Audio is only available from January 2021 onwards.

19 November 2023

It's what you do with it that counts.

 The recordings are from two services; firstly an abridged version for Night Prayer on 15 November, and then the longer version for 19 November.

I often quail when I’m faced with a very familiar Gospel story to preach on,
as I never know whether I shall be able to say anything that you haven’t heard a million times before.

This story is a very old friend –
most of us, I expect, have known it since our nursery days.
Indeed, it is –
or used to be –
often employed by teachers and so on to push children on to practice and work hard.
If God has given you talents, they say,
then you must work to make the absolute very best of them.

But, of course, it isn’t so much about talents in that sense –
although it can be taken that way.
It’s about money.
Or at least, in Jesus’ story it’s about money.
I think it’s also about other things, too,
but we’ll come to that in a minute.

A talent was serious money back then.
Maybe about twenty years’ wages for your average labourer;
maybe more.
Serious money.
So the master was not messing about when he asked his slaves to look after it for him.
One slave was given five talents, another two and the third just one.
I suppose in these days they would be share portfolios,
and the slaves would be young investment bankers or stockbrokers or something like that.

In many ways, I prefer Luke’s version of this story,
where each of the slaves are given the same amount of money,
and come back with different amounts.
But today we have Matthew’s version set in the lectionary, so let’s go with that.
The master goes away, for whatever reason, and shares out the money.
And then he goes away, and doesn’t come back and doesn’t come back.
Maybe he is away for months, maybe years, maybe even a decade or more:
the text just says “A long time”.
And while he is away, things happen.
The first and second servants both go into business for themselves using their unexpected capital.
Perhaps they deal on the stock exchange.
Perhaps they open up a business of some kind –
a restaurant, say, or buying and selling houses.
We’re just told they traded with their money.

I expect they made themselves seriously rich, too.
They would have felt able to pay themselves a good salary,
while all the time preserving and adding to their Master’s capital.

But what of Number 3?
He’s quite comfortable already, thank you.
He has a good, secure job;
he would really rather be employed by someone than go into business for himself.
It doesn’t occur to him that, of all the slaves,
he was the one chosen to see what he would do,
whether he would have the courage to invest that capital.
And in any event, he doesn’t have that sort of courage.
Supposing something went wrong and he lost it all?
The consequences don’t bear thinking about!
Better play safe.
Very safe.
Not the bank –
not with the current banking crisis, just look at Northern Rock!
Okay, maybe his money would be safe,
but he wouldn’t be comfortable thinking about it, just in case it wasn’t.
Better just dig a hole in the ground and pretend you’re planting carrots or potatoes.
So that’s what he does;
the sort of moral equivalent of putting it into
old sock under his mattress, or in his underwear drawer.
And he gets on with his life.

And then, one day, the Master comes back.
I wonder whether they had ever really expected that he would,
or if they had almost forgotten they weren’t in it for themselves.

And the first and the second servant come swanning up with all the trappings of wealth –
chauffeur-driven Rollers,
Philippe Patek watches,
Louis Vuitton briefcases,
noses down in the latest top-of-the-range smartphones,
and, finally, able to present the Master with
share certificates
and bank statements
and other records of profit and loss to show him that they had each doubled their investments.

The Master is delighted.
“Well done, you good and faithful servant.” he says to each of them.

“You’ve been faithful in little things” –
not that little;
a “talent” was, as I said, serious money –
“now you’ll be put in charge of great things.
Enter in to the joy of your Master!”

And then along comes the third servant.
On a pushbike.
And he presents his master with a filthy dirty and rather crumpled envelope containing the original bankers’ order.
“I couldn’t face it, Master!” he explains.
“supposing it had all gone wrong
What would you have said to me?
You’re very harsh, and you do like your people to make you lots of money,
and I was too scared to try.
So I have kept it safe, and here you are!”

And the Master is seriously annoyed!
“Oh, look here!” he said.
“So you didn’t want to play the stock market or start a business, okay,
but couldn’t you at least have put it on deposit somewhere for me,
so I could have had the interest?
Just not good enough, I’m afraid.
Take him away!”

This story takes place in God's country, the Kingdom of Heaven.  I often think that Jesus struggles slightly when talking about the Kingdom,
trying to find an illustration that would make sense to his hearers,
talking of the tiny grain of mustard seed that grew to become
a huge shrub,
or the tiny bit of yeast that was needed to make the dough rise.
And as I'm sure you know, these stories didn’t say to us quite what they said to Jesus’ first hearers,
as mustard was a terrific weed, like stinging-nettles,
and nobody in their right mind would plant it deliberately.
And yeast –
or sourdough, more probably –
was not really associated with people of God,
since what you had at the holy feasts was unleavened bread,
which was then, by association, considered slightly more “proper” than ordinary bread.
And the thought of a woman baking it may well have turned people up a bit –
women tended to be rather “non-persons” in those days.

And, actually, it’s the same here.
Particularly for the third slave –
you what?
He should have put his money in the bank​?
To earn
I don’t think so!
Jewish people in that time and place took very seriously the commandment that “thou shalt not lend out thy money upon usury”.
So here is the master telling the slave that he should have done just that?

So what does it all mean?
This whole story comes in a section of teaching about the End Times,
something we don’t really like to think about these days.
Jesus has been saying that nobody, not even he, knows the day and hour –
there will be all sorts of signs and symbols and symbolism, but they don’t necessarily mean anything.
And people will say “Oh, Jesus is coming on
this date,” or “the end of the world is coming on that date”, but not to believe them.

He says nobody knows when it will happen –
and these days, increasingly, it’s or even if it will happen –
but the idea is to be prepared.
“Who,” Jesus asks,
“are faithful and wise servants?
Who are the ones the master will put in charge of giving the other servants their food supplies at the proper time?
Servants are fortunate if their master comes and finds them doing their job.
You may be sure that a servant who is always faithful will be put in charge of everything the master owns.”

And the Gospel for last week –
although you may not have thought about it as it was Remembrance Day –
was the story of the wise and foolish virgins,
and whether you would rather be with the wise virgins in the light,
or the foolish virgins in the dark....
well, not quite that, but you know what I mean.
Again, the sensible girls were prepared and ready –
the silly ones hadn’t even thought they might need to light lamps if it got late.

So again, Jesus is trying to draw pictures of things that don’t go into words very well;
he’s trying to make his hearers understand what it’s going to be like,
when he himself doesn’t have a very clear picture of it.
But one thing he does know –
we need to live as if he were never coming back,
but be prepared for him to return any second now!
It’s one of those Christian paradoxes that our faith is so full of.

It’s not just about what we do with our money, or with our time –
although obviously we need to make sure we are good stewards of both.
It’s maybe more, I think, about what we do with our relationship with God.

We are all, I expect, Christians here;
all people who enjoy a reciprocal relationship with their Creator.
And some people make the most of it!
Most of us do, I am quite sure.
We make a point of learning who we are, so we can be honest with God,
we make a point of learning from the Bible who God is,
and making a point of developing the relationship by spending time with God each day.
We don’t find it easy –
nothing worthwhile ever is easy –
and, of course, the ones who are really expert at it tend to make it look easy, which tends to make us feel inadequate.
But, of course, most of what we do to grow as a Christian is actually done by God;
our job is to be open to being grown –
and to use the “means of grace” that we have been given to do that.

But there are others around –
not here, I don’t suppose, not for one moment –
but I’m sure we know people who joyously responded to God’s call upon their life –
and then got stuck.
Didn’t grow, didn’t, maybe, even want to grow and change.
Stayed as baby Christians, still drinking milk when they should have been weaned on to meat, as St Paul puts it.
And maybe, one day, they will have to explain themselves, too.
“You had all these opportunities to become the person you were meant to be, but you wasted them.

The good slaves, in this story, took what they were given and doubled it.
The bad one didn’t want to know, and buried his money.
It’s a picture –
and only a picture –
and must be taken alongside the other pictures we have of the end times.
But nevertheless, it is a picture we probably need to take seriously.
We need to allow God to work in us, to make us the people we have the potential to be, and maybe even to make us more than that.
We need to become what we can become, in God.
Much has been given to us already;
now we need to be open to God working in us.

05 November 2023

Lazarus and the Saints

 You will find the text of this sermon, which I have only slightly adapted, here  Tonight's service was on Zoom, so no location details!

29 October 2023

Bible Sunday and Black History Month


This was shorter than usual because we were celebrating the end of Black History Month, so needed to make sure we didn't overrun too badly.  Which we didn't!

Today, we are celebrating the end of Black History month, 2023.
I hope that most of our liturgy is reflecting that, and we will have some more contributions to our celebration later on in the service.

It’s also Bible Sunday;
when I was a girl, this was celebrated during Advent, but they changed the calendar around some years ago now, so now it’s celebrated on this Sunday.
I had to learn the collect, the special prayer for the day, off by heart when I was a schoolgirl!
I used to love “help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them….”

And it’s that which we have to do with the Scriptures, isn’t it?
Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them,
until they become part of us, part of who we are, part of our lives.
We are told to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly!

But, having said that, we do have to be aware 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, by and large, we want to internalise Scripture;
to let it dwell in us richly.
And I rather think the passage that [the reader] read to us earlier is one that we really need to internalise: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Of course, there are all sorts of different kinds of love, and our English language, unusually, doesn’t have different words for the sort of love we give to our parents, our partners, our children, our friends, even strawberries or our teddy bear!
Greek does, which is helpful, and the word it uses for loving God is “agape”;
it’s not used anywhere else.
St Paul gives that wonderful definition of agape love in his letter to the Corinthians, you may remember:

“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.”

Pretty amazing, really.
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!

In John’s first letter, he equates loving God with loving our neighbour,
saying, basically, you can’t have one without the other.

“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.

We love, we are told, because God first loved us!
The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

And without God, our human loves can be desperately flawed.
Parents can be overly possessive of their children, not allowing them to grow and develop in their own way;
I don’t need to tell you how often romantic love can go wrong;
and even friendship can be more about excluding another person or group of people than anything else.

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.
It’s not always easy, of course –
how do we pray for politicians whose views we loathe?
And how easy is it to forgive, and to love, those who have rejected us for whatever reason?
I know my experience is peanuts compared to what many of you have gone through, but I was rejected by my peers at boarding-school a lot of the time, and those were not always happy years.
And even though we are all friends now, over 50 years later, I still have to bite my tongue on occasion!
Loving and forgiving those who have hurt us, or those whose views we find abhorrent, or those who have inflicted gross damage on the world –
it really isn’t easy.
And I really think it’s only through God’s help that we can.

We are, we are told, to love our neighbours as ourselves;
and sometimes that is a case of “pity the poor neighbour”.
We are often either totally self-absorbed, or we fail to value ourselves as we should.
And, there again, it’s only through God’s help we can .

Just as we can’t love God without God’s having first loved us, so we can’t love our neighbours, or ourselves, without God’s help.
It’s all one, really.
We need to allow the word of God to dwell in us richly, to allow God the Holy Spirit to indwell us;
we need to allow the Spirit to grow us and change us and teach us to love.

15 October 2023

Terrorism, or what?


I ad-libbed the children's talk which makes up the first part of the recording.

What an incredibly nasty Gospel passage was set for today! I don’t like it one little tiny bit. But it’s there, it’s in Matthew’s Gospel, and it’s our Gospel reading for today, so we had better look at it, I think.

A king is holding a wedding-feast for his son. And, one presumes, his daughter-in-law, but she isn’t mentioned! I believe even in Orthodox Jewish weddings to this day the bride and groom celebrate separately, so perhaps that’s not as surprising as it sounds.

What is surprising, though, is that people didn’t want to come. The King sent out his servants to call them in, and they refused. And then when they were asked a second time, they even beat up the servants and killed them. So the King, in retaliation, sent his soldiers to burn down the city, and gets the servants to invite a whole different set of people, “good and bad alike”, who all jump at the chance to visit the royal palace. Or who are too scared not to, by that stage. But then, there is one bloke who isn’t properly dressed, and doesn’t justify himself, and isn’t just asked to leave, as you might expect, but bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness.

Well, what’s it all about? The thing is, people tend to see the King who throws the party as God inviting everybody in in place of the Jews who refused Jesus’ invitation, and then the ones who are invited later are the ones who, like us, have said “Yes” to Jesus. But all that violence in the middle? Doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know, does it you? And what of the guy who was thrown out for not wearing the right clothes? Maybe he’s the one who tried to get in on his own merits, without putting on “the garment of salvation”.

But this story, with blood and gore everywhere, with the King seeming to be happy to kill everybody and burn their towns, even while letting the feast get cold – what is that saying about God, if we look on the King as representing God? What does it say about the Kingdom of Heaven?

St Luke, and some of the non-canonical Gospels, the ones that didn’t make the cut, tell the story in a very different way, where the party-giver is definitely God, there are no reprisals for those who chose not to come, but then the gaps are filled with anybody and everybody, no matter who they are, no matter what their physical condition. All are welcome. Now, that version of the story is giving a very different picture of God. So what’s Matthew trying to say. Why is his version the kind of image of God that can really damage our mental health, leaving us worried and fearful of “doing it wrong” and being thrown out. Or which can make us justify hating groups of people who are not like us. Or can make us justify using violence in God’s name.

Ah, but think a minute. Matthew is Jewish, writing for Jewish believers. And what was their experience of kings? Not the King of Heaven that we associate with kings – but the puppet kings installed by the brutal Roman regime. Maybe this story can be read another way. The king is brutal, so violence and killing become the norm in that society. Maybe the one who refused to wear a wedding garment, and who refused to justify himself, and who was bound and violently cast out – could that, could that, do you think, be Jesus? That is, after all, what we are told happened to him. He was the one who stood silently in front of his accusers, refusing to justify himself, and who was bound and taken to the shameful death of the cross.

If you have ears to hear, said Jesus, then hear. Maybe many of his followers were unwilling to see such a story as anything other than a picture of God at his most vengeful; maybe they liked seeing God like that. Maybe you do, too? One trouble with seeing God like that is that it makes salvation be down to us, not down to God. If we get it wrong, we’ll be chucked out.

Although one way of seeing the wedding garment, is the salvation that comes from God. We need to acknowledge that we can do nothing of ourselves to save ourselves, and we need to put on the “wedding garment” that Christ provides for us. We can’t be, and won’t be, accepted on our own merits. Acceptance is through Christ, and is unlimited. We will, of course, receive due recognition, I am sure: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” – but it is through Christ we gain admittance to God’s country.

You can look at the story either way, of course. But all that violence – isn’t there enough violence in the world these days without having to see the rather cartoonish violence in the story Jesus told. As so often, it’s over the top – Jesus spoke Aramaic, which is a very over-the-top language. The king wasn’t very likely to abandon his feast, go and kill those who had killed his messengers and burn their towns to the ground, and then come back and expect to find his feast just as he had left it, after all!

St Paul, in the part of the letter to the Philippians that we also read earlier, reminds us that we should be filling our minds with “those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honourable.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must close our eyes to the horrors that go on in this world – God forbid!

Even Paul is at his most practical at the start of the chapter, urging two of the stalwart women who run the church to get over themselves and sort out their differences, and he asks the bearer of the letter, and some of the other elders of the church, to help them do that. We’re not told what they were disagreeing about – whether it was an important point of doctrine, or just whose turn it was to arrange the flowers that week, or what was to be on the menu for the communal meal at Pentecost. Even the little things can assume undue importance at times!

But then he reminds us that we need to be joyful always in our union with Christ, and not to worry about anything. Well, that’s easier said than done, for a start! But the point is, Paul says, pray about it. Pray about the issues, bring them to God, being thankful that God is there to listen and to help. And you listen too, in case God wants you to be part of the answer to your prayer, as does often happen. And the more we can leave the issues with God, and focus on the good things, the more we will experience God’s peace.

Now, the word usually translated “peace” comes from the Hebrew word Shalom. And Shalom means far more than peace as in an absence of worry, although that too. It’s more than just an absence of war and quarrels, although them, too. It’s about wholeness. About things being the way they ought to be, but so seldom are.

The way things ought to be. Wholeness. Reconciliation, not just within families, within the church, between denominations, between nations, but reconciliation between people, God and nature. Wholeness. And it’s the wholeness of creation, the wholeness of ourselves within it. That is the sort of peace that Paul says will “keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.

Now, you know as well as I do that we live in a broken world. The horrendous conflict that has suddenly sprung up, yet again, between Hamas and Israel over the past few days is just one of the many conflicts going on around the world. The war between Russia and Ukraine is still ongoing, even though the latest conflict has knocked it off the front pages. Afghanistan is still refusing women basic rights over their own bodies, as are parts of the USA, but Afghanistan goes further and refuses them most of their rights as human beings.
There is still trouble in Syria… and so it goes on.

And then there is the brokenness of God’s creation: climate change, pollution, extinctions and so on.

Nevertheless, St Paul says to pray, to thank God, and then to fill our minds with “those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honourable.”

I’m not entirely sure that Jesus’ story in our Gospel reading comes under that heading! But if the person thrown out in chains for not wearing a wedding garment is Jesus, as there is a strong argument that he is, then that is something we can focus on.

The thing is, I think, that we need to be aware of the evil, bring it to God in prayer, and then put it aside for now. We need to listen to or read the news, of course we do, and pray as we read or listen, but we shouldn’t wallow in it! When our friends on social media post something that means they need our prayers, we should pray at once, so we don’t forget, and then move on. We need to be disciplined about the rabbit-holes we fall down on-line – some, of course, are wonderful, but others, not so much! And so it goes. Common-sense, really, but how many of us have any common sense? And we need to focus on peace, pray for peace, yet still aware that there will probably be no peace in our lifetimes.

And as for the story Jesus told – let’s not wallow in the bloodthirstiness and the nastiness, but let’s focus on the solitary figure, silent, bound, and cast out – for it is through him that we can know God as our heavenly Father, and experience his peace and wholeness. Amen.

With thanks to Nathan Nettleton of the South Yarra Community Baptist church in Melbourne, Australia, whose sermons, as published on, helped me enormously with this sermon.

10 September 2023

Together in His name

“Where two or three are gathered together in My name,” said Jesus, “there am I with them.”

I expect you know that the Gospels were only written down about 50 or 60 years after Jesus’ death.
A lot of things happened during those years, of course,
and although we know how accurate oral transmission can be,
there are a few places where it looks as though an extraneous passage got inserted.
I don’t quite mean extraneous, I don’t think –
but a passage attributed to Jesus that perhaps wasn’t what he actually said,
but what the early Church thought he ought to have said.
And part of the passage we heard just now is, I think, one of those passages, mostly because it talks about the Church, a gathering of Christians –
and such a thing didn’t exist in Jesus’ day.
But whatever, it got into our Bibles, so we need to read it and learn from it.
And although my text is, as I said at the beginning, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I with them,” we do need to look at the whole passage, as “a text without a context is a pretext!”

The first part does seem, at first reading, extraordinary, though.
We know from elsewhere that Jesus tells us never to put limits on our forgiveness.
We know we must forgive, or it’s impossible for us to receive God’s forgiveness, we block ourselves off from it.

And we are told never to judge.
We’re told to sort out what’s wrong with ourselves first –
you remember how Jesus graphically told us to remove the very large log from our own eyes before we could possibly deal with the tiny speck that bothered us in someone else’s.

But we are human.
No matter how much we want to love our neighbours as ourselves, it’s difficult.
It’s easy enough to love suffering humanity en masse, to send a text to a certain number to give three pounds towards relieving some kind of community suffering somewhere else.
It’s easy enough to throw an extra box of tea-bags into the food bank box at the supermarket, or to donate to homeless charities.
It’s even relatively easy to do small things to lower your carbon footprint –
to take reusable produce bags to the supermarket, to be scrupulous about recycling, and so on.

Now, don’t get me wrong, all these are good and right and proper things to be doing, and we should probably all do them more than we actually do.
But they are all relatively easy –
the difficult bit comes when we have to start interacting with other people, and loving them.
“To love the world to me’s no chore.
My problem is that lot next door!”
That’s when we’re apt to forget to be loving, when we are apt to go our own way, when we’re apt to hurt people, most probably totally unintentionally.
The careless word, the accidental insult –
or even, sadly, the intentional one.

Now, obviously, if we realise we’ve hurt someone,
the thing to do is to apologise at once.
Sometimes there are times when we don’t really want to apologise –
they started it, it was their fault.
Well, even if it is, we are the ones who need to apologise, if only because it makes us bigger than them….
Well, perhaps not for that reason, but you know what I mean.

But what if it is they who hurt you?
The human thing to do is to hit out and hurt them back, but we’re not supposed to do that, and with God’s help we won’t.
This passage tells us what to do –
first, go and explain what has gone wrong,
and if they agree and apologise, all is well and no harm done.
Then you take a couple of friends along to witness that you had a problem and to try and help you be reconciled,
and then, finally, take it to the church.
The church, note –
not the world!
And then, the passage says, if they still won’t listen,
let them be to you as a tax gatherer or a gentile.
Which, on first reading, sounds as if you should shun them completely,
which was how Jewish people of the time behaved towards them.

But that’s not what Jesus did!
Remember the story of Levi, who was a tax collector, and Jesus called him to become one of the disciples.
Remember Zaccheus, who resolved to pay back anybody he had cheated after Jesus loved and forgave him and went to eat with him.
Remember how many times he talked with, and healed, Gentiles, non-Jews, people who observant Jews would have nothing to do with.

So what is the church to do with those who won’t see that they’ve hurt someone, or if they do see it, don’t care?
From Jesus’ example, it looks as though we have to go on loving them, trusting them, and caring for them.
Heaven, as one paraphrase puts it, will back us up.
Obviously, there are very rare occasions when steps have to be taken,
if a child or a vulnerable adult is at risk, for example,
but mostly things can be put right without that.
And even when steps do have to be taken –
and the Methodist church has systems in place to organise such steps,
so our safeguarding people know what to do –
we still have a duty to love and care for the perpetrator.

Now, the next part of the passage is really not easy to understand.
If, says Jesus, or the Church speaking in Jesus’ name, two or three agree on anything in prayer, it will be granted.
But we know that, with the best will in the world, this doesn’t always happen.
We have all seen times when our prayers, far from being answered,
appear to have gone no further than the ceiling.
But then again, were we only looking for one answer to our prayer?
Were we telling God what to do, as, I don’t know about you, but I find I’m rather apt to.
Were we just talking at God, and not trying to listen,
trying to be part of what God is doing in the world?
All too easily done, I’m afraid.

But the final sentence –
ah, now that brings hope.
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

You see, in the Jewish faith, you need what’s called a minyan, a minimum of ten people –
in many traditions, ten men, not people.
If there are only nine of you, you can’t go ahead with the service.
But not for we Christians.
We know that even if there are only a couple of us,
Jesus will be there with us and enabling our worship.
I think I told you that last time I was with you, when the congregation was rather smaller than usual because of the Cup Final!
But Jesus was definitely with us.

“Where two or three are gathered together in My name,” said Jesus, “there am I with them.”

I don’t know about you, but I found that to be very true during the pandemic, during those long, weary months when we weren’t allowed to meet together, and when we could, there were huge restrictions.
Last time I preached on these passages, it was, I think, the first Sunday we had been allowed back to church in five long months.
We had to sign in, and in some churches we even had to book a seat!
We had to sit miles apart from anybody except our own families, we had to wear masks, we weren’t allowed to sing, or to take an offering (there was usually a box by the door for those who had brought one), or even share the Peace or make our Communions as we were accustomed to do.
But it was a lot better than not meeting at all, which had been the case for so many months, and was to be again the following winter.

Many of us lost loved ones during that hard time, either to Covid-19 or to other illnesses.
Many of us had Covid ourselves, and although some recovered quickly,
others, myself included, were still feeling the after-effects a good two years later.
Many of us had mental health issues during that time.
Many, if not most, of us wondered where on earth God was in all this.

But God was there.
There in the many different ways we struggled to be church together –
the recorded services, the Zoom services, eventually, the livestreams.
Some of those continue to this day –
we now have two Zoom services weekly in the Circuit, the Wednesday evening Compline and the Sunday evening service which, although it is Clapham who run it, welcomes any of us who care to log in.

But most of this is, we hope, ancient history.
There may or may not be another pandemic in our lifetimes –
I hope and pray there won’t be.
Eventually, there will be one, of course;
but I hope not for a long while yet!
But what is total, current, today’s news, is that Jesus is here with us, right now this minute.
We are gathered together in his name, and he has promised that where two or three –
or a dozen or so, in this case –
are gathered together, he is there with us.

We have been told what to do if we have a problem with someone else who refuses to acknowledge it, or to clear the air.
Although I’ll just remind you here that Jesus said that if you know someone has a problem with you, or you with them,
you really ought to make it right before you come to the Lord’s table together.
But that, as this passage points out, isn’t always practical.
All we can really do is pray for God’s grace.
It’s not as if church quarrels were anything new –
even St Paul has to tell two of the women in the church at Philippi to get over themselves and get their acts together!
They happen.
They have always happened.
And they probably always will happen.

But Jesus is there with us, no matter how many people’s backs we’ve put up.
Jesus is there with us because we are gathered in his name.
And this, of course, means we can’t actually exclude anyone!
How can we be gathered in Jesus’ name and exclude anybody from that gathering?
We can’t, of course.
Not even people like tax-gatherers or pagans!
Jesus would never have turned his back on such people unless they had made it very, very, very clear that they wanted nothing at all to do with him, and how can we do differently?

“Where two or three are gathered together in My name,” said Jesus, “there am I with them.”
And it doesn’t matter what we are doing in His name,
whether we’re attending public worship,
or visiting someone who is ill,
or helping at the food bank,
or any other form of community service.
Or even being at work or school, or at home.
If we do it in Jesus’ name, and if there are other people involved, he is there in the midst of it all!


27 August 2023

Moses in the bulrushes


I think I remember first hearing the story of Moses in the bulrushes, which was our first reading today, when I was in primary school! I imagine you did, too, most probably. It’s one of the first Bible stories we ever learn.

It’s an important story, as Moses was an important person – so important, in fact, that he was one of those who visited the transfigured Jesus on the mountain-top, along with Elijah. God made it clear then that it was Jesus who we are to listen to, Jesus who has superseded both Moses and Elijah, Jesus who is God’s beloved son.
But Moses, like Jesus, wasn’t born to greatness. In fact, rather the reverse. The Israelites, at that time, were living in Egypt – you might recall how they moved down there at Pharaoh’s invitation, and that of his right-hand man Joseph. And at first they settled down, and built farms, and lived their lives according to God’s word as it was then understood, and all went swimmingly. They grew, and they prospered.

Meanwhile, however, the Pharaoh grew old, and died, and a few generations later a new Pharaoh ascended the throne, and this Pharaoh had never heard of Joseph, and didn’t really want to, either. He was concerned, because here was this enormous group of people who weren’t Egyptian at all, living in the middle of Egypt and it was possible – although not probable – that they could overturn his throne. Pharaoh wasn’t having that!

So he got together with his advisors, and they pretty much enslaved the Israelites, demanding – and getting – forced labour from them to build things and carry burdens, work in the fields, and so on. They didn’t build the pyramids – the pyramids existed long before Joseph went to Egypt – but they did build a couple of towns, Pithon and Rameses. But the harder the Egyptians forced them to work, the more children they had, and the more they prospered.

So the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, were told they must kill any boy baby that was born to an Israelite woman, although they could let the girls live. But the midwives were not about to do that, and ignored their instructions. And when summonsed to explain themselves, they said blandly that all that work in the fields meant that the women had a very easy time giving birth, and the babies in question had been born long before they got there! And the children of Israel became stronger and stronger and more and more numerous.

So Pharaoh got very cross indeed, and ordered that all baby boys must be thrown into the river, there either to drown or to be eaten by crocodiles, or both. But it still didn’t stop the Israelites.

The Bible doesn’t give the names of Moses’ parents; they are just referred to as a Levite man and a Levite woman. This means they were both descendants of Levi, one of Jacob’s sons. The Levites, traditionally, end up being the tribe that is responsible for Temple worship and so on – not the priests, but the worship leaders, if you like. I don’t know if they had that role back in Egypt, but it seems significant that Moses should be a Levite.

This couple had two other children that we know of; a girl called Miriam, and a boy called Aaron who was a few years older than Moses, so presumably born before the edict to kill the male babies was made. And then Moses arrives.

I wonder whether Moses’ mother knew what she was going to do if she had a boy. I expect she was praying and praying that it be a girl, and then it wasn’t. Disaster! What on earth was she going to do? How could she give up her beloved baby to be killed?

We aren’t told that she prayed, but I’m sure she did. And she was able to hide the baby for three months, but babies are not an easy thing to hide, and eventually she realised she simply couldn’t. But she had been plotting and preparing. Her baby must go in the river, okay. But she wasn’t going to let the authorities throw him in – instead, she would put him in herself, in a basket she had spent time weaving from rushes, and covering it with pitch so it would be waterproof.

And she took the basket, with Moses in it, down to the river herself. Her heart must have broken as she placed it tenderly in the reed-bed. She had done what she could, complying with the letter of the law, if not the spirit. Only God could help her baby now.

She didn’t dare hang about to see what would happen, but her daughter Miriam could lurk discreetly, pretending to be playing, perhaps.

And what does happen is that Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to the river to bathe, with all her attendants. And she hears the baby crying, and sends one of her women to go and see what the noise is. And the woman brings back the baby in his basket.

Pharaoh’s daughter – we don’t know her name, either; the Bible is so bad at giving women names – is entranced by the baby, and even though he’s obviously a Hebrew baby, she wants to keep him for her own, as though he were a stray puppy or kitten. But the baby is getting hungry now, and howling, and his sister, very bravely, comes up to the women and says “I know where there’s a wet-nurse, if you want one for the baby!”

The wet-nurse is, of course, her own mother, who has just that very day put the baby in the river. And Pharaoh’s daughter says “Ooh, yes please!” and so the family end up moving into the palace, albeit into servants’ quarters, and Moses is brought up as befits a royal child.

There are some obvious parallels with Jesus here, aren’t there? The humble parents, the oppressed people, the edict to kill the baby boys. Ironic, perhaps, that Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt to keep Jesus safe!

Meanwhile, Moses grew up as a child of the palace, although he obviously did know he had Hebrew roots, as we learn later in his story. But Jesus, we hope, had a happy and serene childhood in Nazareth, treated no differently from other boys his age, playing with his friends, going to school, and only very gradually learning that he was different and special as he grew up.

I’m not sure, by the way, whether he knew what Peter’s answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” was going to be, as we heard in our Gospel reading. Did he already know he was the Messiah? He obviously knew he had a special calling from God, that he was God’s beloved son – but, the Messiah? Peter’s answer was very definitely God’s voice to him. Yes, you are the Messiah. But he asked the disciples not to say anything, as he didn’t want to be elevated to the status of a political leader, which is what they had always imagined the Messiah was going to be.

Moses, as we all know, led his people out of slavery and to the very boundaries of the Promised Land; Jesus wasn’t about overthrowing the occupying power, or really anything to do with politics; he brings us out of slavery in a totally different way – the slavery of sin, as the Bible calls it.

But Moses’ story has more to teach us than just the parallels with Jesus. It’s about God’s wonderful provision for his people.

It must have been so awful for Moses’ mother, mustn’t it? She knew she had to put her precious baby into the river; he could be – and probably would be – swept away and drowned, or eaten by crocodiles, or both. But she was also placing him into God’s hands, and God wasn’t going to let him be swept away or eaten. God saw to it that it was just at that precise moment that Pharaoh’s daughter and her attendants came down to bathe. And just at that precise moment that the baby woke up hungry.

And so Moses was saved from the crocodiles, and grew up a child of the palace.

Jesus, too, was saved from the edict that all baby boys be killed; his parents listened to the angel who warned them, and took him to Egypt, where they stayed until that Herod died, and then resettled in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up as a normal village child.

I wonder how God provides for you and me? We are probably not going to be leaders of our people, but we are still God’s beloved children. And St Paul reminds us that “God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus”.

We didn’t read the passage from Paul’s letters set for today, as it would have made the service too long, but it was that bit from the letter to the Romans where Paul reminds us that although we are one body in Christ, we are all different, and God has given us all different gifts, which we should not be shy about using.

I am sure that almost all of us, looking back, can see times when God provided for us – I know I can, several times, over the course of my life. Sometimes it was using decisions I made; other times it was the right person in the right place at the right time, and so on. And I expect – although I don’t actually know and don’t especially want to know – there have been times when I’ve been the right person in the right place at the right time. And I’m sure there have been times when you have, too.

Pharoah’s daughter was in the right place at the right time. So, of course, was Simon Peter, to tell Jesus that “You are the Messiah, the holy one of God!” I pray that all of us may be the right person in the right place at the right time – and I think I pray that we’ll never know it, as then we might think it was we who did it, not God! Amen.

20 August 2023

Being Wrong, Putting it Right


Our Gospel reading this morning is a very odd sort of story, isn't it?
Here we have Jesus telling his disciples that what goes into your mouth doesn't matter, it's what comes out of it –
what you say, even, perhaps, what you think –
that matters.
And then he goes and says something that everybody, certainly today and, I suspect, throughout a great deal of history, finds incredibly offensive.

Well, the first bit is easy enough to understand.
Jews and Muslims both have very strict dietary rules, and believe that breaking them makes you unclean, and unfit to be in God's presence.
And they also have strict rules about washing yourself before worship,
being clean on the outside before, one hopes, being made clean within.

But Jesus was able to see, as his followers couldn't,
that what you eat doesn't actually matter.
Many of the rules –
about not eating pig, or shellfish, for instance –
made sense in an era where there was no way of refrigerating food.
Eating them might give you a tummy-upset,
but it wouldn't be the end of the world if you did.
What goes into your mouth, says Jesus, eventually passes through and comes out the other end, but what comes out –
well, that just shows what kind of a person you are!

And then a few days later –
we don't know the exact date, that wasn't the kind of thing that the first gospel-writers thought important –
a few days later he's off in a non-Jewish region, and he is so incredibly rude to the woman who comes begging for healing.
What is going on?

Of course, the traditional explanation is that he was testing her.
Well, that may or may not be the case, I don’t know, but it’s what people often say because it’s what they think Jesus is like.

The difficulty is, of course, that we can't hear the tone of voice he was speaking in.
Did he snap at her, which is a bit what it sounds like?
He had ignored her for some time until the disciples asked him to deal with her or send her away.
Was he trying to be funny?
I wonder how you “hear” him in your head when you read this passage, or one of its parallels.

I tend to hear him as being thoughtful, trying to work it out.
You see, in the time and place when he was brought up,
he would have learnt to assume that the Jews were God's chosen people, and nobody else mattered.
Some things, it would appear, given the situation in Gaza today, never change.
But the point is, Jesus didn't know any better,
which I think today's Israelis ought to.

It might sound strange to say “Jesus didn't know”, because after all, He is God, he is omnipotent and so on.
But we believe –
or at least we say we do –
that He is also fully human.
Unlike the various gods and goddesses of Greek myth,
he wasn't born already adult,
springing fully formed from his father's forehead, or something.
He was born as a baby.

Think about it a minute.
A baby.
Babies are so helpless when they are born; they rely on us, their parents, to do everything for them.
And they gradually grow and learn –
first to sit up,
then to begin to play with objects,
chewing them as well as fiddling with them.
And gradually to pull themselves to standing, and to walk, and so on.
And Jesus had to do the same.
He will probably have chewed on Mum's wooden spoon when his teeth were coming through, and when he was of the age to put everything in his mouth –
and later, he will have discovered that it makes a lovely noise when you bang it on the table,
and have to learn that not everybody enjoys that noise!

And so on.
He had to learn.
We are told he grew in learning and wisdom.
Remember the time when he was a teenager and got so engrossed in studying the Scriptures that he stayed behind in the Temple when everybody else had packed up and gone home –
and then, when his parents were understandably cross,
he said “Oh, you don't understand!”
Typical teenager –
and, of course, Jesus was learning the whole time about the Scriptures,
about who God is,
and, arguably, maybe a tiny bit about who He was.

And here, perhaps, he is learning again.
We can't rely on the Gospel-writers' timelines,
they tend to put episodes down when it suits their narrative.
And here is Jesus, perhaps having slipped away for a few days' break into Tyre and Sidon,
where he was less likely to be disturbed than in Galilee.
And then this woman comes and will not go away.

We don't know anything about her, other than that she was a foreigner –
Mark says she was Syro-Phoenician, Matthew, here, calls her a Canaanite.
Either way, she was basically Not Jewish.
An outsider.

You know, the Bible is full of stories about outsiders coming to know and trust Jesus!
Just off the top of my head you have the centurion whose servant was healed, the other centurion who Peter went to after his dream to tell him it was okay to do so,
and the Ethiopian treasury official.
Oh, and Onesimus, Philemon's slave.
Philemon himself, come to that, but I think by the time the letter was written, it was becoming more widely accepted that non-Jews could be Christians, as well as Jews.

But at the time, these people were outsiders.
No good Jew would have anything to do with them.
And Jesus ignores the woman, until his disciples ask him to get rid of her.
And even then, he doesn't heal her daughter.
Instead, “It's not right to take the children's meat and give it to the dogs!”

But I wonder.
Do you remember the wedding at Cana, which we are told is his first recorded miracle?
And his mother came to him and said “Disaster!
They've run out of wine!”
His first reaction was basically, “So what?
What's that got to do with me?”
but then he went and got the servants to fill those huge amphorae
and the water turned into wine.
He changed his mind.
His first reaction was not to do anything, but if there is one thing
he appears to have learnt, it is to listen to the promptings of the Spirit.

And in this case, too.
The woman, consciously or not, said exactly the right thing:
“But even the puppies are allowed the crumbs that fall from the children's table!”

And to Jesus, that was God's answer.
Yes, he could and should heal this woman's daughter.
So he did.
With the comment that right then, her faith was probably greater than his!

You know, the first time I heard this sort of interpretation of this story,
my immediate reaction was “No way!”
Jesus couldn't be like that –
he couldn't have got things wrong!
You may be thinking the exact same thing, and I really wouldn't blame you!

But, you know, it wouldn't go away.
Like a sore place in one’s mouth, or something,
I kept on thinking about it and thinking about it.
Why was this so totally alien to my mental image of Jesus?

Then I realised that, of course, it was because I was confusing “being perfect” with “never being wrong”.
There’s a difference between being mistaken and sinning!
And, as I said, Jesus had to be born as a human baby, to learn, to grow.
And he may well have learnt, consciously or unconsciously, that as a Jew,
he was one of the Chosen, and thus superior to everybody else.
But he had already learnt, as we found in the first part of our reading,
that keeping the Jewish Law wasn't what made you clean or unclean –
so perhaps it wasn't such a huge leap to discover that being Jewish or not didn't actually matter.
God still loved and cared for you, whoever you were.

And in the end, I found this thought very liberating.
It made Jesus far more human.
I realised that, while I had always paid lip-service to the belief that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, in fact, I’d never really believed in his humanity!
For me, he had always been a plaster saint, absolutely perfect,
never making a mistake,
never even being tempted.
I realised I’d envisaged him overcoming those temptations the gospel-writers talk about with a wave of his hand, not really tempted at all.
But, of course, it wasn’t like that!
St Paul tells us that he was tempted “in every way that we are”,
and if that doesn’t include really, really, really wanting to do it,
then it wasn’t temptation!

But if Jesus could be mistaken,
if he sometimes had to change his mind,
if being perfect didn’t necessarily mean never being wrong,
then that changed everything!
Suddenly, Jesus became more human, more real than ever before.
The Incarnation wasn’t just something to pay lip-service to, it was real.
Jesus really had been a human being, with human frailties,
just like you and me.
He had had to learn, and to grow, and to change.
Suddenly, it was okay not to get everything right first time;
it was okay not to be very good at some things;
it was okay to make mistakes.

And, what’s more, it meant that the Jesus who had died on the cross for me wasn’t some remote, distant figure whom I could aim at but never emulate, but almost an ordinary person,
someone I might have liked had I known him in the flesh,
someone I could identify with.

As I have frequently said, these Sundays in Ordinary Time are when what we think we believe comes up against what we really believe.
Do we really believe that Jesus, as well as being divine, was also human?
Do we think of him as having had to learn, to grow, to change.
Do we think of him as having made mistakes,
having to change his mind, having to –
to repent, if you like, since that basically means changing one's mind
because one realises one is wrong?

And if that is so, if Jesus is not some remote plaster saint, but a human being just like us –
how does that change things?
How does that change our relationship with Him?
And how does it change things when we make a mistake?