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Sunday, 24 January 2021

Extravagance, revisited



 A rewrite of an old friend!

It seems a very long time since I was last able to give a party, or even to invite someone round for coffee – I keep dreaming I’ve been able to, and then wake up and find it was only a dream! I can’t even remember when I last gave a big party, although I’m sure I had a couple of lunch parties in 2019!

But one of the things about parties, or weddings, or any other big event that you’re hosting, is worrying whether you have enough food and drink – to the point that, very often, there is far too much! I do know we got it right when it came to buying the sparkling wine for our daughter’s wedding, all those years ago, but I also remember worrying lest we should, perhaps, have got another case…. As it turned out, there was plenty – we were even able to take a couple of bottles home with us!

But it seems to have been very far from the case for that poor host of the wedding at Cana we have just read about. As I understand it, back in the day wedding feasts lasted two or three days, and a host would expect to have enough food and drink to cater for the entire time. But something had gone badly wrong here. We don’t know what had happened, or why – only that it had. Such embarrassment – the party will be going on for awhile yet, but there is no wine.

But among the wedding guests were a very special family.
Mary, the carpenter's widow from Nazareth, and her sons.
Cana isn't very far from Nazareth, only about twelve miles,
but that's quite a good day's journey when you have to rely on your own two feet to get you there.
So it's probable that either the bride or the groom were related to Mary in some way,
especially as she seems to have been told about the disaster with the wine.

And then comes one of those turning-point moments in the Gospels.
Mary tells her eldest son, Jesus, that the wine has run out.

Now, as far as we can tell, Jesus is only just beginning to realise who he is.
John's gospel says that he has already been baptised by John the Baptist,
which implies that he has been out into the desert to wrestle with the implications of being the Messiah –
and the temptations which came with it,
and John also tells us that Simon Peter, Andrew and some of the others have started to be Jesus' disciples
and had come with him to the wedding.
But, in this version of the story, Jesus hasn't yet started to use his divine power to heal people and to perform miracles,
and he isn't quite sure that the time is right to do so.
So when his mother comes up and says “They have no wine,” his immediate reaction is to say, more or less, “Well, nothing I can do about it!
It isn't time yet!”

His mother, however, seems to have been ahead of Jesus for once, on this, and says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you!”
And Jesus, who was always very close to God,
and who had learnt to listen to his Father all the time,
realises that, after all, his mother is right
and the time has come to start using the power God has given him.
So he tells the servants to fill those big jars with water –
an they pour out as the best wine anybody there has ever tasted.
As someone remarked, right at the fag-end of the wedding,
when people are beginning to go home and everybody has had more than enough to drink, anyway.

I don't suppose the bridegroom's family were sorry, though.
Those jars were huge –
they held about a hundred litres each, and there were six of them.
Do you realise just how much wine that was?
Six hundred litres –
about eight hundred standard bottles of wine!
Eight hundred.... you don't even see that many on the supermarket shelves, do you?
Eight hundred.... I should think Mary was a bit flabber-gasted.
And it was such good quality too.

Okay, so people drank rather more wine then than we do today, since there was no tea or coffee, poor them, and the water could be a bit iffy,
but even still, I should think eight hundred bottles would last them quite a while.
And at that stage of the wedding party, there's simply no way they could have needed that much.

But isn't that exactly like Jesus?
Isn't that typical of God?
We see it over and over and over again in the Scriptures.
The story of feeding the five thousand, for instance –
and one of the Gospel-writers points out that it was five thousand men, not counting the women and children –
well, in that story, Jesus didn't provide just barely enough lunch for everybody, quite the reverse –
there were twelve whole basketsful left over!
Far more than enough food –
all the disciples could have a basketful to take home to Mum.

Or what about when the disciples were fishing and he told them to cast their nets that-away?
The nets didn't just get a sensible catch of fish –
they were full and over-full, so that they almost ripped.

It's not just in the Bible either –
look at God's creation.
You've all seen pictures of the way the desert blooms when it rains –
look at those millions of flowers that nobody, for a very long time, ever knew were there except God.
Or look at how many millions and millions of sperm male animals produce to fertilise only a few embryos in the course of a lifetime.
Or where lots of embryos are produced, like fish, for instance, millions of them are eaten or otherwise perish long before adulthood.
And millions and millions of different plant and animal species, some of which are only now being discovered.

Or look at the stars!
All those millions upon millions of stars, many with planets, some with planets like our own that may even hold intelligent life.....
God is amazing, isn't He?
And just suppose we really are the only intelligent life in the Universe?
That says something else about God's extravagance in creating such an enormous Universe with only us in it!
Our God is truly amazing!

Scientists think that some of the so-called exoplanets they have been discovering lately might contain life, although whether or not that would be intelligent life is not clear, and probably never will be.

So how did God redeem such beings, assuming they needed redemption? We know that here, his most extravagant act of all was to come down and be born as a human baby – God, helpless, lying in a makeshift cradle fashioned from an animal feeding-trough. Having to learn all the things that human babies and children have to learn. Becoming just like us, one of us, knowing what it’s like to work for his living, what it’s like to be a condemned criminal and to die a shameful death!

But God, God who could only allow Moses the teeniest glimpse of his glory, or he would not have been able to survive it, and even then his face shone for hours afterwards, this God became a human being who could be captured and put to death.

You know, sometimes I think the main function of the church is to help us cope with God. Perhaps the church, quite unwittingly, limits God, or, like Moses, we’d not be able to handle it. St Paul prays that we might know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

The Church, which is His body. And yet we – we the Church – are so bad at being His body. We limit God. We tell God what to do. We tell God who God may love, and who is to be considered beyond the pale. We judge, we fail to forgive, we withhold, despite the fact that Jesus said “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

And yet we still hold back from God. I don’t mean just money – although we do that, too, despite the promise that if we: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”

But we hold back ourselves from God. We aren’t – well, I know I’m not, and I dare say I speak for you too – we aren’t really prepared to give ourselves whole-heartedly to God. After all, who knows what God won’t ask of us if we do? We might even have to give up our lives, as Jesus did! Or worse, perhaps God would say “No thank you!” Perhaps we would be asked to go on doing just exactly as we are doing – how disappointing!

But I wonder if it’s really about doing. Isn’t it more about being? Isn’t it more about being made into the person God created us to be? Isn’t it more about allowing God into us extravagantly, wholeheartedly…. I would say “completely”, but I don’t think that’s quite possible. God is simply too big, and we would be overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, Jesus came, he told us, so that we can have life, and have it abundantly!
Abundantly.
Can we let more of God into our lives, to be able to live more abundantly? It doesn’t feel possible in this time of pandemic, but maybe we could learn what abundant life in lockdown is?
Do you dare? Do I dare? Do we dare? Amen!


Sunday, 3 January 2021

The Light of the World




Preached via Zoom

In our Gospel reading today, that great Christmas gospel, the prologue to the Gospel of John, we find this verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.”
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.”

I have been holding very tight on to that verse for the last two months, ever since it sprang into vivid prominence on All Saints’ Day, when we sang “Thou in the darkness drear their one true light”. Jesus is the light of the world. In the darkness, Jesus is the one true light, and the darkness has never put it out.

Jesus himself said, if you remember, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.”

You see, darkness can’t conquer light! Think about it one moment – you go into a dark room, and the first thing you do is flick a switch to turn the light on! You don’t have to scrub for hours to make the darkness go away. You don’t have to sit and chant or sing or beat yourself up. All you have to do is turn the light on. Or open the curtains, if it’s daylight outside.

Of course, it’s only been for about the past hundred years that we have had that luxury, and in some parts of the world it’s still not the norm. Even when I was a girl, I sometimes visited a house that was lit with gas, rather than electricity. And Robert, growing up in Northern Ireland, remembers his house being lit by oil lamps, known as Tilly lamps, before it was wired up to the electricity supply. The last part of the UK to be wired up to the national supply was Rathlin Island, of the north coast of Northern Ireland, which was only linked in 2005.

But even sixty years or so ago, when Robert and I were children, electric lighting was mostly the norm in the West. By then, there was a national body that governed the production and distribution of electricity, but prior to that, if you weren’t in a big town you had to have a generator to make electricity for your house, as they do in many parts of the world today.

And when you didn’t, or don’t, have a generator, you have to rely on gas, or oil lamps, or candles – or even a “button lamp” where a shred of material is pulled up through a hole in a button which sits on some grease in a pot, and you light the grease-soaked material and it works like a candle. Rush lamps work on the same principle, I believe.

But the point is, no matter what the light source, it is always greater than darkness! It seldom gets properly dark here in London unless there is a power cut, and that doesn’t happen very often. But when it does happen, we only need to find an emergency lantern, or even a tea-light, and we have light of a sort. It’s not, perhaps, enough light to read or sew by, but it’s enough to prevent us from knocking into the furniture. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.

That, of course, is why we celebrate Christmas at this darkest time of the year. Jesus’ birthday probably isn’t on 25 December – if the shepherds were out in the fields, it was more probably spring, lambing time, when the sheep and their lambs were at their most vulnerable. But we don’t know the exact date – those who wrote Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels didn’t think it important enough to record. And it doesn’t matter, anyway – after all, the Queen has an official birthday which is celebrated in June, where her real birthday is in April, and if the Queen can, so can Jesus! The point is, of course, that the ancient pagan festivals that celebrated the turn of the year and the renewal of the light, the fact that the days would now start to get lighter, rather than darker, were merged into the celebration of the coming of the Light of the World. The return of the sun and the coming of the Son….

Think of lighthouses and lightships. They aren’t quite so necessary in these days of satellite navigation, but still useful, to help ships know where they are at sea, and to warn them off rocks and other hazards. But, of course, there were people known as “wreckers”, who would purposely shine lights to lure ships to their doom, whereupon they would plunder the wrecked ship! It was a light in the darkness, but sadly, the wrong light.

Which, of course, brings me to another point about light – Jesus said that we, too, are light. “You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house.  In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.”

Now, of course, some people like to dwell on that verse to make us feel guilty and fearful, and afraid that somehow we are letting Jesus down by not being light, or not being bright enough, or something. But it’s not like that. Jesus is the Light of the World, and if we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit – and if we are dedicated to being Jesus’ people, then we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit – then we will be shining with Jesus’ light. Sometimes we are not very bright lights, but even one candle is enough to drive away the darkness, and when a bunch of candles come together, the light gets brighter and brighter and brighter.

And there are times when our own light seems to flicker despairingly, and that’s when we depend on one another to get through. We will sing no 611 at the end of this sermon, because of the verse that goes:
“I will hold the Christlight for you
in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.”

It’s been a long, dark time for many of us, these past nine months, and it’s not over yet. There is light on the horizon – see what I did there – with the news that the Oxford vaccine is going to start being rolled out tomorrow, and I think they hope that by Easter, we’ll be able to be together again. But this time of year, when it is still really dark and although we know Spring will eventually come there’s no sign of it yet, this is the time when people’s mental health is going to really suffer. We’ve been suffering horrendous restrictions for the best part of a year, with only a few weeks’ respite in the summer, and right now it feels as though it’s going to go on forever. And it’s now we need to hold the Christlight for one another, now when we falter, someone needs to be there for us – they probably can’t be actually with us, as that’s not allowed, but they can be there at the end of a phone, or on WhatsApp, or whatever your preferred way of contact is. And similarly, when we falter – and I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it all too easy to falter just now – I know I can rely on you, or others, to hold the Christlight for me.

I imagine there was a bit of a giggle when Jesus said – and quite probably illustrated with gestures – that nobody lights a lamp and puts in under a bowl… although mind you, I have been known to light the torch on my phone and wave it around under the sofa when I’m looking for my crochet hook, which must have a lover or something down there, the way it escapes down there whenever I’m not looking! But that’s different. Jesus knew all about that sort of thing, too, as you may remember when he told the story of the lost coin – the woman who had lost it lit her lamp and took it to all the dark corners of her house to light them up and see if the coin was there.

I wonder what else she found while she was looking for her coin – you know how you so often find something you’d given up looking for when you are looking for something else! But the light also lights up all the nasties that live in the dark corners – the dust and dirt, the dead spiders, all the things we’d really rather visitors to our house didn’t see. I was horrified to notice, the other day, a really dirty stretch of floor in the corridor; we quickly washed it, but I’d have hated someone else to have seen it. Normally that part of the corridor was in shadow, but for some reason it got lit up and we noticed the grime.

And that is what can happen, too, when we let the light of Christ shine into our own dark corners. All the dust and dirt and grime and dead spiders come into full prominence, and all need to be swept away and washed – I was going to say “washed in the blood of the Lamb”, which is a fearful cliché, but for once it’s accurate. We mustn’t try to hide the dark corners from God – I know it’s tempting, because we hate looking at them. But it’s only when we let God in to all the corners that there will be no darkness at all in us.

The Light came into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it. On the contrary, the light has brought light to all of us, and has lit us, too, so that we shine out into a dark world. Let us follow that light, wherever it leads us, and pray that we won’t be lured onto the rocks by the false light of the wreckers, but that, like the Magi of old – for it’s nearly Epiphany, when we celebrate the coming of the Magi – like the Magi, may we be led by the light of God’s shining star. In the words of the old hymn: 

“Lead thou my feet, I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.” Amen. 

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Searching the Scriptures




The trouble with Luke's telling of the life of Jesus
is all the things he has to leave out!
Of all Jesus's childhood, adolescence and, indeed, young manhood,
we only get this tiny glimpse.
And there is so very much we don't know,
Which makes it very awkward, at times,
to know what to make of this glimpse of an adolescent Jesus,
such a tiny glimpse.

When my daughter was adolescent,
I spent a lot of time with this story!
It was so encouraging to know that Jesus, too, in his time,
had gone off to do his own thing without reference to his parents,
and when they had remonstrated, he was like
"You just don’t understand!"
And sometimes people said
"But, of course, it was different for Jesus!"
But was it?

You see, we know so very little.
All we are really told is that they went to Jerusalem every year for the
Passover, and that this year, Jesus was twelve.
And that is significant.
You see, from time immemorial, Jewish boys have become,
at the age of 13, a man.
They are required to keep the commandments,
and they may take their place in the synagogue,
taking their turns at reading the Scriptures.
Their presence helps to make up the "minyan", or quorum,
that is required before Jewish people can have a service.
And so on.
Nowadays, this transition is marked by a ceremony known as a Bar
Mitzvah, where the boy in question reads a passage of Scripture during a
special service in the synagogue, and makes a speech, and then there is
a bun-fight afterwards.
In Jesus' day they didn't do that, but the rising-13s would have expected
to be called upon to read the Scriptures in public any time after their 13m
birthdays.
So I am quite sure that those who taught the classes of 12-year-olds
really concentrated on the Scriptures,
to ensure that the boys knew their Bibles really thoroughly,
and would be able to make a good showing
whatever portion they were asked to read.

So Jesus, at 12, was engrossed in Bible Study.
And, for him, it became more than an interest,
more than something he had to Study at school
if he was to get good marks and avoid trouble.
It became a passion.
Now, here is where we get a little stuck,
because it simply isn't clear how much Jesus knew about who he was,
when he was 12.
We don’t know whether Mary and Joseph had told him anything about his
conception,
Or that Joseph was not his natural father.
We don’t know whether he knew there was anything special about him at
hope he didn’t.
I hope he had a really happy childhood,
quite untouched by these things.
And probably he did.

God, after ail, had chosen Mary to be his earthly mother,
and Joseph to act as "Dad" on purpose.
But nevertheless, as Jesus studied the Scriptures,
became engrossed in them.
God helped them become real to him.
And, of course, Jesus had endless questions.
I'm sure his parents did their best to answer him,
but perhaps they didn't know all that much themselves.
And his teachers, perhaps, didn’t have the time they would have liked to
answer his questions -
Or perhaps he wanted to go more deeply into these things than they
cared to do in an academic environment.
Who knows?
Once again, we are not told.
But we do know that when he reached Jerusalem that year,
he found all that, for then, he was seeking with the scribes in the Temple.
They knew.
They could answer his questions,
in the way that the folks back home in Nazareth could not.
They could deal with his objections,
listen to him,
wonder at his perspicacity at such a young age.

I hope the scribes didn’t laugh at him;
it's not clear from the text, but they might have.
But probably not, if his questions were sensible and to the point.

And Jesus, typically adolescent,
totally forgets about going home,
forgets that his parents will have kittens when they find he's not with
them,
forgets to wonder how he's going to get home,
Or even where he's going to sleep –
or, perhaps, thinks a vague mention of his plans was enough.
Anyway, Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zach will put him up, he’s quite sure.

And his parents thought he was with the company –
they would be travelling with a group of people, probably mostly from Nazareth.
It wasn’t just so safe to make that journey other than in a caravan of people, donkeys, merchants, and so on.
This gives us a glimpse that Jesus was, at that time, a normal human boy.
He was probably off with his friends –
they would tended to walk together, away from the grown-ups,
and then in the evening they’d all sit round one fire, singing, perhaps;
maybe a different parent each evening.
He’s fine, they thought.
He’s with the others.
And then they found he wasn’t…. panic!
So they went rushing back to Jerusalem –
not the safest thing to do on your own, but needs must. And there he was, safe and well.

No, his parents didn't understand;
of course they didn’t.
How could they?
It was, perhaps, the first glimpse they had had that he was somebody
very special.
Maybe Mary remembered the events surrounding his birth.
In any event, they were not aware of what he was talking about.
I expect they were livid with him, but then, that curious “I must be about my Father’s business” –
hurtful, to Joseph, but then, when have adolescent kids ever really thought about other people’s feelings?

Of course, later on, Jesus knew that searching the Scriptures was not
enough.
Remember what he said to the Pharisees:
search the scriptures because you think that in them you have
eternal life;
and it is they that testify on my behalf.
Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
He knew that you needed more than just the words on the page –
but at twelve years old, this was what had intrigued him,
fascinated him,
to the point of ignoring anything else.

Jesus was fascinated by the Scriptures, but then – so what?
What has this got to say to us, this dark and dismal Christmas so unlike any other that we can remember?
Some of us may have teenage children or grandchildren and much of this story resonates with us!
But even if we don’t, it’s lovely to see that Jesus, growing up, was a normal human boy.
All too often, we forget that he was human, as well as divine.
The passage from the Epistle, which we didn’t read,
emphasises his divinity rather than his humanity:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in him all things were created:
things in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
all things have been created through him and for him. 
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Well, yes, but that passage, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, emphasises that Jesus was divine.
He was.
He is.
But also human –
and this little glimpse of him growing up shows that.
It gives us a Jesus of flesh and blood, if you like;
a Jesus who played and sang with his friends,
who could get engrossed in a new interest to the exclusion of all else…
For me, it makes him more real, more approachable.
I hope it does for you, too.

I was interested to see that the story was paired with the reading we heard from Isaiah –
one of my favourite passages in the whole of Scripture!
And could anything be more appropriate for us right now?
“The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
    the splendour of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendour of our God.”
and so on and so forth – wonderful words of comfort. It’s not now, it’s a one day, but one day…. One day. Maybe one day I will be able to hug my grandsons again. Maybe one day we’ll be able to travel. Maybe one day we will be able to sing “Joy to the World” and “Christians, awake!”

And the picture at the end of that passage, of the redeemed walking across the desert highway, singing as they go –
perhaps that was what Jesus experienced walking to Jerusalem with his friends and family.
And one day, we will, too. Amen.

 

Sunday, 6 December 2020

St Nicholas


 

I hate to tell you, but I’m not going to preach on today’s readings! Instead, for reasons that will become clear in a bit, I’m going to tell you a story.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a – well, not in a galaxy far away, as this story takes place on this earth, but certainly in a country far away, a little boy was born. No, not Jesus of Nazareth – this birth took place a couple of hundred years later, and the little boy grew up to be one of Jesus’ followers. He was born in the city of Patara, in what is now Turkey, and you will remember from your reading in Acts that this was one of the places that St Paul visited during his travels, so it’s quite probable that his parents or grandparents were either converted by St Paul, or by the church he established there. His parents were rich, by the standards of their day, and when they died when the boy was quite young, he inherited all their money. But because he loved Jesus, he didn’t think it right to keep the money for himself, and began to give it away to the poor and needy in the area.

He dedicated his whole life to God, and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. One famous story about him tells of a poor man with three daughters, whom he could not hope to marry off as he had nothing to give for their dowries, something that was considered vital back in the day. And the future for unmarried women back then was bleak – slavery was probably the best option. So this young Bishop, anonymously, threw three purses of gold, one for each daughter, through the window of their house, and the purses landed in the shoes the girls had put to dry by the fire.

There are lots of other stories about this man – some probably legendary, as when three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens were robbed and murdered by wicked innkeeper, who hid their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that the bishop, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As he prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness.

There are several stories of his calming storms for sailors, and one story tells how during a famine in Myra, the bishop worked desperately hard to find grain to feed the people. He learned that ships bound for Alexandria with cargos of wheat had anchored in Andriaki, the harbor for Myra. The good bishop asked the captain to sell some of the grain from each ship to relieve the people's suffering. The captain said he could not because the cargo was "meted and measured." He must deliver every bit and would have to answer for any shortage. The Bishop assured the captain there would be no problems when the grain was delivered. Finally, reluctantly, the captain agreed to take one hundred bushels of grain from each ship. The grain was unloaded and the ships continued on their way.

When they arrived and the grain was unloaded, it weighed exactly the same as when it was put on board. As the story was told, all the emperor's ministers worshiped and praised God with thanksgiving for God's faithful servant!

Back in Myra, the Bishop distributed grain to everyone in Lycia and no one was hungry. The grain lasted for two years, until the famine ended. There was even enough grain to provide seed for a good harvest.

The Bishop, of course, was made a saint when he died. And the stories of his miracles didn’t stop coming. One very early story tells how the townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good saint on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the church to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer, as not knowing the language, Basilios would not understand what the king said to those around him. So, for the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios' parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the saint’s next feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy. However, she was persuaded to have a simple observance at home – with quiet prayers for Basilios' safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked up and away. The saint appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup!

This man became the patron saint of children, and the patron saint of sailors, too. And as the years and centuries passed, he was revered in Christian countries all over the world, both Orthodox and Catholic. In the 11th century his remains were moved from Myra, now called Demre, which was under Moslem rule, to a town in Italy called Bari, where he is venerated to this day. Nuns started to give poor children little gifts of food – oranges and nuts, mostly – on his feast day. And his cult spread right across Christendom.

You will notice that I haven’t said his name! Who knows who I have been talking about? Yes, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. And now, these days, transmogrified into Santa Claus.

Today is his feast day, which is why I’ve been telling you his story, but, of course we associate him more with Christmas. Although in many European countries, children would have put their shoes outside their bedroom doors last night for St Nicholas to fill with small gifts. A few years ago, Robert and I went to the Christmas markets in Cologne on St Nicholas’ Day, and there was St Nicholas on the public transport network there, giving sweets to children (with their parents’ permission, of course); we saw him doing it!

But the association with Christmas came about because of the Protestant reformation – seriously! If you were Protestant, you didn’t revere saints, so you couldn’t possibly have St Nicholas giving you oranges and nuts on his feast day!

Here in England, with our gift for religious compromise, our folk traditions changed to include Father Christmas and yule logs and things, but in many Protestant countries, particularly the USA, Christmas Day was considered “just another day”. But it seems that German colonists brought the St Nicholas tradition to the USA, and gradually he became the “jolly elf” of the famous poem.

And, of course, the illustrations for the Coca-Cola advertisements began to settle his image as the fat old man we know today. A far cry, really, from a young Bishop in ancient Turkey!

But what, you may ask, has this got to do with us?

How does it affect us on this second Sunday of Advent in this pandemic year, when many of us won’t be able to celebrate Christmas as we usually do?

It’s going to be a strange, sad Christmas for many this year. Okay, some people will be glad not to have to socialise or perhaps even more glad to have an excuse not to have to invite their family to eat and drink too much, but for many people it will be a real hardship. We’ll hate not being allowed to sing carols, I expect – I know I shall, and belting them out in the shower really doesn’t count! Nor does singing on Zoom, as it distorts so!

But I find it comforting to know that even the secular side of Christmas has its roots in Christianity. Father Christmas was a devout Christian! And he is going to come this year – our politicians have said so!

Similarly it is comforting to know that we are loved by God. Isaiah, as we heard earlier, reminds us that

God, like a good shepherd, takes care of his people.
    He gathers them like lambs in his arms.
    He holds them close, while their mothers walk beside him.

I don’t know about you, but this year I really need to be reminded of God’s love. Emmanuel means “God with us”, and whatever happens, whatever we can or can’t do this year, we know God will be with us.

So as we prepare for our scaled-down Christmas, and continue with whatever Advent observance we have undertaken, let’s remember that even Santa Claus worshipped the God who is with us. Amen.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

The Coming King

Preached via Zoom during lockdown.


So, Advent.

In a normal year people would starting to celebrate Christmas already –
the shops w
ould have had their decorations up since the beginning of last month, or even earlier,

and the round of office parties, works celebrations, school festivities would be starting any day now.
And the endless tapes of carols and Christmas songs that
would be played in the shops, I should think they’d drive the shop assistants mad!

But in a normal year, here in Church, Christmas wouldn’t have started yet,
and wouldn’t for another four weeks.  In fact, it still hasn’t, and still won’t,
because right now we are celebrating Advent, and it seems to be another penitential time, like Lent.

Were we allowed public worship, those churches that have different colours for the seasons would have brought out the purple hangings, and many would have no flowers except for an Advent wreath.

But not this year, when we are still in lockdown until, at the soonest, the end of this week, when shops where we might be doing our Christmas shopping are closed, where we can’t even meet in person to worship.  I’d even trimmed some masks in purple –the colour for Lent and Advent –specially!!!  I hope I’ll be able to use them before Christmas, but who knows?

But, even this year, Advent is really a season of hope.  We look forward to “the last day when Christ shall come again” to establish the Kingdom on earth.  We also look back to those who’ve been part of God’s story, including John the Baptist and Jesus’ Mother, Mary.

Today, though, our readings are about the coming King.  Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, tells how the prophet, and perhaps the people for whom he was speaking, longed and longed to see God in action.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!”

I think we can probably all identify with that this year!

Scholars think that this part of Isaiah was written very late, after the people of Judah had returned from exile. They would have remembered the stories of the wonderful things God had done in the olden days, in the days of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Jacob, of Moses, and of David the King – and then, they would have looked round and said But hey, why isn’t any of this happening today?”

They reckoned the answer must be because they were so sinful.

You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No-one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

It does sound very much as though the prophet were longing for God, but somehow couldn’t find him, in the mists of human sinfulness and this world’s total abandonment of God.

One of the interesting things about this pandemic is how it has begun to bring people back to God.  It’s too early to tell whether it will last – after all,

“God and the Doctor we alike adore
But only when in danger, not before;
The danger o'er, both are alike requited,
God is forgotten, and the Doctor slighted.”

Nevertheless, you got people watching streamed services who wouldn’t normally go to Church; I believe All Souls, Langham Place, had a vast international congregation during the first lockdown.  And I have noticed that many YouTube services, those from my daughter’s church, for instance, or my mother’s, get many more views than they ever get congregations on a Sunday!  So God is definitely doing something during this time; exactly what, I don’t know, and what God is saying about how to be church in the 21st century, I also don’t know – but I suspect we must think about this, and not just go back to “same old, same old” when restrictions are lifted, hopefully before this time next year.

Isaiah longed and longed to see God at work, feeling quite sure that God had abandoned his people.

Of course, as it turned out, God hadn’t abandoned his people at all! Jesus came to this earth, lived among us, and died for us, and Isaiah’s people now knew the remedy for their sin.  But Jesus himself tells us, in our second reading, that his coming to live in Palestine as a human being isn’t the end of the story, either.

Somehow, someday, he will come back again. He obviously doesn’t know all that much about it while he is on earth, and rather discourages us from speculation as to when or how. But he draws pictures for us:

The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

But elsewhere he tells us that even when there are plagues and wars and rumours of war, we mustn’t assume he is going to return imminently.

Mind you, today, as at no other time in history,
communications are such that if Jesus were to come back,
we’d know about it almost as soon as it happened –
look how quickly news spreads around the world these days.
Half the time you hear about it on Facebook or Twitter before the BBC has even picked up on it. 
Although that is very often fake news,
people either posting misleading information or genuine misunderstandings.
But Jesus' return would be something totally unmistakable.

But lots of generations before ours have thought that Jesus might come back any minute now,
from the overthrow of the Temple in 70 AD,
through the various plagues and pandemics,
wars and invasions,
right down to this current pandemic.
And Christians throughout history have lived their lives expecting him to come home.

We have remembered Jesus’ warnings about being prepared for him to come, but He hasn’t come.  And we get to the stage where we, too, cry with Isaiah:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!”
 
Like Isaiah, we long and long to see God come and intervene in this world, and wish that He would hurry up.  And that’s perfectly natural, of course.  Some folk have even got to the stage of believing it won’t happen, and have given up on God completely.  But Jesus said it will happen, and one has to assume He knew what he was talking about.

But that doesn’t mean that we can blame God – if You had come back before now, this wouldn’t have happened. Every generation has been able to say that to God, and it’s not made a blind bit of difference.  So maybe there’s something else.

You see, in one way, Jesus has come back.

Do you remember what happened on the Day of Pentecost, in that upper room? God’s Holy Spirit descended on those gathered there,looking like tongues of fire, and with a noise like a rushing mighty wind, and the disciples were empowered to talk about Jesus.

And we know from history, and from our own experience, that God the Holy Spirit still comes to us, still fills us, still empowers us.

One of the purposes of these so-called penitential seasons is to give us space to examine ourselves and see if we have drifted away from God, to come back and to ask to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit. Then we are empowered to live our lives as Jesus would wish.  We don't have to struggle and strain and strive to “get it right” by our own efforts. God himself is within us, enabling us from the inside. Jesus doesn’t just provide us with an example to follow, but actually enables us to do it, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

All of us will face the end of the world one day.  It might be the global end of the world, that Jesus talks about, or it might just be the end of our personal world. Until this year, we expected, here in the West, to live out our life span to the end, and many of us, I am sure, will do just that, pandemic or no pandemic.  But we can’t rely on that.

You never know when terrorists will attack – or even muggers, or just a plain accident.  We can’t see round corners; we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

None of us foresaw this pandemic, which has taken so many lives – although, it has to be said, far fewer than in most previous pandemics.  The Black Death, after all, is thought to have killed over half the population of Britain, which makes the 0.08% of the population who have so far died of Covid-19 look like peanuts!

Although, of course, each and every one of those who has died has probably left their family devastated, we must never forget that they are individuals, not numbers. They are people who God loved, and knew, and cared for.

But whether it is tomorrow, or twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years from now, whether of Covid-19, of an accident, or of “frailty of old age”, which is what they put on my father’s death certificate, one day each and every one of us will die, and then, at last, we will meet Jesus face to face.  And we need to be ready.  We need to know that we have lived as God wants us to live – and when we’ve screwed up, as we always do and always will, we’ve come back to God and asked forgiveness and asked God to renew us and refill us with his Holy Spirit.

We can only live one day at a time, but each day should, I hope, be bringing us nearer to the coming of the King.
Amen.



Sunday, 25 October 2020

The Great Commandments


 I did actually leave a little more time between the prayer at the start and launching into it than can be heard on the recording - this is because I made a nonsense of the recording and had to concatenate the prayer and the main sermon, and cut it just too fine!!!

Today is called Bible Sunday, largely because of the Collect for the Day, which, when I was young, used to be the Collect for the second Sunday in Advent, but has since been moved!

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life,” and so on.

I had to learn it off by heart as a schoolgirl!

I wonder, if you were asked,
what you would think was the most important rule in the Bible?
Some people would be horrified at the thought that any one rule could be more important than another,
as they would say that all the Bible is the inspired Word of God and we need to obey all of it –
and then they don’t, being perfectly happy to wear polycotton clothes or eat bacon and oysters.
Other people would pounce on their own pet hate, finding justification for it somewhere in the Bible, even if it is a bit of a stretch –
gay marriage, for instance,
or abortion,
or divorce,
Sunday trading or sex before marriage.

Still others would try to use the Bible to justify their political worldview, whether far right, far left, or somewhere in between.
Or to place perhaps undue emphasis on social justice,
or homelessness, or poverty.
But in our Gospel reading, when Jesus was asked what the most important rule in the Bible was, he replied that it was to love God, one’s neighbour, and oneself.
Love, for Jesus, was the most important thing.

Now, you know as well as I do that you’re apt to find whatever you look for in the Bible.
If you want to find a picture of God as determined to send people to hell at all costs, and only grudgingly accepting those who trust Jesus,
then it’s easy enough to find that.
If, on the other hand, you want to find a God who moves heaven and earth to save people, any excuse will do not to condemn someone,
then it’s easy enough to find that, too.
We have to accept that our reading of the Bible is always going to be flawed, we’re always going to read it through the lens of our own prejudice, our own experience, our own political viewpoint.
Or, if we read with the help of a daily commentary,
of that commentator’s prejudice, experience, political viewpoint, and so on.

But Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love.
Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself. Anything else is subordinate to that.

So what is he talking about, and how do we do it?
Our English language lets us down here, unusually.
Normally, as it has both Latin and German roots,
we have several synonyms for most words, words that mean the same thing, like illness, sickness and disease,
to name the one that is on top of most people’s minds just now.
But when it comes to love, it lets us down,
as we only have the one word that has to cover an awful lot of meanings,
from loving God down to loving cheese on toast,
including loving
our families,
our friends,
our pets,
our old teddy-bear,
our hobbies
and the person we're in love with!

In Greece they managed better, and had several different words!
There is “storge”, or affection,
the kind of love you feel for your child or your parents
then there is “eros”,
which is romantic love
“philia”, which is friendship,
and “agape”, which is divine love,
and this is the word that is used in this passage,
and is actually only found in the New Testament.

It is also, as you may or may not know, the word that St Paul used in that lovely chapter in 1 Corinthians,
when he talks of the nature of that sort of love:
“Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.”

One of the interesting things is that when Jesus reinstates St Peter after he has denied him, you remember, by the lakeside,
when he says to him “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
he uses the word “agape”.
Peter can’t quite manage that, so he, when he replies
“Lord, you know that I love you”,
he uses the word “philia”
in other words, “Lord, you know I’m your friend”.
Then when Jesus again asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”,
he again uses the word “agape”,
and Peter again replies using the word “Philia”.

And then the third time, Jesus himself uses the word “philia”
which is why Simon Peter was so hurt.
He’s already said twice that he is Jesus’ friend,
why does he have to say it a third time?

Simon Peter found that committing himself to agape love,
to God’s love,
was pretty much impossible.
I’m not surprised, are you?

Let’s look at it again:
“Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.”

This is the sort of love that Jesus was talking about, when he told us to love God with all of our being, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
We need to be centred on God, not on ourselves.

But how do we do that?
After all, most people manage pretty well without God, and even those of us who try to be God’s people spend vast swathes of time doing other things,
sleeping, for one, or cooking, or working….
We are, of course, still God’s people while doing all those things,
but it’s not often at the forefront of our minds!

Jesus said we need to love God, our neighbour and ourselves.
St John equates loving God with loving our neighbour,
saying, basically, you can’t have one without the other.
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God's love was revealed among us in this way:
God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us
and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

And a bit later on, he says
“Those who say, `I love God', and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars
for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen,
cannot love God whom they have not seen.
The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

But then, just to get us even more confused, he says
­“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,
and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
By this we know that we love the children of God,
when we love God and obey his commandments.”

So for John, loving God and loving our neighbour,
our brothers and sisters,
are one and the same thing.

And, indeed, that God's love for us is first and foremost –
our love for God is just a response to that.

And I think he's probably right.
But it's not always easy, is it?

Again, I dare say we would find it easier if we were more aligned with God.
The trouble is, quite apart from anything else,
our human loves can be so desperately flawed.

You might think that there is nothing more wonderful than the love between parents and children
but how easily that love can turn into wanting to dominate the child,
to dictate how they should live,
what they should do,
which university they should attend;
which career they should follow;
and so on, often up to and including the type of person they would like them to marry….

And I don’t need to spell out just how easily romantic love can go wrong,
do I?

As for friendship, you would have thought it would be difficult for that to go wrong.
People tend to be friends because of shared interests
Robert and I have a great many very dear friends with whom we would not otherwise have anything in common, apart from our love of skating.
That is the thing that we are friends about.

But sometimes friendship can be more about excluding the other person, not including them.
Particularly among children, of course, but it can happen among adults.

Sadly, we see it a lot in the churches
we exclude those who, perhaps, are not of the same denomination as we are, or don’t worship God in quite the same way.
Or perhaps we are Evangelical and they are not, or vice versa, so we tend to be sniffy about their way of being a Christian, and exclude them.

As I said at the beginning, we all read the Bible through the lens of our own prejudices,
and we are apt to exclude those who don’t read it quite the same way we do.

But if Love is the most important commandment in the Bible, then we mustn’t exclude anybody, for whatever reason.  Not even if they hold views we find abhorrent.

I don’t know about you, but I found it really difficult when Donald Trump was taken ill with Covid-19 the other week –
how do you pray for someone you are required to love,
but whose policies and values you really don’t like?
In the end, I just said “Oh well, God, you sort it out!”
because it was far too difficult to pray the way I knew I ought….
I sometimes have to resort to that when it comes to praying for our own Government, too!

We are told the most important thing is to love God, our neighbour and ourselves.
Now loving ourselves is, very often, the most difficult bit.
It's all too easy to have the wrong kind of self-love,
the kind that says “Me, me, me” all the time and demands its own way –
the absolute opposite, in fact, of the love that St Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians.
You can't love your neighbour –
or God, either, for that matter –
if you are full of that sort of self-love.

But then there is the equal and opposite problem –
we don't value ourselves enough.
We don't really like ourselves, we have a big problem with self-image,
we are not what the French call “comfortable in our own skins”.

And often it is the people who appear most self-absorbed,
most unable to love others,
who are the most wounded inside,
and who are totally not comfortable with themselves.
And again, it is only through the love of God,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit,
that we can be made whole,
and thus enabled to love ourselves and other people, as we should.

So really, it's all one –
we love, because God first loved us
we can't love God without also loving our neighbours
we can't love our neighbours unless we love ourselves –
or, at the very least, have a healthy self-image,
which amounts to the same thing
and we can't love ourselves unless we are aware that God loves us!

So the important thing, as it always is,
is to be open to God's love more and more
to continue to be God's person
and to continue to be open to be being made more and more the person God designed us to be.
To be open to a different interpretation of the Bible to the one we grew up with.
To know that if we get love right, the rest will fall into place.
To know that be fully human is to be fully God's person.
Amen.




Sunday, 13 September 2020

As we forgive...


 

I have to admit that the gospel passage set for today is not one of my favourites. I find it gives a very odd picture of God, as though God is only waiting for us to feel the slightest bit of resentment against someone as an excuse not to forgive us.

Well, that isn't like the God I know, so why did Jesus tell this story? We know from elsewhere, the Lord's prayer, for instance, that we need to forgive before we are forgiven, but why? What difference does it make to us?

Well, let's look at the story in context.


The story comes in a selection of Jesus' teaching, including the story of the lost sheep, and the bit where Jesus says what to do if someone sins against you. You may have thought about this last week: first of all you talk to them privately, then if they won't listen, you take someone else along for moral support, then you take the matter to the church, and if all else fails, you, quote, treat him as though he were a pagan or tax collector, unquote. Although given how Jesus was prone to treat pagans and tax collectors, loving them into the Kingdom of God, I don’t think he actually meant to shun them!

But then Peter comes along, probably in a tearing rage, and wants to know how many times you have to forgive someone. I wonder who'd been getting on his nerves! It sounds like someone had. And Jesus says, not just seven times, the way the Jewish law says, but uncountable times. Seventy times seven; you'd lose count long before you got that far. And then he tells this story.

So, what does this story mean?

I think we are supposed to see ourselves as the person who owed the king a fortune, and the other servant is someone who has hurt or upset us in some way. I suppose that Jesus is saying that no matter how much someone else may offend us or hurt us, it's nothing compared with how much we need God's forgiveness.
But then, what is forgiveness? In this context, it is described as letting someone off a debt. But, like everything to do with Christianity, there is a lot more to it than that. It is more than just allowing us not to pay the penalty for what we have done wrong. It has to do with healing and reinstatement and generally being made whole.

Because sin isn't so much about what we do – although that too, of course - but also about who we are. Let's face it, most of us here today would not go out and deliberately commit a dreadful sin, or not most of the time, anyway. But we know that deep down we are not whole. We are not perfect. We need God's grace, and his healing, and his love if we are to come anywhere near being the person he designed us to be.

For me, confession isn't so much a matter of saying "I'm sorry," but more a matter of facing up to who I am: yes I am the kind of person who would do this; no I'm not perfect; yes, I do need Jesus. And, of course, so does everyone else.

As I'm sure you know, most people who commit crimes seem to do so out of their own inadequacy. That doesn't excuse them, or anything, but it does help to explain it. Because we, too, are inadequate people, although possibly less inadequate than someone who goes round knocking old women on the head.

Everyone needs God. You do, I do, those who attack people simply because of the colour of their skin do. Because it is only through God that we can become whole people. And, just as we need to accept ourselves for who we are, so we need to accept other people for who they are. In fact more so, because while we can decide we need to change, and we can do something about ourselves, with God's help, we cannot make that decision for others. Other people must make their own decision. We can't force someone else to become a Christian, or to stop drinking, or lose weight, or come off drugs, or anything else. We can, of course, ensure they do no harm to others, and we can offer them opportunities to change, but we can't force them to.


You remember the story of the Prodigal son, I expect. The son who asked for his share of inheritance and went into the world to have some fun, and when he was in the gutter decided to go home again. And the father ran to meet him, and put on a massive celebration for him, and had obviously been longing and longing and longing for his son to come home again.

But the father couldn't make the son come home. He had to wait until the son chose to come home of his own free will. What's more, the son had to accept that his father wanted him home again. He could have said "Well, no, I don't deserve all this," and rushed off to live in the stables, behaving like a servant, although his father wanted to treat him as the son he was. The son had to receive his father's forgiveness, just as we do.

And don't forget, either, the elder brother, who simply couldn't join in the celebrations because he couldn't forgive his brother. How dare they celebrate for that lousy rotter! I don't know whether he was crosser with his father for having a party, or with his brother for daring to come home. I feel sorry for him, because he allowed his bitterness to spoil what could have been a good time.

And that is exactly what happens to us when we do not forgive one another. We allow our bitterness to spoil what could have been a good time with God.

So how do we forgive others? Sometimes it just doesn't seem possible that we can ever manage to forgive someone. But we must, or we can't make any further progress in our journey towards wholeness. Well, the only way I have ever found that works is to pray about it. God is a terrific person to pour all your bitterness and anger out on to. God can take it. And if you are really honest with him about your feelings, some surprising things can happen. You might find, for instance, that it isn't really the other person you are angry with, it is you. Or perhaps it's God himself you need to forgive, and that can be difficult, too.


I remember, years ago, being very angry with God after someone I loved had died in an accident – God could have prevented the accident, God could have healed her, and so on. I remember saying to someone that I hoped I managed to work through my grief soon because it would be nice to be able to pray about something else for a change!

The thing is, when we come to God and admit we are angry, or hurt, or upset, by someone or something that has happened, God doesn't tell us that we mustn't feel like that, or that we are very wrong to feel like that, or even that this isn't how we're really feeling. God isn't like that. God enters into our pain, and shares it. Oh, it might be pointed out that you are indulging in a fit of self-pity, if that's what is happening – all too easy, don't you agree! – but he does sympathise and he does listen.

And as we go on praying, something happens. We let go of the self-pity – that is always the first to go – and we gradually work through the anger, and the pain, and the sorrow, and, next thing we know, we have forgiven whoever it was we needed to forgive.

The acid test for me is if I can ask God to bless someone who hurt me, and mean it. And could I see them at a Communion service and wish them God's peace? It's surprising how often I can, if I have prayed.

So, then. We need to forgive other people, we need to forgive ourselves, and occasionally we need to forgive God himself before we can receive God's forgiveness. It isn't that God won't forgive us - heavens, God's forgiveness is as constant and unremitting as all of God's character – it is that we can't receive God's forgiveness if we are full of bitterness and pain and anger. There's no room to let God in if we are too busy holding on to our own feelings.

The debtor, in Jesus' story, hadn't really grasped what the King had done for him. He hadn't hauled in that he had been forgiven his debt. He went on acting as though nothing had happened, which is why he required his debtor to pay him back. He was too busy focussing on his own feelings, and hadn't really grasped that he was now free from debt, his burden had rolled away, so he should help other people lose their burdens.

It's only really when we are prepared to put our own feelings down that there is room for God to act. I remind you, too, that in our first reading Paul tells us not to be snooty about our brothers and sisters who are Christians in a different way from us, or who have scruples about things that we don't have scruples about, like sex or divorce, or same sex marriage, for instance. "Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand." In other words, what they do is none of our business, and we need not to judge them.

Basically, when it comes to other people, we must put down our own feelings and think of theirs. And that way, we make room for God to act.

So, is there anyone you need to forgive this morning? Do you need to forgive yourself? Do you need to forgive God?

You may have noticed that we haven't had a prayer of penitence yet. We're going to, now. Let's take a few moments of quietness, and then I'll lead us in prayer.

In peace, let us pray to the Lord.