Category Archives: Sermon

When does Jesus surprise me?

From Easter Sunday’s Service – Sarah Derbyshire

I’m super stoked I get to talk about how Jesus surprises me, and how the element of surprise coexists with my relationship with God.

For me, surprise isn’t just a lack of expectation in my faith, but it has become an integral part of my identity as a Christian, and, in some sense, a virtue I’ve both battled with and learnt to love.

Hands down the biggest surprise I’ve ever had, was the day I decided I wanted to be a Christian. I was 16 years old, I was stood at the bus stop, it was 6:30 in the morning, it was bouncing it down with rain, I had no coat and I was already going to be late for sixth form. I told myself that if the bus came within the next 30 seconds then I’d drop everything and there and then I’d start believing in God.

Long story short, the bus took 15 minutes to come; but it was that very morning I knew I wanted to get to know God, I wanted to understand why God loved me so much, why God would allow his only begotten son to be sacrificed for me, and why God would leave me stood at the bus stop in the rain for 15 minutes.

In the 4 years between then and now, and shortly after joining the Catholic Church, I began to understand why God loves me, and why he’d give Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, although I still don’t understand why he left me that rainy morning at the bus stop!

But, and to be a bit more serious about this, there’s a lot more to how surprise is central to my relationship with Jesus, than the unfortunate events of that early morning 4 years ago.

For the past year or so, it feels like God surprises me more and more, so much so that I’m equally as surprised when my day goes exactly as I planned it to be. And it’s because of this, I thought I was completely ready to take on anything God had for me, and open to Gods plans.

And then at world youth day, surrounded by 3 million young people of the Church, Pope Francis asked a simple question “are you completely open to God’s surprises?”, and at that moment, I realised I wasn’t. Surprise seems to go hand in hand with newness. Whenever I’m surprised in my Christian faith, it usually means I have to let go of the plans I had for myself, and instead, put my complete trust in God.

My ability, or lack of in some cases, to put my complete trust in God when faced with surprise, has been a huge surprise to me. As a raging extrovert, I don’t often get anxious, yet, when it comes to surprise in my faith, trusting in God and leaving my cushy comfort zone often makes me really nervous.

That simple question by Pope Francis completely tore apart everything I thought I knew about myself and my relationship with Jesus. It was at that moment, reflecting on the endless surprises God seems to throw at me, reflecting on my ‘I’m completely ready and open to every surprise God and Jesus bless me with, attitude’… that I realised I was actually doing the complete opposite.

One of the biggest surprises I think I’ll ever have, was when I realised I was called to the Anglican priesthood. I was sat in Catholic Mass when I first realised – and on that day, I was utterly convinced that this was one surprise too far.

Pope Francis gave us a few minutes more to reflect before saying “how wonderful is it to be surprised by God’s call, to embrace his word, and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus… be open to surprise… your life will become richer and more joyful each day.”

Since then, I’ve done a lot more growing and I’m still constantly surprised; I’m surprised by what God seems to have in store for me, how much Jesus loves and supports me, and I’m surprised by how far I’ve already come in my spiritual journey.

What Pope Francis said that day really challenged me; and since then I believe it has helped me to become a more active Christian, and constantly conscious of God, whom I should trust in the face of surprise.

I was surprised when I wanted to become a Christian, I was even more surprised when I wanted to become a priest, and I was especially surprised when at 17 years old I signed myself up and became a member of the religious order of the Salesians of Don Bosco.

For me, being a Salesian comes hand in hand with being surprised. Both in myself and my abilities, and also in my spirituality.

Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesians, preaches a simple message around our mission towards the young – that we must leave everything in God’s hands, who will let us know when to change course, and that we must be ready to be surprised by the young.

Pope Francis asked me a very simple question that changed the way I understood ‘surprise’ forever, and reshaped how I understood my relationship with Jesus – and I’m going to finish on just that.

“Are you completely open to God’s surprises?”

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Sermon by Leigh Greenwood – 19th March 2017

Notes from the sermon by Leigh Greenwood on 19th March 2017

Reading: Mark 12

So that you know where we’re heading, this will be a sermon in two parts. First I want to take a sweep of the whole passage, and then I want to focus in on the parable of the tenants as a way of starting to unpack some of the details of the chapter.

Let’s start with the big picture then. I don’t know if this has been your experience as you’ve been working through Mark, but when reading through a gospel I’ve often found myself wondering why the chapters have been divided up as they have. It sometimes feels like a group of stories has been grouped together, with no real sense of how they interact with one another.

When it comes to Mark 12 however, the division feels a little less arbitrary, as the chapter is held together by a sense of tension or antagonism, as Jesus engages in a series of disagreements with and criticisms of the religious authorities. He has just cleared the temple, effectively declaring himself in opposition to the powers that be with a provocative performance of prophetic and political theatre, and now there’s no stopping him.

It feels like he knows that the cross is only a few days away, that those who fear his message are already plotting to do their worst and that he already has an answer to that, and so he has nothing to lose. When set against the priests and the scribes, he represents a radically different way of relating to God, and he’s going to make sure the people know it.

I don’t want to simply repeat the reading, but I do want to quickly remind us of the sequence of events, with that theme of opposition to the authorities in mind, and flesh out a few details.

So at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus preaches the parable of tenants. Often Jesus’ parables are followed by a great deal of scratching of heads, but this time the chief priests and the elders, who were the community and religious leaders who had criticised his authority at end of chapter 11, clearly understand that it was intended as a criticism of them. They want to arrest him, and it’s easy to see this as petty revenge for his criticism of them, but I think there is something deeper at work here.

Jesus appears to be claiming a special relationship to God. He is not pictured as a humble tenant or even a trusted messenger, but the beloved son. This is coming close to blasphemy as far as the authorities are concerned, and that can’t be stood for, but they are too afraid to respond openly, and so we might suspect that the rest of the chapter is a steady attempt to undermine Jesus, orchestrated by the chief priests and elders.

Because next he is approached by an alliance of Pharisees and Herodians asking about the legitimacy of paying taxes to the Romans. These groups were not obvious bedfellows. The Pharisees are often characterised as sticklers for the law, and this was because they were devastated by the Roman occupation and believed that obedience to Torah was the answer. I couldn’t find a great deal of information about the Herodians, but their name suggests they supported one of the Herods and so had accepted Roman rule. They are political opponents, but they have teamed up to take on Jesus, which says something about the strength of their feeling against him, and their question is clearly designed to trip him up, because there doesn’t appear to be a right answer.

If Jesus recognises the authority of the emperor he is little better than an idolater, but if he speaks against paying taxes then he will be characterised as a revolutionary. This is a serious attempt to give him enough rope to hang himself, theologically or politically. I can only imagine the reaction of the Pharisees and the Herodians when he slips out of the noose with a creative response which suggests that Roman rule is not really the issue, thereby avoiding saying anything to incriminate himself and putting his opponents in the wrong.

The next group to try their luck are the Saducees, religious leaders who rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees and beliefs such as the resurrection of the dead. They try to trick him with a technical theological question about a bizarre hypothetical situation. Again he dodges the question, and his response is to say that the Saducees are mistaken because they don’t know God or the scriptures, the implication being that they are asking the wrong questions. Once again, he aggravates rather than placates his opponents.

Then one of the scribes, who were officials who interpreted the law, tries to test him by asking about the greatest commandment. This one feels less like a directed attack, as the scribe just happens to overhear Jesus’ conversation, but the fact that he is so pleased with the answer Jesus gives does suggest that he was looking for a particular response rather than asking a genuine question. Again though, Jesus turns this interaction on its head, as his reply suggests it is the scribe who has really passed the test, and that switch in power dynamics seems to unnerve the crowd.

This exchange is a challenge to us too, as it not only reinforces the fundamental principles we are called to live by – love God and love neighbour – but also reminds us that they are the fundamental principles God has always called his people to live by. It can be easy to see ‘the Jews’ as the enemy in passages like this, but Jesus’ criticisms were far more targeted than that. He is not attacking the people but the authorities, and he does not set his sights on the law but on the way it has been used. It is important to remember that Judaism is built on the same rule of love as Christianity, and if we start to criticise whole religions on the basis of the actions of specific groups and individuals, we’re all in trouble.

But getting back to the text, even though the individual scribe comes off relatively well, Jesus goes on to denounce the scribes as lacking in understanding and as arrogant hypocrites, and just in case he hasn’t upset enough people, he criticises the rich by comparing them unfavourably to the poor with respect to their giving.

So what does this all mean for us? Firstly, it challenges the storybook picture of Jesus as meek and mild, surrounded by children and animals with blow dried golden locks. The reality is that he spoke hard truths, and was unafraid to call people out on their error and their evil, and once we enter into relationship with him, he will hold us accountable in the same way.

Secondly, I think it’s significant that Jesus engages with each group about an issue close to their heart. With those who have a particular angle on Roman rule, he talks about Roman taxes. With those who reject resurrection, he talks about the resurrected life to come. With the one who deals with the law, he talks about commandments. And with respect to the rich, he talks about their wealth. He challenges what they hold as sacred or see as fundamental to their identity. I think this is often the pattern for our own encounters with Christ. He forces us to rethink those things that we hold closest to our hearts, and pushes at the edges of our ideas of ourselves, reshaping us in the process.

 

So that’s a look at the grand theme of the chapter. There is so much in there that we could unpack, but I just want to pull some details out of the parable of the tenants.

The vineyard was a common metaphor for Israel in the Old Testament, and working from there it seems pretty simple to work out the rest of the parable. The landowner is God, the tenants are the ruling authorities, the messengers are the prophets, and the son is Jesus. God tasked the priests and the rulers with looking after his people, but they didn’t listen to those who he sent to speak his word to them, and so eventually he sent his son, but they killed him in order to hold onto the influence they felt they had, and so God upended the system.

Of course Jesus hadn’t yet been killed at the point at which he was telling this parable, and so to his first hearers it would have sounded as a prophetic word, in which Jesus laid bare the intentions of the religious leaders and the events of the coming days, but to us it reads as an allegory for salvation history.

This parable may seem easier to understand than many others, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept, as it seems to portray God as absent and vengeful, and there is a danger that we can read it as saying that he has rejected Israel in favour of the church. Allegories are never exact however, and I don’t think either of those things are what this one is saying. We need to work out which parts of this story carry its meaning, and what Jesus really wants to say is often found in what is different from what has been said before.

The description of the vineyard seems to be lifted from Isaiah 5, except that there God destroys the vineyard completely, suggesting that it is the way in which the landowner repeatedly tries to communicate with the tenants and ultimately preserves the vineyard that is crucial to this parable. God’s heart is for redemption, and Jesus marks a distinctive new way of bringing that about, by shocking the status quo and drawing others in. Because that is what Jesus does, he makes us rethink everything and opens up a new generosity and inclusiveness in the heart of God.

Jesus follows the parable by declaring that the stone that has been rejected has become the cornerstone. It seems like a strange shift in metaphor, from vineyards to building sites, but Jesus has used the parable of the tenants to establish himself as the son, and the Hebrew for son sounds like the Hebrew for stone, so there’s actually a play on words going on here. It’s hardly going to encourage a belly laugh, but there is something pleasing about the way in which Jesus could be witty and enjoy the simple pleasure of a pun. It reminds us that he was not just a paradigm but a real person, with humour and warmth and character.

It’s also interesting to note that the saying about the cornerstone comes from Psalm 118, which speaks of God’s redemptive action, so having engaged in a creative reimagining of Isaiah, he is now presenting a more straightforward use of scripture. This reminds us that there is both continuity and discontinuity in Jesus, as he fulfils the scriptures in ways nobody could have imagined, and challenges the authorities without rejecting the people, and holds to the eternal law of love but shows us new ways of understanding it.

Because Mark 12 may be full of discord, but at the centre of it is a reminder that the greatest commandment is this, love God and love your neighbour. It was the message of the prophets and it is the message of the son. No arguments about politics or theology can change it, and no attempt to silence it can work. In a few days it will take Jesus to the cross, and then out of the tomb. And it will take us to beautiful and unimagined places if we dare to take the risk follow it.

 

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Sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 12th March 2017

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 12th March 2017

May all I speak and all that is heard be breathed into by your loving spirit O God

Mark Chapter 10.

One reason for taking big chunks of the gospel to reflect on is because if we read the gospels in chunks it gives us a chance to see how Jesus’ message hangs together. Reading the gospels over and over in big chunks can make us wilfully deaf and blind people hear and see a little better. So we continue our gallop today through this most breathless of gospels

This chapter starts with Jesus talking to a group he engages with regularly, the Pharisees, the holders of the law. Jesus talks to them on their own ground, challenging them on the technicalities of their beliefs. Jesus never refuses to talk anyone, only surprises and challenges with his answers.

Noticing that Jesus talks to everyone is relevant to the next bit of the chapter which is, at least partly, about Jesus’ message being for everyone equally. The New Testament church learned a tough lesson later about not needing to be Jewish and circumcised to be part of the way of Jesus. The Gospel is for everyone.

We talk a lot about inclusion at All Hallows. We are quite quick to feel excluded and even to say so. But one of the questions I am asking myself at present is, when does my inclusion involve or threaten to involve the exclusion of someone else. The Pharisees included themselves but they excluded others, those who didn’t observe the law. I want to be included – but I have to be careful and humble not to be excluding of others in order for that to happen.

Who does Jesus include next? A group of children. Children, unlike the Pharisees, had no status, and were some of the marginalised and vulnerable in society. Their mothers brought them to Jesus – women and children, two ‘lesser’ kinds of being in all sorts of ways. And the disciples rush over and start saying hey you can’t do that, he’s got better things to do than talk to kids, like perhaps talking to needy adults! True the adults are needy – but including the adults like this means excluding the children.

So Jesus rounds on the disciples and tells them off.  He scolds them for daring to say who he will and won’t talk to. No one has an exclusive right to the attention of God. Interestingly not long before Jesus has already explicitly said to them that anyone who welcomes a child in his name welcomes him – and the disciples still don’t get the message. (Another theme – how blind and rubbish at listening the disciples were, – just like us).

Not only must the disciples welcome children, Jesus says, they must be like children in their acceptance of him and the Kingdom he is bringing and is still bringing.

Children are lots of things, and we could linger here for a long time. Children are trusting. They recognise and respond to kindness and attention and they know when they are being fobbed off. In response they are generous lovers. Children don’t question love, they accept it. And they are not afraid – or shouldn’t be – to speak the truth about themselves and their experience. They don’t respect worldly power, they ask daft questions and are often totally astute about people – it was a child who said clearly that the Emperor had no clothes.

But as we are socialised we learn caution and we get hurt and all our child – ness disappears – and we are lucky if it doesn’t happen too soon.

For each of us there is almost always a little child behind the big adult front who usually has some hurts which have built the adult mask. Often it’s about feeling unimportant in some way, or unworthy of something whether that be a job, or being loved or even having food. Or the child may feel ignored or frightened. That child is what Jesus wants us to bring to him to be loved, the child who can, with Jesus, cry, be open and honest, not pretend to be other than we are. We come as children and children are included. That may be the most precious bit of us to God.

Later in the chapter we hear how Jesus calls the disciples his children – can you imagine the twinkle in his eye as he does this, the smile on his face as he lovingly labels them what they have despised? What does Jesus have to name that we despise in ourselves and need to acknowledge and bring for God’s gentle healing? Are we proud? Greedy? Dominating? Selfish? Whatever…the child can be loved and healed.

The theme of upside down inclusion goes on as Jesus meets a rich young ruler. Let’s pay attention to each of those words. This man was young, full of hope and energy. He was rich – and presumably had grown up rich. He was a ruler – again inherited, we presume. He was a fabulous young man, who Jesus loved. But he was used to power – note his question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do ……

Jesus in his infinite perception says to him you cannot do anything at all – and yet you have to do everything. Eternal life isn’t a contract. You have to come into a relationship with me which gives up all your attempts to control. You have to give up being your version of being adult and become my child and walk with me. And it’s not possible and the young man was sad.

Why did this lovable rich young ruler not want to give up his wealth? It may have been for very good reasons about the family. We can’t imagine him as a greedy or avaricious or anything else. Maybe he needed the money to keep his parents as they deserved? To look after his orphaned nephews and nieces? Or whatever. But there was one more step. Money is power. It lets us feel we control our lives, and Jesus says no you can’t come with me and do that.

This is such an amazing story. Two people who really like each other go their separate ways, Jesus to die, the young ruler to go on ruling in wisdom and in kindness and in power and without the kingdom. Jesus is uncompromising, even though he loved him.

How can it be possible to give up our wish to dominate, to be exclusive, to control, the disciples ask, under the guise of talking about rich people? The killer line of this chapter is here: the seriousness of it is underlined by the phrase ‘Jesus gazed at them’. ‘With human resources it is impossible but for God everything is possible’.

With God it is possible. The young ruler could have given up his wealth. Our screaming inner child can be loved. How often do we say to Jesus I can’t do that and it makes us sad and dissatisfied – but we don’t do it, because we want to hang on to our illusions of control, to exclude part of us.

I confess this is where I stumble again and again. I want desperately to feel that I’ve done all I should for God, that I won’t be scolded for not being perfect. There is a child in me who was always made to feel guilty about not having done enough – the expectations were always there. I’m a psychologist, I’ve had therapy had wise spiritual directors and still that nagging little voice says Jesus won’t love you if you don’t work hard. It’s not true… Jesus is always trying to break down our adult shells, to get us to trust him. With God it is possible…. not easy, but possible.

Peter, another man who Jesus loved, stands up for the disciples. I love people who argue with Jesus – Debbie’s sermon a few weeks back talked about the woman who demanded a crumb from Jesus…’’We have done that, we have left everything and trusted you’ he says.  And Jesus says yes I know and you will get your reward including persecution. I’m going to show you how to do that too, I’m going to be killed. This is the way – walk in it. And trust me. With God everything is possible.

Much of Jesus’ ministry was about showing the nature of the upside down Kingdom, through his way of being, because the disciples are so slow to catch on. Here he’s trying to tell them and they are walking to Jerusalem and he wants friends who will walk with him. And what do they do in response to the teaching about giving up power and control and being trusting like children? They have an argument about who is going to be tops in the kingdom. It’s unspeakably hard for Jesus.

So he went back, at the end of the chapter, to patiently and lovingly showing them how things are.. He gave Bartimaus his sight, as much as to say to the disciples look look look this is how it is. The despised are included in the healing….the kingdom of God’s love is for everyone who has faith, who trusts me completely, and I will exclude no one, not the clever, not those who think they are right, not those who have worldly power, not those who are marginal in society, not those inner bits of you which you are ashamed of. And in return we have to follow Jesus to Jerusalem and be willing to let his love really really hit us, to know we too are not excluded.

Amen

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Sermon for Transfiguration / Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Reading: Mark 9 – The Transfiguration of Jesus
Lord, I pray that the words that I speak, and the words that are heard contain something of your transforming glory so that we can join together in the work of bringing about your kingdom here on earth. Amen
In Mark’s Gospel so far, Jesus has been leading his followers up a metaphorical mountaintop to give them a new view of God’s kingdom which he was ushering in. However so much of what Jesus has said and done has been a mystery to those experiencing it. Gradually, though, their eyes are being opened and they are starting to get glimpses of things as they really are. Jesus’ many miracles and parables are starting to show them that he is the Messiah and they are beginning to understand more fully what that means.
At the Transfiguration, it is no longer just metaphorical, we are on an actual mountaintop. God’s voice confirms what the disciples are gradually realising: “This is my Son, and I love him”. Just like Moses and Elijah received their calling from God on a mountaintop, Jesus also meets God on a mountain. He is sent out to finish the work started through the Law and the Prophets. The transfiguration is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up in the transforming love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light. This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It’s the sign that he is indeed the true prophet, the true Messiah.
For us, experiencing the kingdom of God in Jesus shouldn’t mean merely a few minor adjustments to our ordinary lives. Jesus’ whole being was transformed until he was shining with the light of God. The transfiguration account invites us to a whole-hearted transformation of ourselves, so that we too can pick up our cross, like Jesus did, and follow him. We should be transformed by God’s light, until we’re overflowing with the light of the world. We know that, but do we really allow ourselves to be fully transformed into the likeness of Jesus? Are there areas of your life that continually resist full transformation?
Our Chapter of Mark continues with the argument between the disciples about which one of them was the greatest. It amazes us that they have spent so much time with Jesus and yet they still don’t understand the upside down kingdom that he has been talking about and bringing about. But, if you’re honest with yourself, do you really get it? Are you completely immune to the pressures of this world for material success and status?
We know that in God’s upside down world God is biased towards the poor. The theme of Church Action on Poverty Sunday is “Poor Church, Transfigured Church”. What can the account of the Transfiguration teach us about what we should be like as a church? If our churches are to be communities that put the poorest first, how must we change? What must we let go of? What sacrifices are we called to make? How can we allow God to transform us into what Pope Francis has called a “poor Church for the poor”?
First we need to see God in Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel the accounts of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration are two times that Jesus is identified as the Son of God, both times by a voice from heaven. The only time he is actually recognised as the Son of God by a human being is at his crucifixion. And this wasn’t by someone who had walked with him and listened to him – Jesus was recognised for who he really was by a gentile, a Roman centurion. And it didn’t happen when Jesus was at his most powerful. In fact it was when Jesus was at his most vulnerable – he had been stripped of everything and was at the mercy of the authorities. Jesus’ divine identity was most truly revealed when he was at his weakest.
We need to see God in Jesus and then we need to see God in each other. I think Emma reminded us last week that the Quakers try to see “That of God in everyone”. Do we really see God in those who, by the world’s standards, are weak and seemingly at the mercy of the “system”? Those people who are as weak and vulnerable as Jesus was at his crucifixion? When we see people in poverty do we see the face of Jesus Christ, and want to listen and learn – or do we see “them” as people who are not “us”, do we see “them” as a problem, do we want to fix “them” and sort “them” out? Fixes that come at cost to “them” but not to “us”; that change “them”, but fail to transform “us”?
Part of Church Action on Poverty’s mission has always been to give a voice, a face and a name to those of us who experience poverty on a daily basis. To create a space where there are different voices and people truly listen to each other.
I think we, at All Hallows, are not too bad at doing this. We have a lot of things going on in our building during the week. Through our work with refugees, through our café, and through many other things that we as individuals are involved with we encounter people different from ourselves.
In our café just last week we took part in a Big Conversation as part of the End Hunger UK campaign which is co-ordinated by Church Action on Poverty, and Student Christian Movement is part of. Emma, Sarah and I asked people to write on paper plates their response to the question: “What one thing would you ask the government to do to end hunger in the UK?”. The significance of using paper plates was that we were asking the government to “step up to the plate”! It was fascinating to listen to people’s conversations as they struggled to narrow it down to just one solution! You can see the ideas they came up with displayed in the café. It was a vivid reminder to me how much I have to learn from listening to people and learning from their experiences.
Have a think about your week ahead. How often will you make time to encounter someone with a different lived experience to you? Can you make some more time to sit and listen, maybe to someone who has had their benefits sanctioned or who has had to make the impossible choice between heating or eating? Can you make more time to hear people’s experiences for yourself and be transformed by them?
When thinking about the possibility of being a poor church for the poor I’ve been challenged to think not only about what we do in mission but also about our act of worship here on a Sunday morning. We like to think of ourselves as an inclusive church, and we try very hard to be, but how varied are the voices who lead us? Heston is very conscious of being a white male, although at least he is from another country and challenges other stereotypes of a parish priest! How many people of different colours, countries and financial situations are involved in designing our worship services? Is it actually possible to be inclusive for the person who struggles to read, while being inclusive to those who love the beauty of liturgical language? And what about being inclusive of the person who didn’t finish school, while being inclusive of those who like an intellectual debate about the finer details of eschatology? I don’t think there are easy answers but, to truly be an inclusive poor church for the poor, they are issues we need to be grappling with. How do we ensure we are a church where people from all backgrounds and life experiences can meet with the transforming love of God?
Instead of providing our own opinion of the solution, how do we equip and enable those individuals with personal experience of the challenges of life to exercise leadership? How do we empower them to make the changes they themselves have identified as necessary? It’s probably more costly, especially in terms of time which is a real challenge when we feel so time poor, but is it what we should be doing? Like Church Action on Poverty, how are we ensuring that we’re not just a voice for those without a voice, but that we’re helping those who are not heard to use their own voice?
As I finish I’ll leave you with some inspiring words from Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche which could transform us as individuals and as a church if we’re brave enough to follow them and really become a poor church for the poor:

“If you enter into relationship with a lonely or suffering person you will discover something else; that it is you who are being healed. The broken person will reveal to you your own inner hurt and the hardness of your heart, but also how much you are loved. Thus the one you came to heal will be the healer. If you let yourself be moulded thus by the cry of the poor and accept their healing friendship, then they may guide your footsteps into community and lead you into a new vision of humanity, a new world order, not governed by power and fear but where the poor and weak are at the centre. They will lead you into the kingdom Jesus speaks of”.

Lydia Groenewald

For further inspiration: ‘Poverty is many things’ by Tony Walsh

Poverty is not entertainment, it’s not noble or romantic.
Poverty is… heavy.
It’s heavy hearts and heavy legs.
It’s sore skin and hollow eyes.
It’s upset and downhearted.
It’s hunger. Malnourishment. It’s always thinking about the next meal.
Poverty is bailiffs, it’s food banks, it’s queues and lists, it’s never being told what you’re entitled to but always being told.
Poverty is being shown up then put down.
It’s missed payments and mistrust.
It’s always answering questions but never answering the door.
Poverty is hiding in plain view. It’s hiding.
Poverty is high bills and low pay.
It’s higher costs and lower self-esteem.
It’s invisible scars and visible pain.
Poverty is living nextdoor, it’s living on your nerves, it’s not living, it’s… barely surviving.
Poverty is… everywhere. With… nowhere to turn
It’s a gut-wrenching silence, screaming.
Poverty is depressing, demotivating and dehumanising.
It’s degradation, desperation and despair.
Poverty is feeling… worthless, it’s feeling anxious, it’s feeling excluded, it’s feeling rejected, it’s feeling ashamed, it’s feeling trapped, it’s feeling angry, it’s feeling fffrustrated, poverty is…. exhausting.
It’s not feeling anything. It’s… numb.
Poverty is… crushing. Empty. Lonely.
Poverty is cold. It’s damp. It’s ill health. Bad housing. Sadness, fear and human misery.
Poverty is ignored and abandoned. It’s sanctioned and sectioned. It’s late payments and early deaths.
Poverty is not something that happens to… “others”.
Poverty is our old people, our young people, our sick people, our disabled people, our mentally ill people, our homeless people. Poverty is people seeking asylum, it’s people who are refugees, people who are migrants. Poverty is over-worked, under-paid everyday people.
Poverty is people. It’s children. Babies. Not… “them”. Us.
“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” (Mahatma Ghandi)
Poverty is growing in our country. In 2017.
Poverty is many things, but
it is not
acceptable.

A collaboration between Church Action on Poverty and Tony Walsh

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Sermon by Richard Barton – 5th February 2017

Sermon 5th February 2017

Mark 6

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. Amen

“Sometime between three and six o’clock in the morning he came to them, walking on the water”

The sixth chapter of Marks Gospel is full of rich sermon pickings. The sending out of the disciples, the feeding of the five thousand. But the verses that spoke to me and that I have been moved to preach on is the fifth story, of Jesus walking on water.

The gospel tells us that after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus “made his disciples get in the boat and go ahead of him to Bethsaida which was on the other side of lake Galilee from where they were” while Jesus himself went up into the hills to pray. The disciples were clearly making a night trip across the lake, it sounds an unusual thing to do, but some of the disciples were fishermen and this was probably routine for them. Though is worth noting they were headed to Bethsaida which was in Gentile territory, not necessarily hostile but not a trip that was going to go down well with their Jewish Community on the other shore of Lake Galilee. But Jesus could see that the wind was against them and they were “straining at the oars” so “Sometime between three and six o’clock in the morning he came to them, walking on the water”. Then it says very strangely “he was going to pass them by” a phrase theologians have discussed and tried to explain away, though I still find this  inexplicable! The disciples seeing someone coming to them, or about to pass them by, walking on water are afraid and think it is a ghost. They are to use the modern parlance, totally freaked out!

So two things struck me about this story, about Jesus coming to the disciples. Firstly it is at a time when the disciples were under quite a bit of pressure, the very early morning probably in the dark, when, even professional fishermen not withstanding, few of us are at our best, and with the wind against them, straining at the oars, heading for a land that is foreign to them, something they would have uneasy about. Secondly, Jesus comes in a way that is, at least initially, not reassuring, but seemingly ambivalent, disturbing, frightening.

I expect there are some for whom the key message of this story is the miraculous nature of Jesus action, indicating his divine nature, only God can walk on water. And if that aspect of the story is meaningful and inspiring for you, that’s great. But for me what intrigues is how Jesus appears to be moved by love and compassion for his disciples after praying and wants to come to them. But it seems his timing is off, catching them distracted, and the nature of his appearance is not reassuring but alarming. And then it gets worse, Jesus originally planned to ignore them and walk ahead across the lake.

This has lead me to reflect on how Christ comes to people and to me. How this is sometimes we are expecting it, sometimes ready for it and readily recognising Christ’s presence in others. And how sometimes, Christ comes when we least expect it, comes and seems to be passing us by, comes and we are unable, or reluctant or afraid to recognise Christ in others.

I grew up a Methodist and for many years after I moved to Leeds I worshipped at Oxford Place Methodist church and for a while I was what was called a Church Steward, which is, sort of the Methodist equivalent of a warden here. I usually sat at the back of the church during services to ensure a welcome to any late comers, hand out a hymnbooks etc and one evening service not far into the service and during a somewhat lengthy prayer of confession that the minister was reciting a young man slipped in and sat in the same row of seats as me. As the minister continued to pray for forgiveness for our sins in a, even for him, rather more fervent way than normal, I saw a flash of something bright in the young man’s hands. Shortly afterwards, and as I recall even before the prayer ended he quickly left the church sanctuary. Something suggested to me that I needed to follow this up and I went out to talk to him in the church lobby. He held a piece of broken glass and his wrist was bleeding from a cut he had just made in it. I took him into the hall and inexpertly bandaged him up, noting the multitude of scars from previous cuts on both his wrists. He told me his story: several years ago whilst a student and driving recklessly, he had crashed a car and friend in the car had died. Since then he had been frequently overcome with a sense of guilt and had with a greater or lesser degree of intent, tried to kill himself or self harm. Walking into a service where someone at the front was on about how we needed to be forgiven for all the horrible things we have done, understandably set him off on another self-destructive path. In due course I managed to lure back a retired nurse who was in the congregation, who after tutting over my appalling bandaging, ensured his wound was better wrapped. At the end of the service, I was also grateful of for the help of a retired school teacher who, skilled in counselling also talked to the young man, called ahead to the hospital just up the road to organise an emergency psychiatrist and took him in. We never saw the young man again.

In very real way Christ came to me in that young man, telling something about the physical and mental pain of the world, and how the church doesn’t always respond as well as it could. And Christ came to me in the form of the practical retired nurse Margaret Wilson and Marjorie Cossey the reassuringly capable headmistress, able to take charge in a difficult situation.

How does Christ come to you?

Christ has come to me in a very vivid way when I was a student in Canterbury and joined a group from the chaplaincy to go up to the old St Augustines mental hospital, the last of the old and often infamous residential mental institutions in the area, where they held a weekly service for the people there, to help people come to the chapel and to share the witness with them. I remember sitting with a small group of mostly elderly people taking communion in the chapel and afterwards listening to a man who talked with tears in his eyes and recited the opening verses of another gospel Johns gospel in German. And that in that strange, uncomfortable, setting, something of the faith that of mans troubled mind inspired me.

How does Christ come to you?

I worked in the US in California for about a year and a half and during that time I got involved with a project to source food for a group of refugees from Central America. There was a need to go the big Oakland Fruit and Vegetable Market and ask the stall holders for donations. We went firstly with a slightly scary Catholic priest who would literally guilt the stall holders he knew or suspected were catholic lapsed or not (!) to hand  over a box of pears, or a bag of potatoes. Later on I took on this task on my own or with a friend, I hated asking, the stall holders often didn’t like being asked, but usually gave something. I would then head back to the community centre where I pooled my often meagre offerings, with lorry loads of oranges from the central valley, donated eggs from a local monastery who kept chickens, and various other donations which were then handed out to refugee families, and various classes and advices sessions where held and the atmosphere was celebratory and joyful. I continue to remember these days, when Christ came to me in an uncomfortable way in the grudging generosity of a stall holder, as well as in the bustling positive energy of the food distribution.

How does Christ come to you?

In our story Jesus gets into the boat reassuring the disciples. “Courage, It is I, do not be afraid”. The winds are calmed, the disciples are amazed. When Christ does come to us he will calm our fears, reassure us, and give us the strength to carry on, to row to the other side, to continue our life of service and faith.

But interestingly the story then really focusses on the disciples lack of understanding of what is going on and who Jesus really is. A theme we have all probably become used to as we read this Gospel. And that maybe in a strange way can be reassuring to us. We may miss when Christ comes to us, in our meetings with others and experiences. Particularly when times are difficult, we are going against the wind, in dark, going into strange territory. I wonder if the person or persons who were relating these stories to Mark the gospel writer, would say. My goodness do your remember that time when Jesus came to us walking on the water and we thought he was a ghost! “ Perhaps when we take time to reflect, we will see how Christ comes to us.

As I think Debbie said in her sermon a couple of weeks back, at this point in this story the disciples are yet again probably saying to each other: “Who is this man?”

Albert Schweizer was a German Theologian, musician, Doctor and indeed Nobel Peace Prize winner in the first half of the last century, he was a remarkable if also at times very flawed man but he also asked this question, who is or was Jesus and wrote a book the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Id like quote the very last lines of this book to end this sermon.

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

 

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Generosity is good for you!

generosity

 

 

 

 

 

Here are 7 good reasons why…

1. Because it’s what God is constantly doing

God loves us so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him may have eternal life (John 3:16)

God is a GIVER! And we are made in God’s image- generosity is in our DNA

2. Because your generosity bounces back to bless you

If you give to others, you will be given a full amount in return. It will be packed down, shaken together, and spilling over into your lap. The way you treat others is the way you will be treated. (Luke 6:38)

It is by giving that we receive. You can never out-give God!

3. Because you need to give, to keep your spiritual life fresh

Your gifts of money are like a sweet-smelling offering or like a sacrifice that pleases God. (Philippians 4:18)

When we cease to worship, we shrivel up spiritually. This goes for our giving just as much as our praying or hymn-singing.

4. Because Jesus had a lot to say about it

Jesus looked up and saw some rich people tossing their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow putting in two pennies. And he said, ‘I tell you that this poor woman has put in more than all the others.’ (Luke 21:1-3)

1/6 of Jesus’ recorded words, and 1/3 of his parables, are about people and material possessions. To Jesus, little else is so potentially deepening or damaging to our relationship with God.

5. Because you get to see other people blessed

Your generosity will lead many people to thank God when we deliver your gift. (2 Corinthians 9:11)

6. Because it’s the way to true contentment

More blessings come from giving than from receiving. (Acts 20:35)

Generous giving is a great antidote to greed and selfishness- which are a temptation and danger for us all.

7. Because it involves you in God’s work

Your heart will always be where your treasure is. (Matthew 6:21)

Giving buys us in (literally) to the work of God. Every penny and pound we spend can be an investment in God’s kingdom 🙂

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Sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 2nd October 2016

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 2nd October 2016

Readings:

  •  Psalm 8
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
  • Luke 11:1-13

Great is thy faithfulness O God: teach us to pray

As I began to pray and think over  this sermon I found myself  wondering a few apparently disconnected things about prayer…

Firstly  I wondered why, when Jesus’ followers were synagogue attending Jews, they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. What was it about him that led to such a question?

Then  I wondered why we all think we are not very good at praying. Why do we all make that judgement about ourselves?

My third wondering was about prayer and fun. One of the great resources of my life is in laughter. There is always something to smile about if you look hard enough. But my prayers don’t seem to  involve laughing so I wondered why not?

And finally I wondered about Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians to  ‘pray without ceasing’? that’s a tough one.

When I started to explore these questions they began to show themselves as connected things, elements of a picture, strands which add up to a sort of whole.

Firstly a comment on my own tradition. I learnt very early to say my prayers at bed time. My prayer, said after a bible story, began Thank you god for my cosy bed……Later I learned that we pray by something called ACTS, adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication or more colloquially wow,  oops thanks and please. That’s  what you do when you say your prayers. And that’s a fantastic model, to sit with God daily and hear about Jesus and pray.

Of course we know as well that we can pray at any time – arrow prayers, I was taught to call them, prayers of urgency at a tough time.

But I have – oh so slowly !- come to recognise that  prayer is not a once a day, or a tough time event, it’s not so much saying your prayers as ‘praying’. It’s not how do we pray but how are we engaged all the time  in praying. It’s continuous. Now and forever.

Luke reading of the Lord’s Prayer and Thessalonians 5 on pray without ceasing

Let’s start with the question about  why did the disciples ask Jesus to teach them about prayer. They went to the synagogue, why did they need more?  Heston illuminated me on this one. Jesus was a new teacher with  a chosen group of followers and it was customary for such followers to ask their gurus for a way of praying and living. They saw Jesus praying, all the time,  and realized that it was important to him and they wanted it too. So Jesus did. He shared  his own totally new way of relating to God and to others, to God as loving caring parent who happens also to be Lord of the Universe – or vice versa! – and to others as people who need forgiving  by us as much as we need forgiving by them and by God. This is a prayer of relationship. It’s not a prayer of asking to be helped to observe rules.

So relating is the first strand I want to offer about prayer. Prayer is about being every day and all the time in relationship with God who loves us, and wants us. Whether we are angry or sad or laughing or eating or watching a film or even making love we are relating to God. ( In the same way we are always witnessing to God in our lives but that’s another story.) Prayer is our response to God’s activity in us, his always-approaching ness, his constant desire to be in touch with us and to live our lives with us. Prayer is the language of love, how we relate to God  all day, every day. Prayer is about God acting in us.

Jesus starts with ‘our Father’, our precious parent, the one who gave us life, who loves us all the time. God always loves and is always present. This isn’t a new thought in the Bible: for example Isaiah writes ‘ I the eternal your God, I hold you by the hand, whispering fear not I will help you’ . We have a relationship with Abba. We call him dad and we fall at his feet in worship and amazement. Julian of Norwich calls it ‘ a sovereign homeliness’. We are welcome 24/7, we are never hated or unloved, but we remember the awesomeness of the one who welcomes us . Jesus is always here. (Finding Jesus book) We are always and at all times with God. God does not need us but he wants us.

When someone comes towards us we can either greet them or step out of the way. God is always coming towards us and how often do we step out of the way? God cannot change, God is always loving and waiting, like the father in the prodigal son story,  wanting to change us into the person he can see we can be,  to shape us as Jesus shaped people. He doesn’t hate us, he doesn’t give us marks out of ten for our prayers. It’s a conversation. We don’t give conversations with our loved friends marks out of ten for impressiveness. Be praying  without ceasing because you are always in a relationship and one side of the relationship can only love you! Also, unlike our friends,  God is always free! When we say  ‘see you on Sunday’ God replies with a smile ‘ok but I’m free now…fancy a chat?’, not next week or tomorrow or when you have time to compose your face into a suitable holiness. We need to attune our ears to God, to walk in daily comversation.

But at the same time our relationship is a one to one which needs to be developed. One of my questions was Why do we judge ourselves as being ‘not very good’ at prayer? Do we see God as ticking and crossing our prayers as to whether they are good enough, or timing us as to how long we take?

If we were to say of ourselves I’m not very good at being married’ or being a partner or a friend how would we respond? If we said’ I don’t really spend enough time with them…then we might ask what do you think of that person? Do you really have a relationship with them? If the relationship is to grow you might need to rethink the way you respond to them. You might like, in St Francis’ phrase, to think about offering  God courtesy – the courtesy of your time and attention, not only in passing but in a specific time which is for you to grow.

One way to brighten up a friendship is consciously to spend more time together, to say we value each other enough to make an effort.  The idea of ‘saying prayers’ is a bit like that.  it’s like ‘dating time’ – let’s spend every Friday night together. Let’s spend a bit of set-aside time with God to listen, to hear what God wants to say to us. That I think is what lies behind the idea of ‘daily prayer’ either personal or together as a community. Relating has to recognise the specialness of the person we relate to. God knows us – so our prayers are open and trusting.

Richard Leonard in Why bother praying writes:

It does not matter if we have developed bad habits in limiting prayer to only asking for things, but prayer is much ,much richer than that. By all means let’s keep asking God to keep changing us but let’s also give praise and thanksgiving, cry out in lamentation, affirm our trust and faith, express our anger, sing of our salvation and simply wait on God. There is a way to pray for all seasons under the sun

Which leads me to say that many forms of prayer are really tough because somehow they are introverted. Quiet, candles, inner thinking- it’s been described as the revenge of the Introverts. We need to affirm  extrovert ways of praying, singing, dancing, walking, laughing, alongside God and each other. Rejoicing in ways above a whisper!

Now to strand two.

Prayer is about remembering.  In the daily office we say the Benedictus, the prayer which Simeon prayed over the baby Jesus in the temple,  and the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise when she learned she was pregnant. Golly what a woman! Both of them and so many others look back to the blessing of the covenant of God with is people, which Jewish prayers did all the time – like Solomon’s great prayer of dedication for the new Temple. We always and in all things give thanks for our remembrances of God’s mercy and faithfulness, his everlasting love both in the past and now. We need to remember that this is always true.

When I was a psychology  teacher I found that relationships which did best focused on the positive. Remember and mention to each other the good bits, celebrate them and forgive the bad bits in yourself and others. In the same way we need to remember the good God has done us, in the past, today and to give thanks as well as sometimes being angry or sad.

And thirdly prayer is about noticing. On October 4 it is  Francistide and yesterday Heston and I renewed our vows as Franciscan Tertiaries.  Francis noticed the things which were around him. He had eyes and ears and all the senses finely attuned to notice God.

HESTON – the Canticle of the Sun

I love the sister bits of the Canticle of the Creatures –listen to the words –  sister moon and the stars, sister water, sister our mother earth. Everything is praising and serving God with us and we can learn from them because they never do anything else but be God’s creatures. We can choose to ignore our relationship with God – but it’s there, minute by minute, as the sun and water and fire praise God. .

And when the doors of Heaven seem firmly shut and God seems to be about anything but loving us,  we remember and notice. We remember God’s infinite mercy in Jesus. We notice the world around us in which the silent things are there doing God’s will, being themselves. We notice that we have breath. Like Job we count what God has done and simply wait. That’s praying, just waiting in faithfulness. And we all have to do it, however privileged our lives might look.

Finally to go back to relating – our relationship with God, especially our noticing leads to our responding.  I long ago learned not to pray for things which I could do something about. I can forgive, Jesus’ great central radical injunction but I can act in other ways to be God to my neighbour and when a need hits us we can pray – and then we can respond.  We can be God for our neighbours. We can protect through the prayer of action and we can comfort through prayer of action  and we can do so much more in response to our prayerful noticing.

Healing prayer is part of this. Do we really believe that we can make a difference? I don’t know how it works – I am a psychologist and I do think that much happens through our own histories, through the permissions which we give ourselves in desperation or longing. But one example from last Sunday- my ear feels better after being prayed over.

My last wondering was  about laughter with God. Do we not save up funny jokes to share with those we love? Well God is always with us and since we are made in the image of God, God laughs as well. Francis said that joy is one of our keynotes, along with humility and simplicity. I was very heartened to read this from Richard Rohr recently quoting Meister Eckhart, the wonderful fourteenth-century German Dominican mystic:

Do you want to know
what goes on in the core of the Trinity?
I will tell you.
In the core of the Trinity
the Father laughs
and gives birth to the Son.
The Son laughs back at the Father
and gives birth to the Spirit.
The whole Trinity laughs
and gives birth to us.

We are born in laughter and in joy. I think laughter is almost the sanest form of prayer, because when we lose the gift of laughter there is something very wrong in us. So when something funny happens that’s a moment of explosive joy with the God of all joy and laughter. We can share our funny moments with God as well as our tragedies and worries.

Prayer is relating, remembering, noticing, responding. Continuous actions, not static ones. Breathing to God’s rhythm.

And last of all, but not least,  I wonder what would praying, AS A CHURCH look like,  relating, remembering, noticing and responding in and to the life of God at All Hallows? If we had  prayer date times together what would they  look like? Would they be together or would some kind of rule help us? PCC prays for all church members regularly. The very last thing we need to do is find another thing to feel guilty about, but how can we encourage each other to enjoy our relationship with God together?

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Justice Matters! Talk from Sunday 11 September

Has anyone seen Sports Direct in the news this week? It’s been heavily criticised for the way it treats its workers here in the UK- timing them for going to the toilet, penalising them for sick days, paying less than the legal minimum wage. As a result of the media attention, Sports Direct have finally started to acknowledge some of the issues and have made a few small changes, although they’ve still got a long way to go.

But what about the goods sold by Sports Direct? It is highly likely that these goods are produced abroad. What do we know about the working conditions over there? Are the workers who make the clothes and shoes that we buy so cheaply and easily getting a fair deal? What is the environmental impact of the production line? However bad working practices are here in the UK, we know that they are even worse in the majority world. Just think of the horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh where goods like those sold by Sports Direct were created for us.

Sports Direct highlights so clearly that there is injustice and inequality built into the way that most businesses operate. But we can’t just blame big business without taking some responsibility ourselves – it’s our money that keeps those businesses going.

So what has God got to say about businesses like Sports Direct, and what should our response be?

Linda’s going to read from the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 58: 1-10.

The Old Testament is filled with God’s call for righteousness, justice and equity, particularly economic justice. Isaiah and his fellow prophets strongly condemned those who exploited their workers, failing to pay them their wages, or cheated people with the weights when buying their bread. The Old Testament prophets’ call was for fairness, so that all might live together in harmony and peace. A few thousand years on, unfortunately nothing has changed – we still get it terribly wrong and God still cares deeply about it.

Isaiah became very unpopular because his messages were so difficult to hear – then and now. He challenged the people of God by reminding them what God wanted from them and for them – and highlighted the fact that they were getting it so very wrong.

Our reading from Isaiah is concerned with “True religion”. It was a given in Biblical times that God’s people would spend time praying and fasting. However this passage illustrates what God thinks of a fast that is insincere and merely for show. Fasting and praying usually go hand in hand, so this is a challenge to us in relation to our prayers too. We are reminded that it is not enough to just ask God about justice and enjoy worshipping and praying together on a Sunday – our actions must then live out those words. If we are praying and fasting but it is not leading us to: “remove the chains of the prisoners; free those who are abused; share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and the homeless and give clothes to those in need” (vs 6-7) then what’s the point? Our prayers are just empty words and God’s not interested in those.

Like it says in verse 3, it is easy to think only of ourselves – am I getting a good bargain? Is this something that is going to make my life better, “because I’m worth it!”?

You might also be thinking, “I don’t have workers, so how can I be abusing them?”

However, I wonder if you remember that about a year ago I challenged you to think of every pound you spend as a vote – a vote for the kind of world you think God wants. So if your pound is being spent in a selfish way, without thinking about the impact it is having on the workers who are at the end of the supply chain you’re financing, then is your vote really bringing about God’s kingdom?

So we can use our money to vote for a better world, but we also need to recognise the systemic injustices at the heart of many businesses. This is not meant to be an anti-business sermon. Globalisation is instrumental in lifting many, many people out of abject poverty. But it could do a lot, lot better – if all companies were like Traidcraft!

Since starting the Traidcraft stall you have spent over £1,800 and as a result you’ve raised £235 for our church, some of which has been spent on keeping the church tea and coffee supplies stocked with Traidcraft goods. I transferred £55 to the church last October and this year’s cheque is for £145.75 – well done!

Traidcraft are currently campaigning on the theme “Justice matters”, recognising that God cares passionately about issues of justice and poverty, and that justice should be at the heart of the way that businesses work, but often isn’t.

Traidcraft believes that poverty is when people are robbed of the ability to make choices for themselves – the choice for safe and clean water, the choice of an education, the choice of protection from abuse, the choice of medical care and more. Traidcraft does business in a way that gives people choices they wouldn’t have previously had – by paying them a fair wage; paying a Fair Trade premium which is often used to develop schools and healthcare facilities and by providing safe working conditions.

However, unlike Traidcraft, some irresponsible British companies are abusing or exploiting people around the world and getting away with it. What (we hope!) they would be punished for if they did it here, for example, toxic pollution, forced evictions and threatened violence, goes unpunished if they inflict these injustices abroad. Recognising this, Traidcraft also uses its knowledge and influence to campaign for systemic changes in other businesses that don’t yet work in such an ethical way.

By gathering thousands of signatures on their petition Traidcraft hope to influence a change in UK criminal law. That change will make it possible for big companies who are causing serious harm abroad to be prosecuted, as currently they get away with murder, quite literally at times.

As a church, I know we spend a lot of time praying about the injustices in our world, but can we do more to be part of the answers to those prayers? Some of the issues seem so huge we feel powerless to do anything, but even if it is only something small, you can use your actions to bring about God’s justice, one purchase at a time.

No-one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

Why does justice matter so much to God? We know the story of the Garden of Eden so well, but it is easy to forget in the busyness of everyday life that we are living in God’s good creation, and that we are made equal and in God’s image. What does it say about the sincerity of our prayer and fasting if we directly, or more likely indirectly, wreak havoc in God’s world?

Sarah is going to read to us from Matthew 10: 26-31.

This passage shows the value that God places on even a small, insignificant creature such as a sparrow. “God knows when one of them falls to the ground”. God loves the cheap and the dull, the common and the small, and sees our flight and fall in every moment.

Deep down everyone of us fears that no one loves us, sees our grief, or shares our aching doubt and heights of happiness. But we need not fear, because while all eyes might seem to be on the grand and great, God is looking with love on the little ones. When we are praying, this is the first thing to remember – “Don’t be afraid; we are worth much more than many sparrows.”

Jesus spent a lot of his time with the “sparrows” of his day, those who the world thought little of – the children, the outcasts, the downtrodden. He told them that God loved them deeply, illustrated by the image of God even counting the hairs on their heads! God wants to spend time with us, and wants us to open ourselves up to the intimacy of relationship of a beloved parent and child. We can come to God in prayer knowing that we are deeply loved by God.

We must remember, however, that references to sparrows are not just to be read as a parable explaining God’s love for us. The sparrows are loved by God for themselves. In a time when so many species are threatened or becoming extinct, the brown and the drab, the unexciting and the common need to be treasured by us as part of God’s creation. They are our neighbours too – and we are commanded to love them.

When we pray therefore we need to bring before God the sparrow – as parable and bird. This passage is an example of quite how much love God is capable of – far beyond our comprehension and human limitations. We need to open ourselves up to that love, and understand our intrinsic value in light of that, no matter what the world makes us feel. God’s love is limitless, and will permeate every aspect of our lives, if we let it.

But God’s heart breaks when a sparrow falls. God’s creation and God’s people are threatened by our actions or inactions. If we are made in the image of God, and are God’s hands and feet, our hearts should be breaking too. And our prayers should lead us into action to do what we can to value all sparrows as God does and campaign to bring God’s justice to our world.

Every year we find our time at Greenbelt inspires and re-energises us to continue the journey of loving the sparrows as God does. We went to the talk by Dr Eve Poole who always has very practical suggestions about how we can do this. She challenged us last year: if St Peter at the pearly gates asked you to show him your bank statement, what would it tell him about what you believed? She went one step further this year and challenged us to consider swapping our bank statements with other church members to start a conversation. If we are demanding that UK companies be held accountable for their actions, whether at home or abroad, should we also be encouraging transparency in our own transactions?

I’ve read that the Bible mentions money directly over 800 times and makes over 2,000 financial references. Yet talking about money in a personal, rather than just a hypothetical way, is still considered a taboo in church, let alone in wider society. How would you feel if you were asked to show your bank statement to someone? You might feel self-conscious, embarrassed or even self-righteous. Do we need to let the feelings that we experience at this idea challenge us to make any changes?

Dr Poole also, surprisingly asked us to consume more rather than less, but to make sure that we are consuming the right things. We should spend time thinking about the things we spend our money on, and make sure that they are not damaging God’s sparrows. Our hope for God’s kingdom should drive our desire for stuff, not a desire for stuff being the source of our hope – hope should drive our desires, not desires drive our hope.

The term I like to use, and you’re probably sick of me doing so!, is “conscious consuming”. Do a bit of research, think through the life-cycle of the product you are buying, think about what happens to it when you’ve finished with it – when we throw things “away”, where is away? I believe that the time spent thinking about these things can be considered a prayer – not asking God to tell us whether to buy something or not, but rather to try to discern God’s view of something – is the thing you are considering buying or investing in valuing the sparrows in the way that God would have them valued?

While Dr Poole, and I, think that the small changes that we can make in our own way of living are vital to our growth as consistent Christians – living out our faith in every action, a contrasting opinion at Greenbelt was given by Bill McKibben, the founder of the campaigning group 350.org. He challenged us with the idea that if 3% of the word’s population became vegan – a big increase on the current percentage – there would be very little real impact on carbon emissions in global terms. However, if even 3% of people became politically engaged and challenged the current status quo then we would be able to change the world. Relying on personal changes alone is now too little, too late – time is running out. For other human justice issues such as gender equality and voting rights, there has always been a feeling that “we’ll get there in the end” – but climate justice has a time limit, and that time limit is getting shorter and shorter.

This therefore brings us neatly back to Traidcraft: not only can you buy some lovely, ethically produced things from the stall after the service, but you can get involved with their campaign which will require companies to take responsibility for their actions, at home and abroad. Both will help to prevent the worst injustices inflicted on defenceless sparrows.

You’ll now be given one of Traidcraft’s campaigning postcards, and a pen if you need one. Spend a few moments chatting with your neighbour about what action you will take in response to what you’ve heard this morning. And as you read and complete the postcard, offer your signature as a prayer.

Or if you’re reading this on-line, you can sign the petition here.

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Sermon 22nd May 2016 (Trinity Sunday) – Elizabeth Hall

Notes from the sermon given by Elizabeth Hall on Trinity Sunday

Matthew 6:9–13 (ESV) “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ ”
(ADDED LATER: For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen)

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to all Church of England priests in February, asking that around the time of Pentecost they should encourage their churches to spend some time focused on the Lord s prayer. I suspect that, like most of this kind of letter, some will have been acted upon with great enthusiasm and some will fall on stony ground. But Heston agreed that as part of our post-Easter series, we should give one Sunday to reflection on the Lords Prayer.

In their letter (Feb 2016) the Archbishops said: “At the heart of our prayers will be words that Jesus himself taught us – ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.’ It is impossible to overstate the life-transforming power of the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer that is reassuring enough to be on the lips of the dying and yet dangerous enough to be banned in cinemas. It is famous enough to be spoken each day by billions in hundreds of languages and yet intimate enough to draw us ever closer into friendship with Jesus Christ. It is simple enough to be memorised by small children and yet profound enough to sustain a whole lifetime of prayer. When we pray it with sincerity and with joy, there is no imagining the new ways in which God can use us to his glory.”

No way of going into this in any detail, but let’s look at just a few points:

– Abba /Dad – this is in the Aramaic everyday language of Jesus, not the formal Hebrew of the synagogue prayers. So it isn’t really meant to be a very formal ‘Our Father’ – more of a ‘Hi Dad’. Here at AH, we usually say ‘Our Father and Our Mother’, and that’s great because for some people, the image of Father is not a helpful one. For some people whose experience of their earthly father has been awful, then the image of God as Father can only be negative. For others, coming from the same experiences, the image of a perfect Father in heaven is very welcome. But our God is bigger than any single image pr description, and so we say Our Father and Our Mother – hopefully not forgetting that in the original Aramaic, this would be more like Hi Dad, hi Mum.

– Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven – the focus of the Archbishops prayers. Not pie in the sky when we die but something to be looked for, longed for, worked for, on earth as it is in heaven.
Already sung the hymn: The Kingdom of God is justice & joy

– Give us this day our daily bread …….prayer for today, on our notice sheet.

I ask for daily bread, but not for wealth, lest I forget the poor.
I ask for strength, but not for power, lest I despise the meek.
I ask for wisdom, but not for learning, lest I scorn the simple.
I ask for a clean name, but not for fame, lest I contemn the lowly.
I ask for peace of mind, but not for idle hours, lest I fail to hearken to the call of duty.
(Nitobe Inazo, Japanese theologian and diplomat before the second World War.)

– Next comes ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us’. The section of the Lords Prayer that I find most difficult! So I’ve really wrestled with it, in thinking about this sermon and the Archbishops challenge, – I’ve more to say, but will leave that for a bit.

– so the Lords Prayer continues. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. My commentary suggests that we need to read this as part of Matthew’s emphasis on the Last Days, the ‘eschatological teachings’ about needing to be ready for that time when everything gets worse, when evil gests more powerful, just before the time when Jesus will return. I don’t really spend much of my time thinking about that, but I do know that this prayer for support even when times are really tough, is one that has mattered to me down the years. It’s a good example of prayerful poetry that, once learned from saying it over and over again, becomes part of us and part of what sustains us as day follows day.

– and that’s where, in Matthew’s original account, the prayer stops. My commentary tells me that the early church had no less than10 different possible endings, none of which date back to this prayer in Matthew. But they have become an important way of ending the prayer, and carry centuries of weight and wisdom behind them even if they weren’t in at the very beginning. So I suspect we will carry on saying, in our worship, the sentences of acknowledgement and praise: For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever Amen.’ Amen

– SO – Back To: Forgive us our debts, or sins / trespasses, as we forgive those who sin against us.
My background as a social worker has been working in child and adult protection social work, last few years worked for C of E and Methodist Church. All through the period of the Jimmy Saville revelations, the growing recognition of abusive priests within the Catholic church, and the systemic cover up by the hierarchy – and then a recognition that exactly the same problems exist across all churches. Not here to give a lecture on this, but just today to say that the words of this prayer have caused such grief for so many Christian survivors of abuse. What do you do with your pain, your anger, the devastation and trauma which has become your daily reality? Then you venture to share some of this with a Christian leader, to be told that your pain is hanging around because you haven’t cleansed your soul by forgiving your abuser. The fault is in some way turned into your fault, the blame your blame, and not the person who abused you. Again, we’ve no time to explore this in any depth but I did want just to acknowledge the depth of this difficulty.

Andf course, the path to reconciliation and / or forgiveness isn’t always one just for the individual to follow alone. Sometimes, as for example after civil war, whole countries have to find a way forward. The South African Peace & Reconciliation process was one stunning example, but there are others, less well known. In March I went to the Oscar Romero annual lecture here in Leeds.
(For those of you – most of you! – younger than me, Romero was Archbishop in El Salvador at the height of military repression in the 1970s. He provided a voice for the voiceless, the poor, the disappeared and he in turn was shot dead at the altar of his church, in 1980. See short animation on front page of Romero Trust website 

Anyway, this year the lecture was given by a Jesuit priest Fr Francisco de Roux – although everyone seemed to call him just Pacho. Pacho is from Colombia and since the time of Romero he has been struggling to work for peace and justice in Colombia. Just to put this in context, Colombia in South America has the longest running civil war of modern times, now lasted 50 years. 222000 deaths, 177000 of these civilians – and 5 million people who have had to leave their homes, making Colombia the country with the second highest number of internally displaced people across the world. Pacho has spent his whole life as a priest, trying to maintain communication with both sides, struggling to gain support and justice for communities facing total devastation, and recently acting as one of the peace workers in the current talks which are inching their way, hopefully, towards resolution.

Some Colombian refugees were there at the event in March, and they were asking that impossible question ‘How can we possibly forgive the rape and murder of our whole family?’ Pacho shared with them, and with us, and now it’s on YouTube if you’re interested, almost at end – about 1hr 15 mins)
a five-fold path of forgiveness developed by a Colombian Bishop. This seems to him to carry the seeds of hope that we can at least start along the path even if only Jesus can reach the finishing line.

So, you have done me this terrible harm. That could be rape, murder, abuse, you name it – I am shattered by your actions. But I will say back to you:

1- I will not do violence back to you.
So terribly hard not to seek for, to long for, the person who has hurt you to suffer in return. An eye for every eye – and so on. I remember many years ago now, when our family suffered a terrible hurt, the worst sufferer was one of our young children. It took me months and months and still I wasn’t anywhere near recovering from the pain and anger. I remember driving on the M62, and Mike in the passenger seat asked me why my hands were clenched so that the knuckles were completely white! I confessed that I was envisaging strangling the life, slowly, out of the person who had hurt us so badly. After that, I realized that I was really hurting myself – especially my poor knuckles! I decided to try and hand justice, or vengeance, or retribution, whatever I wanted to call it day by day, I was going to hand it over to God. This was really hard as I suspected that God may be a bit less bloodthirsty than I wanted him / her to be! But I managed to do it, and found an amazing peace from the doing. So I can support this first step wholeheartedly, even whilst acknowledging how difficult it is when the wrong done amounts to a shattering of the soul.
2. I will do my best to protect you from other violence. I will not turn away from you.
3. I will try not to exclude you, but to include you back into our society, into my community. I will try to accept you.
And then said Pacho, the last two are very hard and you have to be a real Christian to cope – as if the first three weren’t hard enough!
4. I will seek to love you
and
5 I will die for you, as Jesus did for us.

I could go on and on about this, but will leave it there. I hope no-one will go away thinking I have trivialized the difficulty of this forgiveness challenge, but I also hope that the Colombian Bishop’s wisdom, in breaking it down to 5 steps, makes it all feel just that bit more manageable.

What an amazing prayer. At the Bradford Literature Festival yesterday, I heard the historian Tom Holland speak as one of a panel and was lucky enough to travel with him on the train back to Leeds. He spoke of just how much Christianity has to offer – and it’s all summed up in this prayer. Amazing! As the former Bishop of Durham said (with some tweaking!):
God is: he is as he was for Jesus, and he is now for us as he is in Jesus. Amen.

Elizabeth Hall
21.5.16

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Sermon 15th May 2016 (Pentecost) – Dr Jan Betts

Notes from the sermon given by Dr Jan Betts on Pentecost Sunday

The blessing of things

Readings
1 Kings 5: 15-21 and 8: 22-29
Luke 15: 11-32

Today we are going to do something which Heston suggested is  ‘God detection’ in our daily lives. How do we spot God in the everyday? How does the Spirit driven energy of Pentecost, the fire of God in our lives,  work in our material every day lives?

On this songs of praise day, I want to think  about praising God for things,  material things. I was brought up as a young Christian  to feel a fair amount of guilt around ‘stuff’, ‘material things’ which were made by people for people, bought in shops  and just part of everyday living.  I felt I shouldn’t be enjoying things perhaps  because  we had too much and there were poor people in the world, that sort of eat your greens because the starving children of Africa would  like them business, , or you shouldn’t be pleased with  your new shoes because you should be thinking about God, especially if you were wearing them to church.  Comfort was OK, fashion was something else. There was a strange mix in it, and quite honestly I’m not sure at this distance what it was all about but  it tied into a feeling that the things of the mind and the rather abstract spirit were good and bodily, sensual things were bad in some way. That’s an old mind body division which has been around for centuries, since the enlightenment somewhere in the eighteenth century.   I suspect that I belonged to a particular generation, or a particularly Puritanical way of seeing the Gospel.

I’ve been rethinking this recently, because it seems to me that this attitude, of – roughly –  material bad and spiritual good is  wrong for all sorts of reasons, but not totally wrong.

Firstly God made us as material beings and so our materiality must be part of the blessing we were given – as well as being part of our fallen world which needs redeeming. Jesus himself shared in that materiality. In my effort to decipher the sacredness of the world I need to explore all of it, including my material resources and how I relate to them and bring them into my Christian understanding.

Now one of the material things that it was always OK to give thanks for in my growing up days was what we loosely call ‘nature’.   Most of the time  when we think of ‘nature’  we think of  the world of living things: trees, hills, waterfalls, tigers and weather of all sorts.  And as Pope Francis says ‘the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning and revisiting those places does us much good.’

Praising God for this bit of the created world is great but when you live in an urban environment  we’re not too close to that living world on a daily basis.  Street lights and buses  don’t do it for us  quite like foxes and apple blossom.  But what that ignores is that really everything is part of creation. We really are star dust. And it may be that the church carpet was once part of a supernova, or even a stegosaurus. The atoms in it are  just configured this way now! I think we need to widen our ideas about what nature is and how we can be thankful for more than the occasional flash of a kingfisher  or red kite.

Not only are we stardust – or possibly volcano fall out – we  are also beings created in the image of God and one of our gifts is that we too can create and make things and relate to the things which we, as children of God,  have made as well as the things which God has made directly. We can’t quite yet make people, but we make many other things out of the materiality which God has given us as a gift to be responsible for.

What is there about these things which we have made, which we call ‘our possessions’ but which are gifts from God,  which can speak to us of God in our own little lives? I think there is quite a lot.

Let’s go to our readings. In the Old Testament we have the story of Solomon building the temple. The Temple wasn’t God and Solomon was clear about that but he wanted to build a beautiful place to honour God in, and give God a sort of ‘earthly house’ in line with all  other gods around, in Lebanon and Syria.  It was beautiful, gleaming with gold and other precious furnishings which everyone contributed to. It was something to wonder at in itself,  but Solomon in his prayer of dedication,  is very clear that it is an offering to bring the people of Israel closer to God, to emphasise God’s special love for and dwelling with her people. I’ll pick this up in a minute. Material things were used to honour God and to recognize a  proper relationship with God.

What about the story of the prodigal son.  How does materiality play out in this story?

The younger son seems to have seen things as being about exploiting his world, about buying friends, about appearing rich through the things he bought and valued. He exploited his father, his brother and himself. He used things as a resource to gain status, to please himself. He didn’t make them himself, or think much about what they could do except to give pleasure. He encouraged the divide which material things can create between the rich and the poor, which God wants us to break down. And it did him little good. I ask myself how I recognise any of this in me?

The older son, on the other hand seems to be  indifferent to the value of the things he worked with. He was angry because his father never offered them to him specifically – he didn’t take on board that as a loved son he only had to ask and he seemed to take no pleasure in the things themselves. They seem to be  expressions of a relationship  which feels a bit sour, and heavy  and dutiful. Is there anything of our relationship with God which feels like this?

The Father had a very different relationship with  his material goods. He took the things he had and used them joyously to express his love and his happiness at the son’s return. He wasn’t afraid of celebrating with rings and cloaks and other lovely goods, and shared them as an expression of warm relationship, of total love for someone.

So what are the principles here about how we look at the things we have?

They are to be enjoyed. I love Hannah’s  joy in her new bike! We are blessed through it. We’re not to use it to exploit others, ourselves or the earth,  nor should we  be indifferent to it. We can use it to make both beautiful and useful things. My Franciscan principles suggest this – not to exploit through materiality, and not to live with luxury or waste but to make sure there is enough for all. But I think we can go farther than this in saying that what we make, when we think about it, can point us to God, as Solomon indicates.

In my research recently I was looking at how things are more than exploiters for people at work and I found that things do a great deal, mostly around  relationships. I think these relationships are part of our God given joy in material stuff.

Firstly I think we can create things which give us and others joy. It may be a beautiful felt hanging. It may be a home made sweater. It may be a tool or a musical instrument or even a model train which we enjoy.  It may be a cartoon or a bike.  And it may be that as we look more closely at our things it can change our attitude. As I was preparing this I looked at my singing bowls and really saw them. I have three – but I realised thata I only need one to appreciate them. We don’t need a lot, we only need eyes to see and to honour. When we look properly we need less.  Burj told me once about how in his Indian community, there is a day when tools are honoured, when people don’t work but celebrate and care for their tools. I thought that was fascinating.

Created things can give us joy. But they can do more. They can  comfort us, not by their multitude, or by the way they mark us off as special but by the way they remind us of our value to others and to God. When I was talking to people at work they spoke of how they had small things – someone used her mother’s  hand cream at bad times at work, someone had a  beermat from a brother, someone had a cartoon pinned up in out of sight of others which lifted her. When they were feeling devalued, these things and many others reminded them that they were of value to someone. We are of value to other people and to God – as we look at special things, things we may have loved for a long time, we remember that these are gifts from our creator THROUGH OUR OWN CREATIVITY and they show us that there is love  and respect for us in the world when we are being oppressed. They are not Gad but they point us to God, as the temple pointed the people of Israel to God.  Some things point away from God: Daniel Berrigan, an American priest, who has died recently, founded the Plowshares movement to remind us to turn our swords into ploughshares, to use our materiality to bring peace not war, as the Father in the parable used his possessions to bring reconciliation.

And sometimes objects may hold secrets which we can only share with God, because only God knows what they mean.

Think for yourselves of your special things which point youto God, to your neighbour, which show you that you are of value.

Material things can work to remind us and show us the love of God, the love of others,  the delightful skills he has given us to work in the material world and how we can enjoy them .

Nowhere is material stuff more closely linked to God than  in the body of Jesus, broken for us and in the practical homely bread and wine which Jesus chose as the symbol for us to remember his love.  These are not God but they work to show us that God loves us and provides for us.  As we approach them can we look to see how bread and wine, material things,  sustain us and  feed us in every sense, literal and metaphorical.

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