4th Sunday of Easter Sermon

I am the good shepherdJohn 10: 1-15

I am the Good Shepherd” Jesus says. Our Gospel reading today gives us that wonderful image of Jesus the good shepherd. It is one we have probably pictured before, and I wonder what images come to mind for each of you now? I expect if I were to ask you, if we were together, you would all say different things based on your knowledge and experience of shepherds and sheep. You might describe farmers who keep sheep in their fields, as shepherds. It might be the popular image of the man in a flat cap rounding up his sheep, with his sheepdogs, from programs like “One man and his dog”. It might be a picture of Jesus from a Sunday School book with his white woolly sheep standing around him in lush green pastures or even the image of a man carrying a lamb over his shoulders from a stained glass window in a church.

Lovely though they are, I wonder whether we get stuck with all that imagery of shepherds and sheep and fail to move on to think about the deeper meaning behind what Jesus is actually saying in the verses that follow. “I am the good shepherd” says Jesus “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep”. What does the life of the resurrected Jesus, who lay down his life for his sheep, that life of self-offering love, mean for us, here and now?

Thinking about this self-offering love on a human level may help. We often hear of the desperate plight of families battling with life limiting illnesses or life changing accidents. Or with children who have conditions that make normal life, let alone sleep, impossible. Having worked with patients with Dementia I have seen those wives or husbands devotedly coming in every day without fail, to sit with a husband or wife who no longer recognizes them, holding on to the person they know in their memory and their heart. In so many ways these families are laying down their lives for the ones they love. As we read or see more of each story, and follow the families through the difficulties, stresses and loss we see the cost of that self-giving love. As we become more aware of the cost, then the depth of love that holds those families together shines through.

Over the last few years I have been following the shepherd James Rebanks on Twitter. You may have read his book “A Shepherd’s Life” or seen him on the news. He is a shepherd in the Lake District with a flock of Herdwick sheep. He has got over 126 thousand followers on twitter sharing his brutally honest account of his day to day life on the fells with his sheep at lambing time. James tweets the highs and lows, the joys and the sadness, of his work from dawn till dusk doing the job he loves, and he knows he was born to do. What has struck me is how much he knows and loves those sheep. Working amongst them every day he knows each one well and this is shown by the way he cares for them. He knows them by their character, their markings and the way they behave. His life is hard, and he works for the reward of seeing his flock flourish. Here are a few of his tweets which show the depth of his emotion and his love for his sheep, each individual one.

An experienced shepherd can see the signs in a young lamb that it might be champion. A sheep here is rarely just a sheep”.

“Really pleased to see that the daughter of my best tup (ram) who died a year ago is a really good mother. It matters a lot”

The next tweet was accompanied by a picture of twin lambs with their mother.

“The dark lamb here has just been killed by a fox….gutted. Saw it healthy an hour ago”

There will be a cost and depth to the love that each of us knows. Love we have both received and given ourselves – maybe simply in small acts of faithful love and friendship, in the bigger picture of our lives, because of the needs of another person. It is what shapes and moulds us. What is the most costly love you have received from others or the love that has cost you the most to give? I wonder what it felt like to receive, what it felt like to give.

With Jesus being the Good Shepherd, laying down his life takes us to a new understanding of the relationship of God with his people. Jesus comes to us bringing not just care and safety, but a costly self-offering love. He isn’t just there to guide and protect, but to live amongst and enter into the lives of those he cares for; facing the cost and fear and even death. Jesus offers all of himself. Unlike the hired hand, who has no commitment to or investment in the flock, who doesn’t care and runs away in the face of danger, Jesus has put everything into it. He has held nothing back. Jesus knows us by name in the times we are lost and frightened, in the challenges we face and the love and safety we need. He lays down his life for his sheep freely and willingly because it is in this love that he can express the love between him and God his father and enables us to enter into that relationship and receive that mutual love too.

It is often only when we are at our weakest that we learn what it means to receive. Perhaps when we are ill or recovering from an operation, or when events in life just overwhelm or upset us. We just cannot see a way to get through or in the face of loss when we feel absolutely helpless, we just have to give in and let others support and help us. In stopping and being open to what is there to receive, that love, support, care, a soothing word, a kind touch, rest, just being known, we can get a glimpse of a new life. Jesus has opened up his life and relationship with the father to make space for us, knowing us and loving us, through his resurrection, and as the good shepherd, he calls us to a place of safety, that place of new life.

Jesus lays down his life, alongside us, offering us love in our lives in the difficulties and challenges as well as the beautiful moments. He is there with James Rebanks as he looks after his sheep, he is with all those we see struggling illness and disability and he is with those who live with dementia as I mentioned before. He is with us now in lockdown and isolation as with live with the threat of Covid -19. The good shepherd is always giving love and receiving it back again showing us his sheep the path we should follow and what we should imitate in our lives. If we place that love at the centre of our lives and respond in the same way, his love will be living, and breathing, in us and through us.

I am the Good Shepherd” says Jesus. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep”

Are we ready to trust the good shepherd? To allow ourselves to be known, loved and called by name. Called out of the ditches and holes, we can sometimes hopelessly fall into or through fear or in weakness climb into as lost sheep. Can we allow our lives to have that same self-offering love given and received, allowing space for others so we can be more deeply connected to one another and God? If we are, then let us be open to what we simply have to do, and say, and be, as we offer back the costly love we have received.


3rd Sunday of Easter Sermon

Luke 24: 13-35

Did you notice those words? Just four of them in verse 21, roughly halfway through the passage we heard this morning. “But we had hoped”. I wonder how many times we have spoken those words or words similar.

On this third Sunday of Easter, we find ourselves travelling a road that’s uncomfortably familiar. Regardless of identity or circumstance, we all know this road as we have walked along it and lost our way on it.  We have left it behind only to return to it. The road is the road to Emmaus. We recognize it by the words we speak when we walk its uneven and convoluted way one more time: “But we had hoped.”

The words spoken on the road to Emmaus are words of pain, disappointment, bewilderment, and yearning. Words we say when we have come to the end of our hopes — when expectations have been dashed, our dreams are dead, and there’s nothing left to do but leave, defeated and done.  But we had hoped.  

Cleopas and his companion say those same words to the stranger who appears alongside them as they walk to Emmaus on Easter evening: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  

Jesus is dead as far as they know. The Lord they staked their lives on, the Messiah they thought would change the world, has died the most humiliating death imaginable, and his promises of a new kingdom have come to nothing. Then they hear that, Jesus’s tomb is empty, and his body is missing. Things have fallen apart.  “But we had hoped” for so much.  

The walk to Emmaus happens on Resurrection Sunday according to Luke’s Gospel.  On the very day we celebrate the resurrection, new life and the hope that it brings, the road to Emmaus appears ahead of us, offering defeat, disillusionment, and misrecognition. Sometimes resurrection takes longer than three days. Sometimes new life comes in fits and starts. Sometimes, seeing and recognizing the risen Christ is hard.  

Yet the road to Emmaus, the road of brokenness and failure, is holy ground. It reminds us that Jesus is not who we think he is, and not who we necessarily want him to be. So, who is the would-be stranger on that road?  How does he respond when all appears lost? What does he do for the weary and the defeated? 

We notice a quiet resurrection.  You would think that a God who had suffered a completely unjust death would come back and shout his triumph from the rooftops and prove his accusers and killers wrong.  But Jesus does no such thing.

Instead, the risen Christ takes a walk and notices two of his followers walking ahead of him. He approaches them in a manner so gentle, so understated, that they don’t recognize him.  

But we had hoped” he’d be more dramatic. The disappointment we face on the Emmaus road is that of the quiet resurrection. The disappointment of a Jesus who prefers the quiet, hidden encounter rather than the one we expect and crave. 

We notice healing through story. As soon as Jesus falls into step with the companions on the road, he invites them to tell their story: “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Astonished by the question, Cleopas and his companion tell Jesus everything. They share with him the story of their faith — its rise and its fall. They tell Jesus how high their expectations had been for their now-crucified leader. They describe their devastation at his death.  Their confusion, their loss, their uncertainty. They tell Jesus the whole story.  

Jesus listens, hearing them out and when they’re done, he tells the story back to them. As he does, the story changes. It becomes what it always was — something far bigger, deeper, older, wiser, and richer than the travellers on the Emmaus road understood.  “Here’s what you’re leaving out,” Jesus seems to say. “Here’s what you’re missing.”

Jesus in telling the story restores both its context and glory, grounding the story in memory, tradition, history and Scripture. He helps the travellers understand their place in a story that long precedes them, a narrative big enough to hold their disappointment without being defeated by it.  When Jesus tells the story, the death of the Messiah finds its place in the redemption, hope, and Godly love that spans the centuries, and the hearts of his listeners burn.

Like Cleopas and his companion, we need Jesus to meet us on the road, and weave memory, Scripture, context, purpose, and history back into the narratives we cling to. “But we had hoped the story was bigger.  We had hoped it would have a better ending.”  Well, it is. And it does.    

We notice the freedom to leave.  When the travellers reach Emmaus, Jesus gives them the option to continue on without him. He makes out he’s leaving, placing them in a position where they have to be completely intentional about their desire regarding him.  Do they want him to stay?  Are they willing to risk hosting a stranger in their home?  Do they wish to go deeper with this man who makes their hearts burn, or are they content to leave the encounter where it stands, and return to their ordinary lives without learning more?   

What would have happened if Cleopas and his companion said goodbye to Jesus on the road? How would their story have ended if Jesus walked away? The companions would have missed so much. The Messiah they thought they knew and loved would have remained a stranger and they would not have experienced the intimate knowing of the broken bread, the shared cup. The joy of resurrection would not have become theirs.  

Jesus allows us to be free to make our own choices. He will not impose. He will not overpower. He’ll make as if he’s moving on, giving us space, time, and freedom to decide what we really want. Do we desire to go deeper? Are we ready to get off the road of failures and defeats and willing to let the guest become our host? Do we really want to know who the stranger is?

“Stay with us.”  That’s what Cleopas and his companion say to Jesus.  An invitation. A welcome. The words a patient Jesus waits to hear.         

We notice the smallness of things. When Jesus and his companions are seated around the table, Jesus takes bread.  He takes, blesses, breaks, and gives. So small a thing. So small a thing that changes everything.  

Sometimes it’s difficult to trust in the transformative power of small things. But the Emmaus story speaks to this power — the power of the small and the commonplace to reveal the divine.  God shows up during a quiet evening walk on a backwater road. God is made known around our dinner tables. God reveals God’s self when we take, bless, break, and give.  God is present in the rhythms and rituals of our seemingly ordinary days.  God is with us now in these strange days of lockdown, isolation and social distancing.   

God is in the text you send to the neighbour you cannot visit. God appears in the Zoom gathering, the livestreamed service, the phone call, the letter. Jesus is the stranger you see in the street when you take a walk, and you smile and say hello. The Emmaus story tells us that the risen Christ is not confined in any way by the seeming smallness of our lives.  Wherever and whenever we make room, Jesus comes.

“But we had hoped.”  Yes, we had.  Of course we had.  So very many things are different right now than we had hoped they’d be.  And yet, the stranger who is the Saviour still meets us on the lonely road to Emmaus.  The guest who becomes our host still nourishes us with Presence, Word, and Bread.

So keep walking.  Keep telling the story.  Keep honouring the stranger. Keep attending to your burning heart. Christ is risen. He is no less risen on the road to Emmaus than he is anywhere else.  So, look for him.  Listen for him.  And when he lingers at your door, honouring your freedom, but yearning to feed you, say what he longs to hear:  Stay with me.  


Sewing for the NHS

A group of people in Hadlow are sewing scrubs – gowns and hats – for use in Maidstone and Pembury Hospitals. This is being co-ordinated by a Facebook Group in Maidstone. Patterns are available on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/549227039361894/permalink/552490582368873/ If you would like to be involved you can join the group or, alternatively, email Janice at office@stmaryshadlow.org.uk for more information. If you do not have access to a sewing machine, you can still help by donating any unwanted or old duvet covers or sheets to be made up into scrubs. You can also sew, knit or crochet hearts: these should be in matching pairs to be given to people suffering with COVID-19 and to their loved ones. Hearts need to be small enough to fit inside an A5 envelope.

2nd Sunday of Easter Sermon

John 20: 19-end

After hearing todays Gospel reading, I expect we feel a bit like the disciples. We are all at this time in lockdown. Our doors are closed, and our churches are locked. We are not fearing for our lives because of an uprising, like the disciples were, but from the fear of something unseen. Like them we are in a time of the unknown, something we can’t control. We don’t know the outcome. Our doors are physically shut, but are our hearts?

A week ago on Easter Sunday we celebrated the resurrection. However there comes a time, when we must live the resurrection and that is not always easy. Whether we are living in the times of Covid 19 forced to stay in, or in ordinary times, there are always days when we prefer to just stay in bed, pull the covers over our head, and close out the world. Some days it just seems easier and safer to lock the doors of our houses and avoid the circumstances and people of our lives. Sometimes we just want to run away, hide, and not deal with the reality of our lives.

Each time we shut the doors of our life, our minds, or our hearts we imprison ourselves behind those ‘locked’ doors if you like. For every person, event, or idea we lock out, regardless of the reason, we end up locking ourselves in. That is what has happened to the disciples in today’s gospel. It is Easter evening, the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, the day they saw the empty tomb and the day Mary Magdalene announced, “I have seen the Lord.” The disciples are gathered in that house, and the doors are locked with fear. A week later they are in the same place. It is the same house, the same walls, the same closed doors, the same locks. Nothing much has changed.

Jesus’ tomb is open and empty, but the disciples’ house is closed and the doors locked tight. The house has become their tomb. Jesus is around, and the disciples are bound in fear. The disciples have separated themselves and their lives from the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Their doors of faith have been closed. They have shut their eyes to the reality that life is now different. They have locked out Mary Magdalene’s words of faith, hope, and love. They have left the empty tomb of Jesus, and entered their own tombs of fear, doubt, and blindness. The locked doors have become the great stone sealing their tomb. They have locked themselves in. And so for us the doors of our tombs are always locked from the inside. All this, and it has been only one week.

So, one week after Easter, how are our lives different? Where are we living? In the freedom and joy of resurrection or metaphorically speaking behind locked doors. How is our life different after Easter? And if it isn’t what are the locked doors of our life, our heart, our mind?

When John describes the house, the doors and the locks he is speaking about more than a physical house with walls, with doors on hinges, and fastened locks. He is describing the interior condition of the disciples. And so, the locked places of our own lives are always more about what is going on inside of us than what is going on around us.

So I wonder, what are the closed places of your life? What is it that   keeps you in the tomb? Maybe, like the disciples, it is fear. Maybe it is questions, disbelief, or the conditions we place on ourselves or on our faith. Perhaps it is sorrow and loss. Maybe the wounds are so deep it does not seem worth the risk to step outside. It may be anger and resentment or the inability to open up to new ideas, possibilities, and change.

Jesus is always entering the locked places of our lives. He comes if you like ‘eastering’ in us. That is unexpected, uninvited, and sometimes even unwanted he steps into our closed lives, closed, hearts, closed minds. Standing among us he offers us peace and breathes new life into us. He doesn’t open the door for us, but he gives us all we need so that we might open our own doors to a new life, a new creation, a new way of being. This is happening all the time.

Whatever our own circumstances or the circumstances forced upon us at this time, Christ stands among us and his people saying, “Peace be with you,” breathing life into what looks lifeless. He is there amongst the families of this place who need help from the foodbank. In the midst of that feeding Christ enters saying, “Peace be with you. He is amongst those in our community who are grieving in these difficult times. Those saying goodbye to loved ones in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine. Yet Christ enters saying, “Peace be with you. The winds of change are blowing. His breath carries them through the day, one day at a time. Just as it carries each one of us.

Regardless of our circumstances or of those around us, Covid 19 or not, Jesus shows up bringing peace, offering peace, embodying peace. Regardless of the circumstances Jesus shows up bringing life, offering life, embodying life. Life and peace are resurrection reality. They do not necessarily change the circumstances of our life and world. The hungry still need to be fed, and loved ones will die. The life and peace of Jesus’ resurrection enable us to meet and live through those circumstances. He steps into those locked places and gives us his peace, his breath, his life, and the ability to unlock our closed doors and then sends us out. He enables us to be free to unlock the doors of our lives and step outside into his life, resurrection life.


Easter Sunday Sermon

Matthew 28: 1-10

And so we meet on this Easter Sunday morning, a very different Easter morning to most we may have experienced I’m sure. We are a separated community yet joined by the Spirit as the body of Christ, under lockdown in our own homes but brought together by the wonders of modern technology. In some ways we are like those first disciples forced to be apart because of circumstances and waiting. Not knowing what is going to happen from one hour, day or even week to the next. We are waiting in the unknown if you like, we can’t see what is happening, what we knew has gone, but we know something is happening.

I’m sure we have all been in this kind of situation at some point in our lives, or at least can picture it if not. When a child, or grandchild has called out in the middle of the night from the bedroom. “I’ve heard something” or “I’ve seen something.” We have gone into the room, turned on the light, and looked around; under the bed, in the cupboards, behind the door, wherever is needed. After a little while it is usually said, “There’s nothing here,” and they climb back into bed knowing all is well. 

That is the Easter message. There’s nothing here! Do not be afraid. All is well!

That scenario mentioned earlier is not just a story of a child or grandchild. It’s the human story. It’s the story of a life lived in the fear of darkness and death. It is a story, I suspect, each of us knows well. We fear for ourselves and we fear for those we love. Something is there. Something more powerful than ourselves. We are right. But it’s not what we think.

Two women, both named Mary, go to see the tomb. They know something is there. They saw it all. They watched the crucifixion. They saw Jesus die. They saw Joseph take Jesus’ body, wrap it in a cloth, and put it in the tomb. They saw him roll a great stone across the door of the tomb. They were there, sitting opposite the tomb watching. They know what to expect as they go to the tomb. Death, fear, pain, loss, sorrow. A tortured body beginning to decay.

But then comes a new sunrise, and the big bang of a great earthquake which signals the dawn of a new creation; one in which death no longer rules. God, not death, will have the first, the final, and every word in between.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel announces. “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” The empty tomb proclaims that all is well. “Go quickly,” the angel tells them, “you will see Jesus.”

This is the Church’s story. It is the same story told every year. Some of you may have heard this story only a few times. Others of you have heard it many times before. The story never changes. Instead, what it does is change us. Each year we usually gather to hear this story for only one reason: so that we can leave; so that we can leave the darkness and tombs of our lives and live. We want to be reminded, “There is nothing here. Do not be afraid. All is well.”

Too often we think resurrection is about what happens to us after we die. We limit resurrection to nothing more than a promise of life after death. The power and gift of resurrection is not so much in what happens after death but what happens right here, now, today. Perhaps we should worry less about whether there is life after death and more about whether there is life before death.

The joy of Easter is not only that God has raised Christ from the dead. Easter joy is also about the possibility and the promise that, regardless of what our lives are like now, lockdown due to Covid-19 or not, new life is available to each one of us here and now. God has raised Christ from the dead and we are now free to claim his life as our own.

What matters most about Easter is not the empty tomb but what we do tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that. How will we now live differently? Jesus did not die and rise again so that we might continue life as we normally would. If this new life and freedom does not change us we might as well put the stone back over the tomb. If we move on from today, and don’t think about Easter again until next year, then we’ve entirely missed the gift. Are our lives the evidence of resurrection, or not?

We are no longer prisoners to the power or fear of sin, darkness, and death. We don’t have to be worried about how all of this is going to turn out. We are free to live. We are free to love. The end of the resurrection story is the beginning of our life. Christ is risen. So, live fully alive now. Why wait until after death? Darkness has become light. Sin has been forgiven. The tomb has become the womb of new creation. There is no more death. Life is everywhere.

“Go quickly,” the angel tell us. There’s nothing here. Run for your life! Christ is risen. You will see him!

He is risen indeed. Alleluia


Maundy Thursday Sermon

Maundy Thursday 2020John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

Usually at this service on Maundy Thursday, in normal times at St. Marys, we have during the service washed each other’s feet. Easy for some to do, and others like me have found it a difficult task for many reasons. Many of you may have participated but felt uncomfortable, this is what we should do. Without the worry of Covid 19 we had already planned to do things differently this year, to end this service in a different way. To encounter the shadows of Jesus grief and pain. Whatever we feel, it is important to realise the significance of what Jesus did on that final night with his disciples.

“You will never wash my feet,” Peter says to Jesus.

What is going on with Peter, and I suspect so many of us who say the same. 

I think it is about more than having his feet washed. In fact, I don’t think it’s even about his feet. I think it’s about feeling vulnerable, exposed, and uncertain about taking his share in a new life. I guess that there are parts of Peter that he is withholding not just from Jesus, but also from himself. My guess is that Peter has something he wants to conceal, a past that haunts him, a brokenness that terrifies him, a memory that is too painful to deal with; and that it feels easier and less risky to say no, push it all away, ignore it, try to forget it, and hope it will leave him alone. Besides, who knows what might happen if he was to open the door to any one of those things?

I say this for two reasons. Firstly, because I am human too and have parts of my life that I just don’t want to face or deal with; parts of me that I have alienated and exiled; memories and experiences that do not have a seat at my life’s table. Secondly, because I have seen and heard that same thing in the lives of many others. Through ministry, chaplaincy and in the lives of those I care about. If what I am talking about resonates with you, then you get it too. 

Let’s not back down this time, not on this night. This is our night. So let me ask you:

  • What is one thing you have about yourself, something you’ve done, or something that has happened to you? Something you have never uttered to another and that you never want anyone to know. It leaves you in fear of being found out. It’s the kind of thing you wish you didn’t know, the kind of thing you can ignore, but can never forget.
  • What are the memories, hurts, and griefs that are too painful to talk about? The very thought of them makes your stomach churn and your eyes well up. The ones that when mentioned you quickly change the subject about because you’re afraid you’ll just lose it and never get yourself back together again.
  • What guilt, shame, embarrassment, or failure do you still carry? I’m talking about the kind of thing about which you fake a smile and say, “I’m over that. The past is the past and let’s just keep it that way.” But deep down you know the past is a ghost that still haunts you.
  • What are the same old arguments, feelings, and patterns that continue to repeat themselves in your life? The ones that you excuse by blaming someone else or saying, “That’s just who I am,” or “That’s just the way it is.” What’s really behind those things begging to be acknowledged and dealt with?  
  • When have you said, “You will never wash my feet?”, and what’s that really about?

Let’s not back down this time, not on this night. This is our night.

This is our night to take our share with Jesus.

This is our night to bring all that we are and all that we have.

This is our night to eat and drink in remembrance.

This is our night to lay it all on the table. 

This is our night to come clean.

This is our night to strip bare the altar of our life. 

This is our night to let the healing begin. 

This is our night to enter into the shadows of our lives with Jesus as he enters into the shadows of the pain that is to come.

Let us remember that this is our night.