Category Archives: Sermon

Sermon by Jan Betts 15th October 2017

Readings: Romans 5:1-11 and Mark 10:17-22

Holy spirit may all that I say and all that we hear lead us closer to Jesus.

Sarah’s lovely introduction to Romans last week told us that Paul was writing this letter to a church which was divided. It was divided between a group who thought that salvation came from obeying the law, as good Jews in Jesus’ tradition did, and those gentiles who thought that obeying the law, especially being circumcised, wasn’t necessary for salvation. Paul hasn’t met these people but he wants to try to sort out this dispute. So the letter he wrote to the Roman church, like the letter to the Galatian church in Turkey, was all about the question of what is the place in the life of those of who follow Jesus of non negotiable rules dictated by church authorities? Does that sound familiar? Are we ever oppressed by rules? I grew up with no putting on swimming costumes in the garden on Sundays…seems unbelievable now…but the principle was good, about making the Sabbath different. We have other rules now which may seem equally ridiculous in due course.

Let’s bring Paul to life. As Sarah indicated he was a passionate man and a clever privileged man. Those two things don’t always sit easily together. He could be bossy and opinionated, and pretty demanding. And he did things with enormous energy and conviction and love for the people he was engaged with.

Two huge things drove Paul. One, in the early part of his life, was his upbringing as a Jew, as a dedicated keeper of Jewish law. He was happy to hunt down and kill the Jewish Christians who were preaching against the Law as the one way to reconciliation with God. Does killing because you think you are right sound familiar? Obeying the Law was a tough call but if that’s what it took to be right with God Paul would do it. Like my silly Sunday rule what Paul was trying to do was good; he wanted to be right with God through obeying every law from Leviticus to Deuteronomy. That was exhausting: every day you were riddled with guilt and hatred and superiority towards those who argued against you. But what Paul knew very well, what we all know and what he argues here in Romans 1-4 and in Galations, is that keeping a set of rules is impossible. Rules are only there to keep all our base human stuff of jealousy and egotism and revenge and selfishness and laziness at bay, to let us live together in some way as human beings. We all disobey them, jump the traffic lights, whatever but they hold society in check. They don’t make us happy, or give us a reason to look forward to the day, they work to make us guilty.

The second absolutely related thing which drove him, the crossroads of his life, is when this all got blown away on the road to Damascus when Jesus met him and challenged him and blinded him and turned his life upside down. What he found there was an overwhelming freedom from all that bigotry in a God who was love, and who brought salvation through faith not the law to everyone. You can’t get much more upside down, nor can you eat much more humble pie than Paul had to do. Paul’s utter conviction about faith in God’s love being the way to reconciliation, his great goal, let him do some remarkable things. One of these was to not be ashamed, as Sarah told us last week. Paul wasn’t ashamed to say he’d been wrong! I’m reminded of people coming out as gay – learning not to be ashamed is hard.

This root of Paul’s passionate conviction about faith in the redeeming love of God as the only way, has to be in our mind as we read and understand his words. It’s of huge importance to us too as we examine our own inner convictions or hidden assumptions about our faith, for ourselves and others. What do we think is ‘necessary’ for us and others to do in order for God to love us and others? Only faith, says Paul. Will that shake us too?

Such faith is what brings us peace, the peace and joy which Paul never knew as a law keeping Jew. We too can be at peace with ourselves before God because God has accepted us just as we are through our trust in Jesus. Paul rejoiced for his whole life in his release from law keeping. Who, he asks, would die for a righteous man? Maybe someone…but Jesus died for us while we were still rebellious and uncaring and selfish and failing to keep the law. No more retribution, says Paul, skipping with glee and joy, no more of that thing I used to dread and used to hand out to other people in spades. Yes we have to keep the commandments – but we do it from love not from fear.Jesus challenged Paul on this but he challenged someone else. 

 READING Mark 10 17-22

This young man was loved by Jesus but it wasn’t enough. He knew how to be restrained and follow rules. But when Jesus challenged him by saying that’s not enough, you have to leave all that privilege behind and become totally dependent on me and the grace I bring you, then this lovely young man went away sorrowful because he was very wealthy. God isn’t viciously full of demands, except that we accept the love which Jesus shows God has for us and trust him and act accordingly.

And so says Paul, we have hope, hope which comes pouring into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Such a hope! Hope is in short supply often but we have it through our trust in Jesus through whom we are reconciled to God. We don’t have to earn it, just believe it.  

This hope leads to rejoicing. We rejoice in God’s glory and in our salvation through faith in Jesus.

But then there’s the tough bit, the bit where Paul has a flash of the old self. His nature is extreme – he never does things by halves.

Paul says we rejoice in our hardships, because they build us up and give us a ‘tested character’ . Paul knows this from the inside. He’s been through such a lot, but he rejoices in it because that’s the walk with Jesus. It’s not fluffy joy, it’s utter conviction that we are inseparable from the love of God in Jesus.

Rejoicing in hardship sounds like very muscular Christianity and I need to say that I know much less of physical hardship than many here, but there is a deep truth in what Paul says about perseverance. We lay the spadework of our faith each day, and I have challenged myself through this sermon to think how I can find something of God, find God reaching out to me, in each day. We are such poor creatures of our wills and bodies: we don’t do what we know we should and our bodies betray us very often. Habits are a good thing when we are troubled, habits of prayer and habits of knowing what our trust is based on, of rejoicing in the solid fact of our salvation. When tough times come the habits of trust can count for much. I’m reminded of Maximilian Kolbe who volunteered in prison under Hitler to die for a young man who had been chosen for a retributive starvation group – and how he kept the faith in sharing Jesus with the rest of the group. There were many people who died for their faith in the early church as there are now and we need to pray for all those threatened for their faith, for them to have an upholding knowledge of God as Paul outlines it here. What are our habits of meeting God each day?

We don’t need to be people of great saintliness. We just need to recognise and be thankful and acknowledge that God is with us in the frantic rush and mess of our lives. It may be a quick prayer for strength or patience or for someone you meet or remember, but Paul is saying that as we consciously bring the hardships to God it encourages us to see God at work, and to remember that however tough it is God is there at work in us by the spirit. It’s not Pharisee stuff, making a song and dance: it’s just each day recognising that like it or not – and we should like it! – God is with us and we can act in ways which reflect the love of Jesus. I recently was worried about my son and as I was praying for him I found myself saying ‘you love him more than I do – can we do this together’. Our great gift of God’s love expressed in Jesus happens all day, every day.

So we have faith in the one who died for us, who calls us like Paul to an overwhelming joy in our salvation through faith in him.

Amen

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Sermon by Sarah Derbyshire 8th October 2017

Romans 1:14-17​​

Mark 8:27-end

Today marks the start of a new preaching series for us. Last week we finished Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and today we’re set to dive into Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans!

Martin Luther wrote a whole preface on this letter, stating that “the letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament” that it is “the purest gospel” and that it is “well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word, but also to occupy him or herself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul”.

Luckily for you, I’m not going to make you memorize this letter word for word like Martin Luther recommended we should all do, however, if you should wish to take his advice, then I definitely won’t be the one to stop you. Instead, we’ll be taking the easier root, and introducing ourselves to one of the longest and most significant letters written by Saint Paul.

Saint Paul was a Jewish Rabi belonging to a group known as the Pharisees, and was formally known as Saul of Tarsus, who was passionate and devote to the Torah and the traditions of Israel. The Pharisees, along with Paul, saw Jesus and his followers as a threat, and this was so until Paul had a radical encounter with the risen Christ who commissioned him as an apostle.

Paul, consequently, travelled around the ancient Roman empire, telling people about Jesus and forming his new followers into communities and into Churches. It was these communities he would occasionally write letters to, helping them foster their faith, answering questions and telling them what they were doing wrong… and the book of Romans is one of these.

Despite Paul’s seemingly natural ability to create multiple Church communities, the book of Acts, chapter 18 tells us that the Church in Rome had already existed for some time, and that Paul had never actually been to Rome when writing this letter. We know that the Roman Church was originally made up of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus, that the Roman Emperor had expelled all of the Jewish people from Rome, and that 5 years later the Jewish community returned to Rome, and upon arrival found a very non-Jewish church in terms of custom and practice.

So, by the time Saint Paul writes this letter, the Roman Church was divided, people disagreed on how to follow Jesus and tensions grew between Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Christ. In writing this letter and in giving his fullest explanation of the gospel, and of the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection Paul wanted to make this divided church unified once again.

Both of today’s readings talk about being or not being ashamed. In Romans 1:16 Paul, very early on in his letter writes “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

And in Mark 8:38 we see Jesus telling his disciples that “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”.

The dictionary tells me that to be ashamed is to be embarrassed or guilty because of one’s actions, characteristics, or associations. It is to be reluctant to do something through fear of embarrassment or humiliation.

Being ashamed is a unifying factor, not only between these 2 texts, but also between human kind. Each and every single one of us experiences shame. It is a part of human nature that begins very early on in life, and stays with us until death.

In today’s 21st century capitalist, materialistic society, where the media seems to dominate pretty much everything, we’re often ashamed when we don’t have the latest smart phone or when we don’t have the latest designer clothes that are in line with the latest fashion trend.

In a society that tells us to reach targets and to compete for the best grades, we’re often ashamed when we don’t do as well as our fellow students at university, or when we make a mistake in front of our colleagues.

Sometimes, it’s not what we’re ashamed of, but who we are ashamed of. Most children go through a stage where they are embarrassed of their parents. My Dad was a taxi driver for most of my teenage years, and he’d often park his taxi right outside the house where the party I was at was taking place, and beep the horn as to catch my and everyone else’s attention, and consequently embarrass me in front of all of my friends and peers.

Shame is a part of the human condition and the very nature of human personality… but, what does Saint Paul mean when he talks about being ashamed of the gospel?

Well, the other day, I was in a bar in the Student Union meeting with one of my friends. She’s on the committee for the Christian Union, and I’m the president of the Student Christian Movement… so naturally we ended up talking about our faith. Half way through the conversation she said to me “Sarah, are you ashamed of being a Christian?” to which I replied “no, I love telling people I think I have a calling to the priesthood, I love sharing my faith with others”. The point she was trying to make and understand was that her evangelical church and the Christian Union she’s very much a part of are always out – whether that’s in the city or on the university campus – telling people about the love of Christ and the good news of the gospel… and when she looks at the Student Christian Movement and the more liberal and progressive Churches which I would naturally identify with, she never sees that evangelism in action – therefore, she had concluded I must be ashamed of the gospel.

I spent most of my weekend trying to think of a way I could best communicate that I am not ashamed of being a Christian and that just because I don’t stand in the street telling people about Jesus, I’m not embarrassed by my faith in the good Lord. Just when I was about to call it a day, the Bishop of Chelmsford Stephen Cottrell tweeted “we think of evangelism as one big scary thing. But it could be hundreds and hundreds of lovely little achievable things”.

So, to take a step back again, when we are ashamed, we are often embarrassed or humiliated by someone, something or ourselves, and we want to keep what has happened secret. If this is so, then the opposite of shame is pride. When we are proud of ourselves, someone or something, we want everyone to know, we want to spread around the good news.

Maybe, then, the answer to my friends question in the Union Bar when she asked me whether I was ashamed of the gospel and of Christ because I don’t act in a similar way to her, is that, for me, I show pride in the gospel through my actions, whether that is through ethical consumption, campaigning for what I think is right and by showing people how I try to live in a Christ like way.

So, to summarise I’ll use a very well-known quote from a particular favourite saint of mine, St. Francis of Assisi – “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words.”

Amen.

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Sermon by Paul Magnall 17th September 2017

Notes from the Sermon by Paul Magnall – 17th September 2017 – Creationtide 3

Readings:
Philippians 3:15-21
Matthew 18:21-35

For years I have been asking myself the question “How then should we live?” This is a question that has been attributed to Francis Schaeffer and he wrote a book with that title.

Maybe I am very fortunate that I have the relative comfort, space and prosperity that I can take time to ask this question. If I was worrying about where my next meal or drink was coming from or where I was going to shelter then I might not have the luxury to be able to consider this question.

Our situation, our surroundings, the politics of what is happening around us really affects how we answer questions such as this. When I was a young Christian we were experiencing the fear generated by the Cold War. Russia and China in the East and we in the West were armed to the teeth with conventional and nuclear weapons (we still are!) and each feared the other. Some Christians around me believed we were living in the “End Times”, at any moment Jesus could reappear or that those who believed would be “raptured”, caught up into Heaven to be with Jesus while all hell was let loose on Earth.

In fact there are people today who think similarly, that any minute God is going to wrap things up.

If you live in times like that and with beliefs like that and you ask the question “How then should I live?” you will get some interesting answers.

One answer is to live apart, to separate oneself and one’s community from the world, to form a group of like-minded people who see the world as doomed, as spoilt and beyond redemption. All you have to do is remain pure and wait for the celestial bus to come and pick you up to take you to heaven.

Another view, similar to this is to want to get the rest of the world ready to catch the bus as well. Evangelism becomes a major focus, you must try and get as many people saved as possible from this doomed world.

Or you may consider that you have your bus pass to heaven, when it comes you can catch the bus but in the meantime, as long as you don’t do anything majorly wrong you can just get on with living, anything you do get wrong you will be forgiven for anyway.

So what did Paul think? What was his situation, his surroundings, what were the politics happening around him?

He was living at a time where the Roman Empire was seen as being against God, against Christ – or maybe it was the other way round? Pax Romana – the Roman Peace that lasted for about 200 years was not peace as we understand it. It was peace at the end of a sword. Roman rule kept people in their place. You did as you were told. Pax Christus, the Peace of Christ, a peace based on love and sharing and caring, this peace challenged the Roman peace so much that Christians were seen as subversives who should be arrested, even killed. Paul spoke out about this peace that comes from the Christ as something that totally challenged the Peace that came from the Emperor. Instead of seeing himself as a citizen of Rome and all the benefits that came from that he saw himself as a citizen of heaven.

Possession of Roman citizenship was greatly desired. A Roman citizen enjoyed many benefits including:

  • You were safe from the death penalty
  •  You had the right to vote
  •  You had the right to make contracts
  •  You had the right to contract a legal marriage

(Of course these applied to men! Women’s rights were more limited)

But you also had responsibilities – you were taxed, you had to complete a term of military service, you were expected to contribute to the Roman society but as a citizen you could move up through the ranks.

There were a complex set of rules as to how you became a citizen. If both your parents were citizens then you inherited citizenship. If your mother was a citizen but your father wasn’t then you were OK!

Slaves who were freed could became citizens and you could be given citizenship as a reward for service to the state.

So when Paul writes to the Philippians and tells them that “our citizenship is in heaven” he is challenging the Pax Romana, he is saying that he looks to Jesus Christ not to Caesar as the one who brings peace, who brings life. Paul was saying that Romans had got it wrong! It wasn’t the divine Caesar who had the power to give life but the divine Messiah.

So how does that help me with the question “How then shall we live?”

Well let’s go back a chapter in Philippians and to last week’s message about generosity. Paul called us to love one another, to be humble, to look to the interests of each other. He called us in our relationships with each other to have the same mind set as Jesus. And what was that? It was not to consider himself equal with God but to take on the nature of a servant, to give up everything, to empty himself of everything. We are called to be generous, to give ourselves.

Here, Paul paints a picture of a community where people didn’t compete to be in charge of others, to be richer or more important. Here is a community of people who care and love for each other. A huge contrast to the Roman Empire that he saw around him.

But why does Paul call us to love in this way?

Sometimes I find it difficult to believe that God loves me. I know what I am like and I am surprised that after more than 34 years Catherine still loves me! I can believe that God loves everyone here – but does he love you more or less than me? The Bible tells us that God loves every single one of us – equally. But not just every single one of us, He also loves the world that He created, the world that He saw as very good, the world that sustains all life, the world that He sent His Son to die for.

If God loves everyone and all of His creation, this incredibly beautiful and intricate universe that has brought forth such incredible life, then why is it so hard for me to believe that He loves me. And why is it so hard for me to answer the question “How then shall we live?”

His love has made us citizens of heaven. That gift has given us the benefits of new life, of knowing His love for us, of the power of God working to grow in us the fruits of the Spirit, of love, joy, peace, kindness, etc. We can experience the transforming power, the healing that comes from being in a loving and supporting community.

But there are responsibilities as citizens. Unlike the Romans who competed for privilege and wealth and power, we are called to compete in caring for each other and sharing with each other. To bear one another’s burdens. To welcome the weak, the sick, the lame, the refugee and the asylum seeker, the person who is different from us. Why? Because God loves them all equally, just as much as us. And we are to forgive each other as He has forgiven us.

And we should also be responsible for our home, our planet. God saw that it was very good, and we have screwed it up.

God created the world as an intricate life support system and we are intent on wrecking it. The result is that the people and the creatures that God loves are suffering, are dying, and we are threatening our own survival through our greed, our lack of awareness, our stubbornness and lack of care.

“For all creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed”!

So “how then shall we live?” I think we should choose to live as citizens of Heaven remembering that we are citizens because God loves us so much that He sent His Son to die for us, our citizenship has been paid for in full. As citizens we have benefits but we have responsibilities. We are called to love, to be a community of love, and to transform the world with God’s love. So let’s look at how we live, let us examine those things that we do that that lead to injustice and poverty for others, that destroy the environment of ourselves and other living things, and let us find ways of bringing new life, of transformation, of regeneration, of healing to all around us.

For in Christ we know that this is possible.

 

Amen.

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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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