Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon – Luke the Evangelist

Sunday 18th October 2020

Acts 16:6-12a, Luke 10:1-9

Today, October 18th is the day traditionally kept to remember St Luke the Evangelist.

The title ‘Evangelist’ comes from the word ‘Evangel’, which means the gospel, and is a title given to St Luke as the author of one of the four gospels.

However it is sometimes easy to forget that he did not just write the gospel of Luke but he was also the author of the Acts of the Apostles.

Although I have not counted the words I understand that as the author of both Luke and Acts this makes St Luke the biggest single contributor to the collection of writings we call the New Testament, writing even more than St Paul. And we know that the same person wrote both Luke and Acts because in the introduction to Luke the author addresses himself to ‘the most excellent Theophilus’ saying that he has investigated everything and written an orderly account for him and in the introduction to Acts the author opens with the words ‘in my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do…’

So Luke and Acts are essentially a two volume work by the same author but they are different in character because the gospel is a careful reconstruction of events as told to Luke by eyewitnesses but a great deal of Acts is written from Luke’s personal experience of life as an early Christian and as a companion to Paul on his missionary journeys.

So, if Luke wrote more of the New Testament than Paul then how come it is always Paul that is referred to when we debate the more controversial areas in church life?

I think it is simply because Luke recorded events and stories in a quite self-effacing way and, although he let his priorities shine through those events and stories, as we shall see in a moment, he never wrote using the doctrinal voice that Paul did in his letters.   Paul was writing as a pastor to the churches in his care expressly telling them what they should and shouldn’t be doing and so his personality and his doctrine are unmissable in his writings, whereas Luke’s presence as the unseen author of Luke and Acts is much more subtle.

Nonetheless he was obviously an incredibly important figure both in the development of the New Testament and in the life of the early church and so it is right that today we should think a little more about him and some of his priorities that did shine through his writing.

He is said to be a native of Antioch and must have acquired some considerable skill in contemporary medicine, and was referred to as a Physician . We know nothing about his family background but he was probably a gentile convert possibly first to Judaism and then as a follower of Jesus. He became attached to St Paul as his diarist and recorder but also his personal doctor. Luke joined Paul on his second missionary journey, their story beginning about 50AD – and took them to Philippi, Rome, Caesarea and ultimately to Jerusalem.

In 2 Tim 4 v 11 we read Paul’s rather lonely words: “I have no-one with me but Luke”- and we can assume that Luke was not only his medical advisor but a friend who gave him much needed support and advice.

As a physician Luke is the patron saint of doctors, as you might expect.

However, you may not know, that Luke is also the patron saint of Painters and Artists and he is often depicted as a painter with brushes and a palette and is even said to have painted the first icon of Mary. Whether or not that is literally true it is certainly true that Luke displays an artistic eye in his gospel writings as he beautifully depicts scenes from the life of Jesus and it is also true that some of the greatest paintings in the world have been inspired by Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus, or the shepherds coming from the fields to the stable after the vision of the angels, or of the visit of the Magi.

I said a moment ago that Luke’s gospel was written as a result of his enquiries of those who were eyewitnesses to the events and traditionally, it is thought that it contains the reminiscences of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Bible scholars tell us there is clear Jewish style and flavour about the language of the early episodes – the annunciation, visitation, birth, visit of the Magi, the presentation and Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which may all reflect the influence of Mary. And in case you think that is mere fanciful piety don’t forget that Mary was present at the start of the book of Acts and if that book is a first hand account by Luke then he would have been present too and speaking to the mother of Jesus could well have been a primary source for him.

Imagine, for a moment, this cultured, educated physician and gentile convert speaking to an older Mary about the events of the annunciation and the nativity while he scribbles away with his writing implements, and then perhaps he goes to speak to Simon Peter about how he was first called to be a follower of Jesus, and so on until his orderly account is written.

Now each of the four gospels has their own particular flavour or style and it is clear that Luke emphasised some aspects of the message of Jesus more than the other Evangelists.

It seems that Luke has a special concern for the poor. It opens, very nearly, with Mary’s song which talks about filling the hungry with good things, the birth of Jesus takes place in the humblest of circumstances, Joseph and Mary are shown are poor when they present him in the temple, there is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. There is the suggestion that if we give a party we  should always include some poor people among the guests and Luke’s version of the beatitudes ( 6 v 20-36) also reflects sympathy with the poor.

It is also interesting to notice Luke’s account of the early Christian communal living (Acts 4 v 32) – and the heavy punishment visited on Ananias and Sapphira because they hold back part of the sale of their property from the common fund.

Many women are introduced into Luke’s gospel and Acts. We can note his account of the women who travelled with Jesus and his disciples – Mary Magdalen, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna and many others. Luke portrays Jesus as addressing women with courtesy. Luke’s gospel carries more stories that involve women and children than the other gospels.

It was women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus but found his body gone. It was Mary Magdalen and a small group of women who went and told the disciples that Jesus body had gone.

As a gentile convert it is also clear that Luke had a special heart for those who found themselves outside the bounds of mainstream Judaism and it is within Luke that we find many stories of the calling and redemption of Zacchaeus the tax collector, the Roman centurion who had faith, the story of the prodigal son which has so much to say about God gracious patience for those who have left the fold.

And, as a physician, Luke also has many, many stories of healing – although not of physical healing done by fellow professionals but of a much deeper healing that can only be brought about by God through faith in Jesus.

There is a strong tradition that Luke lived into old age, dying aged 84 years and was buried at Thebes from whence his relics were transferred to Constantinople in the year 357.

So, today we celebrate the Feast of St Luke – physician and evangelist. These roles are inseparable – for an evangelist tells the good news of salvation and salvation means healing. The root of the word salvation is the Latin word salvere – to be well, to be in good health, to be whole. Salvation is not just of spirit in the world to come, but salvation is of body and mind as well.

But although we celebrate St Luke we should also be sensitive to the fact that he was self-effacing, that the stories he wrote down were not about him and his ministry. As an Evangelist he was about the Gospel and the Gospel is all about the good news of Jesus Christ. That because of who Jesus was, God born on Earth, and because of what he did for us in his life, in his death on the cross and in his resurrection we can be made whole once again. I suspect that if he were here now, St Luke would not want today to be all about him but he would point beyond himself to the ultimate healer and physician Jesus Christ and he would urge us to heed the words of his gospel to us this morning:

“The kingdom of God is near you.”

So. draw close to the kingdom of God as it draws close to you, know that you are deeply loved, deeply forgiven, deeply healed and when you leave this building later this morning go out like the apostles to take the good news of Jesus Christ and his healing love to all those around us.

In the name of Christ,

Amen.

Sermon – Harvest Festival

Sunday 4th October 2020

Deuteronomy 28:1-14, Luke 12:16-30

I love Harvest as a time of year – the colours, the smells, the tastes and, in my family many birthdays, do make it a joyous time of year.  But the theme of the Harvest readings, and therefore of the sermon, can be a little predictable.  It is usually along the lines of being thankful to God for the good harvest and offering some of the harvest of our lives back to him as a gesture of our thanksgiving, to be shared with those less fortunate than ourselves.

Nothing wrong with that.  I have commended it to you many times in the past and I suspect I shall commend it to you in the future.  We should be grateful to God and we should care for those around us – loving our neighbours as ourselves is a fairly fundamental part of our identity as Christians and that should be the case not only at Harvest, but every day and in every moment. 

We live in a largely wealthy part of a largely wealthy nation during one of the most stable and peaceful stretches of history.  Speaking generally you understand, we have a lot to be grateful for in this part of the world and at this period in history and, when you are feeling blessed, it is so much easier to feel both grateful towards God and generous towards your neighbour. 

Our reading from Deuteronomy talks about the blessings God wishes to bestow upon his people if they obey him and follow his commands:

You will be blessed in the city and in the country.

The fruit of your womb and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock will be blessed.

Your basket and your kneading dough will be blessed.

You will be blessed when you go out and when you come in.

Your enemies will be defeated and scattered.

Your barns will be blessed [we shall mention barns again in a minute]

The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity. 

In fact, that last word is an important clue – this way of thinking is deeply related to what we could now call the ‘prosperity Gospel’.  The prosperity Gospel says that if you do one thing, which is normally to send a donation to the proponent’s TV station, then you will be blessed many times over in return.  Normally the only people who get rich out of the prosperity Gospel is the people proclaiming it, and it normally preys on the poorest in society, which seems like an inversion of the real gospel to me.

Nonetheless, there is still a persistent thread of theology, which we encounter today, that if the people do the right thing then material blessings will follow.

I don’t want to offend or shock anyone here today, but have you ever seen the film The Wicker Man? 

Even if you haven’t, I am sure that most of you know the gist of it.  A naïve policeman, played by Edward Woodward, is lured to a strange island where, to cut a long story short, he is sacrificed by being burnt inside a large wicker effigy in order to ensure the island’s harvest and future.  Modern versions of this story can be found in the films Midsommer and a series on Sky at the moment called The Third Day. 

If the people do the appropriate things then, in return, the land will be blessed and prosperity will follow. 

So, if I can put it this way, the theology of Harvest can contain a lurking danger of both neo-paganism and the prosperity gospel – of believing that we have been blessed not because of the unconditional love and goodness of God, but because of our own efforts and sacrifices and obedience.  We have been good and, therefore, God has rewarded us and, therefore, we shall share a small portion of that with the poor.

It is easy to see why the successful farmer in the gospel reading was feeling a little smug.  He, presumably, had worked hard in planting his crops and had produced a good harvest.  It is what farmers ought to do.  On the basis of the theology we find in Deuteronomy the farmer probably felt that he had been blessed by God because he had done the right things.  It was his response to being blessed that was wrong – rather than sharing what he had with those in need he did what any self-respecting oligarch would do – he bult a bigger barn and got ready to kick-back and enjoy a long and happy retirement.  But God had other plans for him and it turns out that his blessing was short-lived because he was not truly thankful towards God.  As you would expect in a normal Harvest sermon.

But there is another potential danger in the theology of Harvest which may be more pertinent to us today, which is this:  It is easy to feel blessed by God and generous towards others when things are going well for us.  When the harvest of our fields or the harvest of our lives is bountiful then we do feel as though God is smiling upon us and, in order to avoid the fate of the foolish farmer, it is easy to give the poor some grain from our barns.

But, what do we think about God when the harvest fails or when the harvest of our own lives is not what we would have wished for?  What do we think about God when the land seems blighted with pandemic and anxiety?  What do we think about God when we are laid off, or unwell or feel like a failure when judged by the standards of prosperity?  Do we feel perhaps that God has abandoned us, that we have not lived up to our side of the ‘if’ bargain in Deuteronomy or even that some kind of sacrifice has to be made in order to redress the balance?  That kind of thinking is never that far beneath the surface and I still remember lots of lurid headlines about HIV / AIDS being God’s punishment for homosexuality. 

But, as Christians, our understanding of God should come first and foremost from our understanding of Christ.  Was Jesus a success in material terms?  No, he was born into a poor family as a member of an oppressed people in an occupied country – he preached continually that people should put love of God before love of money and, after only three years of ministry he was put to death as a criminal.  In earthly, prosperity Gospel, terms he reaped a poor harvest indeed and yet we worship him not only as the Son of God but, in Trinitarian terms, as very God himself.

What does Jesus say to us today, in these times of anxiety about covid and the risks of recession and unemployment?  Does Jesus say that we need to make sacrifices in order to enjoy the prosperity of the land or that we should guard ourselves against hard times by building bigger barns to hide our wealth in?

No, Jesus gives the most counter-cultural answer possible.  He says:

Do not worry.

Do not worry about your life.

Do not worry about your body.

Do not worry about your clothes.

Worrying will not add an hour to your life.  On the contrary we know now that worrying will probably shorten our lives.

Do not set your heart on what you will eat and drink; do not worry about it.

The pagans run after such things.  I mentioned the pagan theology of The Wicker Man and here Jesus mentions explicitly that to worry about material wealth is a pagan activity. 

We are not to worry about them.

Why not?  Because God already knows what you need and see how he looks after the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. 

That does not mean that Christians cannot eat or be clothed or be healthy.  But, Jesus says, seek first the kingdom of God and these things will be given to you.  That does not mean that will we have all we want, or that this is some kind of prosperity gospel exchange, but it does mean that God will give us what he knows we need. 

But we need to seek the kingdom, the kingship, of God before our material wealth and comfort. That is a challenge bigger than most of us are ready to admit.  Our society, as much as Jesus’s society, lauds the wealthy farmer with the big barns and would look askance at the farmer who gives away next year’s profits.  Jesus challenges our relationship with money much more than he challenges sexual orientation and yet the latter is held up by some as a shibboleth whilst the former is quietly glossed over because it is uncomfortable for us wealthy Christians. 

As I said a few weeks ago in my email to the church, we need to let go and let God.  Throughout history and around the world people have faced much greater threats then we face day to day – whether it be bombs falling from the sky or being fed to the lions in the Coliseum, and I don’t mean the one in London.  If the earliest Christians had let anxiety or uncertainty or hard times turn them against the God we see evident in Christ then there would simply be no church now.  Jesus let go and let God and it took him to death on the cross.  But, and I have already mentioned a program called The Third Day, and we know where Jesus ended up on the Third Day – risen in glory and paving the way for us back to the Father. 

That is where we are called and where we are headed. 

If you are feeling anxious – do not worry – God loves you.

If you are poor – do not worry – God loves you.

If the harvest of your life is not what you expected – do not worry – God loves you.

During the good times but also during the bad – do not worry – God loves you.

Follow Jesus and seek first the Kingdom of God – and your harvest will be one of eternal life.

Amen.

Paul White

Sermon – Trinity 16

Sunday 27th September 2020

Phillipians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Today, there can be no doubt, we are all experiencing a huge range of emotions.

Firstly, and most importantly, I am sure Nicky will agree, we are gathered with joy as the church in this community to hear God’s word, to celebrate Sunday as the Day of Resurrection and to embody and experience Christ’s presence amongst us, between us and within us.  Despite the trying times which lay both behind and before us the church, and all Christians, should always be filled with joy, not only because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but because Christ is risen and, because of that, we shall shine like stars before His face.

But joy is not the same as happiness and nor does the presence of God’s joy mean that we can never experience or express sadness, anxiety or any other emotion and, as I say, I am sure that there are many different emotions here this morning. 

Personally, there is happiness at seeing Nicky again, and I am sure that is shared by us all.  I haven’t celebrated with Nicky since February, (wow, that is 7 months ago now), and most people here haven’t been physically present with Nicky since the start of lockdown and then, of course, her departure to the remote shores of Mereworth, West Peckham and Wateringbury.  A far-off place in a distant deanery. 

But today, a bit like the Rolling Stones on a pension fund tour, the old team is back together again, and it is great for us all to see Nicky and for me to minister with her this morning.

I remember vividly the first time I spotted Nicky here in St Mary’s.  I have no doubt that Nicky is already very good at this but, as a Vicar, you tend to get very good at spotting new faces in the congregation. 

Anyway, one day I saw Nicky, and her hair, sitting about halfway back on my right-hand side.  This was in February 2016, which is not that long ago, but also feels like several lifetimes.

As soon as the service ended, I made a point of saying hello to this new young person, and I quickly learned that Nicky was a student at St Augustine’s College, studying for ordination.  Not only that, but she was looking for a church to come and do a placement as part of her ordination training and she was checking us out as a possible candidate.

Well, listeners, I snapped her up and her placement started here that September. 

But as we met to discuss and plan Nicky’s placement our conversation also turned to what came next for her in terms of curacy.  I don’t think I am giving anything away if I say we felt this may be a good place for Nicky to serve her curacy and we both started putting out feelers to both the diocese and the college to see if it could be done.  It could.

Nicky joined us first as a lay worker over the Summer of 2017 and she was then ordained deacon on the 30 September that year.  Almost three years ago to the day.  Although it is always the plan that curates will serve three years before moving onto their own parish I wonder how many of us believed on that wonderful day in Rochester Cathedral that almost exactly three years later we would be saying goodbye now, especially in these circumstances.  But I am getting ahead of myself slightly.

During Nicky’s deacon year she preached, she did all the roles in the liturgy which are reserved for the deacon, and which I am doing for her today as she presides at this service which is rather wonderful, she continued with her post-ordination studies, she learnt the things she would have to do later as a priest but, most of all, she settled into the life not only of this church but of this community, and she did so admirably.

On the 29 September 2018, nearly two years ago today, many of us returned to Rochester Cathedral once again to see Nicky be ordained to the order of Priest or Presbyter.  The next day, back here at St Mary’s, Nicky celebrated her first communion, and I preached, much as we are doing today.  I’m sure Nicky won’t mind me telling you that she was a little bit nervous that morning, because there is a lot to remember and think about and hold together whilst also worshipping and leading others in worship, but hold it together she did, as she continues to do.

Curacy is a time to learn and experiment and start new things, all of which I am delighted Nicky was able to do whilst with us.  Nicky brought her crafting skills to bear on things like Knit and Knatter, which became Café Plus, and her love of children to Messy Church, which were good for old and young alike.  She also reached out to the village with things like the thousands of woollen poppies which were created for an amazing display at Remembrance Day that year.

This is in danger of sounding like a Eulogy but Nicky found a place in the heart of Hadlow, and that is a wonderful thing.

The grand plan was that by the start of 2020 Nicky would be coming towards the end of her curacy and would cover my Sabbatical with Mission Aviation Fellowship to Africa, that we would continue to minister together on my return whilst Nicky then started her hunt for a place to be Vicar.  That sort of worked and sort of didn’t.  We didn’t expect covid to wipe out my sabbatical and we didn’t expect the diocese to ask Nicky to look after Mereworth on my return.  But the good news is that Nicky did apply to be Vicar of Marden and they did have the good sense to appoint her.

Which is where the mixed emotions return, because although we are happy to see Nicky here again today it is tinged with sadness because we are also saying goodbye and God bless as she is transformed from one degree of glory into another and departs this diocese and crosses the border into Canterbury and into a new parish, a new church and a new community.  Marden’s gain is our loss and it is OK to acknowledge that and be sad about that.

But, as I said and as you know, a curacy is always meant to be temporary and the ultimate goal is always to train and release someone into the place where they will minister as Vicar.  Saying goodbye is sad but doing so in circumstances where they are moving on to the place where they are obviously called marks the end of a successful curacy and so we can bid Nicky farewell also with real gladness in our hearts, joy if you will, that God called us all together for a season and a reason, but He continues to call and to work out his purposes in us and through us. 

It has been a delight and an honour to minister alongside Nicky during this time of her curacy and it is with sadness that this chapter in all our lives comes to an end but it is also with joy and some pride that we dispatch you to Marden and I look forward to being at your licensing service there next month.

I am sorry that I haven’t addressed our readings this morning, so I am just going to offer one small final reflection.  Although curates and vicars dress the same – although Nicky’s DMs are much more exciting than mine – and most people outside the church don’t have a clue about the difference, nonetheless there is a big difference in the way people treat you in church, both for good and for ill.  One of the big differences is that people look to the vicar as the person with all the answers in all sorts of matters from the spiritual to the much less spiritual.  It is too easy for some vicars to let that go to their heads and to start thinking of themselves as someone who knows all the answers.  This morning’s reading from Philippians reminds us that Christ himself, who is equal with God the Father, humbled himself to the point of an ignominious death when he came amongst us and, therefore, we ought not to think too highly of ourselves but continue to work out our salvation with ‘fear and trembling’ for it is God who works in us to fulfil his good purposes.  I am sure you would never do either of these things Nicky, but never be overwhelmed by your new role, nor let it go to your head, and think that you can do everything or know everything because we can only do what we do with God’s help and to fulfil his purposes.  And God’s purposes may not always be the same as our purposes or the purposes of the dozens of different interest groups you will encounter in and out of church. Always be yourself before God and not who other people want you to be.

So, I wasn’t kidding about mixed emotions this morning.  We have Christian joy, we have the happiness of seeing Nicky today, we have the nostalgia of her curacy, we have the sadness of saying goodbye mixed with the pride of seeing her going to a good home, mixed with the fear and trembling of working out our salvation day by day but, when we do that, knowing that God continues to work his will through our lives wherever he calls us to be which, I hope, brings us back to joy.

It has been a real joy being with you Nicky and I offer you every joy and blessing as you journey on.

Amen.

Paul White

Sermon – Trinity 14

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 14,

13th September 2020

Exodus 14 verses 19 – End    The Lord protects the Israelites Matthew 18 verses 21 – 35 The unforgiving servant

  1. Battle of Britain.  Last weekend, on Saturday 5th September I met three members of the family of Squadron Leader Philip Campbell Pinkham, who 80 years ago as Commanding Officer of 19 Squadron RAF took off with his Squadron from an RAF airfield in Essex and who was shot down by an incoming a German Luftwaffe aircraft somewhere over the River Thames, crashing on the North Downs just above the Pilgrims Way in Birling parish.  We met to remember the sacrifice of a young man of 25 who, in common with many other pilots in the Battle of Britain, lost his life in the defence of his and our country.   I had the privilege of dedicating a new memorial cross at the place where he died and saying a prayer of thanksgiving with the family members and others at this place with its marvellous view Southward to West Malling and Borough Green.  As Mayor’s Chaplain I was able to convey the greetings and the appreciation of Cllr Jill Anderson of this act of remembrance just within the boundary of our Borough.

2. Exodus.   During the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, the Israelites lived through  a very stressful and uncertain 40 years.   As we look back on that period of the formation of the nation of Israel, with a record written from a theological perspective it is easy to miss the uncertainty that many ordinary people felt.   There were those who often criticised Moses’ leadership saying it would have been better to stay in Egypt as slaves than to endure the hardships of life in the desert.   Our first reading this morning reminds us of the early stage of that uncertain period.   The Egyptian army was pursuing the escaping Israelites and so, suddenly they were confronted with the Red Sea in front,  the Army behind and possibly soon be round their flanks as well – no escape. “Help.  We have had it now”, many of them must have been thinking and even voicing aloud.   Suddenly a dark cloud comes down between the Egyptian Army and the Israelites, the wind gets up and blows with gale force to thrust the shallow waters of the upper Red Sea out towards the Indian Ocean and the Israelites are able to move forward in the early morning light.

Sunday 15th September 1940 is regarded as the turning point in that Battle; a point when the Royal Air Force began to gain the upper hand and obtain air superiority over the German Air Force.  Hitler was intent on invading England, but he knew that he could not do that until he had air superiority.   He was taken aback as the Luftwaffe with superior numbers began to loose the upper hand.   Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command revealed in his memoirs that he attributed the success in the Battle of Britain to ‘divine intervention’.   Incidentally, on that Sunday our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, with his wife Clementine, visited the Sector Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge, to witness at first hand the progress of the battle that day.  The operations room was restored about 25 years ago, with the plotting board as it would have been at some point on that Sunday.   Although RAF Uxbridge closed as an RAF Staion about 10 years ago the operations room has been retained and is open to the public (battleofbritainbunker.co.uk).   Usually Battle of Britain Services are held on or close to the 15th September.   This is not a full Battle of Britain Service, but it seemed appropriate to recall today that critical time in the life of our nation, a time of great uncertainty, 80 years ago. 

A word about the walls of water on either side.   They have been portrayed quite often in children’s Bibles and in films as huge vertical walls of water perhaps 100 feet high.   Quite sufficient to cause a thinking person that the whole account is either made up or grossly distorted.   In the Hebrew language, the original language of the Old Testament, there are two words, translated as ‘wall’.   One is ‘Chomah’ used of a defensive wall such as a city wall or of an enclosure such as an orchard or vineyard.  The other is ‘qir’ used of the wall of a house or other building.   The word used of the Exodus is ‘chomah’.   It therefore is describing the water as a protection of the Israelites, since it prevented a flanking movement by Pharaoh’s army.   The water needed to be only 3 or 4 feet deep to prevent such a flanking movement and didn’t have to be vertical as in the wall of a house.

Some Israelites did not share the belief of their leader, Moses, in the God of all creation.   They did not perceive that God was using his own creation, with the laws of its operation, including providing air superiority, to facilitate their escape from Egypt.  They did not see that God was laying the foundation of a great plan of salvation that succeeding generations would celebrate in the Passover Festival as God’s supreme act of salvation of his chosen people.   Such people would easily have looked back on that night and said “Phew! That was a lucky escape!”.  Such people, without faith in God, found the deprivations and uncertainity of the wilderness experience more that they could bear.  They repeatedly complained about their leaders.

3. Uncertainty.            Most of this year we have been living and are still living through a time of uncertainty.   Restrictions were easing but with the possibility of a resurgence some restrictions have been reimposed, both in this country and in other countries.   No longer is it a fight between one country or alliance of countries and another, but rather of all countries fighting an unseen, a hidden, enemy.   However the threat is also a global force for unity and even cooperation against this common enemy.   There have been plagues throughout history, there are always illnesses abounding and it is difficult to understand the causes and the working of such things.   The human race, with its huge population, is having unexpected effects on the whole natural world.   In dense populations disease spreads more readily.   It is difficult to understand the place of viruses in the created order.   The chief certainty of life is that each of us will die.   Part of the wisdom of life is to live positively, through uncertainty, towards that end,.   This in part is done by a firm belief in God our Creator, who knows us each one, who loves us each one.   The Exodus and wilderness experience was a challenging time for the Israelites.   By no means all rose to the challenge.   When the twelve spies were sent out to make a reconnaisance of the Promised Land, only two came back with a report based on faith in God and his promise.   We have the evidence of the supreme and loving God in his great saving act of the New Covenant, achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ.

I was but 4 years old at the time of the Battle of Britain and was evacuated from Kent to Devon.   For those living here in Kent, those in London enduring the nightly bombing, it must have been a very challenging time, when some lost hope.   One of the good things to come out of the Second World War was the founding of Missionary Aviation Fellowship, as three former RAF officers, two pilots and an engineer, believed that God was calling them to use the skills that they had acquired in wartime to serve him in peacetime in serving countries in Africa.   That new venture which has flourished over the past 75 years, now flies in around 26 countries in the world.   The last surviving founding member, the Engineer Officer, Stuart King, who continued throughout his life to take an active interest in MAF, died on 29th August at the age of 98.   We thank God for a humble, dedicated and visionary servant of God.

Let us, who are living in a particular time of uncertainty, not only because of Covid 19 but also not knowing how we will progress as a country, when we fully leave the European Union in a few months time, continue to trust in God, a loving and faithful God.

1418 words                                                                                                                                                  Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 13

Sunday 6th September 2020 – Romans 13:8-end, Matthew 18:15-20

It is a great joy for me to be preaching with people gathered here in Church this morning.  Although you will all have seen more than enough of me on your computer screens for the last three months, and some of you have been able to attend on Wednesdays, this is the first Sunday I have been able to celebrate and preach in front of real live people since my last pre-sabbatical service at the end of February.  An unprecedented and unexpected gap which I hope will not be repeated in my lifetime.

I mentioned the word ‘gathered’ just now, and it is a word which has been on my mind quite a lot for the last couple of months.  When lockdown first began, and when churches first had to get to grips with what it meant to be church and to do church in a different way, there was a great deal of talk about whether ‘church’ was the building or the people.  Whilst much of the debate was nonsensical, with people being accused of worshipping buildings, I think we have learned some important lessons which I hope we can continue to draw on as we go forward:

  1. For a traditional church I hope that we have learned that worship can still happen in non-traditional ways.  Over the years I wonder how much time has been spent discussing which hymn books to use, which musical settings to use, how the church should be decorated, which bibles to use, who should process where and when even, dare I say it, which coffee to have after church.  Suddenly, literally overnight, all that was swept away and our experience of church was stripped down to daily prayer and a weekly Eucharist celebrated remotely.  And yet somehow, despite all the shortcomings and difficulties that has presented, especially for those without the internet, we have hung together as a church and worship has still happened week by week, in dozens of homes, including those who are on Zoom today. 

I hope that we have learned from that the difference between the externals of worship and the eternals of worship.  A great deal of what we do in church, and what we talk about and what we worry about, has to do with the externals and, as we return to church, it would be too easy to become fixated on them once again.  However, I hope we remember that it was the eternals of prayer, God’s word and the Sacraments which kept us going. 

I pray that going forward our identity as a church can be founded from the ground-up on those eternals.  If we are solid in our relationship with God then the externals can come and go and change or be withdrawn entirely and we are still the church.  Although we are all keen, in one sense, to get back to ‘normal’ I genuinely hope that this experience has given us permission to hold the externals lightly, to be more nimble in our approach to change and therefore to be more willing and able to share the eternals of who and what we are with the wider world. 

2. There is another side to this coin, which I hope complements rather than contradicts what I have just said.  Whilst we have continued to be the church whilst dispersed in the world and meeting only virtually I hope that it has made us appreciate the importance and the strength of what it means to be the physically gathered church.  Being with other people makes a difference to the experience of worship.  I have used the analogy before but watching a play on the television or on YouTube is an entirely different experience from being in the theatre and in the audience.  There is something important about being in the same room not only where the action is taking place, but also with other people who are experiencing it with you.  This is a limited analogy because worship is never meant to be about watching a performance but about a collective action but there is something fundamentally human about being gathered together for a shared purpose which cannot be replicated on a screen.  So, if absence makes the heart grow fonder, I hope that the experience of being dispersed will help us to appreciate the privilege and the importance of what it means once again to be the gathered church.  Being the gathered church means we need to meet in a building, and that building should be fit for purpose, but that does not mean that we worship the building any more than those who go to the Oast Theatre worship the Oast buildings.

And today’s reading, as a matter of sheer providence, talks about the importance and even the power of the gathered church.

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

I hear so often people tell me that they can have a relationship with God, on their own and experience Him out in nature.  There is a long tradition of people living as hermits which suggests that it is possible to be a lone Christian, but everything else I encounter about the relational nature of God himself in the Trinity to the communal nature of worship which exists throughout both the bible and the history of faith, tells me that the default practice of our faith was never meant to be a solo activity but was always meant to be a gathered, communal, community, church-family event.

“Where two or three gather in my name…”

People can obviously gather for any purpose but here we are told that there is something important about naming Jesus as the purpose, the instigator, the focus of our gathering.  There is nothing accidental about the fact that our services always start by saying that we meet in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  We are reminded that for that time we are not random people gathered for a random purpose but that we have come together as the people of God and in the name of God.

When we do that Jesus says: “…there I am, with them.”

To gather in the name of Jesus is to make Jesus present.  We hear Jesus speak today in the words of the bible, the people of God are themselves the body of Christ and bodies work better when they are assembled rather than disassembled, we encounter the presence of Jesus in the eucharist, as each of us becomes more Christlike we should make Jesus more present to one another and the church which is gathered makes Jesus present to the world. 

The gathered church is the people of God, meeting in the name of God and assured of the presence of God.

That is why theatre analogies soon run short – a theatre audience of two or three is a pretty poor audience but two or three Christians gathered in Jesus name have the power to change heaven.

I beg your pardon, I hear you say, what was that little leap you just made?

A few weeks ago we heard the reading from Matthew 16 in which Jesus established Peter as the rock on which the Church would be built and told him that whatever Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven and whatever Peter loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven.   Roughly speaking, that the decisions and the actions Peter took on earth, whether it is healing, pronouncing the forgiveness of sin or whatever, would be honoured in heaven.  As the representative of Jesus on earth that Peter could speak in his name and his words would have effect on earth and in heaven.  As you might expect there is a great deal of theology in the Catholic church about the authority this bestows on Peter’s successor the Pope.

However, today, we hear those words again – whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Only this time they are not directed at Peter individually, but at the church local and militant. 

Two or three gathered Christians, meeting in the name of Jesus, make Jesus present and have the power to affect the life of heaven.  Whilst our worship life here may be a pale reflection of the eternal worship in heaven, and whilst it may feel even more pale either wearing a mask or via a screen, we are reminded today that this is not nothing, this is not incidental and neither it is merely social or external. 

We are truly the body of Christ, gathered around the word of God in the bible and encountering Jesus the living Word of God in his spirit, in his sacrament and in one another, and are reminded that what we say and do here matters, not only amongst ourselves but in heaven itself.

Sisters and Brothers in Christ.  This matters, more than we may ever appreciate this side of heaven.  Let’s not get hung up on the externals, but focus on the eternals in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

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’.

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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.