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Sunday, 31 December 2017

St Nicholas

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.

It all happened, really, because of the Protestant reformation! No, seriously. Because 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! Moreover, Christmas observance was seen as inconsistent with Gospel worship. 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, it was considered “just another day”. But it seems that German colonists (probably not the Dutch, as they were hyper-Calvinist back then) 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 last day of the year? For me, it’s about legitimising Christmas. Every year, you hear people chuntering on about putting Christ back in Christmas – as if He had ever left it! And every year, the separation between the secular festival, encompassing Santa Claus and presents and greed, and the celebration of the Birth of Christ, seems to grow wider and wider. But does it? If we remember that Santa himself was one of Jesus’ most faithful disciples, doesn’t that make a difference?

Yes, Christmas is very commercialised. Yes, it’s been secularised. But in a way, that makes it better, as everybody can celebrate, whether or not they are Christian. But the roots of the secular festival are deeper in Christianity than we often realise. Next week, we will be celebrating the Epiphany, the coming of the wise men that Matthew talks about. The time when Christ was “manifest to the Gentiles”, as they say – in other words, it was made clear that Jesus was for the whole world, not just for the Jews. And we all know that today the wise still worship him. Even Santa Claus! Amen.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday 2017

The text of this sermon is very similar to the one I preached three years ago.  You can listen to the podcast to see how it differs!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Ten Commandments

So, the Ten Commandments. Which is what we heard read in our first reading today, and which we very often hear if it is a Communion service. Totally familiar, aren’t they? Or are they?

I do wonder why they are special. If you ever read these first few books of the Bible – not Genesis, so much, but Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the ones they call the Pentateuch – you’ll know they are full of commandments and rules for how God’s people are to live. Do sit down sometime with a good modern translation – there are plenty on-line if you haven’t got a paper one – and have a read of them if you haven’t already.

But the thing about these rules is that many of them – perhaps most of them – are no longer relevant to us. We don’t see anything wrong in eating pork or shellfish, or in wearing polycotton or other mixed fibres. Many of us enjoy a cheeseburger from time to time. We think slavery is wrong – nobody should own another person – and that even the very generous laws about it in the Scriptures should be discarded in favour of a blanket ban. Why are the Ten Commandments any different?

I once saw on television some programme – it was years ago, and I can’t now remember what it was about or in what context we were watching it – when they asked random people off the streets to quote the Ten Commandments. Most people knew some or all of the last six, but nobody even thought to quote the first four!

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? The first four commandments are all to do with our relationship with God, and whatever else may change, God doesn’t. So we are told that we must not worship any other God; we mustn’t make statues or pictures and then worship them; we mustn’t make empty promises in God’s name and we must keep the Sabbath day rather special. And those are the commandments people don’t remember, unless they happen to be God’s people, because they simply aren’t relevant to them.

You know, if you think about it, the Ten Commandments are really about how you should think, and what sort of a person you should be. Most of the other sets of rules in the Pentateuch are about how a nomadic tribe that is just beginning to settle down should live. How to stay healthy and happy. Rules about what to eat and what not – no carrion, for instance. How sensible – an animal who died and you don’t know why might easily make you very ill. Rules about whether you have an infectious skin disease or just a boil or burn. Rules about what to do with your mildewed garments. But even these rules have, running through them, the refrain that it is to please God that people will do these things, and that if they do them,

The Israelites, of course, were not claiming land nobody had ever cultivated before. They were settling down among, and displacing, local tribes, and learning to farm for their living rather than be hunter-gatherers, as they had had, perforce, to be while wandering in the desert. We know that God had provided manna for them, although nobody seems to know what that is, but it was certainly their staple food for many years, supplemented by occasional flocks of quail. But now they are beginning to remember the stories their grandparents told them of what the food had been like in Egypt: fish, meat, leeks, onions, cucumbers, garlic, good wheaten bread.... and now they were settling down, they could grow things like that and enjoy the good life for themselves. But how? None of them had ever been farmers.

But their neighbours had. And for them, much of the ritual about farming involved going to their local shrine and worshipping their local god. Their god didn’t demand any kind of involvement on their part, only the ritual – but, of course, this was absolutely Not On for God’s people once they had reached the Promised Land. They must not go and worship other gods, no matter how perfunctorily. They need to be God’s people, body, mind and spirit. And so the rules are shot through with exhortations to be just that, to choose to be God’s people, to choose life.

As I said, we consider many, if not most, of those rules to be inappropriate today. The food rules went very early on – Jesus himself declared all foods clean, although people didn’t understand that until a bit later. But as it became obvious that you could be a Christian without being Jewish first, so the various rules gradually fell into abeyance among Christians who had not grown up thinking that this was what Proper People did. Sadly, some of the better rules disappeared, too – the one that said that every seven years you kept the land fallow, freed your slaves, and generally started again from scratch. The ones that applied to slavery – these days, we would not, by and large, dream of owning other people, although sadly it does still happen, even here in Brixton – anyway, the laws that applied to slavery were very lenient and although slaves must be freed every 7 years, they didn’t have to go if they didn’t want to. And if they ran away in between, it was considered not to be their fault – their masters must have been too harsh with them. Sadly, as we know, these laws, too, fell into abeyance and slavery became the horrible thing we know it to be.

But these rules that we call the Ten Commandments didn’t fall into abeyance. They were different, special. The first four, as I said, are about our relationship with God. Then come the common-sense regulations: to honour our parents (the first commandment, as St Paul points out, that comes with a promise attached – “Do this so that you will have a full life in the land that the Lord your God gives you.”). No murder, no adultery, no theft.... all societies have had some sort of rules about these things, even if not quite the same as ours. No lying about other people. And then the commandment that lifts even these out of the realm of blind obedience, and on to another plane, entirely: Thou shalt not covet!

That is the commandment St Paul talked about in his letter to the Romans: “For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.”

In other words, as soon as he realised it was wrong to covet, he discovered how much he did covet, and couldn’t overcome it himself. We can’t, either. After all, there are whole industries based on the human propensity to covet – you only have to watch television briefly to be inundated with advertising, telling you about products you might not have known you wanted. And if you watch sports channels, as we do sometimes, you’ll have noticed how many of these ads are devoted to on-line gambling sites. Gambling, if it tempts you – it doesn’t tempt me, so I’m not being virtuous not doing it – if it tempts you, it is tempting you to want something for nothing, a great deal of money for almost no effort or expenditure on your part. “We’ll pay out, win or lose!” they cry. “We’ll give you ten pounds for every pound you spend with us.” Golden rule of advertising: if it sounds too good to be true, it almost definitely is!

Mind you, some ads are good and useful – the ones that tell you when, say, an insurance company is giving special offers, or when a sale is on. At least, they are useful if you actually happen to want insurance, or whatever it is. As my mother always says, coupons are lovely if it’s something you actually want, but a snare and a delusion if you buy something you didn’t really need or want simply because you have a 20% off coupon!

But the point is, coveting isn’t really something we can help. It is part of our human nature to want what we do not have, or, worse, to want what someone else has. We can happily refrain from murder, adultery or theft, and we can at least go through the motions of honouring our parents and worshipping God – but we can’t not covet! At least, not without God’s help.

Of course, some religions – Buddhism, for instance – require one to be so divorced from the material world that not coveting is basically a matter of total disdain. It’s not like that for us. We need to be living in this world, engaged in it, working in it for justice and peace. And we will inevitably start to want things we don’t have, and to own things we don’t really want, and all the other things. In Jesus’ story he told, that we also heard read this morning, the tenants of the vineyard wanted to keep all the grapes for themselves, rather than yield them to their rightful owner, and all sorts of murder and mayhem ensued. And, if you remember, when the rich young ruler asked Jesus how he could gain eternal life, and said that he’d kept all the commandments, Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor, and then to come and follow him. But he couldn’t do that – he coveted his belongings too much.

Well then, how to stop? How do we learn to value our stuff, but not be so terribly attached to it that it would be a disaster not to have it any more? Well, if you ever find out, let me know! Seriously, though, the only way I know that might even begin to work is to become more and more God’s person, to allow God to work more and more deeply in your life, to become more and more the people God created us to be. And even then, we’ll probably still covet, because human beings do! But, thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the way of forgiveness is there for us. Amen.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Being wrong; putting it right

The text (slightly adapted) of this sermon can be found here.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

God's Country

Imagine, if you will, that there is a place you’ve always wanted to visit. It sounds as though it’s really wonderful – permanently great weather, fantastic scenery, lots of great places to visit, lots of walking, or swimming, great bars and restaurants, you name it, this place has it! And you long and long to go there, but you don’t know how to get there, and what’s more, you don’t know anybody else who has been there. All the things you’ve heard about it are rumour or hearsay.

And then one day someone comes along who very obviously has been there, and he starts to tell you all about it. But – oh dear – it’s not at all what you thought! Weeds everywhere, attracting masses of birds which could and did eat all the crops! And the food, far from gourmet, is rotten bread made by women! And then, he goes on to tell his special friends in private – but you hear about it later – the place is so infinitely desirable that people sell all they have to get tickets there!

Well, the place is, of course, the Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s country, which Jesus is telling people about. Unfortunately it seems to be the kind of place that doesn’t go into words very well, and the parables that Jesus uses to talk about it are, although we don’t hear it much as we are so familiar with them, really not what his listeners would have been expecting.

To start with, the mustard seeds – well, you know mustard seeds. I expect you use them in your cooking, as I sometimes do. You can buy the seeds, or you can buy the ground seeds as a powder to make your own mustard – lovely in salad dressings and cheese sauces – or you can buy ready-made mustard with or without various flavourings. I’m sure they used mustard as a seasoning back in Bible times, too – but it was, and is, a terrific weed. They tended to use the wild plant, because if you cultivated it – well, it was like kudzu or rhododendrons, or even mint – you’d never get rid of it! Nobody would actually go and plant it, any more than you or I would plant stinging-nettles in the fields. And, of course, it doesn’t grow into a terrific tree, never has and never will. But it does attract birds – and you don’t want birds eating all your other crops, either! Yet in God’s country it seems as if you plant mustard and it does grow into a tree, and you actively want to encourage birds, rather than discourage them.

And then the second story is almost worse. You see, for Jews, what was really holy and proper to eat was unleavened bread, which you had at Passover. You threw out all your old leaven – we’d call it a sourdough starter, today, which is basically what it is – and started again. I remember being told in primary school that this was a Good Idea because you need fresh starter occasionally. But the thing is, leavened bread was considered slightly inferior – and the leaven itself, the starter – yuck! It isn’t even the bread that is likened to God’s country, it is the leaven itself! And did you notice – it was a woman who took that leaven. A woman! That won’t do at all! Again, for male Jews, women were slightly improper – and who knew that she wouldn’t be bleeding and therefore unclean? And she hid the starter in enough flour to make bread for 100 people! She hid it. It was concealed, hidden.

Not what people would expect from God’s country, is it?

And yet, in the stories Jesus told his disciples privately, a little later, it’s like treasure hidden in a field, and it’s worth selling everything you own just to get hold of that field, and its hidden treasure. Or the one perfect pearl that the collector has been searching for, and he finds it worth selling the rest of his collection to buy it. God’s country is worth all we have, and all we are.Li

It’s all very contradictory. God’s country is totally not what we might expect. It’s not a comfortable place – when Jesus told the story of the lost son, he explained that the son was reduced to looking after pigs, a job which the Jews, then and now – and Muslims, too, incidentally – thought was really disgusting. Perhaps we could think of him as working in a rat farm, or a sewage works.... not a pleasant job, anyway. And yet the father went running to welcome him home – and men in that day and age never ran. The story is taking place in God’s country!

And if we want to be part of it, part of God’s country – as, indeed, we probably do or we’d not be here this morning – if we want to be part of the Kingdom of God, then we need to expect the unexpected. Someone once said that God comes to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable, and I think that’s very true. Often we are called to do things we never expected.

I read an article in the Guardian recently*, about a parish in Stoke on Trent who finds itself called to minister to Muslim refugees, many of whom have found themselves turned away by their local mosques, and some of whom have come to faith in Jesus. But, sadly, the congregation isn’t very receptive to what has been happening. The vicar, the Revd Sally Smith, is quoted as saying “I have had a lot of opposition. Criticism, negative attitudes and trying to undermine the work that we are doing – that’s from the white British congregation.

“I have lost lots of congregation members because of what has happened at the church. They don’t want the hassle and they don’t want the church being messed up. They see the church as having a very definite role and opening the doors to refugees isn’t one of them.

“They expected a vicar’s role to be looking after the people inside the church and one of the insults often levelled at me is: ‘She cares more about the people outside the church than those inside.’ Well, this is what I am meant to be doing and you’re meant to be doing it with me. We should be doing this together.”

Indeed, surely the church should be the institution that cares more about those who are not yet its members! And it’s a great pity the regular congregation has reacted like that. Sadly, though, not surprising – look what happened when the Empire Windrush came over and the people on it turned up in Church their first Sunday, only to be turned away. Of course, God used that for good and we saw the rise of the Black-led churches, which have done so very much good in our inner cities, but even still.

Anyway, another thing I found interesting from the article came a little further on. Again, I quote the minister: “With the mass movement from across the world we have got people of faith coming into secular society and faith really matters to them. And they are not too bothered, as bothered as we may think, about how that faith is expressed.

“In our secular mindsets we have all these great divides from different faiths but what I am finding is that they don’t conform to these divides and they just want to come to a place of worship, whatever that place is – they don’t seem to distinguish as much as we would have expected them to. Our help that we offer is in no way related to converting them. The most important thing for me is for people to be able to pray in our church whatever their faith.”

“The most important thing for me is for people to be able to pray in our church whatever their faith.”

That, to me, sounds like God’s country – doesn’t it to you? Of course, the church works hard to provide basic necessities for the refugees, and I think an awful lot of the burden falls on the vicar, but I imagine that as people become more settled they will be able to help.

In God’s country, values are turned upside down. It’s not the wealthy, the educated, the important who matter. It’s the poor, the downtrodden, the refugee, the single mum on benefits.... Remember how Jesus said that at the last day, he will say to those who did nothing to help “You didn’t help me!” and will commend those who did help for helping him.

Talking of single parents, do remember, won’t you, that this can be a very hard time of year for many families – they might just be able to cope in term time when the children get a meal at school, but in the holidays they struggle and have need of our food banks, so do give extra when you can.

I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at recognising Jesus in the beggar outside Tesco, or even the checkout operator inside the store. And yet we know that in God’s country, we are all loved and valued, whoever we are and whatever our story is. And, as we heard from St Paul earlier: “Nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below – there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And however disconcerting we may find God’s country, we know that because of that love, it is worth all we have, and it is worth all we are. Amen.


Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sowing the Seed

The story that Jesus told of the sowing of the seeds, and what became of them, is one of the first we ever learn, isn’t it? We drew pictures, in Sunday School, or in our primary school Scripture lessons, of the sower, with his trayful of seeds, and squiggly seagulls swooping down to grab them before they could take root, hot sun shining on others, and lovely scribbly weeds choking still others.... and a few, just a very few, ears of wheat standing up in a field.

And then, perhaps, as we grew older and began to stay in Church rather than go to Sunday School, we would hear sermons on this parable, and if you are anything like me, what you heard – not, I should emphasize, necessarily what had been said, but what you heard – was that Proper People, or perhaps I should say Proper Christians, were the ones who were the fertile soil, where the Word could take root, grow and flourish.

But, of course, if you were anything like me, that just made you feel guilty and miserable – what if you weren’t the good soil? What if you were the stony places, or the weedy patches? And I’m sure that there are times when we do allow other things to take priority, perhaps when we ought not. And there are times when we do rather wither up, in times of spiritual drought. All of us go through them, of course. But it doesn’t help when the preacher starts banging on about how dreadful we are if we are not 100% fully fertile soil, and bearing fruit 100%. We just end up feeling guilty and thinking that we must be terrible people.

But I don’t think Jesus meant us to think that! After all, we are told over and over again how much we are loved, and St Paul reminds us, in the reading we heard from his letter to the Romans, that if we live according to the Spirit, we won’t be the barren ground Jesus talks about! Of course, again, if you are like me, you’re apt to think that you can’t possibly be living according to the Spirit, because, pride.... but that’s stupid! Why would we not be, if we are committed to being Jesus’ person? You might remember last week’s reading, where St Paul was being upset about the fact that he found it nearly impossible not to do wrong things, but now he is triumphant – God’s Spirit enables him to live as he should. And us, too.

Going back to the story of the sower for a moment, I think that it’s not so much that any given one of us is barren ground, or weedy, or stony, or fertile – but that each of us has all of those characteristics within us. Think, for a moment. Sometimes it’s really easy to be God’s person, we can’t think of anything else we’d rather be. Other times, not so much! Times when we are tempted to sin, or times when we want to do something that isn’t necessarily sinful, but isn’t going to help our spiritual lives. Times when we know God is asking us to do something that we would really rather not.... you know the kind of thing.

But the thing is, if – or rather as – we are living according to the Spirit, we are able to allow God to help us grow and change. We don’t have to struggle to be good, we don’t have to struggle to turn ourselves into fertile ground! That part of it is God’s job. All we have to do is to be willing to let that happen.

And, meanwhile, sometimes we are the sowers ourselves – often, maybe, we don’t even know it. Again, it’s probably as well when we don’t – nothing worse than a rather forced presentation of the Gospel as someone tries to explain, embarrassed, why they follow Christ. But sometimes, who knows, just a “Good morning”, or a smile in the right place can tip the balance for someone who may have been despairing; a box of pasta or even tampons in the food bank box might make all the difference to someone’s summer holidays.

I was reading about a church in Colorado whose congregation was mostly elderly, with no young families, but who wanted, and prayed for, a youth group. One day, their minister was sitting in a coffee shop when he was approached by a group of young people who asked whether his church was a place where people could say goodbye to friends who had died. He explained that it was, and they explained that one of their friends had just died of an overdose, but his parents had taken his body home before there could be any funeral. The young people were allowed to use the church to hold their own funeral – no hymns or prayers, but they spent time telling stories about their friend, and then ate a meal that church members had prepared for them. One of them said “Oh, I wish we could eat like this every week – it reminds me of my grandma’s cooking!” And the church members said “Well, of course you can – we’re here every Sunday; you come and bring your friends!” Those young people may never attend worship at that Church, but the congregation still loves them and cares for them and feeds them every Sunday.

Nearer home, a friend of a friend had four tiny children, including twins, when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was left widowed, but her local church stepped up to the mark and started to care for her, bringing her meals, babysitting, finding clothes for the children that, perhaps, their own children had outgrown but which were still good, and generally caring for her. I believe that she is now a pillar of that church, although before her husband died she had no idea of faith.

What I’m trying to say is that often it’s not what we say that is the seed we are sowing, it’s what we do. And not putting pressure on people – the church in Colorado knew that they would lose the young people if they started insisting they came to church, or even conformed to any kind of dress code when they entered the building. My friend’s church knew that someone with four small children would find coming to church very difficult, even if they had wanted to come.

We may never be in exactly that sort of situation, but there will always be times when we are called to love people into the Kingdom of God. Our duty is to do the loving we’re called to do – and it’s God’s job to worry about the results! Whether the seed falls on the path, or on stony ground, weedy ground, or a fertile field isn’t our business – our job is to sow the seeds. And our job is also to allow God the Holy Spirit to live in us and transform more and more of us into fertile ground in which God’s Word can bear fruit.

I want to conclude this morning by giving a brief testimony of God’s love and care for me. I got a bad pain in my ribs last week, and because it wasn’t going away, I took it to the doctor. Who decided that it was probably nothing, but that I ought to go to A&E anyway, just in case. So I hopped on the first bus that came along and went up to Tommy’s. Well, if you’ve been to hospital lately you’ll know how much of it is hurry up and wait. To be fair, most of the waiting is while test results are coming in – and they did do a great many tests, and ended up keeping me in overnight. And then in the morning they said I would have to have a CAT scan. Which duly happened, and then it was hurry up and wait all over again. I was just thinking that if I’d known there would be all this palaver, I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor in the first place, when they came to tell me that not only did I have a chest infection, I had blood clots on both lungs!

Well, that part of it is all under control with various medications, and I’m fine – but what if I hadn’t gone to the doctor? What if the doctor hadn’t sent me to A&E, which she only did as a precaution? What if....

Well, we are never told what would have happened, but I get a bit cold thinking that I had rather a narrow escape! And I can’t help thinking how wonderful God is to prompt me to go to the doctor in the first place, and to prompt the doctor to send me to A&E – and, maybe, to prompt the medical team there to ensure I had the CAT scan. God is good!

God is good, and, going back to our theme, if we say “Yes” to God, God will help us become more and more fertile ground for growing seed and producing fruit; God will help us live by the Spirit, the life that leads to life. And God will help us sow seeds that may or may not fall in fertile ground. Amen.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Isaac and Ishmael

This was a repeat of this sermon from three years ago.  Obviously things were changed slightly to reflect current events, and also because today is Eid al-Fitr, which needed to be mentioned.  But the text is largely the same.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Put Right with God

I wonder whether you can remember when you first made a conscious decision to be Jesus’ person?

I know some people can’t remember, they have been Jesus’ person all their lives and it would never have occurred to them to do otherwise. And some people know that once upon a time they were not Christians, but their journey to God was such a slow, gradual and yet purposeful one that they can’t point to a given day when they were a Christian, yet were not the day before.

And others have a definite date that they can point to and say “Then. That was the day I became a Christian.” I sort-of have that. In many ways the second Sunday in October, the best part of fifty years ago, was the day for me, but in fact, there was a lot of stuff that went before it, and a great deal more that came after it. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, although it felt a bit like that at the time.

I was just a child then, eighteen years old and on my own in Paris. I was rather lonely and having trouble making friends, and my grandmother suggested I went along to the English church to see whether they had any activities for young people. They most certainly did, and it didn’t take long for me to hear a sermon on “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.....”. And this was obviously the thing you did if you wanted to be accepted by this group of people..... so..... I’m so glad God is gracious and loved me anyway!

But the reason I’m raking up ancient history like this is that when you had become a Christian, as it was called, you were expected to attend the weekly Bible Study as well as the more formal teaching sessions which took place on a Wednesday. The Bible Studies were small discussion groups, people roughly the same age, peer-led. The minister stayed away, on the grounds that people needed to learn to read the Scriptures for themselves, not just be taught what to think. And it was noticeable that, very often, if we had got stuck with something, he would talk about the very thing we’d got stuck on in the Wednesday teaching sessions.

This form of studying the Bible was new to me – attending Bible Study and prayer meetings – the two tended to merge, rather – was not something that was done at the school I attended, or at my parents’ church. So I can still remember the very first passage I ever studied with my contemporaries, and do you know, it was that very passage from Romans that we’ve just heard read. We used the Good News Bible, only back then it was only the Good News New Testament:

“Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He has brought us by faith into this experience of God's grace, in which we now live. And so we boast of the hope we have of sharing God's glory!”

“Now that we have been put right with God through faith” The trouble is, all those years ago I got the emphasis wrong! I thought it was my faith that mattered, not God’s promises. I thought this was something I had to do, that I had to desperately manufacture faith, and never doubt, not for a single, solitary minute!

Wasn’t I silly! It is, of course, what God does that matters. We believe that God will put us right with him, and so God does. The technical term, which some translations use, is “justification”. All that really means is being put right with God. All the nasty squirmy bits of ourselves that we really don’t want God to look at too closely – and that, come to that, we don’t actually want to look at too closely ourselves – they are – not swept away, sadly, much though we might like that to happen. Quite the reverse; they are brought out into the light so that we can look at them and God can look at them and say – okay, that needs to change. And then, if we are sensible, we allow God to change us.

That, of course, is a very long process, and will probably never be completely finished this side of heaven. That’s what we call “sanctification”, being made holy, being made whole, being made more like God, being made more into the person we were created to be. But the point is, God doesn’t make us wait until we are perfect before he will put up with us. All the nasty squirmy bits, what the jargon calls “Sin”, God decrees they no longer exist. They do, of course, and we deal with them in due course, but the point is, they no longer come between us and God.

I once read a definition that I found really helpful. Suppose there was a law that said you mustn’t jump in mud puddles. Well, who can resist jumping in mud puddles? But you end up no only guilty of breaking the law, but also covered in mud. When we are put right with God – justified – we are declared “not guilty” of breaking that law. And as we become made more into the person we were created to be – sanctified – it is as if, with God’s help, we washed off the mud.

Like all analogies it’s not perfect, but I found it helpful, back in the day, and offer it for what it’s worth.

But I really do think the most important thing that I’ve learnt in all the years since that first Bible study, so long ago, is that I don’t have to do the putting right! As I said earlier, I got the emphasis all wrong, and thought it was all down to me. I ended up thinking I had to be perfect because Jesus died on the cross for me, and how ungrateful would it be ever to sin again?

But it’s not like that. Our salvation doesn’t depend on what we do. We all need to be saved, and we all can be saved – these days, I’m not entirely sure what I mean by “saved”, and it’s one of those words that I suspect we all interpret slightly differently, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, we don’t have to – and, indeed, we can’t – save ourselves. God does that. All we have to do is to reach out, to say “Yes please!” and accept what is on offer. “Listen,” says Jesus, according to the book of Revelation, “Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them, and they will eat with me.”

Of course, one shouldn’t really take a verse out of context like that, but it is a helpful illustration. All we need do is open the door to Jesus – and then let go. Then we are put right with God by faith, we do have peace with God, and we can relax and allow God to re-create us into the person we were designed to be. That bit isn’t always easy – far from it – but it’s worth it.

Those who know me well know that I often have an illustration of a butterfly somewhere about my person. That’s because it reminds me of how God is working, and will continue to work, in my life. Think how a butterfly is made. How does it start life? And how does it go on? The actual butterfly bit, the beautiful bit, is a very tiny part of its life; some species last no more than a day or so, if that. Mayflies, for instance, don’t even have mouths – all that they are interested in is reproducing themselves, finding a mate, laying their eggs, if female, and then dying. And the whole cycle takes two years or so to fulfil.

And when they actually go to become a butterfly, or mayfly, or dragonfly, or whatever insect they are due to become, the caterpillar has to pupate. That isn’t just a matter of hibernating, like a dormouse or bear; they have to be completely remade. While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there. It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again.

It’s just as well, I think, that butterflies and the like aren’t sentient. Imagine how awful it would be if they were aware what was going to happen to them! Think how terrified you’d be if you knew it was going to happen to you. To be completely remade into something utterly different. Something so different that it uses a totally different medium to move about in, the air. Caterpillars are creeping creatures, that move on the earth and on plants, and the larvae of things like mayflies and dragonflies are water insects, that can’t breathe in the air. Even more different!

And yet, we believe that something of the sort is going to happen to us one day, when we die and are raised from death into our new life. To a certain extent, of course, that happens, and is happening right now, here on earth, which is why God has already started to work in us and to make us into the person we were created to be. But how much more work will need to be done on us before we are perfect! I know John Wesley believed that Christians could be perfect, but I also know I’m very far from! And God still needs to do a great deal of work on me before I fulfil my potential.

But the thing is, and that’s where I got stuck as a young woman, we don’t have to do it. And we don’t have to wait until it’s done before we can get on with our lives as Christians, as God’s people. We have been put right with God through faith, and now have peace with him through our Lord Jesus Christ. So we can get on with our lives. Amen.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Going to Emmaus

So, it is Easter Day –
well, it isn’t, of course, but in our Gospel reading it is still Easter Day.
And all of Jesus’ disciples and friends are confused and sad –
many of them haven’t really heard about the resurrection,
or believe it if they have heard it.
Everybody is scared –
will they be next?
Will the authorities clobber them for being part of Jesus’ retinue?

Anyway it’s all over now.
The Teacher is dead.
And something weird has happened to his body.
Maybe it’s time to go home, to get on with their lives.
Cleopas certainly thinks so.
He doesn’t live very far from Jerusalem –
only seven miles.
High time he was going home.
So he and his companion –
who may well have been his wife –
pack up and go home, sadly, tiredly.
And Jesus comes and walks along with them, but they don’t recognise him.

But they start talking and he asks why they are so sad.
What has gone wrong?
And when they say, “Crumbs, you must be totally out of the loop if you haven’t heard;
what stone have you just crawled out from under?”
he goes through the Scriptures with them to show them that this wasn’t disaster, it wasn’t the end of the world, but, quite the reverse, it was what had been planned from the beginning of the world.

And when they get home, they invite this stranger, this wonderful person who has brought them hope, to stay for supper.
And part-way through the meal, he takes the bread and blesses it –
and they know who He is.
It is Jesus!
And then he is gone.
But they know.
And they know they must tell the others, too,
so as soon as they’ve finished eating, they get up and go back to Jerusalem.
Seven miles;
a couple of hours’ walk.
Not so bad early in the day, when they were fresh –
but after supper, when they were tired?

And when they get to Jerusalem, they hear that Simon, too, has seen the Lord, and that he is really risen.
And they share their story, too.


In a lot of ways, this story poses more questions than it answers.
Who were Cleopas and his companion?
Have we ever heard of them before?
Why didn’t they recognise Jesus?

I don’t know who Cleopas was;
but it’s possible that the companion was his wife.
Certainly a former minister of mine thought so, and would use the text “Jesus himself drew near and went with them” whenever he preached at a wedding.
But I noticed awhile back, when reading John’s Gospel that one of the few women named is a Mary, the wife of Clopas.
Clopas, Cleopas?
Same person, do you think?
So is he walking with his wife, Mary?

I think it’s significant that they weren’t in the main group of disciples;
Cleopas wasn’t part of “The Twelve”, still less part of the very close group around Jesus.
But they were followers, fellow-travellers.
The wife was one of the group of women who kept the whole show on the road, I expect, probably seeing to it that everybody ate,
and that nobody got too dirty
and everybody had a blanket at night,
if there wasn’t a convenient place to stay.
But they weren’t in the close group.

Which, I think, shows us that Jesus was and is anxious for all his followers, not just the big names!
Sometimes it feels difficult, doesn’t it –
there we are, small churches in a small circuit,
in a country that doesn’t “do” God very much,
and is apt to be a bit frightened of those who do...
but Jesus himself draws near and walks with us,
even if we don’t always recognise him.

I wonder why they didn’t recognise him?
The text says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”,
as though it was done on purpose.
Did the risen Lord look so very different from him as they’d known him before?
Or was it just that he was out of context, as it were –
look how it isn’t easy to recognise someone you only know slightly,
your hairdresser, for instance,
or the guy who shoves trolleys around at Tesco’s,
if you meet them on the bus.
You know you know them, but you can’t think where from,
and what is their name?
Or had he the hood of his cloak up, so they couldn’t actually see his face?
But eventually he does something so familiar,
the taking of the bread and blessing it,
that they can’t help but recognise him.
Of course, they may not have been present at the Last Supper –
as far as we know, it was only the Twelve who were –
but they would have seen Jesus do this at almost any meal they took together.
It was a part of a normal Jewish evening meal,
especially the Friday-evening Sabbath meal.
It would have been well familiar to them.
And so they recognised Jesus, knew it was true –
he had risen, he wasn’t dead any more –
and then he wasn’t there any more, either!

I wonder, too, whether when Jesus opened the Scriptures to them,
he wasn’t opening them to himself, just as much.
He had told the disciples, frequently –
although often only the smaller group –
that he was to rise again, but it must have been well scary for him.
We saw in the Garden of Gethsemane how awful it was for him, the whole prospect of death on a Cross,
with no real assurance that God would raise him.
He knew, he believed –
but what if it wasn’t so?
What if he really were just deluding himself?
We all get moments of doubt like that, don’t we?
What if the whole God thing is just a delusion,
dreamed up by human beings to help us cope with the nastinesses of life?
But Jesus was vindicated.
He had been raised.
And maybe, just maybe, when he opened the Scriptures to Cleopas and his wife, he was reminding himself, too!
Yes, this was what it said, and this was what it meant!
How lovely to know for certain!

We can’t know for certain yet, and we often doubt.
That’s okay –
if we knew for sure it would be called certainty, not faith!

But so often, when we get to the shadowed places, the awful times, when God seems far away and maybe summer and daylight will never come, then Jesus himself draws near and walks with us.
We don’t always recognise him, of course;
in fact, very often we don’t even know that he is there.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very bad at recognising Jesus!
But sometimes a friend or even an acquaintance will say something, and you know that it is from God!
Don’t ask me to explain how you know, you just do!
Been there, done that?
Yes, I thought some of you would have!

And there are times, too, when we don’t recognise Jesus at the time;
things are just too awful for that.
And yet, when we look back, we see that he was there, all the time,
just that we didn’t recognise him.
Maybe he was there in the tissue a friend offered us to mop up with, the shoulder offered to cry on, the hand-clasp in the darkness.... but he was there.

Remember how Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus,
even though he was about to raise him from the dead?
There are times, I think, when all God can do is to weep with us, or to share in our frustrations, or even to act as a receptacle for our anger.
But at least he is there doing that.
I remember when the daughter of an acquaintance was killed in a dreadful accident some years ago now, her father said at the funeral “Thank God for a God to be angry with!”

Jesus himself drew near and walked with them.
It’s not just in the bad times, of course –
them too, but in the good times, too.
And perhaps in the indifferent times, the time when life goes smoothly and the days slip past too fast to count.
Jesus is there, I think, in a piece of music that lifts our spirits,
like the Hallelujah Chorus or some other favourite piece.
Jesus is there when we are getting ready to go on holiday, or share a family celebration.
When we are looking forward to things, when we are dreading them.

Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
If we are Jesus’ people, then we need to learn to be aware of his presence with us.
It’s not always about feeling –
we don’t always feel his presence, and that’s as it should be.
As I said, if we were certain, they wouldn’t call it faith.
But if we believe that Jesus is present with us all the time –
even when we’re in Tesco’s, even when we’re at the office or washing-up the supper dishes –
then how are we going to live?

There was once a monk who served God in a community of brothers, and he was called Brother Lawrence.
And he learnt over the years that God was just as real and there whether he was washing the dishes in the community kitchen, or whether he was on his knees in the chapel.
He wrote about it, and developed a correspondence with other people who wished to find this out for themselves.
You may have come across his writings yourself;
he was called Brother Lawrence.
As he explains, staying aware of God’s presence is far from easy, but it doesn’t matter if you make a nonsense of it –
you just come back to remembering as soon as you realise you have forgotten.
The Jesus who walked along the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his wife also walks with us while we’re doing the washing-up or reading our e-mail.

So –
do you stay aware of that?
I know I don’t, not as much as I should!
Maybe we should all make more of an effort to stay aware of God’s presence with us at all times.
Even when we can’t see Him, even when it feels as though all trace of him has totally vanished from the universe.
There are all sorts of methods you can use to help with this –
making a point of a quick prayer when you put the kettle on, for example, or whenever you get up to go to the loo at work.
Even just “Lord, have mercy” or “Into Your hands”.
There has been a discussion on one of the book groups I belong to on Facebook about the amount of times a day children at boarding-schools were expected to pray –
space for private prayer in the mornings,
Grace before and after every meal,
corporate prayer in Assembly, probably twice a day....
and so it went on.
Not that the children probably appreciated it at that age –
I know I didn’t –
but if you think about it, a routine like that does structure pauses into your day to be aware of God.

Jesus himself drew nigh and went with them.
Two ordinary Christians –
well, they weren’t even that, of course, as the name wouldn’t be coined for awhile, but you know what I mean.
They weren’t part of the inner ring, they weren’t special.
They were ordinary people, people like you and me.
And Jesus himself draws near and walks with us, too.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

He is risen, He is alive

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

So we have proclaimed, and so, I imagine, we believe. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there.

I love this story in John’s Gospel. There is so much detail, so many little personal touches. Unlike John, really – so much of his Gospel is a formalised account, and you only get a couple of glimpses of Jesus as a person, unlike in the synoptics. But here is one of the intensely personal stories. You can’t help but get the impression that it is an eyewitness account.

Imagine, then, what it would have been like for Mary Magdalene. The third day after her dear Friend, her dear Teacher, some even say her Husband, had been killed. Yesterday had been the Sabbath; she couldn’t do anything then except sit at home and weep, and when the Sabbath ended, it was night, and there was no way she could go to the tomb after dark – nobody was going to let her go. But now it is morning; dawn hasn’t quite broken yet, but it’ll be light soon. It must have been about five o’clock, I think – dawn in Jerusalem at this time of year is about half-past five, a little earlier than for us. Mary hasn’t slept, or she’s woken up early, and creeps out of the house and makes her way to the tomb where, two days earlier, she had helped lay her Master’s body. Perhaps she’ll feel better if she can just see the body one last time. Some of the other accounts imply that they hadn’t quite finished embalming the body, and wanted to do that before it got too nasty.

And Mary walks up to the tomb – and finds the stone is rolled away from in front of it, and the tomb is empty! There must have been grave-robbers at work! Oh, it’s too bad of them. Couldn’t they have left his body in peace? So Mary rushes off in despair to find Peter and John – although quite what she thought they’d be able to do isn’t clear. Perhaps she hoped they would have more authority to ask awkward questions of the powers-that-be than she had. Anyway, she finds them, and rushes up to them in floods of tears.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” So Peter and John rush up to have a look, and see what she is talking about. John is the fastest, but when he reaches the tomb he just stops and peers in. Perhaps Mary was wrong – he doesn’t want to trample on his dear Friend’s body Or perhaps he’s a bit overcome by it all. Anyway, whatever, he just stops and peers in. Peter rushes up and rushes in, not stopping to look first – how typically Peter, somehow. And John follows him in, hoping perhaps to try and stop him making yet another gaffe. And then they both see.

The graveclothes are still there. It isn’t that the whole package, graveclothes and all, has been taken away, it’s just that the body has been taken out of the clothes. And the bit that had been round the head, the bit that Mary and John had wrapped round together, that’s still there, too, lying separately. It really looks as though the shroud hasn’t been disturbed at all. How very weird. Almost as though – could it be?

Peter and John look at each other with a wild surmise. Perhaps it’s true? All those heavy hints that he had dropped? Without a word they rush off back to tell the others.

And they forget about poor Mary, who has gone off to have a good cry by herself somewhere.

Typically male, don’t you think? Mary has come to them for help, and they suddenly rush off without even telling her what they think might just possibly have happened.

Mary is too busy crying, just at first, to realise that they’ve gone, but all of a sudden she realises that it’s gone quiet, so she peers into the tomb. And there are these two beings dressed in white. Hang about, that’s not Peter and John, is it? Who are they, and when did they arrive?

“What’s the matter?” they ask her. “Why are you crying?”

She explains, “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put him!”

Then she feels someone behind her.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how Mary needs to be with the body to get her grieving done. The thing she really minds is that she won't know where the memorial, the tomb, is.

That says something to us, I think, about how we grieve for those we love.

Mary can’t see beyond the fact that the beloved body has gone missing: she won’t know where to bring flowers in the future; she won’t be able to finish off the embalming...

And when a man, whom she assumes is the gardener, asks her what’s wrong, she says again, “Where is he? Have you moved him? Where did you put him? Please tell me, please?”

And then the man suddenly says, in that well-known, familiar, much-loved voice: “Mary!”

And Mary takes another look. She blinks. She rubs her eyes. She pinches herself. No, she’s not dreaming. It really, really is! “Oh, my dearest Lord!” she cries, and flings herself into his arms.

We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms, but eventually Jesus gently explains that, although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug, he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father. He can’t stop with Mary for now, but she should go back and tell the others all about it. And so, we are told, she does.


Well, that’s the story. The question is, is it true? Was there really a physical resurrection? Does it matter? Isn’t it true that what really matters is that Jesus is alive today?

Well, that’s quite a point, of course. The one thing that really matters is that Jesus is alive today. But as St Paul said in his Letter to the Corinthians, the whole point is that if the Resurrection didn’t happen, he’s a fraud and our faith is futile. In other words, we might as well go home. For St Paul, if Christ is not raised, our sins are not forgiven, and we have no hope of everlasting life.

Even that begs the question slightly, for Paul might just have been talking about a spiritual resurrection – after all, we know that our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, will either be buried or burnt, but we will expect the bit of us that matters to go on. Obviously, if we don’t believe even in a spiritual resurrection, what are we doing here?

The question is, does it matter whether or not we believe that Jesus’ body was raised? That he wasn’t a ghost of some sort, but in a genuine body one could hug, that could eat and drink, that could walk, talk, break bread, and, one assumes, eliminate.

People say, oh but the Gospel accounts are contradictory, they are writing what they would have liked to have happened, etc. I, personally, believe that the very fact that the Gospel accounts do tend to be different in the details makes it all the more likely to be true.

If it were just wishful thinking, their accounts would tally far more, and there is absolutely no way in the world they would have had it that the first people to meet the risen Jesus were women! In those days, women’s testimony simply didn’t count. Women were not supposed to be able to tell the truth, or something. If you wanted a witness, he had to be male. So absolutely no way would the stories, if they were made up, or wishful thinking, have had the first witnesses be women.

But does it matter? I believe it’s true; you may or may not. But does it matter? In one sense, yes, it does matter. The Resurrection is, after all, totally central to our whole faith. If it didn’t happen, then we might just as well all go home, as St Paul so rightly says.

But the most important thing of all, of course, is that Jesus is alive today! The Resurrection is important, it’s central, yes. But if it is just an episode in history, no matter how true, no matter how well documented; if it’s just history like the Second World War or the Gunpowder Plot, then it doesn’t really affect us at all. But the fact that Jesus is alive today, the fact that he can, through the Holy Spirit, come and indwell us, you and me, the fact that we can know God’s forgiveness and healing and wholeness – that’s what matters! And for that we say “Alleluia!