Category Archives: Sermon

Sermon by Nigel Greenwood 28 January 2018

Notes from the Sermon by Nigel Greenwood 28th January 2018

Readings

James 2:14-26 and Matthew 25:31-40

Every time I approach Leeds coming from over the Pennines, just as the M-621 dips around Cottingley a spectacular vista opens up of our great city – a view which surely inspires all who pass this way.  Having been born and bred in Leeds, I feel totally at home here – it’s widely regarded as a great place to live, study, work, shop and relax.  Indeed, there was once a poster publicising our city taken from that very spot on the motorway, but with a caption headed: “Leeds – the promised land” and as the view unfolds, I am always drawn to the potential arrogance of this perspective – yes, we celebrate its prosperity, its diversity, its culture –  but behind this facade lies the reality for many of its citizens, who do not share its success.  Speaking at Diocesan Synod several years ago, a leader of the council referred to areas in which “conspicuous wealth confronts abject poverty” and sadly this remains today.  However, Leeds is also a city of sanctuary, a city of harmony, one where people of all faiths or none are fully committed to working for the common good.  It is surely this which makes Leeds such a great city, with a real sense of community, and I’ll share some stories from our city a little later.

It would be easy to say that Leeds is blessed with many organisations providing care and support for those in need – but even as I was writing these words, the realisation of an even greater blessing dawned on me if they were not actually required at all.  However, reality returned as I reflected further, and of course so many people and groups are regularly involved in their local communities and often city-wide, two local examples being Headingley Street Angels and the Wydan Night Shelter.

After our Christmas and New Year celebrations, it is fitting at this time of year that our thoughts are drawn to people whose needs remain throughout the year, as churches across the land mark today as Homelessness Sunday, followed in two weeks by Poverty Action Sunday.  Raising awareness among the wider community is of course important – but as Christians it is so much more – an integral and vital part of living the Gospel imperative to love our neighbour.

Our epistle reading from the letter of James makes it absolutely clear that both faith and works are inextricably linked, using examples to show how they go together and concluding: “just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead”;  so putting faith into practice is as much an essential part of being a Christian as our devotions and Mother Teresa tells us: “what matters most is the gift of yourself; the degree of love you put into everything you do”.

Clearly, all this echoes our Gospel reading, from a time of intense teaching by Christ, which underpins an obligation to social justice as central to our faith.  There is absolute clarity about what expected of us – but it goes much deeper in the last few words, saying: “truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.  These words may challenge us, but it seems to me that they make two particular points – firstly we should treat everyone equally, but then give priority to those with the greatest needs. They leave us in no doubt about our duty to provide care for the most vulnerable members of our community. As ever, Christ’s teaching gives us much to reflect on and pray about – a vital part of our spiritual growth.

As we consider our priorities, they give us a sense of focus, purpose and direction.  This simple word “least” draws us to use our time, energy, resources and gifts where they can be most effective – where the need is greatest.  It moves us through concepts such as equal opportunity and parity of esteem – important as they are – to a deeper understanding of people and recognition that, just as we receive God’s unconditional love we must reflect this through how we care for others.  In this way, any boundary between faith and works disappears as they merge into simply living the Gospel. Kathy Galloway, former leader of the Iona Community and now head of Christian Aid Scotland observed “for churches, Jesus initiated the act of making visible those who were overlooked.”

In the version of the bible which I use at home, our Gospel passage is headed “the judgement of the nations” – as relevant today as during Christ’s earthly ministry.  We often judge society by its economic success and affluence, but our Gospel calls us to use a different standard, based on how it supports and gives a voice to those without power – echoing the statement by Jesus earlier in Matthew’s Gospel: “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”.

On your website, I read with interest the notes from Jon Dorset’s sermon last Sunday and similarly I’m not trying to make any party-political point, but divisions in society are daily evident across the land – remains of Grenfell Tower lying within the affluence of Kensington and Chelsea; redundant workers trying to support their families when companies go bankrupt; conspicuous wealth still confronting abject poverty across the River Aire in Leeds.  Have you noticed how the political catchphrase “we’re all in it together” seems to have fallen into oblivion ?

On the BBC news only a couple of days ago, it was reported that homelessness in England is now at its highest level since figures were counted, approaching 5,000 people – but the real number may be higher, for homeless people are not always rough-sleepers, and even those without anywhere to stay often avoid sleeping on the streets for fear of being moved-on or attacked.  Our Gospel clearly identified needs – food, drink, clothing, care for the sick or prisoners, and we could add others such as shelter, warmth and company ….. but the vital question is surely how to respond, and perhaps we could start by considering if we might be part of the problem before moving towards solutions.

On radio before the memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of “the value of the human being”.  This surely compels us as Christians to follow Mother Theresa and give of ourselves, often by simply being ourselves.

I recall a conversation with a Big Issue vendor in Leeds several years ago – as usual, he asked me to buy a copy, but when I replied sorry mate, but I’ve already got this weeks, he simply responded “no problem – have a nice day” and as I said “you too” I could not help but wonder if his day would be anything but nice. However, in a longer chat with a vendor on another occasion, I was humbled to be told: “that’s fine – you’ve acknowledged me and talked to me – so many people just walk on and ignore me”.  A simple exchange of words, but they left the vendor feeling valued as a human being.

During a retreat on the streets, in which participants had only 50p. for the day, a vicar from a village in the dales had an even more profound exchange with a vendor.  When asked to buy a copy, she said she didn’t have enough money – bringing a quick response: “that’s what they all say !”  However, during the conversation which followed, she explained about her retreat and the vendor sold his last copy – saying to her “come on, then – I’ll buy you cup of tea”.  This gives a powerful insight into the human need to give as well as receive – surely based on our shared humanity.

David Rhodes, author of the iconic book “Faith in Dark Places”, tells of a conversation with a rough sleeper in the early hours of a cold night near the markets, who told him: “many of us on the streets believe in God, you know – there’s often no-one else to talk with in the darkness”.

Although these stories are set in Leeds, they could take place anywhere in the country because homelessness is not confined to large cities.  In a wider context, Housing Justice is the national voice of Christian action to prevent homelessness and bad housing, believing that human dignity is challenged by the lack of a decent home, but recognising the worth of each individual and caring for the whole person.

Through the vital gift of ourselves we can affirm vulnerable people, so often ignored or rejected – valuing them as human beings, our sisters and brothers in Christ … for through our shared humanity, when it comes to the overarching care of our loving God, we really are all in it together … Amen

Sermon by Jon Dorsett 21 January 2018

Notes from the sermon by Jon Dorsett on Sunday 21 January 2018

Readings:
Luke 4:1-20

It doesn’t seem that long ago since the last election; and we can hope it won’t be that long until the next! The promises and pledges made at election time are designed to appeal to the segment of the public that each party hope to garner support from, as well as hopefully push forward some of their own particular ideology.

In the election last year we saw the Conservatives proposed policy on elderly care, (requiring those with assets over £100k being required to sell them to pay for their own care needs). A policy that could have been said to have some merit, if it meant those who have accumulated enough wealth to support themselves did so in order for the savings to be used to support those in need. However, the policy was quickly labelled the ‘dementia tax’, and with a massive backlash from the very middling sections of society that they hoped to win over, the Conservatives had to quickly backpedal, (and potentially lost their commons majority as a direct result). Labour on the other hand produced what one Guardian columnist described as ‘a cornucopia of delights’, promising increased funding for the NHS, A national care service, renationalisation of the railways, a lifelong education service free at the point of use, and capping inequality in pay. All paid for with modest increases in corporation tax and a small percentage extra for higher earners. And Labour did see a groundswell of support, particularly among younger voters who didn’t have the vested interests of those who over their lifetime have accumulated wealth and security from the status quo.

But this is a sermon, not a party political broadcast. So what is my point?

Political parties, whatever their colour, always have to take into consideration the interests of their voter demographic when shaping their potential policies and designing their manifestos. If they get it wrong, as undoubtedly the Conservatives did with the ‘dementia tax’ it can cost them dearly. If they can appeal to, and even shape the mood of the times, they stand a chance of being able to implement some of their proposed ideas.

In the second section from Luke that we’ve heard today, a section commonly referred to as the Nazareth Manifesto, we see that Jesus doesn’t care whether his message appeals to his audience. His message is not about seeking power for himself, or for anyone else, it is about God’s justice and true human flourishing for every person and all of creation. It is in the interests of the whole, and not a particular segment of society that this manifesto is concerned.

The word ‘Manifesto’ derives from the Latin manifestus which means ‘obvious, conspicuous, plain to see’. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary this Latin word is ultimately drawn from two other words ‘Manus’ meaning ‘hand’ and ‘infestus’ meaning ‘hostile’. It therefore is an open display of one’s intention.

So what was Jesus’s intention, and why at the end of this passage did his audience attempt to kill him?

Well firstly it’s worth noting that Jesus is quoting a passage from Isaiah that would have been very familiar to his audience in Nazareth. The passage was routinely drawn upon by the Jewish communities of the day to find reassurance and comfort in the justice God would bring. Freedom from being prisoners to their oppressors, whether the Romans, or the domestic authorities that colluded with the Romans. Significantly however, Jesus leaves off the end of this quotation which after proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord continues ‘and the day of vengeance of our God’. The original passage in Isaiah appealed not only to the righteousness and restoration of justice to the people, but also to their wish to see their enemies suffer retribution.

Jesus is having none of this, and his omission of the line of promised vengeance would have sounded alarm bells for his audience. Why isn’t he giving us the best bit, the bit we’re waiting for? It’s like watching a Hollywood film where the bad guy doesn’t get his comeuppance at the end – we’re programmed to want to see the narrative of redemptive violence played out.

So the Nazarenes were ‘amazed’ and shocked that this very nice young man who was known to them, would not share in their deeply held need to see their enemies punished. ‘Isn’t this Josephs Boy?’ they say. He’s one of us, why’s he siding with them? Why’s he not joining with us in asserting our righteousness and importance and ultimate vindication?

So Jesus goes on to say that no prophet is accepted by his own people, and cites the examples of Elijah and Elisha’s message only being heard and understood by outcasts, enemies and foreigners. He rams home the message that what he is speaking is not designed to appeal to their social and psychological need for being ‘better than, and righteous’, for creating divides of us and them, but was about the truly inclusive liberation that God’s justice and reign would bring, where vengeance and othering was no longer needed, but where all could be free from oppression and free from demonising the other to feel better about themselves.

Clearly the Nazarenes were not ready to hear this message and so they attempt to thrown Jesus off a cliff (a fate reserved for those who blaspheme).

I was trying to think about where we see similar reactions today? Where do we see such violent push back when a group’s privilege and sense of superiority is unveiled?
Metoo?
Black Lives Matter?
Trans rights?
Compassion for Refugees and immigrants?
Support for those in Poverty?
Whenever there is a movement that threatens the predominantly white patriarchal culture, there is a backlash of vitriol from those that benefit from that culture.
But lest we begin to ‘other’ straight white males, Let me just return to the section where Jesus is quoting from Isaiah.

There’s an interesting textual device being used here by Luke. Something called a Chiastic structure. We don’t immediately notice things like these when we read the bible in the form it is presented today, but as an literary device it serves a purpose to point the listener/ reader towards a specific point in the text. And it’s worth taking note of.

The lines mirror each other and point to the central verse…

on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.
He stood up to read,
    and the scroll
    of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.
    Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
        “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, he has anointed me
            to proclaim good news to the poor.
                freedom for the prisoners
                    and recovery of sight for the blind,
                to set the oppressed free,
            to proclaim
        the year of the Lord’s favor.”
    Then he rolled up the scroll,
    gave it back to the attendant
and sat down.
The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.

Now it might seem to stretch the idea in places, but this structure is pointing to the rather odd verse about recovery of sight to the blind sandwiched between clear refences to the Levitical laws of Jubilee.

Jubilee for anyone not familiar with it, was a social structure codified in Israel’s past to ensure that no one could amass wealth and power at the expense of others in the nation. Every 49 year there was a Jubilee year when slaves were freed, land returned to those who originally held it, and debts were written off.

There is very little evidence of this ever actually being lived out in reality, but the intention and the understanding was that the earths resources belonged to God to be equally shared, and that a good society was one that didn’t allow some to become wealthy and powerful at the expense of others.

So Jesus is announcing his identification with the jubilee message as what his ministry is all going to be about.

But this is not a communist revolution.

The phrase about recovery of sight to the blind does not appear in the original Hebrew version of the Isaiah verse that Luke has Jesus quoting. Leading some commentators to believe that Luke has used this to make a point about Jesus’s ministry.

It IS about the inauguration of the Jubilee, but this is done not by seizing power, subduing an enemy, and the previously disenfranchised taking the place of the powerful, but by helping those who are not seeing whole to recover their sight. Those whose wealth, power, position make them feel ‘better- than’ or more righteous than others who are poor, weak, vulnerable, foreigner, or other. Helping those who hold themselves in higher regard than other people, realise that we are all human, that we all belong to the same family, to the same creation that belongs to God. That we no more deserve the wealth and privileges we have than those who are destitute and disenfranchised deserve the situation they are in. That we are all equal, and that we should treat each other as equal, as loved beautiful creations of God, both at an individual level, but also in the way we order our society.

But this message of recovery of sight, was and is, not only for the wealthy super-rich. It is meant for all of us. For the Nazarenes, it was their sense of righteousness that Jesus’ was targeting. The belief that because they believed the ‘right things’ that because they belonged to the right people group, that God would save them and smash their enemies with vengeance.

And it’s not nice to hear that we are part of the problem as well as part of the solution. That within each of us there is the seed of superiority, as well as the potential for genuine humility and community with all. (an interesting aside, the word humility comes from humus, meaning of the earth – as does the word human/ Adam – of the earth. We are all made of the same stuff, we are all connected to and part of the living system of creation).

It is not nice to realise that we are all guilty of othering, of thinking (consciously or unconsciously) that we are better than the next person. I’m cleverer than them. My job is more important than theirs. My right to do this is more important than their right to do that. I am wealthier than them, I’ve worked hard for it, I deserve it. I’m better than they are because I give to charity. I’m on the side of the righteous and they’re on the side of the wicked.

We all do it. I know I do. There is a time to polarise in trying to create positive change, but this has to come with the understanding that we are all part of the solution, and all part of the problem. We are all valuable human beings. We are all equally wonderful. You, me, Theresa May, even Donald Trump. Treating others as we would ourselves like to be treated, goes in all directions. And is as important structurally as it is socially.

Next week the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission is coming to a close with a large public event at the City museum. Over the last 2 years the Poverty truth commission has brought people with lived experience of poverty in Leeds together with civic and business leaders in the city, to build relationships and explore ways to tackle poverty together in Leeds. At the closing event the commissioners will be presenting their Manifesto to the city – or rather their HuManifesto for the city. The biggest finding of the poverty truth commission, and it’s challenge to the city, is that it’s the de-humanising effect of poverty and the systems and stereotypes that cause de-humanising that are the biggest problem. One of the Commissioners, Geoff from Seacroft, put it succinctly when he said ‘People think poverty is about having no money. It isn’t. it’s about having no love and respect’.

And the Poverty Truth HuManifesto has a challenge for Leeds – how can we be a more human city? How can the systems we have treat people as human beings rather than numbers? How can the way we talk about those experiencing poverty be respectful in the media, on social media, in the everyday? How can those working to change things for the better do those things ‘with’ people experiencing poverty and not ‘to’ or ‘for’ those people? How can those experiencing poverty not blame the ‘suits’ but find ways to build relationships to find solutions together?

I think the poverty truth HuManifesto embodies the heart and essence of the Nazareth Manifesto. It IS about a jubilee for those experiencing poverty; it IS about trying to create a city and society based on principles of justice and equity; but it is also about each of us realising our blindness to people we ‘other’, whether that is the ‘feckless poor’, or the uncaring ‘suits’. How can we humanise each other? How can we build relationships across social, cultural and geographical divides? How can we work together to be a truly human city? Like the Nazareth manifesto, it is not a manifesto based on appealing to people for their votes and support, but a HuManifesto that appeals to the part in each of us that knows connection to each other and creation.

So I have an invitation and a challenge…

Firstly a practical invitation… to the closing event of the Poverty Truth commission on Friday 2nd February. If you would like to come and hear more about the experience directly from the commissioners and get a copy of the HuManifesto, then come and ask me for an invite.
And a challenge…
Firstly a personal challenge. Who do you ‘other’? in what ways do you catch yourself feeling superior to others? And how can you find ways to build relationships with those people or that person?
And a wider challenge. How can we at All Hallows find ways to help others recover their sight? How can we challenge those who are blinded to the struggle for justice and equality of others, whether it’s gender equality, the struggles of refugees and asylum seekers, those experiencing poverty, those who seeking justice and acceptance of for their sexuality and gender identity. How can we play our part in changing the attitudes of those blinded to these struggles? How can we follow Jesus’s Nazareth Manifesto in not only proclaiming liberation, not only being with the captives, but in directly helping those who can’t see, or refuse to see their part in perpetuating these injustices, to see whole again?

Sermon by Rev Heston Groenewald 10 December 2017

Notes from the sermon by Rev Heston Groenewald on Sunday 10 December 2017

Readings:
Psalm 23
Matthew 11:28-30

As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you O God. How true are these words in YOUR life??

God is the source of life and love for our souls. So said Jesus (‘I am the vine, you are the branches – remain in me if you want to bear fruit’) and so say the Psalms again and again and again:

Psalm 63 our souls thirst for God
Psalm 42 our souls thirst for God as the deer pants for water
Psalm 143 our souls thirst for God like parched land thirsts for water
Psalm 33 our souls wait for God
Psalm 25 our souls lift themselves up to God
Psalm 103 our souls bless God
Psalm 63 our souls cling to God
Psalm 62 our souls wait in silence for God

Clearly the Psalmists think that at a very deep level of our being, God is good for us! We need to be doing things that connect us to God’s grace and energy and joy. What are those things for you?? It might be walking or cycling around Yorkshire, going to the beach, climbing a mountain, listening to some heavenly music, spending time with friends – you’ll know what the things are that restore your soul.

Sometimes connecting to God’s grace energy and joy means doing NOTHING! Our souls are made for rest – but we usually have to work hard for this rest. Both against a prevailing culture that throws endless distractions and noise at us; and against our selves as we so easily become addicted to noise and distraction. This temptation is perhaps in part because stillness means facing up to inner realities which scare us- things like fear, anger, loneliness, failure…

But stillness gives God space to restore our souls. And so sometimes God ‘makes us’ rest. Makes us lie down in green pastures and beside still waters:

Reading – Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

We need to make space in our lives for God’s grace energy and joy, or we will end up with what John Ortberg (in his book Soul Keeping) calls ‘soul fatigue’. This ailment, he says, goes beyond mere physical tiredness- what the world of psychology describes as ego depletion. Apparently this condition literally slows down the part of the brain which enables self-control (anterior cingulate cortex!)

Meaning that indicators of soul fatigue are things like:

  • Constant tiredness and negative emotions- little things bothering you more than they should
  • It’s hard to make up your mind about even simple decisions
  • It’s extra hard to resist temptation to eat or drink or spend or crave
  • It’s extra extra hard to tackle difficult assignments or tasks. So you are more likely to take short-cuts and choose short-term gains- in ways that leave you with long-term high costs

God wants to restore our souls. Through the many ‘ego-depleted’ situations experienced by God’s people, the constant refrain of the prophets (as we’re in week 2 of Advent) is ‘Return to God!’ Zechariah, for example: “Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Return to Me,” declares the LORD of hosts, “that I may return to you,” says the LORD of hosts.

All through the scriptures, but especially in the New Testament, God doesn’t just sit around waiting for us to return. God comes looking for us! Adam and Eve in the garden, Moses in the burning bush, Elijah in storm and silence, God’s presence in the tabernacle and temple – and most of all in Jesus. Jesus tells parables about lost coins and sheep and sons- these are about God going looking for God’s lost children. And they find the fullness of their meaning in Jesus’ own life: in the Incarnation – in this Christmas miracle/mystery – God takes on human flesh and is born in a manger to come find us. To offer us the life and love of God.

That life and love was the source of Jesus’ own ministry. At his baptism, God’s Spirit rested on him and assured him of God’s love and acceptance: You are my beloved child’. And that’s exactly what God offers us too: the life and love and acceptance of heaven, to sustain and empower our lives and activity. We are loved! You are loved! I am loved! We are loved to the core of our being! As we grow to understand this deep truth, we gradually grow in our ability to be still and allow God to find us and refresh our souls. Silence becomes less scary, because we realise that this perfect love trumps fear and anger and loneliness and failure. In the words of Brennan Manning: ‘Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is your true self. Every other identity is illusion.’

Jesus must have had something similar in mind when he said:

Reading- Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus isn’t promising an easy life! He says this in the middle of a tough ministry which demanded all of his energy and time – and ultimately his very life. But he is promising that with him (‘connected to the vine’) our souls can be sustained for a life of demanding ministry and activism.

We just have to let God find us. Which means, like Jesus, consciously arranging our lives to make room for God’s support and sustenance:

  • Jesus worshipped regularly in the synagogue.
  • Jesus had a circle of close friends who shared his life.
  • Jesus soaked himself in the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • Jesus prayed. A lot.
  • Jesus enjoyed God’s creation and went for long walks.
  • Jesus welcomed and blessed little children.
  • Jesus enjoyed partying with non-religious types!
  • Jesus did NOTHING from time to time.

God did amazing ordinary and extraordinary things through Jesus’ life. And God wants to do amazing ordinary and extraordinary things through our lives. For that, like Jesus, we need our souls to be sustained and restored by God…

Sermon by Dr Jan Betts 12 November 2017

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts on Sunday 12 November 2017

Readings:
Romans 8:28-39
Psalm 139

Where are we up to in Romans, this book that is a long argument about how the reason for hope and joy in our lives is the love of God in Jesus NOT obeying an angry God?

We’ve heard about Paul being unashamed to say he is a follower of Jesus and of his passionate longing to know God which made him accept being humbled by Jesus and utterly wrong about obeying the law as the way of salvation.

We’ve heard that although we will die, if we trust God that’s not a scary thing

We’ve heard that doing good things is hard work but that’s what we are called to do with God’s help.

These are all amazing things.

And here in today’s reading  Paul breaks out into poetry, because he is so overwhelmed and passionate and knocked out by his vision of God. He’s straining for the words to talk about how much God loves us. It is an amazing vision.  It’s deeply personal and close and warm and loving.

What is our vision of God? When I try to think of God I go dizzy.  I think about what kind of being has made the complexity which is this universe, which we don’t understand. I think about the complexity which I carry round every day in my body which we don’t understand.  I just go dizzy and feel like Job faced with God thundering at him ‘where were you when I made the universe?’  A bit scared. Well actually I – and you! – were in the mind of God, astonishingly and incomprehensibly. As the psalmist said, you have known me, you know all my days (Ps 139)

What is our picture of God? If we were to describe God what would we say first? A demanding person who we feel we fail all the time?

Paul is aware in every fibre of his being, his mind, his body his heart, that God is not the God of keeping rules.  God is as he is in Jesus who showed us that the way of love is THE foundational principle of the universe. Paul   draws a picture in fireworks of the explosive multi-dimensional love of God. This love  made God, the dizzying God of creation, fold and squeeze herself into the tiny limits of a human body, which felt pain and loneliness and hunger  just to show us the way of love, and save us when we fail to live in the freedom we have been given.   So often in the bible this tremendous God announces her arrival with the words ‘don’t be afraid’ because we are created in love. We are loved by, and matter beyond measure to, the creator of the universe.  Pray over that for a week and see what happens.

But we don’t live very much in the consciousness of this amazing love. Because, as Paul says there are things which can make us feel that actually quite a lot separates us from the love of God on a daily basis. What did I experience this week? Well we heard about Ntambe being under a deportation order. Where’s the love of God in that? but more to come…We heard about more random shootings by troubled Americans where people’s lives are ripped apart for no reason. The horror stories from the Middle East and from North Africa never stop. The abuse of women in Westminster revolts us. Where is God’s love in this?

When Paul talks about what or who can separate us from the love of God, he isn’t talking  about the things which we cause to ourselves. He’s dealt  with our deliberate self sabotaging actions, by talking about the love and forgiveness of God and our need to follow Jesus by focusing on doing good, on being wheat and salt and light in the world. He’s talking here about two sets of things: the  things which happen to us through our following Jesus,  and  the just plain random things which  happen in the world and which we bump up against.  It may be a car crash or cancer, flooding the house, or depression, or loneliness or constant pain or poverty.  And he also talks about principalities and powers, and today we remember the way in which the evil of war, sparked by fear and greed, is always with us, and what it cost so many people.  The principalities and powers he talks about here take many forms. And where is God in all this?

Bad things happen to good people all the time. I don’t for one instant believe that these things are sent to ‘test’ us or to punish us or to purify us or just to torment us. The problem is how to frame them in a way which allows God’s love to be in them. And of course we know that Jesus also suffered. We don’t focus much on Jesus as a suffering lonely hungry unhappy person but the gospel writers do speak of him weeping and being hungry and tired and finally betrayed for no good reason. Bad things happened to him as to us.

If we are never ever separated from the love of God in Jesus, how does that work?

I’ve been led in this to read a book written by a Jewish Rabbi whose son suffered from premature aging and as a result died as an old man at 14. His father didn’t know how to cope and wrote a book, to help himself and to give his son the years which he might have expected and didn’t have. He explores how we make sense of the persecuting things in our lives.

One of the ways in which we experience the love of God is through community and through prayer. The rabbi  writes ‘Human beings are Gods language’.  We can bear suffering longer if there are others around us, who communicate just by being there. If you are asked to hold your hand in very cold water for as long as you can bear it, you can do it longer if there are others cheering you on!

We are God’s language, her Word on earth to bring comfort and the love of God. To be salt and light,  defenders of the oppressed, the comforters, the ones who do that vital thing of making  people feel they matter and that there is some meaning  when meaningless things happen.    I read an article this week by a journalist bemoaning the fashion for ‘thoughts and prayers’ on face book and twitter and saying that it also takes hard work. Yes.  And we have that seen this week with Ntambe, that hard work supporting the oppressed works!  So does the quiet work of taking food to those who are ill, or even being faithful in prayer for others. Jesus isn’t here but we are and we are called to be his language on earth. Of course those who die alone are not separated from the love of God and we have countless testimonies from the stoning of Stephen under the approving gaze of this same Paul, to so many ordinary Christians in our own day and age. I would put in a plea here for bible study or at least finding a book which teaches you something. We are books to each other as we share our faith too.

Another way we experience the love of God is to believe that this event which is getting you down  is not something you did to yourself. As long as it isn’t!  We sometimes have a nagging voice accusing us of being responsible and it may not be true or the responsibility is so tenuous that it’s mad to believe it. We can  say ‘God hates what is happening as much as I do, but because creation is not perfect as well as people not being perfect, it has happened.’ And we can choose how to respond. We can say ‘it’s not fair’ and indeed it probably isn’t and God knows this too. But God in the crucified and resurrected Jesus stands with us and nothing separates us from this.

I want to share something here which I’m a bit shy about and I only say it because I shared it, only once,  with a devout Buddhist friend and it seems to have stuck with her.  I have increasingly come to understand that for me and for those who I work with sometimes, the collapse into hard times is  always something of an invitation to share more deeply with God. God doesn’t want suffering, let’s say that loud and clear,  but it can be redeemed.  Jesus’ invitation is to know both him and ourselves more clearly, to know that when we hit rock bottom Jesus is still there with us, in whatever form.  And often that form will be us.  But dear God – and I say that very reverently – it takes faith to see it sometimes in the darkness and we need to help each other to know that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not  overcome it.

Finally the thought that has really stayed with me over this time of preparation is this: If we are loved this much what can we not do? Over and over you read about successful people saying ‘my dad or mum said I could do anything and they believed in me and I believed them’ .  They were more than conquerors because they knew they mattered. Do we really believe we are loved this much?

Amen

Sermon by the Rev Bob Brooke 22nd October 2017

Notes from the sermon by the Rev Bob Brooke on Sunday 22nd October 2017

Readings:
Romans 6:20-23
John 14:1-7

Many years ago, long before I got into any official kind of ministry among people with learning disabilities, my wife and I were friends of the then newly formed L’Arche community in South London.  L’Arche is a Christian organisation that welcomes people with learning disabilities and others to live together in community.  These days the L’Arche community in South London is quite a big organisation but then it was just one house where about eight people with learning disabilities lived together with some young people who assisted and supported them.  One of the people who lived there was Little Brian – he was called that because there was another Brian living there – Big Brian.  Little Brian was about 4ft 10ins tall.  He had spent most of his life in a long stay hospital.  He couldn’t see or hear very well and only spoke a few simple words.  He enjoyed playing bongo drums.  Meal times were always important in the house and Little Brian’s contribution to them was to ring a hand bell very enthusiastically with a great big smile across his face to announce to everyone that the meal was ready.  One night, totally unexpectedly, Little Brian died peacefully in his sleep.  The whole community gathered round his bed next morning with candles and flowers and prayed and sang for him and with him.  It was a time of great anguish and great sorrow for everybody there.  It was the first death that had occurred in that little community and they were going to miss Little Brian very much, and yet there wasn’t a feeling of gloom and despondency, but rather a sense of peace and contentment.  John, another man with learning disabilities who lived with Brian, he tended to just sit quietly taking everything in and then occasionally would make some profound comment ….. as the hearse was taking Brian’s body away and everybody was waving goodbye, John said “Have a good time in heaven, Brian, see you there”.  Despite their sense of loss and sadness there was peace and contentment in that community because it was all very natural – there was no fear.  Brian’s death was sad, but his friends had a deep sense of faith and trust that whatever was happening to Brian and whatever was going to happen to the rest of them in this life and afterwards, they were all safe, secure in the hands of a loving caring God.

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul invites us to make a choice between life and death.  Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  When he says “the wages of sin is death” he’s not talking about some sort of punishment but observing that a life spent pursuing our own selfish desires and needs and neglecting other people inevitably leads to a kind of self destruction.  Paul talks about sin as something which enslaves us, something that can take over people’s lives and control them.  Paul says if we chose to sin, then what we have chosen starts to take control over us.  He says we’re not free to choose this or that or the other for now and then tomorrow choose something different.  What we have chosen has power over us.  Every time we choose in favour of one thing we choose against another.  What we choose today controls us and directs us and will make it hard to choose differently tomorrow.  But Paul reminds us of the Good News that God chooses us and frees us from the power of our other choices and enables us to choose again, to choose God and turn our back on sin.  He invites us to choose and to go on choosing God over sin, life over death.

I started by telling a story about a death.  If we choose life, if we seek to live a fully authentic life, we have to take death seriously.  Etty Hilesum was a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation.  Many Dutch Jews were sent to the Westerbrook transit camp and many of them went from there to their death in the extermination camps.  Etty was a member of the local Jewish Council and sought to care for those who had been sent to Westerbrook.  By her vitality and warmth and compassion she became a source of life and hope to others.  She was eventually put to death in Auschwitz in 1943 when she was just 29.  For the last two years of her life she kept a diary and wrote many letters.  I want to read you something she wrote about life and death.

“I have come to terms with life…  By “coming to terms with life” I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as a part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability.  It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life, we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life, we can enlarge and enrich it.”

(Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life, the diaries and letters from Westerbrook)

So choosing life means taking death seriously.

I was a great fan of the long running BBC comedy programme “Last of the Summer Wine”.  The actor Bill Owen who played Compo the scruffy little man who always wore wellies – Wellington Boots – Bill Owen died in the middle of the filming of a series.  The producer and writer of the programme decided to incorporate the death of his character Compo in to the programme.  They called the episode “Elegy for Fallen Wellies”.  They managed to combine a sense of sadness and loss for the actor as well as the character with humour and some serious theological insights.

Truly and Clegg, Compo’s friends have not been able to sleep and have gone out for an early morning walk on the moors where they had often walked with Compo.  They see the sun rise and Truly says “Do you think the dead ever see a sunrise?”  Clegg says “Yes I do, actually”  “Even those who don’t get up very early?”  “Even them.  Maybe that’s what Paradise is – a place where the sun doesn’t come up until you are ready.”  “You think he was heavenly material do you?”  “Certainly.  To be as little children – that was him.  Never lost it did he?”

Nora Battye, Compo’s next door neighbour and the love of his life was talking to Edie, played by Thora Hird.  Edie asks “Did he go to church?”  Nora replies “Well he used to go on Remembrance Sunday.  He never missed a Remembrance Sunday.”  “Well that’s not exactly a season ticket, but I expect there’s room for a few cheap day returns.”

I remember at the funeral of another man with learning disabilities, a man called Nick, the minister leading the service referred to the words of Jesus in John chapter 14 that we heard earlier  “in my Father’s house there are many rooms”.  The minister said “God has prepared a special room for Nick in heaven – a room with his name on it.

There’s a song we sing at some of the services with people with learning disabilities that goes:  “There is room for all in my Father’s house, where there’s joy, joy, joy.

Later Jesus said “If you know me, you would know my Father also”.

The late David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham used to have a very simple kind of credal statement:

God is

God is as he is

God is as he is in Jesus

Therefore we have hope.

Jesus shows us that love is at the centre of the universe – that the whole creation and everything in it including you and me was brought into being as an act of love.  This means that the last word is not with corruption and death and nothingness but with love.  I believe we can trust in God who having allowed us to find the meaning of life in his or her love and forgiveness and to be totally dependent on him or her for our very existence will not then at our death destroy that meaning or take away that existence

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

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.

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.

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/

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