Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.
Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.
But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower.
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;
yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.””

It is a beautiful image, isn’t it?  A sower striding across a dusty field casting seed to left and to right, handful after handful until the whole field has seed enough to produce a harvest.  Seed here and there; no concern for where it lands: some on the path, some onto stony ground, some among thorns and some into good, fertile soil.

 

But surely we’ve moved beyond such agricultural images here in suburban Shirley?!

 

Well, perhaps…. But less than a hundred years ago, most of this area would have been farmland.  Even now, you only have to go about four miles down the road past the Emmaus Centre in West Wickham to find yourself in farmland again.

 

This isn’t really a story about farming of course…  Like all of Jesus’ stories, what we call parables, this story has a meaning.

 

Many sermons I’ve heard on this passage – and this story seems to be a popular one amongst preachers – many sermons focus on the four soils in the parable; the three bad soils: the compacted soil of the path, the stony soil, the thorny soil; and finally the good soil.

 

What an opportunity to urge people not to be like those bad soils!

 

“Oh, you’ve got to understand what I say: don’t be snatched away like that birdseed on the path.”  As if the preacher understands God any better than the people.

 

“Oh, don’t be shallow people.  You’ve got to have depth.  Your faith needs to have deep roots.”  As if the preacher is any less shallow than the people.  As if the preacher’s own faith doesn’t wilt and wither in the face of so much pain and sorrow in the world.

 

“Oh, don’t be choked by the cares of this world and the lure of money.”  As if the preacher somehow sits above all that and doesn’t also feel the temptation of love of money and things.

 

“No”, says the preacher, “be like the good soil.”

 

“Be receptive.  Hear the word.  Understand it.  If you have ears, listen!”

 

And in all that the preacher is really just saying “If you have ears, listen to me”…

 

No…that won’t do.  It is a temptation to anyone who preaches to say “listen to me” rather than “listen: listen to Jesus”

 

That temptation was on my mind when I was preparing for today.  The preacher as the sower casting out his words, hoping that one in four of the congregation would be good soil and take something on board.

 

But the more I thought about it, the more ridiculous that seemed.  Look at where we are right now: I’m standing up here; you’re sitting down there.

 

Right at the beginning of today’s gospel passage, we see that turned on its head.  Jesus sits down in a boat and begins to teach, taking the traditional posture of a Jewish teacher: sitting.  His disciples learning from him are the ones standing up.

 

The one standing up, the preacher, is the one who should be learning from those sitting down.  Not the other way round.  A strange thought perhaps, but one which is true for my relationship with this church.

 

As a family we are fast approaching the end of our time at St George’s.  It is difficult to believe that we have been here for around six years, and yet in just under a month’s time we will have moved into theological college, where I will begin training for the priesthood.  This is the last time you shall be subjected to me on a Sunday morning!  At least for a while…

 

As our time here starts drawing to a close it really made me think about everything I’ve learnt at St George’s.  St George’s really has taught me so much: you have taught me a huge amount (and really not the other way round).

 

You have shown us what it really means to welcome people to a church.  I still remember our first visit here six years ago – we were mistaken for a couple having their banns of marriage read.  Even when we pointed out that was not the case we were treated just as warmly.  David Frost collared someone to take us under their wing, guide us to the hall and get us settled.  Little did you know that we were in effect refugees from another church we had left after a very unhappy falling out.  But you welcomed us as your neighbour, loving us as yourself, just as Christ commanded us all to do.

 

I’m touched by how this church serves those in the community that perhaps would otherwise be forgotten.  For those who don’t know about it, this church provides a weekly pop-in session for the older folk of the area.  This is an essential time of fellowship for people who might otherwise have little or no human contact all week.  This is not a trendy initiative.  This is not chasing the latest fad in church mission and evangelism.  No, it’s serving the needs of the community, where that is most needed.

 

You’ve been unusually understanding with the more disruptive members of our family.  Not every church would be.  Not every church has been!  I hope this area of the church’s ministry goes from strength to strength.  Jesus says “Let the little children come to me”.  It should be the foundation of any church’s attitude to children and young people.  It’s not how many children you welcome to this church, it’s how welcome each one is.

 

We’ve been struck by the generosity of the whole congregation.  We’ve found people are willing to give so generously of their time and throw themselves into all sorts of things, from passion plays to running stalls at Christmas or summer fetes as well as the more usual church things.  I’m always blown away by the astonishing spread every time we have a bring and share lunch.  It always feels a little like the feeding of the 5000 – there is enough food left over at the end to feed everyone all over again.  It feels almost miraculous!

 

We also found a church proud of its own tradition, but not enslaved by it.  It was important to us to find a church where the Eucharist was of central importance.  That is the tradition of St George’s, but we wear that tradition lightly.  We’re not afraid of change, whilst having a healthy suspicion of change for change’s sake.

 

All of this is wrapped up for me in one service at St George’s – our Maundy Thursday Eucharist, meal and vigil.  The church gathers, including those who only attend occasionally.  All are welcome at our passover meal, young and old.  We sit around Christ’s table together and following His command we break bread together and share wine together.  In that sharing we become the Body of Christ, His Church.

 

In that gathering, as in all our gatherings here, Jesus Christ is made known in this community of Shirley.

 

Let me finish where I started.  75 years ago a church called St John’s planted a seed in the former farmland of Shirley.  That seed has grown up into a church called St George’s.  You are bearing fruit.

 

And from our Maundy Thursday service:

 

Shalom my friends,

Shalom my friends,

Shalom Shalom

 

God’s peace be with you

’Til we meet again

Shalom Shalom

 

Amen

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Sermon for Corpus Christi (transferred) 2017

John 6:51-58

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’”

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (+).  Amen.

 

My son is just getting to the age where he is asking us about God and Jesus.  (I won’t say his name as he’ll probably come running to me from the back!)

 

Well, anyway, the other day he asked me “Daddy, why can’t we see Jesus?”.  Hmm.  I paused.  I answered rather slowly, and in all honesty not very well.  It involved something about Jesus being alive but in a different way from us.  It probably involved mumbling about Heaven.  As I said, it wasn’t a very good answer.

 

It’s a good question, though, isn’t it?  Why can’t we see Jesus?

 

This set me thinking.  Why can’t we see Jesus?  What does it even mean to know Jesus?  How, in Christian parlance, can we have a relationship with Jesus?

 

I know what it means to have a relationship with my family and friends, but I can see them, hear them, touch them.  How can I have a relationship with Jesus without those senses of sight, sound or touch?

 

People will give all sorts of answers to that question.  Well, you can pray they say.  Yes, but half the time I’m doing that I feel like I’m just lost in my own thoughts wondering what on earth I’m doing sitting or kneeling there…

 

OK, they say, you can read the Bible.  I can read the Bible, OK.  But more than half of the Bible doesn’t even talk about Jesus: it happened before He was born.  Even reading the New Testament might help me know about Jesus, but will it help me actually know Him?  Reading a book is not the same as having a relationship with someone.

 

Of course, both these things – prayer, reading the Bible – are important.  But I’d like to suggest something else as well that helps us to know Jesus and to enter into a relationship with Him.

 

It is something we will do later in this service.  After the creed and the prayers and the peace we will come to our time of Holy Communion.  Barry will take the bread and wine in his hands and ask God to bless them.  He will do that using the words of Jesus recounted in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we heard this morning: “this is my body” “this is my blood”.  We will eat the bread and drink the wine.

 

This is what we call Holy Communion.  We do it every Sunday morning, and sometimes on weekdays too.  But today is a particular day in the church’s calendar where we focus on giving thanks to God that we are able to share in this.  Today is the day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion, or Corpus Christi…meaning Body of Christ.

 

Wait a minute, though, why are we thanking God for this?  What is there to thank for?  Surely the bread that we eat and the wine that we drink are just that: bread and wine.

 

Well…yes…and no…

 

Certainly the bread looks like bread and tastes like bread.  The wine looks like wine and tastes like wine.

 

But it is the testimony of the Christian Church since its very earliest days that when we receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion something more is going on.  In some way Jesus is especially present at that moment.  The bread is in some way His body.  The wine, His blood.

 

We are somehow able to take our spiritual nourishment from Christ Himself.  We satisfy our deepest hungers with the bread, His Body.  We quench our strongest thirst with the wine, His Blood.

 

Through this, the Gospel reading tells us, we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us.  Holy Communion is a time when we can be unified with Christ, when we can be particularly close to Him.  We eat the bread and wine together, and we are drawn together as a community.  Communion: community.  That great image of the Church in the New Testament is that of Christ’s body, with Christ as the head.  We are nourished with Christ’s body, and that enables us to become His body the Church, doing His work on earth.

 

Many volumes have been written about exactly what happens to the bread and wine.  Much argument has ensued.  How exactly is Jesus present?  Is it physically?  Is it spiritually?  Is it only happening in our minds?  It is difficult, and ultimately unsatisfying to me, to try to construct a detailed explanation of what is going on.  A far more helpful image for me is found in today’s Collect: the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion are “sacred mysteries”.  Something happens to the bread and wine to make them Holy, to make them Holy to the point that we say they are for us the Body and Blood of Christ.  But we do not know exactly what is happening.  It is beyond our understanding, or somehow hidden from us.  We leave that to God.  I’m happy with that.

 

Talk of the Body and Blood of Christ must inevitably lead us to recall the manner of His death.  His Body whipped and scourged and nailed to a rough cross and left there until He died.  His side pierced by the Centurion’s spear letting His blood pour onto the earth.

 

When Jesus teaches us to share bread and wine together and to do this in remembrance of Him, I don’t think He meant just think about the good times in His life – the stable, the star and the manger, the gold, frankincense and myrrh, all that water turned into wine – what a party!, wow, those loaves and fishes miraculously feeding a crowd.  No…I think He meant all of it, including how it ended.  Especially how it ended.

 

Perhaps that is why we should be thankful.  We have access to this wonderful sacrament, we can know Jesus deeply and personally by a simple sharing of bread and wine.  But that came at a cost, the cost of Jesus’s own life – His Body broken on the Cross, his Blood flowing from his side.  As often as we do this, we proclaim His death.

 

This is not a time for sadness, though.  At least not sadness alone.  It is supposed to be a day of Thanksgiving.  That is what we mean when we talk of Holy Communion as the Eucharist: it simply means the thanksgiving.  Jesus, though He died, was not bound by death.  Jesus raised to life broke forever the power of death, and opened up for us the hope that death is not the end.

 

It is traditional in some churches for everyone during Holy Communion to have some particular intention in mind, some particular cause or person that they want to bring before God in this most Holy time when we are permitted to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

 

I feel the tragic events in West London at Grenfell Tower have been conspicuous by their absence from my words today.  The scale, the enormity, that much tragedy and sadness were just too much for me to process into anything like a coherent sermon.  My own thoughts and prayers when receiving Holy Communion today will most certainly be for the souls of those tragically killed, for comfort and healing to those who mourn them, and for those who survived and now despair as to where they go from here.

 

From our final hymn:

 

Sweet Sacrament of rest,

ark from the ocean’s roar,

within thy shelter blest

soon may we reach the shore;

save us, for still the tempest raves,

save, lest we sink beneath the waves:

sweet Sacrament of rest.

Sweet Sacrament of rest.

Sermon for 2nd before Lent (Year C)

From Genesis 1

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
   So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them

Matthew 6:25-34

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (+).  Amen.

 

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them”

 

It is a phrase that many of us must have heard tens if not hundreds of times.  God created humankind in God’s own image.  It is right here in the very first story told in the Bible.  But what do we mean when we talk about humankind being made in God’s image?

 

I think we can probably move beyond images of God as an old man with a white beard.  Being made in the image of God does not simply mean that we look like God physically.

 

So what is it that humans possess that the rest of creation does not?  Well, multiple views have developed over the centuries and there is still no consensus as to exactly what is meant.

 

Some theologians have stressed that humans share some of the characteristics of God, particularly the higher brain functions of creativity, memory, intellect, reason and the ability to exercise free will.

 

Others emphasize the similarity between God’s divine Kingship and rule over creation with humanity’s appointment as guardians of that creation – humanity has a similar role to God in relation to the rest of the created order.

 

Still others focus on the way humans have capacity for forming complex relationships.  Of the various views, this is the one that really spoke to me.  God is a God of relationship and the image of God in us is the ability to be in relationships: with one another, and supremely with God.

 

God’s relationship with humankind is portrayed as a bit of a bumpy ride in the Bible, but in the end it seems to boil down to one word: Love.

 

The first letter of John tells us straightforwardly that “God is love”.  God is love.  The same letter goes on to say that we are capable of love because God first loved us.  God’s love came first and that is reflected in our own ability to love God back and to love one another.

 

How has God shown love to us?  Firstly, in the act of creation itself.  Now is not the time to get into a discussion of the overwhelming scientific evidence for things like The Big Bang and biological evolution. What matters when we talk about God and creation is not how it happened but why it happened.  The Big Bang and evolution might be the “how”, but God is the “why”.

 

God is the reason we are all here; God is the reason why anything is here at all.  God did not have to create the universe, but did so out of great love: great love which God continued to show to creation, and above all to humankind.

 

God’s love remained even when the creation turned away from its Creator; when humankind turned away from the ways of God and tried to go our own way.  The stories of the OId Testament tell us how God continuously called people back into relationship when they had gone astray – like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep as Jesus would later describe it.  God never stopped loving creation.

 

Then the fullness of God’s love for the world and for humankind was shown in Jesus Christ.  The incarnation of God as the man Jesus Christ was only possible because of the great love of God. A love which would eventually lead to the cross, where humanity violently rejected God’s love, and God showed once and for all that love was stronger than death.  Love wins.

 

In Jesus Christ we truly see what it means to be formed in the image of God.  St Paul in his letters says this again and again – Jesus is the image of the invisible God.  Humankind was always intended to grow into the image of God and we do that by looking to Jesus and trying to become more like him.

 

How exactly do we go about doing that?  I would like to offer two suggestions.

 

The first is to read and study what is written about Jesus in the New Testament and try to walk the path Jesus showed us: to follow Jesus’s teaching and to do what Jesus did.

 

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus encourages us to loosen our attachment to physical possessions.  Jesus seems to single out attachment to and worries about food, drink and clothing, but the general thrust is about possessions in general.  Only a few verses before today’s passage Jesus warns His disciples more generally about storing up treasures for ourselves on earth.

 

Instead of material possessions Jesus instead encourages us to seek the Kingdom of God.  To seek out those places where God’s love is active, and to seek out those places where we are called to show God’s love ourselves.

 

 

 

The second thing we need to do is to love.  Jesus sums up all of the ancient scriptures in two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.”

 

These two are more closely related than we might initially think.  If all humans are made in the image of God, then to love our neighbour is to love God.  Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks about the day of judgement when all humankind will answer for how we have lived ours life and how we have treated our fellow human beings.

 

 

Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit someone in prison we are doing those things for Jesus.  When we fail to do those things for our fellow human beings, we fail to do them for Jesus.

 

How will we love God and how will we love our neighbour?  Perhaps that’s a question to ask yourself today.

 

Perhaps your great act of love will be to devote yourself to some great work or project to help those in greatest need – the homeless, the lonely, the refugees, those who have lost hope.

 

 

Perhaps you will best show the love of God in the attitude you take to everyone you meet.  You will treat them as Christ would have treated them.  You will see the image of God in everybody.

 

Or perhaps your greatest work of love will be directed to one specific person.  It won’t be well known, but your love is the only thing keeping this person going, this child of God.

 

Maybe your greatest act of love is already in the past, or maybe it is yet to come.  Maybe you worry that you’re not doing enough, not giving enough of yourself.  Do not despair.  There is always time with God.

 

How will you love God and how will you love your neighbour?

 

Think about it.  Pray about it.  Then act on it.

 

Amen

Sermon for Advent 4

Matthew 1:18-25

” Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.

So…are you ready for Christmas?

Our tree is up; the decorations are hung; our Christmas cards are sent; nearly all my shopping is done; I’ve not started wrapping anything, but there’s still time!

The preparations are nearly complete. The stage is set. And yet, it feels like something is missing. Do you feel that too?

We are coming to the end of the church season of Advent: that season of the church’s year when we think about waiting. Waiting for something missing.

Across the four Sundays in Advent our focus has been on four different groups of people: the ancient Patriarchs on the first Sunday, the prophets on the second Sunday, John the Baptist on the third Sunday, and now finally on this fourth Sunday the Blessed Virgin Mary.

All of these groups of people had been waiting for something. But what? Or who?

When we heard about the prophets, it was certainly clear they were waiting for someone very important. But perhaps not so clear exactly who that person would be. The prophecies we hear in Advent concern a figure who would emerge among the ancient Jewish people to be their saviour. The figure we call the Messiah; God’s Anointed One. But who exactly was this person; when would they come; how would they come; how would they save the Jewish people? The ancient Jewish people waited, and waited, and waited some more for this person to appear.

By the time we get to Mary, things are starting to come into focus a little more. Mary is waiting for something. She is waiting for something quite specific. We know what that is – Mary was as the biblical passages put it “found to be with child”: she was going to have a baby.

And, so what? So good for Mary, but what had this baby got to do with all these other people we’d been hearing about, the prophets, John the Baptist?

Well, we are told that both Mary and her fiance Joseph were told that this baby who would be born was not going to be like other babies. St Luke’s gospel tells us about Mary hearing this news; and the passage of St Matthew’s gospel we heard this morning tells us about Joseph learning of this.

But who exactly was this baby going to be?

Today’s gospel tells us that the baby would be Emmanuel, which means “God with us”.

Karl Barth, arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, describes this idea of Emmanuel: “God with us” as the very centre of the Christian message. Quite a bold claim. People ask that question, don’t they: “What’s in a name?” In the case of Emmanuel, quite a lot!

Karl Barth’s writings on this are very extensive indeed, but I have three brief observations to bring from them.

The first observation is that “Emmanuel: God with us” is not simply a statement of fact, but a report of something that has happened. “Emmanuel: God with us” is not just the way things are. “Emmanuel: God with us” is something God has chosen to do, which of course is to walk among us as Jesus Christ.

Barth makes the point that in Jesus Christ God has invaded our history. Our own history is shared with God’s history. God does not want to be God without us, but rather God creates us to share His own life with us.

The coming of Jesus is not an accident, then. God has not left things to chance, but has chosen to act in Jesus Christ by entering our world.

The second observation is that this act of God to be “Emmanuel: God with us” is a saving act. I think we all recognise that we as humans are not perfect, far from it. In Jesus we are shown humanity perfected, and this perfected life also becomes available to us. God’s work in Jesus is a saving act as it will perfect humanity. In Jesus God shows us our destiny and destination, which is to be in union with God.

This is not in the sense that we actually become God, but more in the sense of how St Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Our relationship with God changes fundamentally because of “Emmanuel: God with us”.

The third observation is that the idea of “Emmanuel: God with us” contains within it the idea of “Us with God”. God has chosen to stand in unity with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. This act of unity enables us to stand alongside God, and to call Jesus our brother and our friend. We are able to say that we are God’s people; and God is our God.

Of course, these sorts of theological reflections came long after the birth of Jesus. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the wider meaning of who Jesus was and is, but at the time it probably wouldn’t have bothered Mary! This was her baby and she would love Him no matter what. I suspect that feeling of love was mixed with a certain amount of anxiety and fear of the unknown too. Perhaps not so different from our feelings about God sometimes: love, but a certain amount of anxiety too. To be in a relationship with God means to be changed in some way, and that can be quite frightening.

As we have waited through the four Sundays of Advent, our focus has narrowed down on the one we’ve all been waiting for. The Patriarchs first pointed to the God who wants to know us. The prophets who called the people of Israel back into relationship with God told us the one we were waiting for would be the saviour of His people. Then John who baptised Him said that the time is now, the one you were waiting for is here now. And finally Mary – who said yes to God, who carried God’s son inside her, gave birth to him, fed and nurtured him.
The final narrowing of focus comes next weekend. On Christmas Day we try to put aside the worries and busyness of this time of year. On that day, our eyes finally turn to Jesus, the baby in the manger. The one in whom God became Emmanuel: God with us.

The one we’ve all been waiting for.

I’d like to finish with a poem by the author Ann Lewin called Christmas Rush

Ready for Christmas?
You’re joking!
With all
I’ve got to do,
I’ll be lucky if
I’m ready by
This time next year.

Stir-up Sunday
Found me without even
The ingredients,
Let alone the time to
Stir them . . .

The cards –
I was going to write
More than ‘Hope all is well’
This year
But I haven’t . . .

Shopping’s a nightmare,
With all those people
Intent on spending
Christmas . . .

Working out who’s
Visiting who, and
Who’ll be offended
If we don’t . . .
The tree, the decorations,
Enough food for the cat,
Not to mention us,
I’ll never be ready.

But I’m certainly ready for
Christmas – that moment when
The world seems hushed
In silent expectation,
The light in the stable
Draws us from chaos
To the stillness of
God at the centre,
And love is born.

I’m longing for that.

Amen

 

Sermon for Bible Sunday 

Luke 4.16-24

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (+).  Amen.

I was in a choir rehearsal this week when a funny thing happened.  The music we were rehearsing was difficult.  As we rehearsed passages it was very easy to get lost in the notes printed on the page, with only the occasional glimpse at the conductor to check you were still in time.

We eventually came to a more familiar passage in the music: no less fiendish, just more familiar.  As we came to that passage I realised I wasn’t stressing about the notes in front of me as I knew them pretty well.  I could look up at the conductor and catch the eyes of other singers in the choir. 

But most importantly I realised that I had started listening to the other voices around me.  Other voices within my part, checking if we were together.  Voices from other parts, listening to how they worked together and weaved around one another.  I could feel people from all over the choir listening and responding to each other, rather than just plodding on with the notes from the page in front of them.

Parts came together to become more than the sum of their parts.  We were finally making music together.  But it only happened when we listened to each other.  When we really listened properly.

How closely do we listen to things in our own lives?

How closely, for instance, were people listening to the various Bible readings we had this morning?  Without looking at your pew sheets how many people can remember what the first and second lessons were about?  I can’t remember them that well and I had read them several times before the service! 

We’re often not very good at listening.

This doesn’t seem to be a problem Jesus had, at least not in today’s Gospel reading.  By the time he had finished reading from the scroll of Isaiah and sat down every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.  They were hanging on every word Jesus had said, and were waiting to see what would come next.  Perhaps that had more to do with who He was than what He had been saying.  Perhaps.

Today is Bible Sunday.  A Sunday devoted in the church’s calendar and lectionary to thinking about the Bible and how we engage with it.  I have a couple of suggestions of areas we might like to focus on to help us really engage with the Bible.

The first is to listen – to be aware of the text.  We hear so many words in church that it’s easy to let them wash over us without really taking them in.  And that can be good sometimes – we come to Church to meet with God and with each other, and if that wash of words is what we need to meet with God then that’s fine.  But perhaps there’s something we miss if we don’t actively listen to what God might be saying to us through the words of our Bible readings in church.

The people listening to Jesus in the synagogue would have had the advantage of knowing many of the scriptures off by heart.  Copies of scriptures would have been very rare, very expensive and very unwieldy.  As the passage says, Jesus read from a scroll of the writings of Isaiah.  This wasn’t from a book.  Anyone who has visited a synagogue will know just how large a scroll of scripture in Hebrew is.  You can’t just cart them about with you.  It’s also estimated that probably only around 3% of the adult male population in 1st century Palestine would have been able to read anyway.  I’m afraid for women it would have been even lower.

But this lack of written copies of the scriptures and general inability to read meant that people would have been much more accustomed to remembering key passages of scripture by heart.  Perhaps Jesus chose to read the passage from Isaiah that he did because it was particularly well known by his listeners.  Perhaps it was one of their favourites?  Did Jesus know that this particular text from Isaiah would make people’s ears prick up?  It’s easy to see why these words taken from Isaiah might have been popular with the Jews of Jesus’ time, who were living in an occupied country. 

The Palestine of Jesus’ day had been occupied by the Romans for almost 100 years and before that by various different conquering empires for the best part of 600 years.  Like Moses and the Israelites in captivity in Egypt the Jews of Jesus’ time wanted to throw off the shackles of occupation and oppression and be a free people again.

In the writings of the prophet Isaiah they found hope that God would put things right one day and lead his people to freedom.  This hope centred on a figure called the Messiah – a figure who would emerge to be the nation’s saviour.  The passage Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah was one of the passages linked with this Messiah.  The passage speaks of anointing, and the meaning of Messiah in Hebrew is “anointed one”.

When Jesus said that these words from Isaiah had been fulfilled, he was declaring that He was Israel’s Messiah.  He was the one His people had been waiting for to lead them out of occupation and captivity.  Jesus the Messiah.  That is where we get our word Christ from: the Greek translation of Messiah is Christos, so when we talk about Jesus Christ we are talking about Jesus the Messiah.

Through His earthly ministry, His death and resurrection Jesus by what he said and did showed that He was indeed the Messiah, the Christ. He wasn’t quite what most people had expected in their Messiah.  Jesus was not the warrior king people had been expecting.  He was after winning hearts and minds rather than battles.

Jesus was a man of action and did in the flesh what had been written about the Messiah in the ancient Hebrew scriptures.  The word used for that here in St Luke’s gospel is “fulfil”.  Jesus took the words of scripture and filled them full of meaning by what he did.

This leads to the second point I wanted to make about the scriptures on this Bible Sunday.  It’s no good just reading them, listening intently to what God might be saying to us through them: we also have to put the words of scripture into action.

Putting scripture into action might mean making changes in how we live our lives, how we view others, how we think about things.  What the Apostle Paul was getting at when he talked about “being transformed by the renewing of your mind”.

Putting scripture into action might also look like making a stand for something, being God’s hands here on earth and reaching out to those who are most in need.

Jesus was anointed to bring good news to the poor.  How much of what we do as individuals and as a church is good news to the poor?

Jesus was sent to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free.  The sense here is of prisoners of conscience rather than dangerous criminals.  Those imprisoned by tyrannical regimes for believing the wrong things, saying the wrong things, doing the wrong things, being the wrong gender, or having the wrong sexuality.  Such captivity might look rather different here in a modern democracy.  Girls and women sold into sexual slavery – Croydon remains one of the sex trafficking capitals of the UK.  The poorest in this country trapped in cycles of homelessness and addition.  Our greed for cheap possessions imprisoning workers in appalling conditions thousands of miles away.

Recovery of sight to the blind is perhaps something we should pray for ourselves rather than others: to be healed of our hardheartedness and to turn to the concerns of others rather than ourselves.

And above all, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  The year of the Lord’s favour refers to the ancient Israelite custom of the Jubilee.  Every 50th year was a Jubilee year – a holy year dedicated to God when slaves and prisoners would be freed and debts would be forgiven.  You may remember the drop the debt campaign to release poorer countries from their crippling, unfair debts to richer countries, to allow their economies to grow and to improve the welfare of ordinary people.  The other name for the campaign was the Jubilee 2000 campaign, referring to this ancient custom.

So how to draw things to a close on this Bible Sunday?  I’m sure I should be telling everyone to go and read the Bible.  Well, yes…but that’s not enough!  If we don’t read and listen intently we’ll never hear what God might be saying to us through the scriptures.  If we don’t act on what we read and hear the words of scripture will never be fulfilled – they will never be filled full of meaning by the witness of our lives.  The words will remain as flat words on a flat page.

But if we listen intently to what God is saying to us, if we allow our reading of the Bible to open us up to the winds of the Holy Spirit and to inspire us with that Spirit, if we are moved to take action by the scriptures, to transform our lives and other people’s lives for the better, then by God’s grace we will become living testaments of our saviour Jesus the Christ.  Amen

Sermon for Creation 4

Isaiah 65.17-25

Colossians 1.15-23

John 3.16-21

“‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.

 

Do you ever imagine what the end of the world will be like. I do sometimes. Not too often, though. It’s not the sort of thing I like to think about *too* much.

 

So, how will the world end?

 

Well, astronomers and physicists tell us that in around 7 billion years or so, our sun will expand to become a red giant. That giant sun will heat up the earth until it is a sea of molten lava, and the earth will eventually be completely engulfed by the sun. That certainly sounds like the end of the world to me.

Meanwhile, the human race is in the unique position of being able to cause, or at least hasten, its own demise. Nation states have between them amassed sufficient nuclear weapons to destroy the entire human race many times over; nobody really knows the long term consequences of species extinction if they continue at the current rate; and human use of fossil fuels is accelerating global warming at such an alarming rate that fatal rises in sea levels may now be inevitable.

 

Looking beyond our own planet, scientists are much more divided as to whether the entire universe around us will at some point cease to exist, or whether it will go on and on.

 

But for now, the end of the earth would mean the end of the world for humankind, and – yes – it is inevitable that the earth will ultimately be destroyed by the sun, even if takes as long as 7 billion years.

 

What seems really strange to me is that there are groups of Christians who believe that the earth will be destroyed not by the sun, but intentionally by God, and much sooner than in 7 billion years. That in itself might sound strange. Its consequences are positively dangerous.

 

In this Creation season we are thinking about God’s creation; our role in creation and in particular our role in caring for God’s creation.

However, if you happen to believe that God ultimately intends to destroy the earth, then why bother with anything that slows down that destruction? Let me say that another way – there are Christians who believe that anything we do to look after the environment and protect our planet is a waste of time, because God is going to destroy the earth anyway.

 

In case you don’t believe me, listen to what one American pastor had to say about this. This pastor’s name is Mark Driscoll. He is, to put it mildly, a nasty piece of work, but he is very popular: he has over half a million followers on Twitter. That is five times as many followers as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anyway, he said:

 

“I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.”

 

So this pastor (five times more popular than the Archbishop of Canterbury, remember) justifies driving a gas guzzling SUV because he believes that God will eventually destroy the earth. There is no point looking after something that will end up being destroyed anyway.

 

Where does this view come from? Well, it comes from a particular interpretation of the final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. I don’t know how many of you have read Revelation. It’s not easy to read and not easy to understand.

It gives a vision of what it might look like for God to complete the work that was begun in Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. A vision of a time when Jesus will return as the earth’s true ruler, when no-one will be left in any doubt as to who He is and who has sent Him.

 

The book of Revelation describes a series of visions received by its author. It uses the sorts of images we might see in dreams, or perhaps nightmares. We’ve all had dreams and nightmares where the images we see and words we hear in them don’t always make sense, but may carry some underlying meaning.


 

When the book of Revelation uses images of fire and destruction and lakes of boiling sulphur – and yes it does talk about those things – it doesn’t necessarily mean those things will literally happen. It is poetic language used for poetic effect.

 

[Still, all this death and destruction is big money business! An American author called Tim LaHaye wrote a series of novels called the “Left Behind” series based on a very literal interpretation of the book of Revelation. Many of the books have been at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. In total, over 65 million books have been sold. ]

 

This view that God intends to destroy the earth is clearly popular amongst Christians. Very popular.

 

Almost every serious Biblical scholar will tell you the same thing about this view: “It is just plain wrong”. There is nothing in the Bible to support a view that God intends to destroy it. Only by taking a small part of the Bible completely out of context could you ever reach this view.

 

On the other hand, the Bible is positively overflowing with passages telling us how much God loves the world he has created. Things may have gone wrong with the world, things may even get worse, but God’s plan for the world is to renew it, to make it better than it is now.

Take the Isaiah passage we heard this morning. The images used here are clearly of God renewing the earth and making things better, not of destroying anything. These same images from Isaiah are then heavily drawn on in the book of Revelation.

 

Just as Isaiah does, the book of Revelation speaks of a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and of God making all things new. Not destruction of the earth. As one commentator puts it there is no “Big Bang or other act of cosmic destruction”. Rather it is the “powers which have been intent on destroying the earth” which are “consigned to the lake of fire” in Revelation.

 

The final images in Revelation are of paradise restored on earth. Where the Garden of Eden is lost in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, it is regained in the final book, Revelation.

 

Lakes of fire, paradise, garden of eden – it’s poetic language again, but the meaning is clear. God does not intend to destroy the earth. God intends to heal it, to make it better, to renew it. The only things destroyed are the powers of evil, destruction, and death itself.

 

The same message is staring us in the face in our gospel passage, only we so often miss it.

 

This passage from John’s gospel is one of the best known in the whole Bible, but it is so often read in a very limited way.

 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

 

God loves the world. He sent His Son. I believe in Him. So I get to go to heaven not to hell. That’s the narrow reading.

 

If you look again, though, the passage talks about God loving the world (not me individually) and sending His Son to redeem the whole world (and not just me). God’s intentions are to redeem the world, not to destroy it.

But what does this redemption of the world, this saving of the whole world actually look like? You could, I suppose, look at the book of Revelation again. The visions describe the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth: a city made of pure gold with walls and gates made of precious stones. There are no lights in the city: it is lit by the glory of God and of the Lamb. Of course the language is poetic; the words are used to paint a picture. This renewed creation will be beautiful, awe-inspiring, actually more than can be described in mere words.

 

So you could look at the book of Revelation. Or you could look at Jesus.

 

St Paul, in the passage of his letter to the Colossians we heard today calls Jesus the “firstborn from the dead”. Jesus, through his death on the cross and resurrection to new life, shows us what a renewed creation might look like.

 

And what does that new life in Jesus’s resurrection look like? Well, it can all be a bit confusing! Jesus after the resurrection is both the same and different from the Jesus before the crucifixion.

 

At first after the resurrection, Jesus was not recognised. Neither Mary nor the disciples on the Road to Emmaus initially recognised Him.


 

But both Mary and the disciples on the Road to Emmaus did in time come to realise that, yes, this was Jesus with them. In the resurrection life, outward appearances may look different at first. A renewed world may look different from this one, at first sight at least.

 

Some things will be different; and some the same. It was the most unexpected things about Jesus that stayed the same after the resurrection. You’ll all remember the story about the Apostle Thomas, “doubting Thomas”. He refused to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead until he had seen the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands and put his hand in the spear wound in Jesus’ side.


 

Jesus, even in His resurrection, even as the first fruits of the renewed creation, bore the scars of His brutal death on the cross. The resurrection didn’t simply wipe away the wounds of Jesus’ earthly life – Jesus was still the crucified Jesus. But Jesus was no longer bound by those wounds; he was freed from them; he was freed from even death itself. A renewed world may still bear the scars we have inflicted on it; and yet be freed from those scars.

 

Far more interesting, I think, than thinking about what the end of the world would look like, is thinking about what the resurrection life, what a renewed creation, would look like in our own lives.

 

St Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians tells us that for those of us who trust in Christ we are already part of that new creation; the old things have already passed away and all things have become new for us.

 

New creation and God’s renewal of creation is not just something for the future. It’s something for now as well. I think Jesus was getting at the same thing when he said that the Kingdom of God was among us. The Kingdom of God, the resurrection life, the new creation, paradise restored: these are not just things to look forward to after we die.

 

 

These things are all for now. God’s renewal of creation has not yet been completed. What was begun by God in the person of Jesus Christ will be completed by God in the fullness of time. We are all invited to be part of that new creation breaking into the world. What will you do with that invitation?

Sermon for Proper 13

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.

Before I begin, I would like to make a brief apology, which is that I will be referring to these papers in front of me rather more than I would like.

The reason I have to apologise is that I had worked out what I wanted to say today – I had done my reading, thinking, praying and even a lot of the writing, and then something happened this week that stopped me in my tracks.

If you follow the news you can’t have avoided the increasing number of reports of violent attacks happening across Continental Europe. The truck attack in Nice, the shooting in Munich, a machete attack and suicide bombing also in Germany. And then this week the murder of the catholic priest Fr Jacques Hamel in his church in Rouen, slaughtered by Islamist extremists as he was saying Mass.

As I said, something happened this week.

‘Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”‘

Disagreements between brothers and sisters seem to be as old as the Bible itself.

You’ll all remember the Old Testament story of Joseph and his coat given to him by his father. Joseph’s brothers were so jealous that he was his father’s favourite that they planned to murder Joseph and threw him in a well. Then seeing some passing merchants they sold Joseph into slavery. Their own brother. It was years later before the brothers were reconciled with Joseph.

Joseph’s own father Jacob had a twin brother called Esau. Now, Jacob tricked his older brother Esau out of his father’s inheritance. Esau was so furious at Jacob that he vowed to kill him, and Jacob fled into exile. Again, it was many years before they were finally reconciled.

And Jacob’s father Isaac, well we’ll come back to him.

Even before Isaac, way back almost at the beginning of the Bible you’ll find the story of Cain and Abel. The two brothers, the first two brothers in the Bible, fell out over who had given the best offering to God. Cain’s jealousy at his brother boils over into murder. There was no possibility of reconciliation for these two.

Let’s come back to the story of Isaac.

Isaac, the father of the brothers Jacob and Esau, had a brother. Not a full brother, but a half brother. That half brother’s name was Ishmael. Isaac and Ishmael’s father was that great figure of the Old Testament, Abraham.

Isaac’s mother was Abraham’s wife Sarah, but Ishmael’s mother was Sarah’s servant girl called Hagar. Abraham and Hagar had had the boy Ishmael when Sarah thought she was too old to have a baby, giving Abraham Hagar in her place. But, God being God, didn’t leave things there and some years later Sarah had a child with Abraham, the boy Isaac. And, eventually, Sarah became so jealous of Isaac’s older brother Ishmael that she persuaded Abraham to abandon Ishmael together with his mother and drive them into the wilderness.

Now, tradition has it that these two half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael went on to be the founding Fathers of two great Nations and faiths. The younger brother, Isaac, went on to be the Father of the Jewish people and the ancestor of Jesus Christ, and our spiritual ancestor as well. The older brother, Ishmael, was the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and the Father of the Islamic faith.

Just five days ago in the church of St Etienne in Rouen, the 85-year old priest Fr Jacques Hamel was saying Mass in front of a small congregation. Two attackers who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State entered the church. An 86-year old parishioner was stabbed, seriously injuring him. And the attackers cut the throat of Fr Jacques as he knelt at the foot of the altar, killing him.

Pope Francis described Fr Jacques as a casualty in a piecemeal war that has been going on for some time. The Pope did stress, though, that this was not a religious war and that all religions want peace. And only this week 70,000 Muslim clerics at a gathering in in India issued an official message condemning terrorism and terrorists.

It is not religions themselves that cause wars, but their followers, or perhaps I should say so-called followers who hijack religions as an excuse for war. And these conflicts around religion are almost as old as religion itself.

According to the Biblical account, those brothers Isaac and Ishmael were never fully reconciled with one another. They are only mentioned as having met once again, to bury their father Abraham when he died. Perhaps there was reconciliation in that moment of grief and mourning. What a lesson that would have been for us now, but we will never know.

Many people are already declaring Fr Jacques Hamel to be a martyr. We worship here in the church of St George the Martyr, but we don’t often have cause to think about what we mean by the word martyr. Fr Jacques was killed because of his Christian faith and for no other reason, and without seeking his own death. That, in the eyes of the church is what makes somebody a martyr.

I found out something new and truly surprising this week in the days following Fr Jacques’s death. I was reading a short tribute to him written by a Benedictine Nun of Holy Trinity Monastery in Herefordshire. In it she described how the nuns had “prayed for the perpetrators, that they might be forgiven, for the wounded that they might recover, but for Fr Jacques, who was murdered at the altar, there was only the Te Deum.”

The Te Deum, for those who do not know it, is a great Christian hymn of praise. It is that hymn which begins “We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.” It will be familiar to those of you who remember said or choral Matins.

The barbaric slaughter of a priest seemed a strange, wholly inappropriate, time to be saying or singing a great hymn of praise to God. Surely, solemn prayer for his soul and respectful mourning were more appropriate?

The nun continued in her tribute “Fr Jacques joins the long line of those who have witnessed to Christ by their blood. He did not choose to die, he was murdered; and he was murdered simply and solely because he was a Christian. He is thus a true martyr, and it has long been the custom of the Church, when hearing of martyrdom, to praise God by singing the Te Deum.”

This still struck me as odd and difficult to get my head round. Perhaps when we sing our final hymn today you could imagine singing it in response to hearing of the news of someone who had been murdered because of their Christian faith. It jars. Deeply. The first four lines of that hymn:

Alleluia, alleluia!
Hearts to heaven and voices raise:
sing to God a hymn of gladness,
sing to God a hymn of praise.

Why does the Church, and this nun, single out those who have witnessed to Christ by their blood? Why does she single out those we call martyrs? Well, surely because part of Christ’s own witness involved the shedding of his blood. Jesus Christ, God come among us in human form, was slaughtered on the cross by those he came to save. The same Christ called on his followers to take up their own crosses and follow Him; to give their lives for Him, in whatever way that took. Those who have had their lives taken away because of their faith in Christ have been given a special place by the Church as those prepared to pay the ultimate price for their faith; their life.

The next two lines of our final hymn seem more appropriate to me:

He, who on the cross a victim,
for the world’s salvation bled,

If the story of Jesus Christ had ended there on the cross, there would be no Te Deums being said or sung for Fr Jacques. And yet, there are.

If Christianity tells us anything about death, it is that it is not the end; death is not the last word. After Jesus had been killed on the cross he was laid in a tomb, but on the third day after he had died the tomb was empty. The stories from his followers were that Jesus who had been dead was now alive, that he had walked again with his followers, spoken to them, eaten and drunk with them, and blessed them.

The Love of God is stronger than death. The Love of God is still stronger than Death today.

I think perhaps this is why Fr Jacques will have Te Deums said and sung for him. Fr Jacques’s death will not be the end for him. Fr Jacques will see God and Jesus. His witness to Christ in the manner of his death assures him of that. And what of those who murdered him? In God’s vast Love and Mercy they will come to know what a horrific thing they did. And they will be reconciled with Fr Jacques, as will Cain and Abel and all those who couldn’t be reconciled in this life, even Isaac and Ishmael.

Jesus Christ, the King of glory,
now is risen from the dead.

Sermon for Lent 3C

Luke 13 :1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (+) Amen

I can just picture the scene on Monday morning.  You’re back at work, or at home, or you’ve just popped out to the shops, and you get chatting to someone you know – a friend, a family member, a work colleague, or just one of the shop assistants you know better than the rest.

They ask you about some of the things they’ve seen in the news recently.  The building collapse in Taiwan, and the train crash in southern Germany a few weeks ago.  The people killed and injured in the accident at Didcot Power Station.  The 40 people killed in a cyclone in Fiji.  The regular slaughter of innocent people in continuing suicide bomb attacks in the Middle East.  School shootings in the USA.  All those innocent people dead.

You’re a Christian, the other person says.  What had these people done wrong? What had they done to God to deserve this?

You remember the Gospel reading from today and you say that, of course, these people had done nothing to anger God.  They didn’t die because God was punishing them.  These things just happen, you say.

Then you remember a bit more of today’s Gospel reading, and feeling bold you say that Jesus said that if we don’t repent of our sins we’ll all end up dying in the same way…

I somehow don’t think that last bit would go down very well.  Perhaps it’s not the sort of thing you’d say.  I wouldn’t.

Jesus said it though.  I get the impression that repenting of our sins was a big deal to him.

Talking to other people about our faith is never easy.  I certainly don’t find it easy.  But talking about sin and repentance is particularly difficult.

They’re not really the sort of things we like to talk about.  There are certain things it’s just not proper to talk about in polite company, and I think “sin” and “repentance” probably fall within that category.  Why do we never talk about them?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some people who talk about sin all the time.  I’m sure we’ve all seen street preachers heckling people, railing at them, shouting that they need to repent of their sins or else they’ll burn in hell.  That’s probably talking about it too much.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that.

But there is a danger of going too far the other way and never, ever talking about sin.  We are now in the church season of Lent, when we remember Jesus’s time spent in the desert facing his own temptations.  And one of the things some people like to do in Lent is to examine their lives and think about what areas might need a little attention; a little pruning; a little weeding; where they need to repent of their sins.  Much easier said than done.

But before we get any further, what do we even mean when we talk about “sin” and “repentance”?

Because those two words “sin” and “repent” don’t mean all that much outside this building.  We hear them a lot in our church services.  But to those not familiar with church those words might as well be in a different language.  Even for regular churchgoers it can sometimes feel like we speak in different languages in here and out there.

When I was buying Serena some Christmas presents at the end of last year I bought a jar of sweets for her and the company which made them was called “Sugar Sin”.  Perhaps this means that sin is all about sweets?!

Is sin somehow about that little treat, that sweet or chocolate bar, that we know we shouldn’t have, but that we have anyway.  And we enjoy it.  Is that what sin is all about?

Or if we take note of what some parts of the Church of England spend a lot of time talking about, we might think sin was all to do with which people we should and should not sleep with and who people are allowed to marry.  It sometimes feels as if sin is all about sex.  Is that really what sin is all about?

Or sometimes we reserve the word sin in our minds for the very worst things we can imagine.  Really evil things.  Sin has to do with Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and the very worst things we can imagine, but not really with us.  Is that what sin is all about?

I think all three of these images get sin wrong.  Sin might be about having too much food, when we know that others are going without.  Sex might be sinful if it is abusive.  [Noone doubts that Hitler, Stalin and others like them were sinful.] 

But none of those images really gets to the heart of what we mean when we talk about “sin”.  And at the heart, of course, is God and our relationship with God and with each other, and where those relationships go wrong.

One of my favourite theologians and writers is the American Frederick Buechner.  He had this to say about sin[.  I’m paraphrasing slightly]:

“sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes other people, the world and God away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self”

I quite like that.

But, you say, how am I meant to know what things I’m doing or not doing which push God out of the way and tear me up in side?

I think you know.  I think each of us knows those things we do which, in our heart, we know to be wrong.  That’s not the difficult bit.  The difficult bit is not doing them.

St Paul says this in his letter to the Romans:

“I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

The difficult bit is stopping doing those things we know in our heart to be wrong.

And the first step to stopping is what we might call “repentance”.

And in some ways it’s a backwards step.  “Repentance” means literally “turning”.  Turning round to go in another direction.  Taking your life in a different direction.

I don’t know if you’ve seen those posters on the trains that go up and down to London.  “Want to take your career in a different direction? Call us now on 0800……..”.

If only it were that easy with our relationship with God!  Or perhaps it is that easy.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of saying “You know what God, I’m sorry for this and that, and that’s the end of it.  OK?”

That’s not my experience.  It isn’t as easy as that.  We go wrong, we say sorry, we want to do better, but we slip back into old patterns of behaviour, the same things happen again, and now we’re right back where we started.  Only now we have the crushing guilt of feeling we let God down.

Baby steps, baby steps.  We turn around; we repent; it doesn’t work; we try again.  We turn around; we repent; it doesn’t work; we try again.  And again.  And again.  And again for as long as it takes.  Perhaps it takes a lifetime.

And God will wait for you.  You remember that story Jesus told about the boy who ran away from his father with his share of the inheritance.  Used up all the money in a few months.  Came crawling back to the father, who rushed out to meet him with open arms.  The father waited for the boy.  God will wait.  And rush out to meet us with open arms.

But we don’t like waiting.  We get tired and bored, don’t we?  We don’t want to take baby steps: we want giant leaps.  We don’t want to work on things for years: we want things sorted right now.

Perhaps we think we can find a quick fix, a quick way to deal with the bad things we do, the bad thoughts we have.  “If I can just find the right prayer to pray, that will sort everything.”  Or “There’s this church, and they have a special blessing and that’s it all washed away”.  Or “There’s this book you can read and that will make sense of it all”

Well, if it all works out for you like that, great.  But what about the rest of us?

Well, then the temptation comes just to give up.  We keep getting things wrong until eventually we write ourselves off.  We consider our lives worthless, and not worth fixing.  Or we do it to others – we write off people all the time.

Jesus put it like this ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”’

Now this man with the fig tree, he’s being quite reasonable.  A space in his vineyard is being taken up by a fig tree which won’t bear fruit; so it should be cut down and replaced with something which will pay for itself come harvest time.  The fig tree is a write off.  Economically, the sensible decision is to get rid of it.

But what if this story isn’t about fig trees, but about people.  Are we still happy that cutting people down is the right thing to do?

A lot of the interpretations of this story say that God is the owner of the fig tree.  God is impatient with our lives, our unfruitfulness and wants to cut us down to give another life a chance.

Can that really be the same God who like the father waits for the errant boy gone off with the family silver.  The God who rushes out with open arms to greet the boy; the silver nowhere to be seen?

No, no, I don’t think so.

Suppose for a second that you are the owner of the vineyard, and the fig tree is how you feel about some aspect of your life: your career, a relationship, perhaps your life of faith, or just how you view your whole life.  And you don’t like what you see, things aren’t bearing fruit, what you’ve tried hasn’t worked to improve things, so you’ve given up and you say “Cut it down!”  “I want another one.  I want a different one”

And Jesus says “Give me a year”.  “Give me a chance”.  “Let me tend to you.  Let me do a bit of weeding.  Let me put the fertiliser down.  I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.  A bit of muck here, a bit of manure there?  No problem.  I can handle that.”

Jesus is always there, waiting for us to invite him in.  Jesus in the book of Revelation says “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Think of that when we come to the time of sharing Communion together – Jesus standing at the very threshold waiting to be joined with us as we break bread and share wine.

Jesus wants to help us, to lighten the burdens we feel we carry.  Jesus in Matthew’s gospel says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Comforting images.

It all looks so easy when it’s written down on paper.  It all sounds so easy sat here together.  But in reality it’s not. Knowing Jesus is there for us, and is there to help us can be very easy to believe one day. And feel impossible to believe the next.

Which is why we need each other, why we need the community of people we call a Church.  Why we need to look out for each other and look after each other.  Why we need to pray for each other.  Why we need to do what Jesus would do and walk alongside those in need.

There was a man walking down a street when he falls in a hole.  The walls are so steep, he can’t get out.  A doctor passes by, and the man shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?”  The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?”  The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a friend walks by.  “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?”  And the friend jumps in the hole.  The man says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.”  The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

Jesus says “Give me a year”.  “Give me a chance”.  “Let me jump into the hole you’ve got yourself in and show you the way out”.  Will you let him?

Amen.

The grace of God. Yet again. What else?!

In many ways this morning started like most other mornings.  I woke up to my alarm feeling like I needed more sleep: like I normally do.  I got up, showered, dressed, leaving the house about 45 minutes after I got up.  I walked to the train station, got my train, said morning prayer on the train and got off at Waterloo East.  I got the 521 bus and got off one stop earlier than I needed to so I could get a coffee and some breakfast from a food place called Leon.  So far, so normal.

Then something different.

Anyone working in London, or any major city, will be aware of the large number of homeless people who live and try to get by in our city centres.  I frequently see homeless people in the area where I work: sometimes I give them money and sometimes I don’t.  I don’t feel great when I don’t.  This morning I saw a guy sat outside the door of my breakfast spot.  He was obviously homeless, filthy dirty, wearing tattered clothes and shoes so worn out they were falling off his feet.  It’s always tempting with some homeless people who ask for money to wonder how in need of help they are.  There was no wondering with this guy – he did not look in a good way.

I walked into my breakfast place ignoring the ragged man out on the street, and instantly regretted not having gone up to him to ask if I could get him anything to eat or drink.  Inside by now I felt too embarrassed, and ashamed of my lack of compassion, to turn around and approach him.  I ordered my coffee and breakfast.

Then, thank God for second chances; thank the God *of* second chances – the homeless man came in to ask for some milk in a coffee he had.  The milk was given.  As the man turned to go I asked him if he wanted anything to eat.  He said he was alright, but thanks for asking.  I paid and left the shop.

As I passed the man now sat beside the shop he said thanks and said he hoped I had a good day.  I wished him the same.  At that moment he seemed to me suddenly more beautiful than anything else around; certainly more beautiful than the hordes of suits ignoring him and me.  Beautiful exactly how he was: beautiful in his filthy state; beautiful in his ragged clothes; beautiful in his toe-flapping shoes.  He seemed the most fully alive thing I could see – so alive I wanted to embrace him.

By the grace of God I saw him for who he truly was: a beloved child of God, every bit as loved as any and every human being.

Splinters remain (Matthew 28:1-10)

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Matthew’s account of the resurrection differs somewhat from those recalled in Luke’s and John’s gospels.  When Jesus appears to His disciples in Matthew’s account they instantly know who He is, fall at His feet and offer to Him what should only be offered to God Himself: worship.  In the other gospel accounts, Jesus’ followers aren’t quite so quick on the uptake.

According to Luke’s account the two travellers on the road to Emmaus did not initially recognise their fellow traveller as the risen Jesus.  It was only when He took some bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them that his identity was revealed.  Perhaps a reminder of the Eucharistic practice of the early church?  In the gospel according to John when Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus in the garden she doesn’t recognise him and assumes him to be the gardener.  Only when Jesus addresses her by name does Mary turn and see Who is standing before her.

It’s often remarked that although Jesus’s appearance (in Luke and John’s accounts at least) is not as it was before His crucifixion, at least His wounds did endure the resurrection.  In John’s account it is only when the disciple Thomas sees Christ’s wounds that he believes that it is really Him.  Those things we might expect to endure the resurrection, such as physical appearance, may in fact not do so; whereas certain other things – scars, wounds, physical ailments – that we expect to be wiped away in the resurrection for some reason might not be.

One thing I took away from James Alison’s book “Knowing Jesus” was that to think of our Lord only as the risen Lord was too simplistic.  Jesus Christ is the crucified-and-risen Lord.  Crucifixion as much as resurrection is a part of who He is, who He is to us, and who we are called to be for Him.  So, just as even the bleakest moment of the Christian year, Good Friday, is tinged with the future hope of the resurrection, so this highest point of joy, Easter Sunday, still retains a note of sadness.  Yes, the Lord is risen: Alleluia!  But He is not risen without having died in the first place, and through the fault of sinful humanity who could not accept God amongst them.

So much of Christian preaching and spirituality focuses – and rightly so – on our status as Easter people; people living in the Light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and living in hope of our own resurrection at the end of all things.  And I suppose that particular slant is what has come to dominate my personal theology too.

But something feels different this year.  It is Easter Sunday; it feels good and right to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord; it is one of those particularly joyful years when Western and Eastern (Orthodox) Christians celebrate Easter on the same day; and yet I can’t quite forget Good Friday.

I don’t know why in particular things should feel different this year.  I found the experience of venerating the cross for the first time this Good Friday particularly moving.  Kneeling before a large, rough wooden cross; laying my hand on it; laying my head against it; all the while contemplating what took place on a larger, rougher wooden cross two millenia ago; and then gently touching my lips to the wood.  Perhaps that is what it was; I don’t know.  Good Friday is past, but a few splinters of that wood feel as if they remain.

I wish you all a very Happy Easter.  Jesus Christ is risen – Alleluia.  Crucified and risen – Alleluia.