Sermon – Trinity 12

Sunday 30 August 2020 – Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-end

The world, by which I mean in this case the tabloid press, love a good ‘naughty Vicar’ story.  If a vicar is caught cheating on their partner or committing any kind of crime then you can bet that the press will be all over the story in a way that wouldn’t apply if the perpetrator did most other jobs. 

Politicians and celebrities get similar treatment but, even with them, that sort of behaviour is more expected and cheating on your wife is no bar to the highest of political offices these days.

I suspect that people love to read about Vicars going wrong either because it confirms their view that the church is hypocritical, preaching one thing whilst doing another, or they have a salacious interest in seeing those who hold themselves out as being ‘pure’ fall from grace.

How we love to put people in categories and, woe betide them, if their behaviour does not fit into our categories.  What clearer distinctions could be made than between pure and impure, between sacred and secular, between saint and sinner, between heaven and hell, between human and divine.  Surely, we tell ourselves, that these categories must be mutually exclusive and that to cross between them is either impossible or unforgivable. 

However real life is often messier than the categories we seek to impose upon it and, perhaps even more challengingly, the characters and the events we find in the bible, even the most celebrated and foundational, often demonstrate that God has no choice than to work his purposes through fallible, broken, human beings because that is all he has but, and here is the good news, being broken and fallible is no bar to also being forgiven and lifted up into God’s presence, indeed that is the whole point of God’s saving work on earth.

Our first reading this morning recounted the call of Moses to become the saviour of the Hebrew people, leading them from slavery and into the land flowing with milk and honey.  Moses is obviously one of the towering figures of the Hebrew scriptures and, along with Elijah, is one of two who also appear in the New Testament at the transfiguration of Jesus.  We know that Moses spent time in the presence of God, that he received the ten commandments directly from God and that the Red Sea parted before him as they fled from Egypt. 

By any reckoning and on any scale Moses must count as a ‘holy’ figure?  Of course, he does, but today we are reminded of some of the messiness of life.

The Moses we encounter today does not look particularly holy.  He is employed as a shepherd.  Nothing wrong with a bit of honest agricultural work, of course, and we often think of Jesus as a metaphorical shepherd or we may think of the shepherds of Bethlehem who were honoured to hear the heavenly choir announce the birth of Jesus. 

But the reality of being a shepherd, is one of hot, boring and probably often smelly work and quite different from the ‘holiness’ of being a priest like the owner of the flock, his father-in-law, Jethro the priest of Midian. 

Nothing about Moses the shepherd looks particularly holy and it is worth remembering how he came to be working as a shepherd at all.  In the preceding chapter of Exodus the young man Moses had witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and Moses killed him and hid his body in the sand.  He then fled to Midian in fear of his own life. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, Moses was a killer and a refugee and employed to look after a bunch of smelly sheep.  I doubt he looked or felt or smelt holy in any sense.

And yet God wasn’t confined by human categories or preconceptions.  When God chose to call someone into his service and onto his holy ground, he did not call the priest of Midian but this most imperfect of characters.

We know that Moses did not feel worthy of this call because his response was not “At last I have been recognised for the true person I am below this shepherding exterior”, rather it was “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?”

Who am I?

I often encounter ordinands both in real life and on Twitter who are awaiting ordination and I always have more confidence in the ones who say: Who am I? those those who say: Here I am, Lord!

God’s response to Moses’ question is the same as the assurance we are given in the service of ordination: “I will be with you” or “With the help of the Lord, I shall.”

It seems to me that God can do more good through the imperfect who know their need for the continual presence and help of God then those who think themselves perfect in their own strength.

Moses’ imperfection was no bar to being called to stand on Holy ground and to do the work of God.

In the Gospel reading this morning we also encounter the reality that holiness and imperfection often interact in ways which defy our comfortable categories.

Simon, like Moses, had also been employed in difficult, smelly and ‘unholy’ work although as a fisherman, rather than as a shepherd.  As God called Moses so Jesus called Simon and, in last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Jesus called him Peter, the Petrus or rock upon which the church would be built, that he would be given the keys of heaven and that whatever he bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven.  This should have been the apogee of Simon Peter’s transformation from unholy to holy.

But this week how things have changed.  The rock on which the church is built has become a stumbling block to Jesus.

Having just acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus now teaches the disciples what that actually means.  It does not mean the defeat of the Romans, it does not mean earthly success, it does not mean any kind of triumph.  For Jesus to be the Messiah means, first to suffer many things and to be killed and, only after that defeat, to be raised again to life.

It is clear that despite Peter’s ‘ordination’ as the rock of the church that he doesn’t yet understand the true purpose of Jesus and he tries to use his new-found authority to bind Jesus himself “Never Lord!” he said.  A far cry from “Your will be done.”

Jesus response is quite shocking – he not only calls Peter a stumbling block but he actually calls him Satan.  This bring to mind Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when Satan offered Jesus the easy way out of suffering and, of course, that is exactly what Peter is doing – he is tempting Jesus to avoid the suffering, go straight for the triumph. 

You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus tells all the disciples, not just Peter, that the way to follow him does not include the easy path, the avoidance of suffering, but that they must each carry their own cross and lose their own life, because that is the only way to find their true life.

Do we seek the cross or do we seek success or do we seek the true success that only comes on the other side of the cross?

There are many lessons to be learned from today, and from our imperfect situation at present.  But, for me at least, the lesson is this: perfection is not a pre-requisite for being called by God.  If God can call Moses then he can call you or I.  And being called by God, and even being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, is no guarantee of never getting it wrong.  If Peter can be called the rock one moment and Satan the next, can deny Jesus and yet still be forgiven, then rest assured that you are unlikely to annoy Jesus more than Peter did.

Our present situation as a church and as a world is messy and imperfect and often feels far from holy. 

Which means that it is probably just right for God to call us and use us and ask us to follow him.  But we have to be prepared to pick up our crosses and walk.

Amen.

Paul White

Sermon – Trinity 11

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 11, 23rd August 2020

Exodus 1 v 8 – 2 v 10    Birth and upbringing of Moses

Matthew 16 vv 13 – 20  Peter’s confession of Christ

Introduction.       Julia and I returned 9 days ago from a two-week family holiday in Cornwall.  On the Sunday morning two weeks ago we all attended the Tube Station in Polzeath, where we were staying.   This is not a new station on London’s district line, but a Christian venture started about 10 years ago in the former Methodist Church, to reach out to surfers.   About 50 of us sat on and around a large grassy bank overlooking the beach at Polzeath for a simple act of worship.  Some guitar led music to which we were allowed only to hum, a time of prayer and a sermon.  Our preacher, Caroline, spoke movingly of how God had led her with her husband to move very recently from Orpington to take up Christian ministry in Cornwall.  I went up to her afterwards and just said ‘Christ Church Orpington’.   ‘Yes’ was her reply.   I spoke of my links, including preaching there in May 1968 and the mentioned more recent ministry including being Vicar of Leigh at which an elderly woman nearby joined in and said did I know Ken and Gladys Skillman.  I did.  The woman is Caroline’s mother and Ken and Gladys, no longer alive were her parents, that is Caroline’s grandparents.  Ken sang in the choir at Leigh and Gladys and Julia did meals-on-wheels.    Having lived for well over four score years and lived in over 30 places in 10 counties and met 1000s of people I so often find unexpected links with people.  

Today’s first reading relates the birth and upbringing of Moses the leader of the Israelites in God’s great saving acts of the Exodus.  It is fascinating to note the people whom God used in the preparation for the Exodus – members of Moses’ family and others.   In our Gospel reading we heard of the climactic point in the preparation of one of the foremost leaders of God’s people of the New Covenant, the Apostle Peter.

As then, so now, God uses the coincidences of life, the calling of the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of many people in the work of his kingdom in preparation for the climax of the Kingdom of God in Christ’s return to earth.    Let us look more closely at the outworking of God’s plan of salvation, through Moses, through Peter and through ourselves.

Moses.   ‘Call the midwife’.  It is not only The King, Pharaoh, who calls the two Israelite midwives, but the King of Kings. Pharaoh’s instructions were to kill the boys, who 20 years later might form a revolutionary army, but to let the girls live.  The midwives calling of God was to preserve life not to destroy life.  They were women of faith in the one true God and were prepared to risk their own lives in disobeying Pharaoh. It is good that we know their names, Shiprah and Puah, for they deserve to be held in remembrance as God’s agents who risked their lives in fulfilling His plan of salvation.

Next, we think of the unnamed mother of Moses, who hid her baby boy in defiance of Pharaoh and who no doubt instilled in her young son a sense of God’s promises to his chosen people.  When it was no longer possible to hide her son, Jochebed, as we learn in Exodus Chapter 6 was her name, devised a cunning scheme that involved what was technically a means of disposing of unwanted children, to put Moses in one of the many channels of the Nile Delta in the land of Goshen, where, under Joseph the sons of Israel had settled.  Pharaoh’s palace was at Rameses, Egypt’s capital city, in the land of Goshen.  If the Pharaoh at that time was Rameses II who had about 60 daughters, it was quite likely that this particular princess, possibly called Tharmuth, had a regular habit of coming to a particular place in the river.   On this occasion the baby was put in a carefully constructed basket, placed in the reedy shallows, safe from the river current.  Jochebed, a woman of faith, had an important but risky role in God’s plan of salvation.

Moses’ elder sister, no doubt carefully briefed by her mother, also had an important role in God’s plan.

We know little about the Princess, although she was a woman of compassion and with the status to exercise her compassion, possibly hiding from her father the origin of the baby.  Maybe with the large number of princesses this was not difficult to do.  God can use people of good will, albeit outside the fellowship of his chosen people, to achieve his plans.   She would have seen to it that Moses had a good education.

So, four women and a girl, who guided consciously or otherwise by His Spirit were essential agents, through the coincidences of life, through God’s call and in cooperation were important agents in preparing his chosen leader of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the threshold of the Promised Land.

Peter.       Let us now move forward from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, to a leader who may seem a surprising choice to take a leading role in implementing God’s plan of salvation, when Jesus would no longer be physically present with his followers.  Jesus and the 12 close disciples had gone to Caesarea Philippi in the mountainous country in the North of Palestine, close to the border with Syria and not to be confused with Caesarea, much further south, on the Mediterranean coast.  It was a time of reflection, away from the crowds, a time of Jesus preparing the 12 for his death.   The 12 had accompanied Jesus in his 3 years of public ministry, they had eaten, rested, discussed and slept together during this time.  They had witnessed Jesus healing, teaching, preaching, encouraging and challenging people throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and sometimes further afield, with his concern for Gentile as well as Jew.   To carry on the work of the Kingdom of God, he needed followers who were thoroughly committed, who understood and believed fully in his role.  He knew that his own death would be a great challenge to the 12, including Peter who takes him to task as recorded in the same chapter of Luke, just after today’s reading.  Were the 12 just taking a popular view of him as a prophet or as the Messiah?  To start the ball rolling he asks them what people are saying about who he was.  People will often express views about a leader to his followers, his fans, that they would not express directly to the leader.

  Some surprising answers come back.   Some say John the Baptist, whom Herod Antipas had had beheaded.  What a superficial judgement, considering John was Jesus’ cousin, only a few months different in age and John had baptised Jesus!   Some were saying that he was Elijah.   There was more justification for this as the last words of the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi, state God as saying to him, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4 vv 5, 6).  Malachi was not saying that there would be a literal resurrection of Elijah but that there would be a prophet in the mould of Elijah; one who would fearlessly challenge both high and low, rich and poor and that if they responded in repentance the result would be family harmony, social wellbeing, but if not then a terrible outcome.   Jesus had made clear to the 12 at an earlier stage that actually John the Baptist was the one who fulfilled Malachi’s prophesy.  Thirdly some people were saying that Jesus was a prophet in the mould of Jeremiah or maybe another of the prophets, perhaps because he apparently foretold the destruction of the temple and frequently challenged the national leaders.

    Jesus then puts a more challenging question to the 12, “What about you?  Who do you say that I am?”    It is easy to have a general discussion, but not so easy when it becomes a personal challenge.   In their witness of Jesus’ ministry had they been able to see deeper than the perception of the generally sympathetic response of much of the population?  Only the answer of Peter is recorded, with his inspired statement of his belief, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  There is not time this morning to consider Jesus’ enigmatic response about the rock.   We must get personal.

Our response.  Today many people of other faiths or none would say that Jesus was an outstanding teacher or a prophet.   Some years ago, as the Multifaith Coordinator for the Air Cadet Organisation I had discussions with leading people of other faiths, who at that time were the appointed advisers in their faiths to HM Forces, as to how they understood chaplaincy.  This was with a view to us appointing chaplains of other faiths.  I was having a discussion with the Muslim Adviser, Khurshid Drabu, a barrister who was Vice-President of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. After about an hour’s formal discussion, I concluded with a ‘throw away remark’, “Don’t Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet.”  I was quite surprised by Khurshid’s response, “Yes, indeed, in some respects greater than Mohammed, for only Jesus healed people.”   Let us be glad that Muslims and many others accept Jesus as a prophet. As we saw in our Old Testament reading, God can use people of good will in achieving his plans of salvation, as he did with the Egyptian princess.   But what about ourselves?   Jesus’ question comes to us today, “Who do you say that I am?”  God wants people whether lay or ordained, young or old male or female, to take forward the work of his kingdom.  The gospels record only two other people who made a firm confession similar to that of Peter, and both of those people have always had a ‘bad press’, doubting Thomas, one of the 12, and Martha, who was cumbered about with much serving.  Can you say today with the Apostle Peter, in response to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”    

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Patronal Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 8: Feeding of the 5,000

Trinity 8 – 2 August 2020 – Feeding of the 5000 by Francesca Vernon

Jesus hears about his cousin John the Baptist’s death. He gets into a boat and sails off alone, perhaps looking to find some space in solitude… to process.

On coming ashore, however, Jesus is suddenly faced with this stadium size crowd of people standing before him, following him, waiting for him. I don’t know about you, but I feel that faced with this on top of the grief, I’d have been at the very end of my emotional tether.

But, Jesus’ response is not frustration, not even a slight sigh of weariness. He responds with a full, open-hearted compassion. Amidst his deep personal grief, the only response he has to these people is love, a deep love that strikes him to his guts: in the original Greek text, the word for having compassion here is made from the word used to describe a person’s deepest guts, their heart, stomach, liver, their insides. So, Jesus’ compassion for the people overflows out of the very core of his self, out of his inmost being. This is the God who faces us here.

Then, out of this compassion, Jesus feeds the people. He sees their hunger, their need, and he responds. The disciples on their part want to send them off to town to buy their own dinner, as there is barely enough food for them! But Jesus does not want to drive anyone away. And so, his compassion within him creates, gives birth to, a spontaneous miracle in this place of wilderness. He multiplies bread.

One comparison that struck me here is with the other place of wilderness that involved Jesus contemplating making extra bread…then, it was bread from stones. A number of chapters earlier in Matthew’s gospel, the devil says to Jesus as he is fasting in the wilderness, ‘if you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread’. And of course Jesus can, he has the ability to, as he has demonstrated here!

But back then, Jesus does not give in and make bread. He does not give in to using his status as Son of God for selfish reasons. As St Paul says in the letter to the Philippians, “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself.” Here, in the feeding of the 5000, this miracle of bread-making comes not out of selfishness, which is I think an opposite of compassion, but it comes out of a completely spontaneous selfless giving, a wish to give to others and to respond to their immediate need. And this of course foreshadows both the breaking of Jesus’ body on the cross, and his offering of himself to us all through the bread of the Eucharist.

Another fun detail from the original Greek text – is to do with the place where Jesus invites the crowd of people to sit down, before he breaks the bread and feeds them. This place in Greek is called the χορτος (chortos), and this χορτος is normally just translated into English as ‘grass’, just plain grass. But in Greek it actually has a strong link with the idea of a specific place where a flock of animals, such as sheep, is fed; it is pasture-ground or a specific enclosure where animals are brought for feeding. So this use of language directly invites us to see Jesus as a shepherd, a caring, compassionate shepherd who is inviting his flock to sit down in his pasture-ground to be fed.

We are Jesus’ flock. When we find ourselves in places of wilderness in our own lives, Jesus does not drive us away from him, but invites us towards him, to commune with him in his pasture-ground. We are invited to eat with him, to eat his bread, and to drink of his living water that we may never thirst.

We are also Jesus’ disciples. We are called to share Jesus’ compassion, and his selfless gift, as he asked the disciples to share the bread. Everything we have and everything that we are is a gift from our God; food, friendship, our very life. And whether we are called to feed 5 or 5000 people with our gifts, it is God who calls us, and it is God who multiplies in extravagant abundance whatever little it is that we can offer.

So, may we live our lives in the light of Christ, sharing with others God’s love and compassion for us, God’s gifts to us, God’s grace that we receive spiritually, even when we can’t gather for the broken bread of Holy Communion. May we shine the light of God’s compassion in the lives of others, as much as we possibly can. For: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it’.

+

Amen.

Francesca Vernon

Sermon – Trinity 7

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ask what I should give you.’

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

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

able to discern between good and evil;”

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ask what I should give you.’

or

‘What do you want me to do for you.’

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

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

What can God do for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can God do for you?

What can you do for God?

Amen.

Hadlow Parish Assistance Scheme

This scheme will cease to be operational from the 1st June although help can still be given if required. A big thank you to all those who volunteered their time to help others during the lockdown. If help is required, please contact Tonbridge and Malling Community Hub on 01732 876152 or Kent Together on 03000419292.

7th Sunday of Easter Sermon

7th Sunday of Easter 2020Acts 1: 6-14, John 17: 1-11

“…so that they may be one, as we are one”, Jesus prays in verse 11 of our Gospel reading this morning. “…..so that they may be one as we are one”.

On this last Sunday of Easter, we are invited to listen in as Jesus makes a “High Priestly Prayer” to his Father.  The setting for his prayer is the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday, and the mood in the room as Jesus talks to God is heavy and poignant.  After all He has just said goodbye to his disciples, and every word, deed, and gesture he has offered them is weighted with grief.  He has washed their feet, fed them bread and wine, promised them the Holy Spirit, and commanded them to love one another.  He has spoken to them with both tenderness and urgency, as if time is running out.  Because it is.

Now, in the last moments before his arrest, he looks up to heaven and speaks of his heart’s deepest desires to God. 

Jesus is praying, and he is praying to his Father. and our Father. He prays for us, and he asks our Father that we would all become one as he and the Father are one.

If Jesus is praying for our oneness, then he is also recognizing and rejecting the boundaries and differences that divide us. There are divisions within ourselves, our families, our neighbours, our churches, our nation. We live in a world full of divisions – male or female; rich or poor; gay or straight; Protestant or Catholic; north or south; conservative or liberal; educated or uneducated; young or old; heaven or earth; divine or human; sinner or saved; orthodox or heretic. I am sure you could all list many more divisions in our world than the ones I’ve just mentioned. We could probably go on and on listing the boundaries that we encounter, and all too often establish or promote. They are not just divisions though, as they have become oppositions. These divisions exist not only out there in the world, but primarily and firstly in the human heart. We project onto the world our fragmented lives.

For every boundary we establish, there is a human being. Ultimately I suggest, boundaries and differences are not about issues. They are about real people, who have names, lives, joys, sorrows, concerns, and needs just like us and I think we sometimes forget or ignore this. It is often easier to deal with an issue than a real person.

Whether or not we admit it, the boundaries we establish and enforce are usually done in such a way as to favour us; to make us feel okay, to reassure us that we are right and in control, chosen and desired, seen and recognized, approved of and accepted. In order for me to win, someone must lose, in order for me to be included, someone must be excluded otherwise winning and being included mean nothing. The divisions of our lives in some way become self-perpetuating.

We often deal with the boundaries and differences that divide us by writing agreements, covenants, treaties, and legislation that govern how we will get along with each other and behave in the midst of our differences towards each other. But that is not Jesus’ prayer. His prayer is “…so that they may be one, as we are one”, (v11)

Jesus does not pray for our tolerance, our getting along, or just being nice to each other. He does not even pray that our differences would be eliminated. Instead he prays for our oneness. He prays that we would be one as he and the Father are one so that our oneness would be the revelation of God’s presence to the world. Oneness in the midst of difference becomes a sacramental presence of God’s life in the world.

That does not mean, however, that we lose our identity or individuality. Jesus does not stop being Jesus and the Father stop being the Father because they are one. Oneness is less about numbers and quantity and more qualitative. Jesus and the Father are one because they love and give themselves to each other. Oneness is a quality of life – God’s life. Jesus’ prayer for oneness is ultimately that we would be and live like God.

Oneness is not about eliminating differences. It is about love. Love is the only thing that can ever overcomes division and over and over again, Jesus tells us that in his teachings.

  • Love God.
  • Love your neighbour.
  • Love yourself.
  • Love your enemy.

Our love for God, neighbour, self, and enemy reveals our oneness. And the measure of our oneness, our God-likeness, is love. In love there may be differences, but there is no division or boundary.

God’s love knows no boundaries. God loves male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight, north and south. God loves Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal, educated and uneducated. God loves young and old, heaven and earth, divine and human. God loves sinner and saved, orthodox and heretic.  All are loved fully, completely, and uniquely as each one needs.

God does not even draw boundaries between Jesus and us. If we think God loves Jesus more than anyone else, we have missed the point of the Gospel. God loves you the same as he loves Jesus. God loves your neighbour the same as he loves Jesus. God loves your enemy the same as he loves Jesus. If that is how God loves, how can we do anything less and still call ourselves Christians?

For far too long we have dealt with each other through our boundaries, differences, and divisions. And you can see the situations that has got us into. You need only look at the world, read the newspaper, or watch the news to see it. When we deal with others through our divisions we label, we judge and exclude, we can end up resorting to war and violence, and then take shelter to defend our position. There is no oneness in that.

Although Jesus is praying to the Father, you and I will in the large part, be the ones to answer Jesus’ prayer. That is because we answer his prayer every time we choose how to love, who to love, where to love. It is now time to really answer Jesus’ prayer and deal with one another in love. So, in these coming days, I wonder who are the boundaries, what are the divisions that await our love?

Amen

6th Sunday of Easter Sermon

6th Sunday of Easter 2020 – (Acts 17: 22-31, John 14: 15-21)

“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus in our reading from Johns Gospel this morning. I wonder what images come to your mind when you hear the word “orphan”. Perhaps an orphan like Annie as portrayed in the film or musical, or maybe a character from a Victorian novel like the ones written by Charles Dickens. After all his stories are full of orphans like Oliver Twist or Pip from Great Expectations.

Or perhaps when you hear the word “orphan” you think of the many orphans there are around the world now in places where life is still fragile and dangerous. Those living and sleeping on the streets with no family support at all, or those living in soulless orphanages abandoned and alone, or the places where children have lost one or both parents to some disease or other; leaving them to be cared for by their wider family. The word “orphan” can be a powerful and emotive one.

But in our reading this morning Jesus isn’t speaking to small children when he speaks those words. He is speaking to his disciples. They are grown adults, rough and ready fishermen who have battled the seas to fish, tax-collectors, people of the world living in hard times, women who have lived on the margins of their societies, excluded or shunned. Yet Jesus recognises that when they lose him, first to crucifixion and then again as he ascends to his Father in heaven, they will feel lost, bereft, uncertain. They will feel orphaned, just as we can feel orphaned in our own lives too.

So Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” At some point in our lives we all want or even need to hear these words. They speak directly to some of our greatest fears and challenges; those of abandonment and isolation, loneliness or vulnerability. They remind us that we are not destined to walk this earth without an identity or sense of direction. We do not stand alone.

However, there is no doubt that there are seasons within life. Moments, when the transitions, changes, and tragedies can leave us feeling like orphans. Whether spoken or unspoken the questions begin. What will I do now? Where do I go? What happens next? Who will love, nurture, and guide me? Who stands on my side? What will become of me? Those are the orphan’s questions. Those are our questions. Those are the questions I imagine were running through the heads and hearts of the disciples in this morning’s reading.

It is the last supper. The disciples have been fed, feet have been washed and the betrayer has left. It is night, dark, and Jesus announces he is leaving. The one for whom they left everything now says he is leaving. “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” “Show us the Father.” More orphan questions.

Anyone who has ever loved and lost – a spouse, a child, a friend, security, hope – knows the orphan’s questions.

We fear becoming orphaned. That fear points to the deeper reality that by ourselves we are not enough. It is not, however, because we are deficient. It is rather because we were never intended or created to be self-sufficient. We were never intended to stand alone as individuals. We were created to love and be loved, to live in relationship as persons giving themselves to each other, to dwell, abide, and remain within each other even as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father; the direct opposite of being orphaned.

“I will not leave you orphaned.” That is the promise we hear today. Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, the turmoils, death, separation, we have never been and will never be orphaned by God. How strange that must have sounded to the disciples. In the same conversation Jesus tells them that he is leaving and coming. Leaving and coming most definitely sound like opposites! How can this be? What is Jesus saying?  If we are not careful, we will get struck trying to reconcile or figure this out. It is not, however, something to figure out. It is rather a means to see and live in a different way. What Jesus is trying to tell the disciples is “Even though we are apart I will never leave you.”

Leaving and coming. Presence and Absence. These must be held in tension, not as mutually exclusive. That is what Jesus has set before us in today’s gospel. That tension confronts us with the question of whether Jesus, for us, is a past memory or a present reality, a sentimental story that makes us feel good or a living experience that challenges, guides, and nurtures our life.

According to Jesus the answer to that question is determined by love that is revealed and fulfilled in keeping his commandments. The commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves, to love our enemies, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Whose feet do we wash and whose feet to ignore? What are the boundaries of love?

Do we keep the commandments? Is our love growing, expanding, transformative of ourselves and the world? If so, Jesus is probably for us a present reality and we know the fulfilment of his promise that we are not left orphaned. If, however, we are not loving so much. If we remain self-enclosed and isolated, we relegate ourselves and each other to the orphanages of this world. Jesus’ promise is still real, and he remains faithful we have simply not yet claimed it for ourselves.

Keeping the commandments is our access to Jesus’ promise that we will not be left orphaned. Keeping the commandments does not make Jesus present to us. It makes us present to the already ongoing reality of Jesus’ presence. The commandments do not earn us Jesus’ love they reveal our love for him, a love that originates in his abiding love and presence within us.

Every time we expand the boundaries of our love, we push back the orphanages of this world creating space within us where the Father and Jesus make their home.

“I will not leave you orphaned.” Over and over, day after day, regardless of what is happening in our lives that is Jesus’ promise. We have not been abandoned. So do not abandon yourselves or others to the orphanages of this world. Love with all that you are and all that you have, just as the Father and Jesus love us with all that they are and all that they have.

Amen