Servanthood – Rev’d Christopher Miles
Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow – 17th October 2021
Isaiah 53 vv 4 – end The suffering servant
Mark 10 vv 35 – 45 Challenge to Christlike service
- Introduction. A senior government official was being driven home from an important visit to a foreign country. Passing through an area of many square miles of desert, he was surprised to see a lone man by the side of the road. He ordered his driver to stop. He offered the man a lift, which the man readily accepted. The man, named Philip, recognised the book that the Official was reading and asked him if he understood what he was reading. The Official responded, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” The book was that of the prophet Isaiah. The passage, our first reading this morning. Philip explained that ‘The Servant’ is Jesus of Nazareth, who had recently been executed in Jerusalem, either shortly before or during the Official’s visit to Jerusalem, that this was all part of God’s plan of salvation. The Official gave orders for the chariot to stop at an oasis and Philip baptises him (Acts 8 vv 26 – 39). The Book of Isaiah contains four servant passages or ‘songs’, perhaps more appropriately poetic verses, of which today’s reading is the major part of the fourth climactic servant passage. Thus, we have the clear authority of the New Testament for seeing Jesus as the one who fulfilled the poetic prophesy of Isaiah. Let’s then relate today’s Old Testament reading to our gospel reading today.
In Isaiah we see the contrast between ourselves, the straying sheep and Jesus as the suffering servant who achieves sublime salvation for the straying sheep. The whole concept runs counter to that of other religions and philosophies.
- Straying Sheep. Soon after my parents obtained the tenancy of a small farm in 1943, they bought a flock of about 50 sheep. Petrol was rationed, it was difficult to get a transporter so we drove them the 3 miles, from the farm of purchase to our farm. We had no sheepdog. The sheep were exploring new territory. Frequently one would try to get through a hedge into a field beside the road. On my bicycle I, aged 8, acted as a sheepdog to keep a stray sheep on track along the road. Sheep have been domesticated and farmed over several thousand years and are common to many countries of the world. It is easier in the fenced fields of much of England to keep sheep from straying, albeit not so easy on the Yorkshire moors or the Lake District Fells. It is not only sheep that stray but human beings who stray from God’s plan for humanity, as revealed fully in the Christian Scriptures and not so completely in other religions. As Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each has turned to his own way” (53 v 6). The theme of this phrase is taken up in the Book of Common Prayer, General Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer in the opening words, “Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.” In our Gospel today, we find James and John seeking power and glory in the soon-to-be re-established Kingdom of God. Probably James, the elder brother, wanted to be Deputy Prime Minister and John, Chancellor of the Exchequer. One only has to read a national daily newspaper, watch a news programme on TV or listen on the radio to be aware of the straying of humanity, the sin in the world. Any theology, ideology, system of government and criminal justice must reckon with sin, at least in its effect on other people. How do we counter it? By more laws, more police, more education or what? Sin though is more than an offence against one’s neighbour. It is an offence against God, breaking our fellowship with God. Just as the poor and marginalised need help to achieve better standard of living so we all need the help of God, rather than judgement and condemnation, in the salvation of our souls. How do we bring people into harmony with God’s plan?
The Suffering Servant. The suffering servant is introduced initially outside the context of our sin. He is described as having ‘no beauty or majesty to attract us to him’, ‘as being despised and rejected by others’, and ‘a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity’ (53 vv 2, 3). Isaiah goes on to say, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (53 v 5). James and John, the sons of Zebedee, seem not to have taken in a few weeks before, Jesus talk to the twelve about the fact and the manner of his own death in Jerusalem, that he must undergo great suffering (Mk 8 vv 31 – 33). Nor had they taken in, following their presence with Peter, at Jesus’ Transfiguration (Mk 9 vv 2 – 8), when he discussed with Moses and Elijah, the import of the manner of his departure from this life (Lk 9 v 31).
Sublime salvation. Isaiah goes on to link his description of the Suffering Servant with our sin in the well-known verse, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (53 v 6). Sublime salvation! Let’s use a simple illustration. Let this book represent my sin, my left hand, represent me, and my right hand, represent Jesus. My sin is a barrier between me and God. God has taken my sin and placed it on Jesus. Now there is no barrier between me and God. This of course is not the whole story, for if my sin has marred my relationship with my neighbour, with any person, there needs to be reconciliation there, in the form of an apology and as far as possible a full re-establishment of a good relationship. Often public apologies take the form of, “If my words have caused any offence, then I apologise.” Usually, the apology has been made because clearly what the person said did cause offence. The inclusion of the word, ‘if’ is not only redundant but it tends to carry with it that the person’s statement was, in his or her eyes, right and true and therefore that the person offended is actually being oversensitive. There are times when something needs to be said which will almost inevitably cause offence. Jesus never said to the religious leaders of his day, anything like “If what I said caused you offence then I apologise.”
Christian salvation is fundamentally different to that of other religions. In other religions the path to Paradise, Nirvana or Heaven is achieved by a person’s own efforts. Christian salvation is through acceptance of what Christ has done for us. Our good works follow, out of love for Christ, our love for God, rather than love for ourselves in our own spiritual progress.
- Service. Jesus makes clear not only to James and John but to the other 10 of his immediate disciples and more widely, all his followers, including ourselves, that the outcome of this sublime salvation. The conclusion of James and John’s request is, in the words of Jesus, “Whoever wishes to be first among you, must be the slave of all. For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10 v 45). We call those who hold senior positions in government or those who exercise leadership in the Church, ‘ministers’, to convey the concept of service that should be embedded in such posts and positions. The suffering servant offers to the straying sheep, sublime salvation. This sermon explores but one main theme of the passion of Christ, theologically known as ‘substitutionary atonement’. I conclude with the collect from Common Worship Morning Prayer for Friday as encompassing a wider view of Jesus’ passion.
Gracious Father, you gave up your Son,
out of love for the world:
lead us, so to ponder the mysteries of his passion,
that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of the blood of our Saviour,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Readings: Joel 2:21-27, Matthew 6:25-33
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Harvest can be a beautiful and joyful time of year.
In Hadlow we are blessed to be surrounded by many orchards. If you wander through them in the few weeks before they are picked, then it can be a bucolic and idyllic experience – when the golden Autumn sun shining on trees laden with dewy apples all looks and feels right with the world.
Those who follow me on Facebook will be bored with pictures of green-leaved trees weighed down with shiny red apples and, just the other night, a rather nice glowing sunset over a field of sheep.
When the harvest is safely gathered in there is a time of plenty for all, the excess produce is laid up for the long winter months ahead and we bring in an offering to say ‘Thank you’ and a box of goodies is then taken to old Mrs Miggins, which keeps her going until Christmas, and we all get home in time for tea and crumpets.
I may have gone too far there.
Whilst we should always appreciate the natural beauty which surrounds us and whilst it is good to keep in contact with the cycles of growth and harvest there is a fine line between celebrating all that is good at this time of year and pretending that we are living in the 19th century.
In fact, let’s be honest: even in the 19th century the rural life was far from the idyll that we like to imagine.
Today our food supply has very little to do with the harvest which happens around us and I don’t think that I am exaggerating when I say that there is a significant amount of anxiety about what this Autumn and Winter will bring for many people.
Despite living in what was one of the most prosperous trading nations in the world we have all seen significant gaps on supermarket shelves, experienced hunting for and queuing for petrol, worried about gas prices going up.
At the same time many people are also experiencing a reduction of their universal credit payment which will result in choices being made about whether to eat or be warm this winter, young working families will soon see an increase in national insurance payments which will ensure that those who have benefited most from the economic good times of the last 50 years will not have to pay for their social care and the inflationary pressures on the cost of living generally will mean that many more children will be forced into food poverty, including here in Hadlow.
Let me tell you a quick story. A few weeks ago a lady came to the Wednesday morning communion service. She was local but has lived in Paris for the past 20 years and was back in England for a visit. Because it was a Wednesday, I was opening up the food bank. She was puzzled by its existence as such things had been unknown in England 20 years ago. I told her that virtually every town and village now had something similar and that there wasn’t a town or village where you couldn’t find people in genuine food need. She seemed shocked to hear that and we parted. But she came back the following week and, when she did, she was in genuine shock because she had been doing her own research and discovered that what I told her was true. The country she had known 20 years ago had changed utterly, and not for the better.
We are living in a time of anxiety for many and gone are the times when a box of goodies to old Mrs Miggins would keep the wolf of need from the door of our neighbours.
So, Harvest does not just mean plaited loaves and corn dollies and feeling well-fed and comfortable and perhaps a little nostalgic for a romantic vision of an agricultural past.
But, Harvest does mean, I think, 3 things:
- Giving thanks for all the blessings we do have. It may sound cliched, it may sound child-like (but that is no bad thing if you cast your mind back to last week and Jesus saying that we should come to him with the innocent faith of children) but learning to be a thankful person is a good first step to stopping being an anxious person. Our anxieties always focus on our lack of something, but thankfulness focusses us on our possession of something.
No matter our problems and our burdens or our anxieties each one of us is blessed in some way – you may be a multi-millionaire or you may be gifted in prayer or in making tea and giving encouragement and comfort.
Think about your blessings, name them and give thanks for them – offer them to God with thanksgiving as if you were bringing in a freshly cut sheaf of wheat or bushel of apples.
2. .When you have named and given thanks for your blessings ask God how you can share those blessings in a meaningful way with our neighbours in need. We are not called to store up our blessings and keep them locked away from others, any more than we are to hide our light from the world.
If you are a multi-millionaire, bless you, you could change the lives of whole families here in Hadlow without noticing it. If you are gifted in prayer, pray for those in need, if you are gifted in making tea and giving comfort then think about joining Jenny on the Anna Chaplaincy team. And, whatever your circumstances, do keep supporting the food bank. It makes me so cross that we need it but, whilst we need it, please keep it going because there are people in this village who will go hungry without it.
3. Having spoken about the anxiety rife in the world now the third and final point of Harvest may surprise you. We are told today, in no uncertain terms, to stop worrying.
In the first reading from Joel even the soil and the animals are told not to be anxious:
“21 Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
22 Do not fear, you animals of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green.”
It is obviously intended to be a poetic use of language but it is clear that such calamities had fallen the land that the soil itself and the animals could be thought to be quivering in fear but the words of God are the same as those used by Angels when they encounter humanity – ‘Do not be afraid.’
Too often the news and social media and advertisers wish us to live in fear, because fear sells papers and drives conflict on the internet which pays dividends to those who wish to put their products before millions of users. But the bible and the messengers of God tell us over and over, not to be afraid.
A people who are not afraid are a powerful people.
And Jesus himself takes that message of radical letting go of fear in today’s Gospel in which he says:
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. We are not to worry about them.
Why not? Because God already knows what you need.
That does not mean that Christians cannot eat or be clothed or be healthy. But, Jesus says, our priority is the kingdom of God and when we seek that first then these things will be given.
In a world of acquisition be thankful for what you have.
In a world of inequality practice some levelling up by sharing with those around you.
And in a world driven by anxiety do not fear and do not worry, God has got this. God has got you and God has got the future.
Sunday 3 October 2021 – Trinity 18
Job 1:1 & 2:1-10 Mark 10:2-16
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We need to be very clear about something this morning.
Job was a good man.
The author of the book of Job is so keen for us to understand that basic point that it goes into chapter one verse one:
“That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
The reason it is important to remember Job’s essential goodness, and the reason it is placed front and centre, is because for much of the rest of the story which follows both we, and Job, are tempted to doubt that simple fact.
Job’s so-called comforters sit with him and spend chapter after chapter telling Job that he must have been bad, even if he didn’t realise it, because they believe that bad things cannot happen to good people.
They took the very mechanistic, perhaps even karmic, view that if you are good then good things will happen to you and if you are bad then bad things will happen to you. That never the twain shall meet and that if bad things do happen to good people then really, deep down, they must have been bad.
But, Job was a good man. And it doesn’t just say this in verse 1, God himself says the same in verse 8, which we didn’t hear this morning:
“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
He was blameless and upright, he feared God (the fear of God is not something we think about much today, is it?) and he shunned evil. God himself confirms that there was no one on earth like him.
If you think about the Angel Gabriel speaking to Mary at the annunciation he said: “Mary, you have found favour with God.”
Although one has to tread carefully here, it certainly looks as though Job was ‘highly favoured’ too.
So, I hope we are now agreed that Job was good.
And yet, despite his goodness we know that personal calamity, followed by much tragedy, does fall on Job.
Perhaps even more challengingly we heard this morning that the trials and temptations which befell Job were inflicted by Satan, but who was given permission to do so by God.
The temptation as a preacher is to try and understand and unpack the reasons that God may have done this but to do that is probably to fall into the same trap as both Job and his comforters. At the end of the book Job challenges God to explain himself and God’s answer is not a trite explanation or comfortable platitudes, rather God continues to challenge us by saying to Job, effectively, where were you when I created the universe and who are you to understand my ways?
This probably offends us on many levels. It may offend our image of God but it may also offend our modern right to know and understand everything, immediately!
But if we can quell our offence for a moment and enter into the story I suspect that it speaks to our lived experience much more than we may care to admit.
We know that bad things can happen to good people.
Although few of us may be as upright as Job or as highly favoured as Mary we know that calamity and tragedy and sickness and, yes, death can befall those who don’t ‘deserve’ it in the karmic sense at any time.
It may be us, it may be our loved ones, it may be whole countries or the whole world. It certainly feels as though we have been through a collective trauma recently, and one that continues to play out.
Like Job’s comforters we may blame those who are suffering or like Job himself towards the end of the book we may accuse God of injustice, and shake our fist and seek understanding, and it is perfectly fine to do that as illustrated not only by Job but in many of the Psalms, but sometimes we also have to accept that, although we are made in the image of God, that we are not God and that we will never understand the ‘big picture’ as he does, any more than a toddler can understand why it needs to eat its greens and go to bed when it is overtired. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
But first I’m going to mention Mary one more time, and then I’ll get onto Jesus, I promise.
I have already mentioned that the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was highly favoured by God when he told her that she had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. And yet, when Jesus was taken to the Temple Simeon told her that a sword would pierce her soul and we know that it must have done exactly that when she saw that same Jesus on the cross having his side pierced.
Saying yes to God and being a good person does not mean that bad things cannot happen – faith and goodness are not a karmic exchange, as tempting and as easy as that is.
Which does bring us to Jesus, which is a good place for the preacher to end.
There can be little doubt, I hope, that like Job and like Mary, Jesus ‘found favour’ with God – as God the Son he could hardly be more blameless or upright.
But, on a human level at least, even being God the Son did not mean that nothing bad ever happened.
Like Job, Jesus was subject to trials and temptations and deprivations by the devil. However, unlike Job, he gives us a different response and trusts himself entirely to a loving relationship with God the Father, as he did again in the Garden of Gethsemane – not my will Father, but yours be done.
A trusting, loving and almost child-like response which comes from a place of deep belief that although we may not know or understand the reasons or the answers that there is a Father who does see the big picture beyond our comprehension and that sometimes the best response to our trials and tribulations is just to go into his arms like little children.
Which, of course, is exactly what Jesus is saying to us in the second part of our Gospel reading today.
Jesus was giving some grown-up teaching about marriage and adultery and whilst this serious stuff was going on people kept bringing their children to Jesus so that he could bless them through his touch.
This must have been quite the distraction as we are told that the disciples ‘spoke sternly’ to the parents. I would love to know what they said:
“Will you please stop bringing your children to Jesus!”
But Jesus didn’t just stop his disciples from talking sternly to the parents, we are told that he was ‘indignant’ with them.
There was no soft-focus pastiche going on here – we have pushy parents, stern disciples and even an indignant Jesus. And, in the middle of it all, the children who have little understanding of what is happening.
What does Jesus do?
He said: “…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he blessed the children.
We are not called to understand the inner workings of God’s mind – we were not present when the stars were flung into space any more than Job was.
We are not called to blame ourselves when bad things happen and to believe that we have somehow fallen out of favour with God – we may be upright and blameless but still experience a sword in our soul.
We are called to something which may be both harder but also more liberating and joyful. To become like little children in our simple love and trust of God. To allow Jesus to bless us despite everything and to enter the kingdom of God with wonder and thanksgiving for all that there is, and for all that is to come.
Co-operation – 26th September 2021 (Trinity 17)
Readings: James 5 vv 13 – End Prayer of faith Mark 9 vv 38 – End Those not against us are for us. Causing to sin
- Introduction. “I tell you mate if you are not going to join our gang, you’ll be one of the enemy. You’ll need to watch out.” This is the sort of conversation you might expect amongst the young men involved in some of our urban gangs. But it is not far removed from the disciples’ response to an exorcist casting out demons in Jesus’ name, as the Apostle John reported it in today’s gospel reading, when he says, “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” This leads on to Jesus’ teaching about co-operation with other disciples. In our Epistle, James teaches us about co-operation with God. Our co-operation with God and our co-operation with people and for that matter the whole of creation are linked.
- Co-operation with God. Firstly, co-operation with God. James has several things to say about prayer. The foundation of prayer is our relationship with God. As Paul said two or three weeks ago, intercessory prayer is not trying to twist the arm of a loving God, but rather aligning ourselves with God’s will. As Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done”. I suggest that this is one of the reasons why James says that the sick person should call for the elders to pray for him. Two people can be better than one, in some circumstances, in discerning the will of God. James also speaks of singing songs of praise. The whole of our service this morning is in principle aligning ourselves with God. Our Sunday worship together, should help us to pray and live more effectively during the week.
- Co-operation with Creation. Secondly, co-operation with creation. James gives us the example of a man of faith who knew how to pray in line with God’s will. He gives us quite an extreme example of Elijah praying for a drought, which lasted for 3½ years and then praying for rain for the crops to grow again. His prayers were answered. Can we pray for appropriate weather? I recall an occasion when I was at theological college in Oxford and attached to three country parishes in my first year of training. One Sunday afternoon before I conducted evensong in one of the parishes, the Vicar rang and asked me to include a prayer for the farms, as we had experienced a very wet April, with rain nearly every day and the farmers were anxious about their spring crops becoming waterlogged. As a farmer’s son I sympathised with their predicament. I duly included a prayer for a period of dry weather. I recall coming out of Church and it was gently drizzling and I thought, “Oh dear, is our prayer going to result in fine weather or not!” From the next day, there was no rain for 6 weeks and the waterlogged ground was able to recover. More recently Julia and I were due to attend a service of thanksgiving at Trottiscliffe, one of my previous parishes, for a thanksgiving service of a well-known member of the Church and farming community. Trottiscliffe Church has pews to seat 65 people, so it was planned to relay the service to the churchyard. The forecast was for an overcast day with showers. I thought it right when Julia and I had our breakfast prayer to pray for a dry period for the service. We were sitting outside in the churchyard ready for the service to start at 1.30 p. m. and it was very gently raining until exactly 1.30 p. m. when the rain completely stopped, until about 6 p.m. We thanked God for the dry periods. Addition – we prayed for a fine period for the post service coffee at Follyfoot on 3rd October. There is a danger though that we regard rain as ‘bad weather’ and sunny, dry, weather as ‘good weather’. We need a combination of rain and dry weather, sunshine and clouds, calm and wind. All are good, all are part of God’s creation, in which he continues with an active role, not as a clockmaker, who has built the clock of the universe and set it running in a rigid regular way. I am sure we all have examples both of prayer answered in the way we had hoped and prayer answered in other ways. We don’t always by any means discern God’s will accurately. Let us though continue to try to align ourselves with the will of God, saying, ‘Your will be done’.
- Co-operation with people. We have thought about co-operation with God and co-operation with creation. Now let’s think about co-operation with people. This is where Jesus’ views and that of the 12 differed radically. John reported to Jesus that they had seen a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name and they had told the man to stop because the man was not one of them. Jesus’ response was “Do not stop him”. Despite this, if one looks at the history of the Church we see huge conflict between different sections of the Church, sometimes because the Church was too politically involved and identified with one political strand. One thinks of Bishops Ridley and Latimer, protestant bishops of the Anglican Church, being burnt at the stake in the reign of the Catholic monarch, Queen Mary. John Bunyan, the free church preacher and writer was imprisoned for many years in Bedford town jail. Much of the emigration to America in the 17th and 18th Century arose from the Anglican Church in this country seeking to enforce its rigid worship on everyone and similar action on the European continent. Thank God for the 1910 Edinburgh missionary conference which began to end conflict between denominations and ‘sheep stealing’ in the mission fields. The modern ecumenical movement has done much to reduce conflict between Christian denominations and to encourage a real desire to recognise Christians in other denominations as our brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe that it matters not too much that there is a variety of denominations. To believe in the ‘catholic’ church, catholic meaning ‘universal’, is to recognise the essential unity we have in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
How far though can we go in co-operating with other religions? Whist holding firm to the essentials of the Christian faith as expressed in the creeds, we can recognise the good aspects of other religions and on a personal level work with people of a variety of faiths and beliefs. I read in the Church Times that the family of a dying, already unconscious, woman in St Thomas’ Hospital, was unable to get an Imam to come and pray with her and said, “Please would anyone pray with her.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was on duty there as a Chaplain, knelt by the bed and prayed for her. He said, “There was such a beautiful sense of the presence of God, of the love of God, it was such a profound moment.” In my role as a Regional Chaplain of the London and South East Region of the Air Training Corps, I agreed to take on a new commitment as the Corps’ multifaith coordinator. As such I was responsible for the appointment of a Hindu Chaplain as an adviser in our Region and as a Chaplain to Middlesex Wing, particularly to minister to the many Hindu cadets within the squadrons of that Wing. At a Wing parade I would say a couple of prayers and invite him to say a Hindu prayer. However, when it came to our annual service for London and South East region, held in the RAF Church, St. Clement Danes Church in London, that service was entirely Christian in a Christian Church.
As a lightning protection consultant, I work with people all over the world and generally do not know what their religion or lack of it is. I am very happy to work with people who have a concern for practical application of the truth, as expressed in scientific principles. However, when one of our members died, I was happy to accept the invitation of our Italian Chairman, a Roman Catholic, to say a Christian prayer of remembrance of the member who had died.
What limits should we place in the ordinary things of everyday life? Paul in his second letter to the Church at Corinth says that Christians should not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. This has been interpreted in the context of marriage and even, within a strand of the Brethren, of business partnership. The context of Paul’s injunction is however primarily about the general social relationships in a city of much idolatry and sexual immorality. The principle seems to me that one should avoid relationships which may undermine one’s faith and the purpose of one’s activities. Generally, there is not the same stark contrast in modern society, albeit there may be in some places. In marriage it is important to have a common philosophy with a good understanding between husband and wife about acquisition and use of money, of the desire or not to have children, a good understanding about roles. Sometimes cultural differences can create tensions. For both parties to have a strong Christian faith can be a great basis for marriage. I have though known good marriages where this is not so. In W London, a parish clergyman, who was one of our ATC chaplains, was married to a Hindu wife. It probably helped him in his ministry in a strongly Hindu parish. Thinking of other areas of life, one can be keen on action to minimise climate change, but not wish to associate with some forms of demonstration to bring about needful change.
- Conclusion. In conclusion, may our lives be so rooted in Christ that we can be guided in prayer and discern how we can best reach out to and co-operate with other people of other denominations, other faiths and other races and cultures, according to God’s will.
Sunday 12 September 2021
Readings: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-end
Heavenly Father, may these my spoken words open to us something of your written word and so lead us to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
My maternal grandfather was a gunner in the Royal Navy during the second world war and, although he hardly ever spoke about it, he did tell me that he was on a number of ships that were sunk, mostly in the North Atlantic convoys.
Does anyone remember the wartime phrase ‘Loose lips sink ships’?
It is worth unpicking that succinct phrase for a moment. A couple of words, said without thinking in earshot of the wrong person – perhaps something simple like “My Tommy is sailing out of Chatham on Sunday” could lead to a U-boat waiting in the channel, firing a torpedo and unleashing horror and death.
A word, a simple breath of air passing over the tongue and the lips, but spoken out of place, could sink a warship.
In today’s first reading St James reflects on the power of our words, both for good and for ill. He too talks about ships and says that no matter how big the ship and no matter how it harnesses the great power of the wind to drive it along, it’s direction is controlled by a comparatively tiny rudder.
If a rudder wags around in any old direction, without a helmsman keeping control, then the ship will not go the right way.
James compares the rudder of this ship to the human tongue which, although comparatively small, can set the direction of a person.
I am sure we have all met people whose speech is full of love, encouragement and grace. They build us up and are a pleasure to be around.
And I am sure we have all met people who are, shall we say, less so.
But, perhaps worse, are those whose words give a bad witness to their faith. Those whose lips and tongues praise God in church on Sunday morning but who then say awful things about others – St James talks about them too:
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.”
I am reminded of 1 John 4:20
Whoever claims to love God but hates brother or sister is a liar.
And, of course, Matthew 7:16
By their fruit you will recognise them.
If we say to the world that we are Christians, who love God and who love neighbour, then we should be aware that those around us will be watching to see how we act – does what we say we believe on a Sunday line up with our actions during the week and do the words of our lips when talking about someone demonstrate a life transformed by love, or something else?
If you met someone who was a Muslim but who drank alcohol or someone who was a Hindu and ate beef you might think them a terrible hypocrite whose actions lowered the standing of their faith in your eyes.
We bear the same responsibility to live our lives in the world as people who are transformed by the experience of meeting God, through Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
And, just to be clear, I am not seeking to pontificate from a place of perfection. St James makes the point loud and clear that those who lead and teach in the church will be judged strictly and I know, sisters and brothers, that I often fail to live up to God’s call on my life. So, as I pray for you to become the people you were called and made to be, then I ask for you to pray for me in the same way, and as I pronounce God’s absolution for sins following the confession then please know that this is as much for me as for all those in church.
Jordan Peterson, the rather controversial academic and speaker, has an interesting relationship with Christianity and he recently gave an interview to the Church Times. His main criticism of contemporary Christianity is that the faith we profess does not sufficiently change our lives, words and actions. He said:
“There’s no limit to what would happen if you acted like God existed…..the way you live isn’t sufficient testament to the truth.”
Is the way we live and conduct ourselves in the world a sufficient testament to the truth? When others look at us, and hear how we talk to and about others, do they see lives transformed by the reality of God?
In church we often think about the great saints. The only difference between the saints from church history and ourselves is not the possession of super-human powers. People are not born saints in the way that Clarke Kent was born Superman. The saints that we celebrate and remember are fellow-Christians, living in the same fallen and difficult world that we do, but who have lived their lives fully in the light of God’s presence. Aligning their thoughts, words and actions so closely with God that it would become unthinkable for them to praise him and proclaim Jesus as Lord one moment and to curse and lie the next.
To answer Jordan Petersen’s charge, the lives lived by the saints are always sufficient testimony to the truth. And we are all called to be saints.
But even some of the greatest of saints had to start somewhere, and some of their mis-steps are recorded in the bible. This should give us confidence both in the transparency of the biblical account and the humanity of the saints.
In today’s Gospel reading Simon Peter, who would later become the rock on which Jesus built his church, allowed the words of his mouth to be both fresh water, and then brackish water.
Jesus had asked his disciples who people thought he was, and we heard a variety of answers, and then he asked his disciples the same question:
“But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ”.
Peter spoke the truth, although he may not have fully understood what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ. Then Jesus taught them a little more:
“He [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”
This is where it goes wrong for Peter and he took Jesus aside to rebuke him.
This is a very strong word and is often used in the bible in the context of exorcisms in which unclean spirits are rebuked. In turn Jesus rebuked Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan!” which reinforces the exorcism tone.
Imagine proclaiming Jesus as the Christ in one breath and then rebuking him almost with the next?
But isn’t that what we do every time we leave church and then fail to speak lovingly both to one another and of one another?
If our words and actions and lives joined up sufficiently so that we were testaments to the truth, which is Jesus the Christ, then not only would we be the saints here on earth but a world in need of authenticity would be beating down our doors to have what we have.
This is not meant to condemn us, but to encourage us. St Peter got it badly wrong in today’s gospel, as he did on many other occasions, but we know that Jesus kept forgiving him as he keeps forgiving us.
Loose lips may sink ships but the tongue with which we sing our praises to God should also testify to a life transformed by him, the tongue which receives Jesus in the sacrament should be Christ-like when talking to others and the tongue which prays for God’s forgiveness and blessing should be full of forgiveness and blessing to friends, family and neighbours.
Hand Washing – 29th August 2021
James 1: 17 – End Listening and doing; Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14, 15, 21 – 23 True cleanliness
- 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.
Sermon: 10th Sunday after Trinity – 8th 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.
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.”