Herod’s best intentions he ended up ordering John’s horrific execution – whether it was drink, misplaced lust, the desire to show off in front of others we can’t tell exactly but we do know that Herod did something that he did not really want to do – he ended up killing someone that he did not want to kill.  And where did that leave Herod?

Herod ended up being frightened of the reports of what Jesus was doing because this also reminded him of his failure to live up to a higher standard.

And I wonder how much that also applies to us?  We are attracted and intrigued and called by holiness and yet so often we fall down and fail – often perhaps because we don’t want to look silly in front of others.  Everytime we fail to live up to those high standards perhaps we feel a little bit further away from God, perhaps even a little bit afraid to hear about Jesus because that reminds us, that haunts us even, that we are not the people we really want to be, the people that God really fashioned us to be.

Well the good news is this: you are not beyond the forgiveness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus.  No matter how often you have failed or fallen down and no matter how badly you think you have sinned God has not given up on you.  The path to holiness is not a destination it is a lifetimes journey and everytime we recognise that we have fallen short of the glory of God and say sorry we move a little further along that path.  And the amazing news is this: today we are closer to God than we were yesterday and tomorrow we shall be closer still, by the grace of his Son and in the power of his Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 5

Trinity 5 – A prophet without honour

Sunday 4 July 2021

Readings: Ezekiel 2:1-5, Mark 6:1-13

On Tuesday of last week the Church celebrated the two Saints Peter and Paul together.

Bearing in mind that most Saints, even ones you have never previously heard of, get a day all to themselves it may look a bit odd that these two pillars of the church, have to share.

It looks even more odd when you realise how different they were in so many ways.  Peter was a ‘salt of the earth’ fisherman from Galilee, not very learned, often a bit impetuous.  Paul was more of a scholar, advanced in his studies of Judaism and an early persecutor of the church.  Even as apostles they did not always agree with one another.

But, despite their obvious differences in character and temperament, they did have something significant in common.  They both responded to the call of Jesus on their lives to make a difference in the world.  Peter was called by Jesus in person to leave his nets and become a fisher of men. Later he was called to be the Rock on which the church would be built. Paul was called spiritually by Jesus whilst he was on the road to Damascus, to stop being a persecutor of the church and he became its greatest evangelist.  

What I love about these two saints being celebrated together is that we are reminded that the church is not built on those who are like us and who agree with us in all things.  The church was never intended to be a club for the like-minded but is the place where the whole world is redeemed, and the whole world includes people who are different from us in all sorts of ways.

So, the sharing of this day by two great saints says loud and clear that the church can live with difference and diversity and even disagreement.  We can choose our friends but we can’t choose our family and the Church is a new family.

This time of year, often called Petertide, is also about the calling to minister within and to the church.  Peter and Paul were both called and ‘ordained’ to their different ministries and most Dioceses in the Church of England ordain their deacons and priests at this time of year, and my Facebook and Twitter feed has been full of ordination photos and memories.  

Although this ordination season is a source of joy and excitement, and it is always a privilege to respond to God’s call on your life, and to see others do so, we are also reminded that ministry can be a costly business, even for Jesus.

Last week we heard that Jesus healed a woman merely by her touching his cloak and that he brought a 12 year old girl back from death. It is clear to all those around him that Jesus is a powerful miracle worker, a prophet of God and perhaps even more than that.

And then Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth – the place where he had grown up with his family, had been surrounded by friends and neighbours – in short the place where he had been known since being a young child.

When Jesus started preaching in the synagogue things seemed to be going well at first. We are told that the people who heard him were ‘astounded’ at both his words of wisdom and the deeds of power that he had been doing. And they wondered “Where did this man get all this?” The obvious implication being that such power and wisdom must come from a place above and beyond his humanity – that it comes from God.

But in the blink of an eye the astonishment of the people in the synagogue turned to doubt and to cynicism:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary – are not his brothers and sisters here with us?

The crowd allowed their knowledge of Jesus as a person – a person with a family and a history – someone they may well have seen scampering around the streets of Nazareth as a child – to destroy any possibility that there was something else, something divine, going on here. And we are told that they ‘took offence at him’.

I am reminded here of not one but two Monty Python sketches.   In the first John Cleese enters a room dressed smartly in a suit and his elderly mother and one of her elderly friends are there. He says “Good evening Mother” and the two old ladies are amazed that he can walk and talk until, eventually, he says: “Mother, I am the Secretary of State for Trade.” and that sets them off again.

And the other is, of course, from the Life of Brian when Brian’s mother says to the gathered crowd, “He is not the Messiah, he is a very naughty boy.”

And we can probably understand the human nature of what is going on. Here in Hadlow, where no one knew me as an 8 year old, I am the Vicar and many people like to imagine that Vicars drop from the sky fully formed. But when I visit friends and family I am not the Vicar, I am simply Paul and rather than getting to preach I usually struggle to get a word in edgeways.

But of course, the whole point of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully human, a person with a family and a history of growing up in Nazareth who was also fully divine. God works through real, living, breathing human beings not only in the person of Jesus but also in his church – sometimes that makes it hard to discern the divine through the human but it is a useful reminder that we need to open our eyes to the divine presence in the familiar and the material – ordinary bread and wine are transformed to divine service but so too are ordinary men and women – even those we may have seen growing up and even those we know to be fallible human beings.

So, the encounter in the synagogue that started well with the crowd being astounded with Jesus ends with him being amazed at their unbelief. 

In many ways this passage should be a comfort to those of us in ministry who may have unrealistic expectations about people liking us because we are seeking to do good or being won over by our preaching. And, indeed, when Jesus sent out the apostles he made it very clear that just as his ministry was not welcome in Nazareth so there will be times and places when the apostles are not welcome either.   It is the apostle’s responsibility to go in the name of Christ and do what they are commanded to do but if the people won’t respond then that is the people’s responsibility.   Likewise it is the prophet Ezekiel’s responsibility to go to the people, but it is up to them how they respond.

With the exception of Jesus himself, who still had to suffer the disbelief of his home crowd, all those called and ordained into the service of God including Peter and Paul and this Paul are fully human beings with pasts and with faults.  Do we choose to take offence at the humanity of the preacher or do we choose to listen to the divinity of the message?

What is that message?  God loves you and he calls you to love him and love each other, even those who are unlike you in every way.

How will you respond to that message this week?

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 4

Trinity 4 – The Church as place of healing27th June 2021

Rev’d Christopher Miles

Readings: Lamentations 3 vv 22 – 33    God’s faithful love

Mark 5 vv 21-E     Healing of the sick woman and raising of Jairus’ daughter

  1. Introduction.         As we progress hopefully towards the end of Covid restrictions it is good to have the two positive readings today to encourage us.  The reading from Lamentations, speaking of God’s love for us and the reading from Mark’s Gospel with such positive accounts of Jesus’ ministry to those in distress.   It is good that, with these accounts in mind, we should consider both the spiritual input to the healing process and the Jesus’ ministry in relation to the specific ministry of the Church as an institution.  There are also difficult questions that I cannot even touch on, such as “Why does God inflict plagues on this worldwide level?”  Firstly a few words about the readings. 
  2. Lamentations.       The book of Lamentations follows the book of the prophet Jeremiah.  In the older, Hebrew, Jewish Bible it is simply labelled ‘Lamentations’ but usually attributed to Jeremiah, because in the 2nd Century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, it is entitled ‘The lamentations of Jeremiah’ and opens with the introductory words, ‘And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive and Jerusalem was made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping with this lamentation over Jerusalem and said’.   Much of the book is the author questioning why God seems to have deserted his people and brought this terrible desolation on Israel and especially on the capital city, Jerusalem.  So, its theme is appropriate to our current national and global situation.  It is good that within that context Jeremiah can come in with such a strong positive note as we had in our first reading this morning, beginning, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end (3 v 22).”   There is one verse that seems a bit difficult and calls for comment.  V 27 reads, “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth”, in otherwards to experience some hardship when young.  When I was young, I experienced all the usual childhood diseases, namely mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, measles and German measles.  Perhaps that has given me some immunity later in life.  In a wider sense I think that this is what Jeremiah is saying.
  3. Mark’s Gospel.     Now let us turn to Mark’s Gospel.  What a wretched time the sick woman had had.  She had suffered a great deal under many doctors.  Medicine has developed a long way in the last 2000 years, but still does not have all the answers.   It is perhaps difficult for us to appreciate the woman’s dilemma.  She was aware of Jesus’ healing ministry, yet for a woman in public to approach a man, other than of her own family, was a ‘No, no!’ and certainly not to touch him in any way, yet she had both a strong belief that Jesus could heal her, that he had healing power, and that healing power needed to be transmitted physically.  Her scheme was a cunning compromise, that in the crowd, she could come up, perhaps from behind and just touch his robes.  How terrified she naturally was, when Jesus called out, ‘Who touched me’.  She was in danger.  Because of her bleeding she would have been regarded as ‘unclean’ and to deliberately touch a rabbi was a serious sin.  No wonder Mark records that reluctantly and trembling with fear the woman admits to what she had done.  Far from condemning her, he responds, “Daughter your faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your sufferings.”  An attitude towards women that we are only now 2000 years later, catching up with!

Mark then goes on to narrate the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter.  These two accounts occur in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  One may consider the event an equivalent of the raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel.  Jesus’ strict instruction to Jairus, his wife and the three disciples, who had accompanied him, not to tell anyone about the event may seem surprising.  You may feel that he had tried to provide a cover for the situation by saying “The girl is not dead but sleeping”.  Matthew tells us, “News of this spread through all that region.” (9 v 26).   Jesus knew though that such a dramatic miracle would arouse the concern and even wrath of national leaders.  His instruction is in contrast to that in the previous chapter where he tells the healed demoniac, Legion, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” (5 v 19).  On that occasion He was in the tetrarchy of Philip on the East side of the Sea of Galilee, well away from national leaders, whereas in today’s events he has returned to Galilee on the W side of the lake.  Albeit not in Judah, he was nearer to Jerusalem and in an area of Palestine of greater concern to the national leaders. 

  • Implication of Jesus’ healing miracles.            It seems to me that there are three possible responses to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ healing miracles generally:
  • Firstly, some Christians might regard the healing miracles as unique to Jesus, as evidence that he was God’s chosen Messiah, or Christ, to use the Greek term.
  • Secondly some Christians might regard prayer and healing as a phenomenon of the early Church, a ministry of the chosen apostles to give the Church a kick start but not applicable today.
  • Thirdly others might say that with the development of modern medicine, spiritual healing has no place these days.

To the first group, regarding non-medical healing as solely proof of Jesus Messiahship, I would say that Jesus sent out the 12 disciples and then 72 disciples telling them to preach this message, “The kingdom of heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Mtt. 10 vv 7, 8). Then, when he sends out 72 disciples, he tells them, “To heal the sick and tell them that the kingdom of God is near you” (Mtt. 10 v 9).

To the second group I would point to Paul’s epistle to the Church of Corinth, where he writes of gifts of healing as one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12 v 28).

To the third group I would point to the Epistle of James, where in his final chapter (5 v 14, 15) he writes, “Is anyone of you sick?  He should call the elders of the Church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.”  Oil, probably olive oil, was used because of its healing properties. Here the physical and spiritual go hand in hand.

Healing today.       Where does this lead us as Christians today?  It seems to me that scripture and experience strongly point to a place for healing ministry in the Church today.  This ministry may be exercised in direct co-operation with established medical treatment through chaplaincy in hospitals etc.  For 5 years, early on in my retirement, I served as a part-time chaplain in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Health Trust, mainly at the Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells but also in Pembury Hospital and occasionally in Maidstone Hospital.   I had conversations with a great variety of patients as I went round the wards and generally, I offered to pray for the person I was visiting.  This was nearly always accepted, even in the case of a Muslim.   We had a sizeable chaplaincy team with a full-time ordained chaplain and many lay volunteers, one of whom was a doctor.  We always had at least one chaplain available, day and night.   There was one amusing incident where the doctor had been seeing a patient.  She then said to the doctor, “Now I would like to see the Chaplain”.  “Yes, I am right here” the doctor responded.   The patient had great difficulty in understanding that a doctor could also be a chaplain.    There is of course a place for healing ministry in the local church.  Clergy and lay ministers have the opportunity in visiting people at home to offer to pray with and for people.  There is of course no reason why any of us should not pray with and for friends and acquaintances.  Each Sunday we pray for the sick.  It is not appropriate, nor is there time to speak of the particular needs of individuals.  Let us though consciously pray for these people believing that God will work in their lives.  Perhaps you could remember one name and pray at home during the week for that person.   Whilst touch and physical presence can be valuable, the work of the Spirit is not confined.   Jesus healed by a remote word.  Some churches have an opportunity for specific individual prayer, perhaps in a side chapel so that people returning from receiving communion can receive prayer.  Not every local church has members with gifts of healing.  My gift is more aligned to healing of church lightning protection systems!  That must very definitely be aligned with science, and engineering!   But as shown in my stole I recognise that I exercise that gift under the hand of God.  In conclusion let us develop our belief that our risen Lord Jesus is at work through his Church to redeem, heal and renew us as we seek to serve him. 

I finish with 3 verses from Psalm 103, verses which we said at Morning Prayer on Tuesday, the day on which Jenny Hopkins was licensed as a lay minister.

“Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits;

Who forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities.”

Sermon – Trinity 3

Faith in stormy times…

Sunday 20 June 2021

Readings: Job 38:1-11, Mark 4:35-41

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

There is nothing quite like being at sea during a storm to put the fear of God into you.

Some 20 years ago now I signed up to take part in a charity fund-raising trip, sailing an ocean-going clipper down the coast of Norway and across the North Sea back to London.

But before myself and the rest of the novice crew were let loose on the boat we had to go on a training sail for the weekend – to literally learn the ropes.

The training sail took place in the Solent between Southampton and Cowes.  The plan was that we would be sailing for 24 hours continuously in a watch system to get us used to the 5 or 6 days it would take us to get from Bergen to London.

During the day the weather was fine and all the other sailors on the Solent had a good laugh at us struggling to pull up sails, tack the boat and all the other things we had to learn how to do.  

But, as darkness fell, the other boats went home and we carried on sailing around the Isle of Wight.  

And then, out of nowhere a bit like this morning’s reading, a vicious squall came up, a force 8 wind that whipped the sea into a frenzy.

We still had the large mainsail up, which meant that the boat tipped right over, the waves were breaking over the sides and washing down the decks.

In this state we had to try and reef in the mainsail, to make it smaller, and change the foresails.

Which might sound easy but which meant leaving the relative safety of the cockpit, strapping yourself onto the jackstays, going forward into the breaking sea and struggling with complex ropes and heavy sails while the wind and waves are doing their best to knock you over.  

I don’t mind telling you that there was quite a bit of fear around while that was going on and I wonder what we would have said if Jesus had been having a bit of a doze on a cushion in the back while we were fighting for our lives, or so it felt.

Let’s remind ourselves of what the disciples, many of whom were experienced fishermen, said in Mark’s gospel:

         “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”

These are strong, challenging words to Jesus and you really get the sense that they come from a place of genuine fear.

In the other synoptic gospels this challenge to Jesus is somewhat toned down.  In Matthew the disciples say:

         “Lord, save us!  We’re going to drown!”

and in Luke:

         “Master, master, we’re going to drown!”

But in Mark, who is always more direct, forthright and forceful, the disciples perhaps echo our own voices in times of distress, of which we have had a few recently:

         “…don’t you care…”

They say that there are no atheists in a foxhole, as those without God may find him in times of crisis, but here it is those who are literally with God who are challenging his perceived inaction when an unexpected challenge arises.

We are first told that Jesus is asleep in the stern during the storm.  It really does look as though Jesus doesn’t care what is happening to the boat or the disciples.  But is this the reality, or is it merely the disciple’s perception of what is happening?  Is God really absent and uncaring in this situation or is he acutely aware of what is happening but waiting for the disciples to make the first move towards him?

They don’t simply make a move towards Jesus, they actually wake him up.  We aren’t told quite how they did this, but given Jesus was managing to sleep through a storm I suspect that they had to give him quite a shake to get this attention.  If you think that prayer is always a super-spiritual activity which involves lots quietness then imagine the disciples in a state of real fear having to shake Jesus awake to get his attention.  Which I suppose is an act of faith in itself, after all why bother waking someone up if you don’t think they can do something?

As Jesus wakes up the first thing he hears is their complaint: “Don’t you care?” 

I don’t know whether to feel more sorry for Jesus or the disciples at this point.

But Jesus answers the question decisively – he ‘rebukes’ the wind and the sea, and there is a dead calm.  Interestingly if you think that you want some dead calm in your life remember that we do need some wind in our sails to move our boats at all.

Having rebuked the elements, Jesus then challenges the disciples:

Why were you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

They don’t answer this question, because they were in ‘great awe’ and spoke not to Jesus but to one another:

How can this be?  Even the wind and sea obey him!”

The disciples seem almost as scared by this action as they were of the previous inaction. 

The answer to ‘how can this be?’ is not given in today’s Gospel but is strongly hinted at in the reading from the book of Job.  And, of course, the book of Job itself is an exploration of the question of where is God when trouble strikes.  After many chapters of Job complaining to God and challenging his decisions part of God’s response is found here, although it is not always comfortable reading.  God essentially says to Job ‘who are you to question me – who laid the foundations of the earth.’  

and

‘Who shut in the sea with doors…’

“…and said ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”

The message is clear – the doubt of the disciples is on a par with the doubt of Job and the answer is the same – the God who created the sea can stop it in it’s tracks and the God we see in Job is the same God we see in the person of Jesus in the back of a boat on the sea of Galilee.

He is the God who made heaven and earth.  The God of creation has power over creation.  This is the God we have faith in and he is there all the time.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question him or shouldn’t metaphorically shake him awake in our fear.  Questioning God is a good thing if it leads us from a state of not thinking about him at all to realising that he is with us always.  But, as Job and the disciples discovered, we need to realise that God answers our questions and our prayers in his terms and not ours.  

God is not asleep to our suffering and our distress but often it is we who are asleep to God.  In seeking to shake God awake perhaps it is our own faith and prayer life that is being woken up.

Sometimes the storm passes and we return to normality, although I hope not dead calm.  And sometimes the storm does not pass but we find ourselves able to cope better with the situation.  When we have faith and perseverance amazing things can happen.

My shipmates and I not only survived that long night on the Solent but when we eventually sailed from Norway across the North Sea we had a storm then too.  Because of our experience of being challenged we found that we have been transformed from terrified novices into salty sea dogs – and rather than clinging on for dear life and wondering when God was going to make it stop we found ourselves riding the waves with joy and rejoicing in a God whose creation is bigger and more vibrant than we can possibly imagine.

Amen.

Sermon – 2nd Sunday after Trinity

St Mary’s Hadlow Sunday 13th June 2021

Readings: 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17, Mark 4: 26-34

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’m sure you have all heard the saying: “Never judge a book by its cover.”

However, if you have ever been to a bookshop, ever bought a book or ever read a book you will know that this is complete nonsense.

Publishers employ artists and designers for the express purpose of selling their books to the right readership by making the covers look both attractive and appropriate to the genre.

I happen to have a couple of books with me. 

The first is by a Russian author Vasily Grossman, called Life & Fate.  It is set in the Second World War and is all about the Battle for Stalingrad.  The cover features a red and black sky, perhaps signifying blood and death, and there are some very serious and gloomy soldiers of the Red Army, who also look as though they have seen a lot of blood and death, looking out of the picture with 1000 yard stares. 

Just by looking at the cover you know that this is going to be a serious book, by a serious writer, featuring, yes, a lot of blood and death.  And, by the way, Vasily Grossman spent 1000 days fighting on the front, so he knew what he was writing about.

And then we have Utopia Avenue, by the English writer David Mitchell.  It is a novel about a band who make it big in the 1960s and the cover has lots of swirling psychedelic patterns which, if you look closely, include some vinyl records, which sends the clear message that this book is about music, about the 60s and about drugs, which is all true. 

No matter what genre of books you read publisher go to great lengths to ensure that you can judge a book by its cover.

But, of course, the saying is not really about books at all, it is about people. 

We are told that we should not be judging what a person is really like by judging their appearance. 

Which we all do all the time.  In fact psychologists tell us that we have normally made up our minds about someone within micro-seconds of meeting them, mostly because of their appearance and, if you are English, by their pronunciation. 

When I arrived as Vicar in Hadlow someone, who shall remain nameless, said to me: “I only have one question to ask you – how do you pronounce the word ‘faith’?”

When I said “Faith” with a T H they seemed satisfied.  Had I said “Faiff” with a double F, I suspect not.

No doubt there are important evolutionary reasons why we judge people so quickly based on outward appearances – if someone looks like us and sounds like us then they are probably one of our tribe, or a close relation, and they probably won’t kill us, so we can relax and let them into our circle.

Whereas if they are different we need to be wary, and we need to keep them at arms length.

But the world has moved on in many ways, and our Stone Age brains need to catch up. 

Judging others on their outward appearance, and specifically on how much like us they appear to be, is, of course, the driving force behind racism, sexism, classism and most other forms of discrimination.

But there is another reason why we should not judge other people by their outward appearance. 

And that is because God does not look at us or other people in that way. 

It does not matter how old or young we are, how fat or thin we are, how white or black we are, how rich or poor we are, how posh or common we are, God is not fooled for a minute. 

We can’t blag God with the way we pronounce ‘faith’ or by going to Eton and quoting some Latin, or even by pretending to be ever so ‘umble and Christian.  The being that created us and knew us before we knew ourselves and will know us long after we have departed this mortal coil sees past the clever design of our cover, our dust jacket, and looks at the text being written every day by our lives, and not just at the text of our words and actions but also between the lines of our thoughts and our motivations.

On one level this is a judgement issue – as St Paul says in the reading from 2 Corinthians “for all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ” and there we can only give a truthful account of who we are and how we have used our God-given time and talents.

But there is also more to it than end-of-time judgement.  It is also about living our lives as the person God made us to be and, this is important, looking at other people in that deeper way too.

As St Paul goes on to say:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer that way.  So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!”

I mentioned last week, and in this week’s pew news’, about how being in relationship with one another because of Jesus creates a new family.  Those who are unrelated by physical birth become brothers and sisters by the new spiritual birth of baptism.

Here St Paul takes that even further and says that because of being in Christ we have become a whole new creation – everything old has passed away and everything has become new. 

As Christians, we don’t look at Jesus merely as a carpenter from Nazareth who did and said some good things, but we see also the Son of God.  So, we no longer see him from a purely human point of view.

We already know that God does not see us from a human point of view, but sees the real us, which might be scary or it might be encouraging.  If it is very scary then I am happy to talk further.  Seriously.

We can see beyond the cover of Jesus’ humanity and God sees beneath the cover of our humanity – we’ve got that.

But how do we look at one another?

Do we use our Stone Age brain to make instant judgements about each other based on dress and colour and accent?  That may be our human nature but we know that we are called beyond that and called to be more than that – indeed, a whole new creation and a whole new family in Christ.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”

What a challenge and what an opportunity.

We are given permission to set aside the mass of prejudices that we think make us who we are, to be the new creation that we really are and to see those around us not only as brothers and sisters but as whole new creations who are loved and known by God, just as we are. 

None of us are as holy as we pretend to be but, because of Christ, all of us are holier than we could possibly imagine – and so is the person next to you and so is the person you may encounter for the first time tomorrow.

Never judge a book by its cover.

Hang on a moment, these covers appear to be the wrong way around.

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity Sunday

Sunday 30 May 2021

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

In the name of the most holy and blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last Sunday was Pentecost and, as I said then, the two Sundays of Pentecost and Trinity, taken together, force us to think more deeply about the God we worship and with whom and towards whom we travel.  

Whilst we thought about the sending of the Holy Spirit on the church last week, and whilst we are encouraged to think about the Threeness and oneness of God this week, of course, both the Holy Spirit and the Trinity should inform our thinking, our praying and our worship all 52 weeks of the year.  These should not be things which we grapple uncomfortably with for 2 weeks and then pop back in the box so that we can get back to thinking about Jesus for the rest of the year.  To be followers of Jesus is to be in relationship with the whole of God the whole of the time.

Trinity Sunday could also be known as the Sunday of Inadequate Metaphors, in which preachers try to demonstrate how something can be one and three at the same time by trying to relate it to eggs and ice and so forth.  Last year, on my first Sunday back from Sabbatical, I looked at most of those metaphors and challenged some of the heresies they contain.  I ended up dwelling on the icon of the trinity by Rublev, which remains one of the best illustrations of the concept.  However, as beautiful and meaningful as that is, even that is an abstraction.

So this year, rather than dealing in metaphors and abstractions, I simply want to look at the gospel reading and see something of Father, Son and Holy Spirit shining through the words we are given.  

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night…”

Despite being an establishment man, Nicodemus found himself unable to ignore the Jesus phenomena, albeit that he made his initial approach under cover of darkness.  There is something quite modern and relatable in that reluctance to be seen in public with Jesus.

But, despite it being uncool and dangerous, Nicodemus wanted to know the truth about this man Jesus.  And, despite his own position of importance he had to approach Jesus as someone willing to learn at the feet of a teacher.  His first words are:

“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who comes from God, For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus recognises, at the least, that Jesus is a teacher blessed by God, that he is with God, and Jesus uses that starting point for a dialogue which leads us further into who Jesus really is.

“Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In Greek the word which means “born from above” is very similar to one which means to be “born again” and Nicodemus interprets that a bit too literally and asks Jesus how an old man can be given birth to a second time and this leads Jesus onto to explain that, of course, he does not mean a second physical birth but, rather, a new birth of the spirit:

“What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Nicodemus asks the question that is on everyone’s lips at this point:

         “How can these things be?”

It is a simple question but the most profound.  If we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven without being born from above, having a second spiritual birth, then how does this happen, what do I have to do?  

Of course, we can’t give birth to ourselves spiritually, any more than we can give birth to ourselves physically.  Our spiritual re-birth comes only from the Holy Spirit. 

I spoke to someone at length during the week who had had a dramatic and life-changing experience of being ‘born again’ through the actions of the Holy Spirit, her life had been completely transformed. But, being ‘born from above’ doesn’t have to be dramatic to be real – I wouldn’t be here without the Holy Spirit and you wouldn’t be there.

Each of our lives are already different because we seek to follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  But, despite being Anglicans, we can still pray continually for the awareness of and renewal by the Holy Spirit and that the fruits of the Spirit would become ever more real in our lives and in our church.  

It may no longer be Pentecost but we can still say: “Come Holy Spirit.”

It would make a great evangelistic story if Nicodemus had responded that he wanted to be born again, had received the Holy Spirit there and then and become another one of the first disciples. But the truth is sometimes a bit messier and Nicodemus does not respond to Jesus at this point and he fades into the background for a few chapters.  It should be a sobering reminder that when even Jesus himself evangelised on a one to one basis that immediate and obvious conversion were not always the result.  Although I think that Nicodemus did become a disciple of Jesus, albeit a less public one, as it was he and Joseph of Arimathea who wrapped Jesus’ body in linen following his crucifixion, when the more public disciples had gone into hiding. 

Having taught Nicodemus about the work of the Holy Spirit Jesus then spoke about the relationship between himself and God the Father:

“No one has ascended into heaven except the one descended from heaven, the Son of Man” 

And perhaps the most famous evangelistic verse of all time, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the World that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” 

Some people may tell you that the concept of the Trinity was invented by the church a long time after the bible was written.  But today, in a space of only 17 verses, Jesus has told Nicodemus, essentially that it is not sufficient to worship God as a far-off being,

Rather, in order to enter the fullness of relationship with God that he desires for us we need to be ‘born from above’ by the power of the Holy Spirit and believe in the name of Jesus, his only Son, who was himself conceived by the Holy Spirit and blessed by the Spirt at his baptism.  

God the Father sent his Son to the world out of love and the Father and the Son send the Spirit upon us out of love.

We don’t need metaphor or abstraction today we just need to know that the whole of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love us and want us to have eternal life by being born in the Spirit, in the name of the Son and to the Glory of the Father.

Amen.