Category Archives: Sermon

Sermon by Rev Tony Whatmough 30th July 2017

You can read the notes from Tony’s sermon today on his blog at https://twhatmough.wordpress.com/2017/07/30/sunday-trinity-7-a-17/

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Sermon by Jan Betts – 23rd July 2017

Notes from the Sermon by Jan Betts – 23rd July 2017

Don’t sweat the weeds, just be wheat

May all that I say and all that is heard be guided by your spirit, God our creator, Redeemer and sustainer.

The readings today  – Matthew 13 vv 24-30, 36 – 43

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived with her mother and father in  a forest full of dark  trees, where her father was a woodcutter. They took great care of their little girl and her mother made her a lovely little warm red coat to wear. One day her mother said to her ‘your granny needs some food taking to her but I’m very busy and tired. I think you’re big enough to take it through the forest to her cottage  but you need to be careful of the big bad wolf who is always on the look out for a tasty lunch of little girls….’   and you know the rest of the story.

Why do we still read and love this story and lots of other folk tales? Do we hear it just to laugh at the bizarre fantasy of  looking out for wolves who may do  things like eating your grandmother and then lying in her bed while you chat and you only slowly slowly  recognise  that it’s not nice safe familiar granny under that bonnet?  Or do we read it because underneath we know it has serious things to tell us, the many unfamiliar faces of danger as we grow up ,  and about how parents need to watch over their children but also let them go? Perhaps all of these and more, including the  deliciousness of fear felt from the safety of your someone’s lap?  .

Such stories are ways of getting conversations going. They are ways  of sharing truths which are difficult if not impossible to define and are only grasped through metaphor or picture. They  are understood and felt slightly differently by everyone. The stories  have their power because we all relate to them for ourselves, just where we are at the time.

Jesus told stories which Matthew refers to as parables. He told stories partly because stories can live down the centuries and be remembered. Andhe told them partly because  how else could he speak of what the kingdom of heaven is like except through metaphor and analogy? The Jewish tradition of learning was and is to debate the Torah, to argue  about what it means, not make final judgments which say ‘this is the meaning and this alone’ and Jesus’ stories played into that tradition. In the chapters around todays reading Jesus tells a lot of parables about judgment, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, which sounds pretty odd today.  And talking about judgment is not very right on at All Hallows so we need to grapple with this story  to make it have any sense for us.  In Red Riding Hood  there’s a surface plot  which is interesting and then other meanings which we kind of get and guess at  but don’t immediately think about. Jesus’ parables need to be thought about like this.

Let’s  think about this story and why Jesus’  listeners would latch on to it and remember it? .

‘once upon a time there was a farmer.’ Ok. ‘He sowed good seed.’  Ok so we’re talking about a responsible farmer. ‘An enemy came and  sowed weeds’. Oh oh! A man with enemies..a fight..bring it on Jesus! And people would recognise that it was  a clever enemy because wheat and the darnel plant look really really  alike until they produce different heads. To try to weed them out would be extremely difficult.

So the farmer says to the labourers, don’t bother. When the wheat is ripe we’ll know the difference, and deal with it then.

Buzz all round the listeners: some saying yes, good thinking, other clever clogs saying rubbish, I can tell the difference,  the plants are a bit more slender, I’d get my  men to dig them out, don’t want the weeds taking the nutrients, if it was me I’d ask around and go and beat up whoever did it, ..and so on and so forth. The debate would rage because it was topical. There would be people with certainty about what to do and some with less certainty.

Jesus just leaves the crowd with the story. But the disciples  know that Jesus doen’t  just tell stories. They  recognised that it wasn’t just a story about a wolf and a little girl, oops sorry a story about a farmer with a problem. So they demand an explanation.

I was brought up to think that Jesus’ explanation  was only about there being good people and evil people and we need to make sure we are not evil.  We had to be wheat not tares. I didn’t think much further really, because I knew there were wicked people in the world.  But let’s pay attention to what’s going on.

I think the main actor, AS ALWAYS in Jesus’ parables, because they are parables of the Kingdom of God,  is the  farmer. What the farmer was interested in,   was lots of wheat, a really bumper wheat crop. He wasn’t going to waste time trying to sort out the weeds. He’d find those in due course.  So the first real thing that we might learn  from this is that the farmer isn’t interested in the weeds , only in the wheat. What Jesus wants from us is to be really really good wheat, to focus our energies on being fruitful. Are we just bursting with being the best kind of wheat possible even though we have to struggle with the other things around us?

Secondly  Jesus recognises life is complicated. Good things exist, and evil things exist.  We have to deal with wheat and weeds.

And Jesus says wheat and weeds  can often look very alike, or even indistinguishable. You can’t tell til they bear fruit. Jesus here  is saying who are we to judge?  The farmer will do that in due course because in the fullness of time it will show itself.

But we can’t quite leave it at that. We have to live in the world and make decisions about whether the wolf in grandma’s bed really is grandma or not, where we have to be careful of weeds. So Jesus gives us other teaching about fruit, and how to recognise those who do God’s work of doing justice and being merciful  and loving God with all our hearts. We need to look closely to see where the wheat is.  We  may not be good at telling weeds from wheat because of our histories, but sometimes we’re faced with unexpected goodness, where we can’t say ‘ looks like wheat, smells like wheat, tastes like wheat,  must be weeds’ . Let me illustrate this with the recent story of Angela Merkel who having been anti gay marriage met two lesbians who by their lifestyle convinced her to offer a free vote to her party on the issue. The fruit of the relationship was its proof for her. What we think of as a weed may be wheat. The Samaritan in another of Jesus’ stories was definitely weeds to the disciples but his actions were wheat.  And surely we can sometimes mistake weeds for wheat as well.

Jesus hated those who were weeds, who stopped people coming close to God. But I think what  he’s saying here is that  pulling out the weeds is not what we are here to do. Not pulling out the weeds in other people nor, really, in pulling out the weeds from ourselves, not as our main focus. We’re here to be wheat.

We  get distracted into thinking about weeds. Oh those weeds.   The weeds in other people’s lives and what they have done  and are doing to hurt us and others.  The weeds in our own lives, which we keep hidden. They become so important. But thinking about other people’s weeds may make us judgmental and scapegoating  and was what led Jesus to be crucified  and thinking about weeds in our own lives just fills us with guilt and anger and self hatred.  We are right to hunt out the  weeds of those things which would displease God: racism or casual neglect or greed or resentment, in ourselves or others, which eats us up. The story is one of discernment in our own lives as well as in the lives of others. But we fight the weeds not by focusing on them but by focusing growing as wheat.

And wheat of course brings us to bread and to the bread which was broken for us and to Jesus himself. We are to be as like Jesus as possible. The whole focus is on living a life which is truly bringing a smile to the farmer’s face, the Son of Man,  living with the desire to imitate Jesus.

In  Psalm 86 11-17 we have a reflection on weeds and wheat. Let’s listen…

Weeds are in the Psalmists  life in the form of arrogant men but in God’s scheme of things they have no place. The farmer is concerned only to help the wheat grow to its best and the farmer is a good one, full of concern and loving kindness and faithfulness and pity.

And we also know that we are redeemed and forgiven for those weeds in our lives which we repent of. That under whatever circumstances, we can share the psalmists knowledge that God is as he is in Jesus,  – tender and merciful, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and mercy, full of pity,  –  so there is hope. Let’s not sweat the weeds too much, either our own or others, but concentrate on the good.

The wonderful thing about fairy stories and parables is that we are all each one of  the players in the story. Jesus fought the division into sheep and goats. He knew that we are all of us the  weeds, the wheat, someone in the  crowd, one of the disciples, even the good   farmer. Take a few moments now to think about which of these players in the story you are intrigued by. Be that for a minute. If you’re in the crowd how do you feel? If you’re a weed how do you feel? What do want to do as a seed  of wheat? In the silence form your own prayer around it. Bring it to God because in all of these all God wants is to help us to flourish and bear fruit.

Amen

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Sermon by Jan Betts – 2nd July 2017

Notes from the Sermon by Jan Betts – 2nd July 2017

May what I say and all that is heard be blessed by God our Redeemer.

Imagine…you are living 600 years ago. You hear that your friend got himself a bit drunk last night and had a fight where someone got injured. The injured person’s mates are out to get revenge.  You’re worried about your friend. Where do you look for him? You live in a small village. There’s no A and E. So where would he go?

Well the  best place to look would probably be in church, because that was the safest place to run to from hot headed revenge attacks if you had done something wrong, and especially if you had done something you really didn’t mean to do when you left home!   Until 1624 – after sanctuary had been very abused as a concept –  churches could be a place of sanctuary for almost any criminal. The accused  then had 40 days to decide whether to face trial or to leave the country, with an escort to the nearest port. In other words you faced a civil court  investigation into your crimes or you were deported. The system was designed to  avoid the kind of blood feuds which could keep revenge going for a long time, Mafia style, where families took summary justice into their own hands as a matter of honour or revenge. It was about saying proper justice must be done. That’s not quite  what we first think of now as sanctuary, when we think of safety above all.

Because we are thinking about the roof a lot at the moment, and about what this physical building means, this church and why we are so keen to have this church,  I want to think a bit about sanctuary and what it means. I’ve been scratching my head over it  as ‘sanctuary’, especially as in ‘cities of sanctuary’ is a very on message pc sort of phrase. But I realised I have little idea what it means for us now, and I am still working it out so any response to this would be gratefully received.

Sanctuary began as two things.

Firstly, in the old testament God told his people to have six cities of sanctuary where people who had done something accidently could claim refuge until their case could be dealt with under the proper laws. It was exactly as in medieval times, a way of preventing instant revenge killings,  a way of containing blood lust, hatred and injustice, and allowing a proper investigation into a crime.

Secondly sanctuary, THE sanctuary,  is also historically a physical part of church. In the OT again the Temple had a sanctuary, a physical place, the holy of holies, which was cut off by a curtain from the rest of the temple. The only people allowed in there were male priests, who took a sacrifice in there once a year, as a way of propitiating God, and restoring the relationship between God and the Jewish people. It was a way of showing penitence, of placating God, and it was done in this secret way because God was too holy for the people to see. There was a real barrier – God was approached through the priest.  In Orthodox churches the sanctuary is hidden behind a huge screen of icons and only the male priests are allowed in there. And many churches in the west had huge screens between where the people sat and where the priest celebrated the mass.  Normal churches – and when was All Hallows ever normal?  – are built, at least in this country, in a cross shape where the altar or communion table is at the end of the long axis, at the east end. And all these physical spaces are called the sanctuary, the holy and hidden place where God dwells.

(But, as Heston pointed out, God was in the sanctuary but  inhabited the empty space between the wings of the cherubim on the ark in the. God is spirit not object,  God is presence, not threat. And last week which I sadly missed he talked about being still in this presence.)

So  ‘claiming sanctuary ‘ for many years was  about coming into the church, the place where God had a sanctuary guarded by men,  God’s physical holy place where God’s laws refused to allow vengeance  and  justice and possibly mercy were dealt out.

This  idea of churches as sanctuaries has been used today with varying results,  but most often the people being sheltered have been deported as civil  investigations have taken their course. The state doesn’t recognise any right of sanctuary in churches.

So much for history. How can we, think of sanctuary now? What’s a New Testament view of it and how do we work with that in 2017 in UKIP, Brexit, UK?

The most usual place for many of us in thinking about Cities of sanctuary, which are designed to be places of hospitality, safety and  welcome. It’s right of course to welcome those who are fleeing the unimaginable horrors which we know prompt people into leaving their own homes. Jesus has made the whole world to be a sanctuary, and we are  actors in that. And it’s also right to think about the justice of those claims in the light of a whole slew of other interests. But what does sanctuary mean to those who aren’t refugees or asylum seekers?

The writer of Hebrews is the one who spells some of this out. Let’s listen to what he says.

We’ve just heard  how  Jesus has changed the old idea of sanctuary as a place where only the priest can go, where God is kept apart from the people and their ignorance and their disobedience,  to one in which Jesus has torn down that  curtain in the temple which shut off the people. He himself has become our sanctuary.  We can take refuge in  God without the need for priests or for sacrifices.

But sanctuary is a holy place and a place where justice as well as mercy are important, and where challenge as well as love happen. You couldn’t claim sanctuary without acknowledging what you had done to need it. Of course you might need sanctuary because you are being attacked  ways you feel are unjust.. The psalmist knew this – his enemies hated him and he often felt it was without cause. But we still need to reflect, to be penitent where necessary, to talk with God about our need for comfort and for mercy. Sanctuary works as a place of transformation, to send us out with new hope.

Our sanctuary in Jesus  is somewhere where God’s rule runs and not the rule of human beings. It’s a space for healing where the human attributes of scapegoating and vengeance,  of pride and possession,  don’t prevail. And this it seems to me is where the heart of sanctuary lies. Sanctuary is the place where God is and where God’s rule is paramount, and where we face the challenge and the comfort of that.

Sanctuary isn’t just for refugees and asylum seekers but for any of us who have ever done anything to upset  our God of love. Sanctuary isn’t about not facing up to what we are and have done. Sanctuary is the holy space where relationships with God and others are restored and where  God’s laws of justice and mercy prevail.

In the sanctuary of God’s presence,  we are not subject to scapegoating because of who we are, whether that be issues of tribe or sexuality or education or wealth. We are not to be attacked because of any of these. And when we have repented of our reason for needing sanctuary, if repentance is needed,  and we are trying to walk humbly and rightly with God, the glorious thing is that these things we are ashamed of and have repented of won’t be raked up against us by God. When we accuse ourselves in the small hours of the morning of doing lots of horrible things in our past, God says ‘I don’t recognise this person you are describing’.  In the sanctuary of God’s presence, whatever others may say, repentance leads to a washing out of what has gone before.

Let’s listen to one story of someone who looked for and found sanctuary.

Knowing sanctuary is the opposite of being handed over to the hatred  of the world. Zacchaeus  sought sanctuary and was transformed by being challenged through accepting love. Jesus was handed over to hatred  and paid a terrible price for it. Sanctuary is the opposite of being handed over.

If we are building a physical sanctuary here which mirrors the sanctuary of Christ, then we have to sit down and talk about these things humbly and carefully under God’s guiding hand.  Being in the sanctuary together, being observers of God’s laws rather than man’s laws means we have to think about the way in which individual and community live as church. I am reminded of the Buddhist practice of ‘taking refuge’, of saying that you take your Buddhhist beliefs seriously  in the circle of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teaching and the Buddhist community. Sanctuary is part of community as well and we need to think about how we offer sanctuary as a community. In this building We are the ones who help to share the  idea of sanctuary, of a place of repentance, mercy,  renewal and starting again with a clean slate. We need to forgive those who have repented, to challenge those who need to repent, to love and care for those unjustly accused and much else.  We know that  the merciful God, took Her position upon the mercy seat, so that every sinner who comes confessing their sins, may receive mercy and pardon. We need to offer in this space what we have freely been offered ourselves, a place and a knowledge of sanctuary.

 

 

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Sermon by Paul Magnall – 4th June 2017

Notes from the sermon by Paul Magnall on 4th June 2017 – Pentecost and Environment Sunday (there was a PowerPoint presentation as well)

Reading:
Psalm 104
Mark 4:30-34

Good morning. No apologies but “there now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of…”

I hope I don’t offend anyone, but if I do it is not intentional! I need to point out that there will be political content and you will probably guess my politics (see the colour of the slides!) but I am not here to tell you how to vote. What I will do is to encourage you to join the debates around the election and to make your voice heard by voting on Thursday.

This Sunday is Pentecost, it is the Sunday when we celebrate the working of God’s Holy Spirit and, in particular, when God poured out His Spirit onto His followers days after Jesus had ascended into Heaven.

This Sunday is also Environment Sunday when we celebrate God’s Creation and how we look after it.

Today I am going to combine the two!

There are many images of the Spirit of God, a white dove, a wind, tongues of fire but one of the earliest is as breath. The Hebrew word is Ruakh and has many interpretations, is it gentle breathing or a passionate snort? Or maybe both?

The Bible talks of God as Spirit right from the very beginning – “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” Genesis 1:1-2

We then see God breathing life into a man made from the dust of the ground.
So the image of the Spirit of God is there in creating and in bringing about life.

The Spirit of God also brings change and disruption. In a story harking back to breathing life into a man made from the dust of the ground, Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the dry bones in the middle of a valley and they all join together but are still lifeless. Ezekiel is then told to prophecy to the breath and God breathes life into the bones (Ezekiel 37)

And throughout the Old Testament the Spirit of God comes upon people inspiring them to do great, crazy, disruptive things in order to bring people back to God’s ways of justice and love.

In the New Testament we see Jesus, full of the Spirit of God, preaching, teaching, performing miracles which change and disrupt people’s lives, showing and challenging them to live in peace and harmony, to stand against the injustices of the time, to love one another even if they were the equivalent of Conservatives, or Liberals, or UKIP supporters, or Labour or Greens, even if they were oppressors or murderers.

And then, on the day of Pentecost, more change, more disruption. The Spirit of God falls on the followers of Jesus and they go out preaching and teaching about the Good News of God’s Kingdom – of love. And the disruption was so much that many people “devoted themselves …. To fellowship” and “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” What a huge disruption!

Second Reading: Mark 4:30-34

I think that the parable of the mustard seed is all about disruption. No one in their right mind would have planted mustard in their gardens in the days of Jesus, in fact it was seen like we see invasive species today, I believe they even had laws about planting it. Once planted it took over everything, like bindweed or goose grass but possibly even worse! So when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed, was he saying that even a tiny little thing like a mustard seed could cause incredible disruption?

So, what about the Environment? It doesn’t seem to be getting any press these days! (Picture of Trump)

When God saw His finished Creation he didn’t just think it was good, He thought it was Very Good (Genesis 1:31), so much so that he took time off to relax and enjoy it!

But if I think about breath and creation now, what do I think of? I think of choking
– Choking on air pollution
– The seas choking on plastics and chemicals
– A world where animals are being choked out of existence
– A world where human beings are choking on the injustices that we impose on them.

Instead of a world where we have everything in common, where we have Fair Share (Permaculture ethic!), instead we have a world of greed and destruction:
– We make money out of armaments which exchange hands again and again and are used indiscriminately aroundthe world to kill and maim people and to destroy the environment that we depend on for life
– We extract as much out of the ground and air as we can with little or no thought of the consequences
– When we think we have got everything out of the ground we find other ways of getting stuff out of the ground, even if it is not economically viable! We seem fixated on Fracking!
– We continue to pollute the air that we breath even though we know that we don’t have to and that it makes us ill and it kills us
– We pollute our water with plastics and chemicals doing untold damage to the life in the sea that sustains us
– We continue to erode the very soil that we are dependent upon for growing our food
– And of course, there is climate change.
And we do most of these things, not through ignorance but through greed. It is done to make some of us rich but it makes the world a poorer and more unsafe place to be.

So, on this Pentecost Sunday, where do we see the work of the Spirit of God in all this? Where is His disrupting influence?

To find out we can stop and look and observe
– where Life is being enhanced and celebrated, where life is being breathed.
– And we can look at where there is disruption and change for the better.
– In Permaculture we have a principle about observing (which I have spoken about before) and we have a principle that we should “Use edges and value the marginal” – it is at the edges and boundaries that things happen, where it is most fertile for change. Even the Franciscans were aware of this – St Francis wanted us to live a life on the edge of the inside—not at the centre or the top, but not outside throwing rocks either. ( https://cac.org/at-home-in-the-world-2017-06-02/ )

So here are just a few of the places where I think the Spirit of God is at work, breathing new life and bringing about change and disruption for the better:
– David Attenborough, educating us about the wonders and the fragility of Nature and that we are part of Nature
– Children growing up and learning about nature
– Caroline Lucas and the Green Party, a smallish voice speaking out for the Common Good
– Green Peace, protesting against the damage that we do to the planet
– Protestors such as the Anti-Fracking groups who make us aware of the damage Fracking causes and the fact that we don’t need to do it.
– People growing their own food in ways that work with Nature rather than against it eg Agroforestry and Forest Gardens
– People helping to reclaim the deserts and marginal lands that we have abused
– The Permaculture movement
– Climate change talks and agreements
– Emanuel Macron and other politicians who stand up for the planet
– And there are loads more! So be encouraged!

So, what little things can we do that might be part of God’s ongoing work in creation, of building God’s Kingdom of love and justice, Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share?

Every little thing helps. I’m going to suggest a few simple and relatively easy things that came off the top of my head
– A vote on Thursday (assuming that you are voting for the correct party!)
– Using a bar of soap instead of plastic bottles of liquid soap – this reduces packaging, waste, weight of material transported, and natural soaps will be even more environmentally friendly. I use soap made from goats milk!
– walking or cycling or using public transport instead of driving, or even car sharing
– growing some of your own food, even if it is just a few strawberries

Over to you – I challenge you to think of something, little or big, that you can commit to doing over the next year, write it down on a piece of paper and then come and put it on the balance at the front. Let’s see if we can tip the balance!

References:
– For natural soap bars I use http://itsbaaathtime.co.uk/ in particular I like the Chunky Baa
– Toothbrushes – if you google bamboo toothbrush you will find many suppliers. Look for one who supplies them with biodegradable bristles then you can throw the whole thing into the compost bin when you finish with it.
– Journey of a toothbrush video – https://youtu.be/Pd_C3YK3kI4
 Permaculture Principles

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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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