Category Archives: Sermon

Sermon by Jon Dorsett 20 January 2019

Notes from the sermon by Jon Dorsett 20th January 2019  Frankincense

Isaiah 62:1-51 Corinthians 12:1-11, Matthew 2:1-12

Past. Present. Future.

This morning I want to reflect on how we engage with the Past. Present. And Future.

As part of a season of Epiphany Worship services I was given the topic from the Gifts of the Magi of Frankincense as the theme for this sermon, but I have to admit, my mind wondered somewhat in thinking about this, so we’re going to go on a bit of a journey through neuroscience, earthquakes, hymns, climate change, global inequality, power, purpose and calling. I do promise to bring it back to the Gifts of the Magi at some point before I finish. But first I have a question for you

What is your earliest memory? 

Just take a moment to reach your mind back (some might have to reach further back than others). 

What is the earliest memory you can recall? 

And what is it that accesses that memory for you? Is it a specific feeling? A specific object? A person? A sound? A movement?

For me it is a smell. The smell of Johnsons baby lotion and a memory of Terrys nappies and a nappy changing mat in front of a Calor gas heater in my parents’ house. I guess I must have been a toddler, and the memories are very much linked to feelings and textures, but even now the smell of Johnsons baby lotion brings that memory flooding vividly back. And it’s the same with other smells. Cut-grass takes me straight back to infant school and constructing floorplans of houses on the freshly cut playing field. Ozone, an old electric train set I used to play with. Moth balls, the vestry of the freezingunheated village church where I was an altar boy. 

Smells are possibly the most powerful sense we have to unlock forgotten or early memories. Neuroscientists attribute this to a number of factors. 

Firstly smell is the oldest of the senses we have. Before the ability to detect light, before the ability to feel pressure, before the ability to recognise sound, living organisms developed the ability to detect chemicals in their surroundings and be able to respond to them. Simple bacteria today can detect and respond to multiple chemicals in their surroundings. 

Our sight relies on 4 different types of receptor cells to convert light into electrochemical signals to our brains. Our touch likewise relies on a least 4 different types of receptors for heat, cold, pressure and pain. Our sense of smell however is linked to over 1000 different receptor types.

Information from our eyes, ears and tactile senses are sent to a relay station in our brain called the Thalamus before being sent to other parts of the brain for processing. With smells however, information is processed directly by the olfactory bulb which starts in the nose and runs along the base of the brain. The olfactory bulb is directly adjacent and connected to two parts of the brain that are associated with emotion and memory, the amygdala (a mig da la) and the hippocampus. It is perhaps because of this direct connection that the sense of smell is so successful at evoking memories and emotions.

It is also perhaps because of this direct link between smell and deep memories and feelings that incense has been used for millennia in religious ritual and practice. By creating the association between distinct and strong smells and stories and practices that have sustained communities and individuals, there becomes an easy access route to evoking the place in which we find belonging, meaning and purpose.

Conscious memory can be fickle. How often have you recalled the same events very differently to your partner, or close friends? Deep memories however work within us at a different level. I have a friend who works with people living with dementia, and she describes the joy of seeing people come alive and joining in when they hear a hymn from their childhood. They may struggle to remember much else, but those memories from childhood come alive when their subconscious is sparked. 

Being able to access the stories that sustain us, can also be life-saving in difficult times. I remember hearing about a woman stuck under rubble for over a week following the 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran, who said the only reason she survived was because she had memorised the Quran and was able to recite it in full to herself while trapped.

Frankincense, I want to argue, as a gift of the Magi, is a gift and reminder of the importance of memory; access to the collective memories embodied in liturgy and ritual and evoked by our sense of smell. Memories that are conscious, perhaps of scripture, and unconscious feelings associated with the sense of belonging and meaning that comes from ritual and liturgy too. While this may not be the case for us today,either as none High Church (bells and smells) Christians, or in the wider world where ritual and shared liturgy no longer persist, perhaps smells still help us tap into our collective unconscious – that part of consciousness that is inherited and shared not only among humans but among all living things. A part of our brain that knows on a deep level that we are all connected, that we are part of a living system and not divorced from and above the rest of creation.

Still I digress slightly. Frankincense, in my schema, is memory, is the past, is a reminder to hold onto our values and stories of who we are, stories that remind us of our relationship with our self, with each other, with creation, and with God.

Gold I want to argue, is the gift of now. The gift of the present. Gold is near universally an item of worth, a valuable commodity used to trade for other goods and services. Gold equates to agency, to power, to the ability to make happen. Gold is representative of the ability to act in the here and now, to have agency in the present. What we choose to do with that agency is a decision we each have to make. We can use it to our own personal gain, or we can use it in community to support one another, and to act for the common good. As Mary Oliver, who died this week, said ‘What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?’ Gold as a gift of the Magi then, is a reminder of Agency, of the ability to act in the present.

And so Myrrh. In my schema, Myrrh is symbolic of the future. Myrrh was among other things used as an anointing oil, it is listed as an ingredient in the holy anointing oil for the anointing of the tabernacle, of high priests and kings. To anoint is to set apart, to signify specific purpose. It is to send out on a calling. It is to collectively recognise a gift, a vocation, a path and a purpose. Myrrh then as a gift of the Magi, is a sending out into the future, a recognition of calling or purpose.

I am well aware that this might be stretching the traditional understandings of the gifts from the wise men of the east. More often they are presented as regal gifts, given to kings across the middle east to recognise their right to rule. Or they are seen as symbols of deity (the frankincense), earthly kingship (the gold), and death (Myrrh). I however, want to attempt to reach for something deeper and further in their meaning and relevance to each and every one of us.

Jesus’s kingship is not presented as a kingship analogous to the kings of nations and of empires, instead where the word king is used within scripture in relation to Jesus, it is used to subvert our understanding of kingship. This is not about a hierarchical rule, passed down through a patriarchal line, implemented by force, and held in place by fear. This is the cosmic Christ  that aspect of God which pervades all of creation, the Christ who according the letter to the Ephesians “fills the universe in all its parts” (1:23).  Matthews story of the Magi honouring Jesus, was marking the recognition of a paradigm shift in human consciousness, a departure from the imperial mindset that had pervaded much of humankind since the fall and the development of consciousness, and instead towards a spirit filled awareness of the connectedness of all things, and our human place within that. Jesus as the Christchild is the marker of this, but it is a consciousness we all have access to, and in which we all play a part. It is the coming kingdom that is at hand, it is the kingdom within you. It is the yet and yet not yet.

The gifts of the magi, if we take them as reminders and pointers to past, present and future, are gifts/ reminders to all of human-kind. Frankincense to access the past, the memory of who we really are. Gold to be in the present, aware and engaged with the frightening amount of agency that we have. And Myrrh to be mindful of the future, and find our purpose and calling.

We are here and now. We look to the future. And we draw on the wisdom of our past.

The wisdom of our past is contained not only in our own individual learning, not only in our cloud of witnesses and radical forebears, not only in the great wisdom of our scriptures, but also in the deep knowledge of being part of a living system, part of the cosmic Christ, a knowledge buried deep in our collective consciousness.

The here and now we are part of is a time of unprecedented challenges. And we look to a future of massive uncertainty.

Man-made climate change; unparalleled global inequality and the economic systems that give rise to it; the rise of violent extremism, polarisation and the inability to engage with the other; the destructive power of our military-industrial complex and the global conflicts that ensue; the ecological impact of our consumeristic culture and increasing materialism. These are to name just a few.

To even to begin to approach these issues, we need to access a new mindset. Even our shared stories, our scriptures, have been tinged by imperial colonial readings, imbued with a mechanistic mindset and reduction to dualistic thinking.

We need to rediscover the roots of our collective memories. We need to follow our noses to the sources of our collective wisdom. For those of us with a scriptural tradition, we need to re-read those memories through the light of the memories of our collective unconscious. The shared memories that we are all part of a living system, an eco-system of life, death and rebirth.

We then need to rediscover, re-Cognise and rebuild our sense of agency. We need to gift each other with gold. To build our ability to act together, in common and in complexity. The answers we need to the challenges of now will not come from ‘them’ (from a ruling elite or a hierarchical system of command and obey). The issues are too complex for oneperson, one organisation, one political party, or one nation to solve. We have to use our agency together to create the changes our planet and societies need.

And we need to discover and recognise the callings we each have, the purpose we are made for. Our purpose is not in a meaningless 9-5 office job we hate, sitting home watching Netflix every evening, going shopping every weekend, being slave and consumer, (though I am quite partial to an evening on Netflix).

Our purpose is in loving each other, caring for creation, discovering ourselves, connecting to the transcendent, and being in community. Our callings, our anointings are in those veins too, to bring each other and ourselves back into relationship with our deep self, with the other, with creation,and with God.

So, the gifts of the Magi are for each and every one of us…

The smell of Frankincense to unlock our memories and remind us of who we are.

The value of Gold to give us agency to transform things in the here and now.

The anointing of Myrrh, to help us look to the future with purpose and calling.

The Epiphany of the Magi was the realisation and recognition of the infant Jesus as incarnation of the transcendent, and marker of a shift in human consciousness. As we journey through this season of Epiphany worship services, perhaps we will find deeper revelations of the cosmic Christ as we delve into our shared memories of scripture, and perhaps those revelations can spur us on in our callings and purpose to be agents of transformation for the kingdom of God in the here and now.

Sermon by Adriaan van Klinken 13th January 2019 – Epiphany 1

Notes from the sermon by Adriaan van Klinken 13th January 2019 – Epiphany 1

“Baptised in the River of Jordan”

Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21,22

After 2000 years of Christian history, it can be difficult for us to think afresh about Jesus – who he was, what the meaning of his life and death is, how he was related to God. We are part of a long tradition of thinking about Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God, indeed, as the face of God revealed to us. But sometimes this tradition can hinder us from seeing the Jesus of the Gospel, the Jesus of the early Christians, and to be surprised and excited about him.

The current period of the Christian calendar offers us a time to go back to the basics. In this period of Epiphany we try and move back to the early beginnings, when the truth about Jesus Christ had not yet been crystallised in doctrines and creeds, but when the first generations of followers of Jesus were trying to figure out who Jesus actually was.

Our Gospel reading today brings us back to that period. In the reading we encounter John the Baptist. He is presented to us as a religious figure, travelling through the region preaching a message of repentance for the remission of sins. In a highly volatile political situation (nothing new today), with Israel being occupied by the Romans, John reminds the Jews of the covenant of God, and he calls upon them to follow God’s commandments, to repent from sinful ways and dedicate their lives to God, because otherwise the wrath of God will come upon them.

John’s message is a radical one. It signals the understanding that the status quo has been found wanting. It constitutes a prophetic appeal for people to turn their backs on previous commitments, and align themselves fundamentally with God’s purpose. That message is accompanied by a ritual: baptism. A ritual that asks of people that they come away from normal existence, signify their renewed commitment to God’s purpose, then return to their normal lives but leading that life in a transformed way. John’s baptism is an assault on the status quo – to participate in it is to embrace behaviour rooted in a radical realignment with God’s purpose.

Apparently John is a highly charismatic figure, because multitudes of people are coming to listen to his message and be baptised by him. The people get excited and start wondering whether he is the long-expected Messiah, the saviour promised by God. But John calms down their expectations, stating: “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
A baptism of water versus a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. That is how John captures the difference between his own ministry, and that of the Messiah. His role is only preparatory, preparing the way for a successor more significant than him.

Indeed, in the Gospel of Luke, John is literally removed from the scene before Jesus appears. Before writing about the baptism of Jesus, Luke tells us that John had been shut up in prison by king Herod (exactly because he threatened the status quo). The people who compiled the church’s lectionary decided that these verses could be left out (did anyone miss them?), but obviously Luke had a reason to include them. Different from Matthew, who writes in great detail about John’s ministry and about John’s baptism of Jesus, Luke gives a very minimalistic account, and removes John from the centre stage even before Jesus enters.

Only after we’ve been told us that John is shut up in prison, Luke goes on and writes, as in a flash back, that Jesus was among the multitudes that had been baptised by John. Maybe this narrative contains an important lesson: for Jesus to appear, to be revealed to us, we need to shut up. Like John at that time, the church today – with its politics and structures, its quest for self-preservation – can sometimes hinder the appearance of the Messiah. Because the Messiah may well appear in a way very different than we expect.

That is certainly the case for John. He promises the people that the Messiah comes to enact God’s judgement. He announces a Messiah with a winnowing-fork in the hand, clearing the threshing-floor gathering the wheat into his granary but burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Later in the Gospel of Luke, we read that John, who had anticipated messianic judgment and not a ministry of compassion, is not sure at all whether Jesus is actually the Messiah.

John had to adjust and correct his image of the Messiah – and so we often have, too.

Luke only indirectly tells us that Jesus was, indeed, baptised by John. We may wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised in the first place. If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, indeed part of God-self and as such is without sin, as the church teaches in its creeds, then why did he need to undergo a baptism of repentance of sins? But let’s remind ourselves: Luke and his readers did not have doctrines and creeds. They were part of the early Jesus movement trying to figure out who Jesus was. And Jesus himself, when growing up, had to figure out what his calling was. In that sense, the baptism of Jesus shows that he was fully human. That he went through the process of configuring his own identity and mission, just like each of us does in our own lives, and we together as a community. In that process, Jesus encounters the message of John the Baptist, of repentance and conversion, of committing oneself to God’s purpose, and it speaks to his heart, to his emerging sense of calling.

Jesus is baptised as one of a multitude of people, as one of us. Luke writes about it in passing: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” These words resemble our reading from Isaiah, in which God declares his decisive love to the people of Israel:

I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

The beautiful phrase “I have called you by your name” sounds like an adoption formula. In the prophecy of Isaiah it means that Israel now is fully identified with, belongs to, and is cherished by, God. This intimate relationship is a present help in every danger – the danger of exile, of war, of hardship.
In the Gospel of Luke, the words “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”, signal a similar process of adoption. Jesus is now fully identified with, belongs to, and is cherished by God. Jesus’ evolving sense of calling is approved; his vocation is confirmed by God. Perhaps we can say: Jesus received a gold rating. In each of the paintings of Jesus’ baptism (see screen), the artists use an abundance of yellow-gold paint, symbolising the divine light with which Jesus is surrounded in this moment, and from now on.

The story about Jesus’ baptism, then, is Luke’s second story about the birth of Jesus. In the first story, baby Jesus is born in the manger. The magi come to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the child. This second story marks the birth of Jesus’ mission and calling, and it is God-self who approves of it with gold.

Jesus the Messiah is born out of the waters of the river Jordan. The river Jordan in biblical imagery is a highly symbolic place. In the first part of the Bible, as the Israelites journeyed from slavery in Egypt to the land that God had promised them, the river acted as both an obstacle and pathway. It was an obstacle for them to enter the promised land. Their leader, Moses, was not even allowed to cross the Jordan, as a punishment for his disobedience. Only after Moses had died, the people of Israel miraculously were able to cross the river, as the water stopped flowing and made a way.

These biblical themes are elaborated on in African American negro-spirituals, the songs of the black slaves in America. In many of them, the river Jordan features prominently. As a symbol of the borderland between this world and the next, in which slaves would be liberated from the harsh realities of life. Also as a symbol of the border between slavery and living in freedom, between the injustice of captivity and the relentless hope for justice on earth to come.
These negro-spirituals, like John’s baptism in the Jordan, fuel the resistance against the status quo of bondage, oppression, and injustice. Jesus’ passing through the river Jordan, and his affirmation by God, underline that God in Jesus rejects the status quo. That God in Jesus leads us into the promised land of freedom and justice on earth. That God in Jesus promises us abundance of life. This is what our Christian faith is about – what our belief in Jesus is about! And we are called to follow. Because Jesus is the first, but in him each of us is adopted as child of God, is welcomed into the promised land, is awarded a gold rating. With one of the classic negro-spirituals, we sing with all the slaves, with all the refugees stuck at borders, all the oppressed of the earth, with all God’s people:

I’m going down to the river of Jordan
O yes,
I’m going down to the river of Jordan
Some of these days, Hallelujah…
I’m going to sit at the welcome table of the Lord;
I’m going to feast off milk and honey…
O yes!

Sermon by Jan Betts 2nd December 2018 – Advent Sunday

Notes from the sermon given by the Dr Jan Betts on 2nd December 2018 – Advent Sunday

Happy New Year.  It’s the start of our church year

Every year we go through the life of Jesus, beginning with thinking about how we are longing and waiting for God to come to us. Then God does come, in the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus, in the Spirit at Pentecost, and then is present in our  ordinary lives, and in the whole of creation. Every year we remember this story of God with us from birth to when God winds up the world.

Today we’re right at the beginning of that story, before the messiah comes, when all is held just in faith and the hope that someday, sooner or later, salvation may just turn up in some form or other. Advent is a time of longing and looking forward. Mary was longing for a safe delivery of her baby. She was probably a bit desperate at having to hop on that donkey at 39 weeks pregnant and go to Bethlehem.  What was God doing to her? The Jews were longing for a Messiah to sweep away the Romans and in our scripture reading Jesus tells than that just ain’t going to happen.

Luke 21 25-36

My question to us all today is ‘What are we longing for?’ right now, before the baby arrives. What are our desires?  Because when we face our deepest longings truthfully this is our closest connection to God, our way to find out what God can really show us about ourselves and our relationship with this loving living creator sustainer and redeemer.

We may be longing for:

Freedom from our prisons

Nourishment when we are hungry

Justice in times and places of injustice

peace in time of conflict

comfort and connection in times of loneliness

inclusion when we experience contempt

 justice for the earth

justice fairness and respect in our workplaces

rest from our busyness

comfort in grief

These things have always been with us. There’s nothing new in abuse of every kind and there’s nothing new in our longing to have a world where we are safe and loved and treated with absolute respect. But here we are in a messy world with our longings, real and oppressive and leading us to despair sometimes.

And what is God’s reply to our longings?

Yes me too. I long for all these things much much more than you do!

And this is what’s going to happen

God doesn’t say I’m going to send a baby, which is what Christmas seems to be all about. She says ‘My saving justice is going to be born on earth.’ Not a new child but a new way of showing you what I created you to be.

Saving justice is about the way God is going to, has already, brought and shown in the life of Jesus, the restoring way of love and humility and respect and truthfulness. There is justice in this, but it’s not about punishment. It’s about God engaging with us to show us hope in despair, love in bitterness, saying ‘me too. I’m been there and I am here’. St Ignatius said desolation is the time of the lie and God’s truth is always with us. Sometimes it feels very hard to know that in our times of despair. We need to know God, to remember all God has done and is. God won’t save us from our tears but she will wipe them away. One of the best places to learn about desolation and longing and consolation in God is in the psalms.

Las week we sang this and let’s hear it again:

Violet announces Christ in our cosmos,
Holding our Earth in all of its pain.
Christ now invites us: join in my mission!
Cov’nant with me to bring peace again.

Sermon by the Revd Dr Angela Birkin 7th October 2018

Notes from the sermon given by the Revd Dr Angela Birkin on 7th October 2018

Luke 18 : 1 – 30

Guided by our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning I would like us to spend some time thinking about prayer.
Not about the different ways of praying, or different types of prayer, important though they are, but taking a step further back and thinking about how we bring ourselves to God in prayer, our attitude, expectations and demeanour.

Let’s start towards the end of our reading with the rich man coming to Jesus, asking about inheriting eternal life and being challenged by Jesus’ response to sell all he owned and give the money to the poor. People who encountered Jesus were often challenged by him not least in the call to follow him.

As Christians, as followers of Jesus we should not be surprised to be challenged by Jesus as we pray. In fact we should expect to be challenged by Jesus as we pray.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, explained in a recent talk on prayer that when we pray one of the things we do is start to align our seeing and wanting with the seeing and wanting of God, with God’s loving purpose for us and for the world. Through the action of the Holy Spirit we start to see ourselves and the world as God sees us and the world. Our eyes are opened to people and situations we may never have seen, have noticed before, and when we see those people and situations as God sees them then God can use us to work for the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

When you pray expect to be challenged and changed.

Let’s move to the earlier episode of people bringing infants to Jesus. “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” Jesus tells his disciples who were trying to stop parents bringing their children to Jesus.

Very young children had little status in Jesus’ day. Loved by their parents they surely were but their lives were precarious and they had no economic worth. Yet Jesus tells us that we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child.

What does that mean for us when we pray?

Babies and very young children cannot be anyone other than the person they are. They cannot yet pretend to be someone else, they have not yet learned to hide their feelings. If they are happy and content we know it, if they are hungry or uncomfortable or in pain we definitely know it.

When we pray, individually or as a church community, we are in a place where heaven and earth overlap, a holy place and we need to come to that place as ourselves, not as the person we wish we were or we think God wants to see.

We need to come to God in prayer honestly with our joys and our sorrows, our hopes and our fears and our pain and anger. Especially our pain and anger. If you worry about bringing your pain and anger to God then read the psalms, you could start with psalm 137 which begins with lament and ends in anger, or psalm 22, the start of which Jesus spoke from the cross.

If we are honest with God and bring our deepest hopes and fears, pain and anger to God in prayer, into the light of God’s loving gaze then the Holy Spirit, who does not come uninvited, can work in and through us to heal us and this broken world.

Do not be afraid to be yourself before God in prayer.

Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector could be the subject of a long sermon on its own. The Pharisee in this parable is a paragon of virtue, fasting and tithing as he does, whereas the tax collector is a collaborator with a hated occupying military power and is probably corrupt and a thief. The tax collector by his posture and words is ashamed of who and what he is and knows his need of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness. The Pharisee, while not a hypocrite, claims status and standing before God as a result of his own actions with no insight into his own need of God’s mercy and grace.

When we come to God in prayer, when we put ourselves under God’s loving gaze, we are not to trust in our own efforts to be worthy but in God’s mercy and grace.

Similarly we must never feel that we are not good enough to come to God in prayer, to ask for forgiveness, for healing and wholeness. When we put ourselves into God’s light and gaze God does not look away.
Many of us will have had the experience of being let down by someone and then finding it almost impossible to look at them.
To turn our head away from them is an act of rejection because they have treated us so badly.
God never does that. God never looks away and is ready to accept us, to show mercy and forgive us if we admit our need of mercy and forgiveness.

Come to God in prayer trusting in what God has done for us, for each of us, through Jesus Christ.

And so to the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. I love this woman who despite her vulnerability within her society with no menfolk to plead for her is so tenacious in her demand for justice that the unjust judge gives in.

This is a parable, not an allegory. God is not an unjust judge, but Jesus is encouraging us to be persistent in prayer, never giving up because of who God is, because of God’s persistent, unshakable and everlasting love for us.

This is not to say that every specific request we make to God will be granted but God will always listen to the prayer of our hearts with love and mercy and we can trust God to bring about justice. Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that God’s kingdom of justice and mercy will come, Jesus calls us to persist in praying for that day.

With the help of the Holy Spirit we are to be like the widow in our prayer life hoping against all the odds, persistent, determined and relentless, we are to recognise and be confident that we are able to come to God in prayer because of God’s mercy and love alone,
we are to be ourselves before God unafraid to bring anything to God in prayer,
and we are to be prepared to be challenged and changed as through prayer we see the world as God sees it and we are drawn into God’s work of justice, mercy and peace for all people and for all creation.

So let us persist in praying and working for the coming of God’s kingdom in the sure and certain hope that it will come.

Sermon by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews 30th September 2018

On Sunday 30th September 2018 All Hallows’ and St Chad’s joined with St Michael’s, Headingley to celebrate their Patronal Festival. Here are the notes from the sermon preached by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews.

During my first week as Director of Lay training for Leeds Diocese after exchanging the red rose for the white, I was meandering through the streets getting my bearings when I came across the Mandela gardens beside Millennium Square in the heart of the city. What could be a more poignant symbol than a Peace Garden symbolising the end of apartheid for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas – which specifically celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

The Bible speaks of angels as mighty inhabitants of the spiritual realm, not some airy-fairy, fanciful will-o-the-wisps. We could be forgiven for relegating angels the role of God’s Messengers – think of Mary and the angel Gabriel, but the Archangel Michael is bit more hard-core. Oft depicted as a warrior in huge technicolour artworks such as the C16 century piece by Raphael, Michael is painted overcoming a dragon representing, of course, evil personified – Satan.

But for me there’s also something about St Michael encouraging us in the battle against evil, lest we make our faith a triumphalistic fait accompli – it is finished, therefore I don’t need to do anything. Rather, St Michael and All Angels remind us that if evil is to be overcome we must participate in the battle against evil. Good intentions simply won’t cut the mustard. We have only to look beyond our own front doors, switch on the radio, television, or check Twitter to see that just as we are alive and well and worshipping Christ, the Truth, the Way and the Life, so evil flourishes through abuse, poverty, misappropriated power, despair, unjust governance, gendered violence, fraud and base profiteering. In many and varied ways evil continues to flourish across the earth and amongst all the created beings we have been gifted to care for.

But let me take you back to the Mandela gardens for a moment. The former South African president opened the garden in 2001 receiving the accolade Freedom of the City. During his acceptance speech Mandela said, ““I accept the honour on behalf of the people of South Africa. You honour me for achievements that are not those of an individual.

“Anything I have done could not have been possible without the collective effort of comrades and compatriates.”

“We South Africans would not have achieved our freedom if it had not been for the immense support we received from the international community in our fight against apartheid.”

Like Mandela, St Michael gets all the credit, but please note it is St Michael and All Angels – or perhaps we might say, St Michael, St Chad’s and All Hallows? St Michael and ALL Angels. Not ‘some’ angels, or ‘those angels that have especially been called to fight battles’, or ‘those angels over there who are much better at that sort of thing than we are’. No, in a word ALL angels. Just as an entire international community ultimately brought down apartheid, each and every one of us must recognise our place in this wider team of parishes as we take up our cross and follow He who is our First and Last into the fray. We must stand together; speak together; give together; challenging the evils we encounter today by becoming more than the sum of our parts as we share skills, gifts and resources around the team, joining with one another’s initiatives, ministry and outreach as leaders, providers, prayers and volunteers.

And yes, this will be costly, no two ways about it. When Mandela was honoured here in Leeds, the Council Leader at the time, Cllr Brian Walker, said, “We are are here to bestow upon you, Dr Mandela, the greatest honour that is within our gift – the Freedom of the City of Leeds.

“Freedom, Dr Mandela, is a word which has come very much to symbolise your life. It calls to mind the fact that for the greater part of your time on earth, you have not been free.
“You have shown the world that true freedom is not a matter for compromise, refusing more than once offers of freedom-with-strings – a liberation for yourself, but not for your people.” We, too, must beware that our faith does not become a liberation for ourselves but not for others.

For not everyone people realises that Nelson Mandela’s twenty-seven year imprisonment could have ended so much sooner, had he just promised to keep quiet, tow the line – not rock the boat. To go home and live quietly without challenging institutional and legally sanctioned racism and inequality. The offer of home and wife, warmth and children, friends and familiarity – and for what, his silence? How tempting that must have been. Yet Mandela sacrificed it all finally winning freedom of all. I cannot think of anything more Christ-like.

For just like Jacob, Mandela slept with his head on a stone in a desert-place every one of those 9,855 nights he laid awake or tossed and turned in prison, wondering when his freedom would come, praying no doubt, for his own freedom and that of his people. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film of Mandela’ life called Long Walk to Freedom, but I was forcibly struck by the moment when he has a sort of revelation in prison and realises that he needs to change his angry, combative behaviour against his enemies and the prison guards, instead working peaceably to attain peace. It resonates profoundly with the moment when Jacob declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Mandela lived in a 6ft concrete cell with just a bedroll on the floor a stool and a ceramic pot for company. I’m not sure that Mandela ever described his prison cell as the gate of heaven, but he did say of his time there, ‘I came out mature’. Having entered the prison a charismatic, hot-headed revolutionary, he left a dignified, humble statesman, rooted and grounded in peace, and his cell had become a house of God. And if you feel you’ve been doing this a long time now and not seeing much fruit for your labour, remember that Mandela’s long walk to freedom took 27 years so we shouldn’t underestimate for a moment the power of evil to persist. The real question is do we choose ways which are life‐giving, not just for us but for others, or are we tempted to take paths which are destructive for us and those we love? Do we live for ourselves, or do we have a vision of something greater?

Many of us are here today to celebrate this church’s patronal festival and some have come from neighbouring church. Such reunions can be joyful occasions, where we celebrate the past and remember other happy times we have shared together in unity. But reunions can also have a bitter‐sweet element too, as we recall choices which we subsequently regretted, opportunities we wasted and ways in which we have failed to join with the service of others in our wider communities. As we reflect, we can be tempted to believe that we can’t change or make any difference to our lives now, or as the church is often accused, because we have always done it this way. We may feel we don’t have the resources, but Jacob and Nathaneal and Mandela arose into their vocations out of absolutely nothing but a call from God, a vision for a greater good and an insight into the spiritual support we have around us.

We have a choice just like Nathaneal had a choice. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ he’d said. He could have watched from the side-lines seeing how things panned out for Jesus and his friends. He could have let his prejudices make his decision for him and stayed safe; business as usual. We too must choose whether to follow the path of pride, arrogance and self-preservation or whether to take a risk on the outcast for the outcast.

We have a choice just like Jacob had a choice. He might have said, ‘I’ve had a terrible night’s sleep in this God-forsaken place’ and continued on looking for God elsewhere’ never quite finding what he was searching for. We too must decide to worship and serve God where we are and resist the restless temptation of looking for something or somewhere more divine.

We have a choice just like Mandela had a choice. He might have remained an angry revolutionary having his life taken unceremoniously within the prison system, not even making it to a footnote in our history books. We too must submit ourselves to the humility and wisdom borne of suffering and patient endurance out of which God can bring liberation to many.

And whether we are a Mandela or a Nathanel or a Jacob, we might also need to trust that we will never see the fruits of our labour, but continue on in faith trusting that the battle in which we are co-workers with Christ ends well.

St Michael and All Angels call us to turn away from ourselves and towards God. This parish church is a good place for us to start. The beauty of this place and its position in the heart of Headingley draws us out of ourselves to reflect on God’s glory, as it inspired those who created it. It’s position reminding us that we, too, should be central to all that is happening in our communities beyond these walls; joining with our neighbouring parishes not just in worship but in service to those communities. Joining with the work of the Spirit of God in community groups who would never think of themselves as doing God’s work but through whom those glimmers of light and love, reconciliation and liberation can be seen, not allowing these walls to imprison the gospel or God’s love, or even us, should we become prisoners of the fear of the outside world. Instead these walls should become open arms that welcome the stranger, hold the hurting and send out the disciples – that means you, by the way – into the plentiful harvest of students and immigrants and lived-here-all-my-life-but-never-set-foot-in-the-churchers; the divorced, the despairing and the disparaging; the work-hard, the play-hard the find-it-hard-to-get-workers; the lost, the lonely, the elderly; the included and the excluded. You, me, the barista, the mother and the professor.

For you, too, can be someone’s angel. Some of you may even be a sort of St Michael, leading others into battle against a significant foe. Take heart, for we do not do this alone and in our own strength but in solidarity with one another and most importantly, through the light and life of Jesus Christ our Lord, whose Spirit guides, leads and empowers us to heed Jesus’ call.

Jesus showed us a new way of living that is transformative for us and for others and that way is love. It was an example that Mandela and countless others have followed in laying down their lives for the good of many. In what ways are we avoiding or fearful of that call? Where are we being called individually and corporately to focus? And in what ways can we become better connected, more than the sum of our parts by joining together to face the evils that surround us, here and today in Headingley – Far and near – and Hyde Park? How will we engage with the diverse communities that surround us in order to share the deep-rooted peace we have found, bringing grace, mercy and peace to a divided, restless world?

Just like Nathaneal, and Jacob, and Mandela, you have a calling – and of all the parishes in this wonderfully diverse Diocese, surely St Michael and all the Angels are with you!

Amen

 

Sermon by the Revd Dr Angela Birkin 16th September 2018

Notes from the sermon by the Revd Dr Angela Birkin 16th September 2018

Luke 17. 1-19

May the spoken and written word lead us to the living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

At first sight, at first reading, Luke appears to have strung a number of sayings of Jesus together, with a healing miracle tagged on to the end. However, Luke’s stated aim in writing his gospel is to put down an orderly account for Theophilus, which means ‘friend of God’, and therefore for us, so it is definitely worth taking a close look at what he has written and thinking carefully about it.

Luke makes clear in the first verse of our reading that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, those who are following him, hoping to learn from him, not those who are disinterested observers or opponents. If we wish to learn from Jesus, then we need to listen to his words.

Jesus gives the disciples some tough teaching about leadership, against a mind-set that works against justice and compassion for the “little ones” that is for those in need, and against mind sets that obstruct the restoration of those who have done wrong to community of faith.

Jesus’ disciples, you and me, are to seek actively for the restoration of the person who has sinned, not stand at a distance and shun them. Moreover, the disciples, you and me, are to forgive without limit.

In response the disciples plead “Increase our faith”. They speak for us all I’m sure.

It’s very easy to read Jesus’ reply to the disciples as a rebuke said with a stern voice and even sterner facial expression. Unfortunately, the words written down by Luke don’t convey the body language of Jesus, his tone of voice, the twinkle in his eye. What if Jesus wasn’t being severe but playful and encouraging, kind and loving? It isn’t so hard to believe is it?

“Even with faith the size of a mustard seed – just a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy, smidgeon of faith, you can do anything, even something as crazy as tell a mulberry tree to uproot itself and jump into the sea.”

If we hear Jesus speak with the voice of love, we hear him tell the disciples that they already have enough faith to do whatever is required of them. We hear Jesus tell us that we already have enough faith to do whatever is required of us.

And people of faith do move mountains, they do change the landscape. I think of Elizabeth Fry and prison reform, of Dr Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the USA, and I also think of my Sunday school teacher way back when, Mrs Wowra, who was a lollipop lady and who is more than a little responsible for me standing here now. You I’m sure will think of others. People of faith at All Hallows’ have changed and are changing the landscape.

Interestingly Luke in his gospel portrays faith not so much as possession, something you have, but as a disposition, part of a person’s character or nature, something you are. For Luke faith leads to faithful behaviour, and so the disciples in effect ask Jesus to “make us faithful people”

This leads us to the parable of the slave and slave-owner in verses 7 to 10 of our reading, which is difficult for us to hear and learn from today.

We recognise slavery rightly as a great evil and a blight on the world. Jesus is not approving of slavery by saying this parable, he is not saying that God is a slave-owner and that we are God’s slaves, but he is using a well-known reality of village life in his time to teach us something about faithfulness.

A small landowner or farmer would have one slave to do all the various indoor and outdoor work. The slave who is simply completing his or her work does not by doing so place the master under any obligation to reward the slave in some way. In the culture of the time this was important because to thank someone, for example for the master to thank the slave, would not simply be polite but would place the master in debt to the slave.

The point that Jesus is making is that in living faithfully, in living lives obedient to God, his disciples, including us, should not expect a reward or honours, should not have a sense of entitlement.

To live faithfully is to recognise that remembering those in need with justice and compassion, and forgiving those who have done wrong, actively working for their restoration into the community of God’s family is the ordinary everyday stuff of being a disciple of Jesus, of being a Christian. It is not extraordinary work; we are not extraordinary people in doing that work. But we are loved, each one of us, by an amazing, extraordinary God, who loves us because God sees each one of us as extraordinary and lovable.

I love the healing miracles of Jesus, when we see the kingdom of God breaking into our fallen and needy world and we get a glimpse of heaven, of a time when there will be no more tears or pain or discrimination, and the healing of the ten lepers is a cracking miracle, but as Luke writes it the healing is almost incidental to the story of the gratitude of the one who was healed and returned to Jesus.

In Jesus’ day the term leprosy would have been used of any number of skin diseases as well as of the disease we know as leprosy today. People with leprosy were marginalised, separated from family and friends and unable to worship at the temple as they were considered unclean and impure. The ten men kept their distance from Jesus, demonstrating the isolation demanded of them, and called out to him for mercy, for healing, for salvation.

By sending the men to the priests Jesus was ensuring that they would be accepted back into their families and into the worshipping community, thus fully integrated into religious and everyday society. All ten were healed but only one returned to thank Jesus, the one who, as a Samaritan, was doubly marginalised. Jesus sends him on his way saying, “Your faith has made you well.”

In the way he writes this healing miracle Luke challenges us, for what can we do but approve of the action of the sole healed leper who returns to show gratitude for his healing, who behaves as a truly faithful person and who prostrates himself before Jesus as one would before God. Then in a surprise development Luke tells us that the one who returned was a Samaritan, a foreigner, an outsider, despised, not one of us.

Physical ancestry, nationality, genealogy and religious purity meant a lot in Jesus day. There are plenty of people concerned with them today. We humans seem to find it quite easy to point out what we think makes us different, what we think makes someone ‘other’, inferior, less-deserving.

When it comes to God’s healing love, to salvation, our so-called differences matter nothing. God loves us because God loves us because God loves us. God also loves the person who lives next door who we find difficult to like for whatever reason.

We have done nothing to deserve God’s love, we can do nothing to repay God for that love, but we can live faithfully and with gratitude.

We can say thank you to the one who gives us life and holds us in loving hands, who created this beautiful world and the dear people and animals who enrich our lives, and whose love was made manifest in our saviour Jesus Christ. And we can endeavour to love and forgive others as God loves and forgives us.

Amen.

 

Sermon by Jan Betts 12th August 2018

Lord in your great mercy and love, may we hear your voice today in my words, and may your love be with us through them too.

You only have one thing to remember from this sermon and I will tell you what it is!

Jesus was born a gangster  – and that’s not what you have to remember!

The evidence for this is in Luke chapter 4. There Jesus’ impeccable pedigree as a Jewish man in his community is laid out by Luke. Jesus was entitled to consider himself part of a community with very stiff rules about who could belong and who couldn’t. He was part of a gang, that is, a group which defines itself by the people it keeps out. Us and them. Us and the enemy, us and those who aren’t like us, such as Samaritans or Gentiles. And St Paul was exactly the same.  Now of course it’s an exaggeration to call Jesus a gangster.  We wouldn’t  – on the whole – call ourselves gangsters because we’re British and make it hard for asylum seekers to be allowed to be formally British. But we are by our passports part of a group which is exclusive, and we know where the nastiness of arguments about Britishness have led us.

This sense of being pure and apart and part of a gang was very powerful in Jesus’ time and now. I’ve been reading a book called Letters to a young Muslim, by the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia. In it he describes how hard it was when he was a teenager and a young man to be the child of an Arab father and a Russian mother in the UAE. (quote) The point here is that if you’re out of the gang your out and it’s really tough to find a way to live.  That’s true in any and every society.

Now let’s hear what Jesus has to say about being outside the gang. . READING Luke 14 25-35

Imagine – Jesus has turned towards Jerusalem on a journey which he knows is going to end badly, in horrific torture and death because he’s not part of the gang.  He’s got his mind on teaching the disciples everything he can between now and then

And after him come the crowds which are so like, as Heston reminded us in the last two weeks, the pressing, chattering,  gaping, gossiping  misunderstanding crowds who followed Brian in Life of Brian. ‘Can’t hear him from back here – what did he say – blessed are the cheesemakers?’

Unlike Brian, Jesus doesn’t say actually ‘go away’. What he does choose to say as he rounds on them, is something to sort out the serious from the gawpers, to challenge them all.

If you really want to follow me, he says you have be committed enough to leave some things behind.

 If you really want to follow me you have to stop being part of a gang. You have to leave behind thinking that you are defined by your family lineage, your privilege, you r community, your money, your righteousness.  You have to be first and foremost committed to the way of love and forgiveness which I am showing you. Your gang is those who do this. Again as Heston said, this is about nationalism. Your nationhood doesn’t define you.

Jesus totally smashes the social structure, tells people all that they are, deep in their Jewishness, is not  their defining feature.

If you want to follow me, says Jesus, count the cost. Think about it! When you build a house (Jews) or go to war, (Roman soldiers)  you calculate the cost.  Are you willing to pay it? Do you love me more than these other things?

If you’re not that serious, he says, go home, because t it’s really hard to be an outsider. Jesus has said this before. He didn’t   let the wise young ruler off the hook when his money was too important to let him be a disciple. He didn’t  let the Pharisees off the hook when they pulled rank over how to approach and understand God and put rules in people’s way – being their own gang. The Jewish nation, says Jesus, needs to regain its saltiness, its commitment to  being the people of a God of justice and mercy  for all, and if not  they will be discarded in favour of those who are salt, who do follow Jesus’ way.

Because blessed, happy in God,  are the poor, blessed are the humble, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the Samaritans and the Roman centurions who believe in Jesus’  Way, blessed are the children, blessed are all those who count for very little.  Following Jesus makes us part of a different gang, a no borders gang.  Isn’t this one of Paul’s great themes? He had all the privileges, and gave them up gladly, his pride swept away in the torrent of the love of Jesus not the rules of privilege. . And blessed are those in Iraq and elsewhere who have also given up their lives for Jesus or for the way of peace. My way costs, says Jesus, and it’s not something we talk about very often.

This is not a threat, it’s a clear and direct invitation into the astounding world of the love of God. The rich young ruler might have suffered more but he would have been happier in the end if he had been like the man who sold everything for a pearl of great price.

Now here’s what you have to remember.

 What won’t you leave behind? In which bit of our lives does the gospel fall on stony ground? Which gang do you stay in which excludes God?

And why is it worth hanging on to? What is it doing for you?

And what would happen if you gave it to God?

Money, time, status, pride in what we do, fear of the consequences?

Maybe we need to talk about it as a church because sometimes it’s only the outsider who can tell us how they are kept out. Is it our picture of God? Is it our security?

I was thinking about how we decide what something is worth.

We can make that judgement with our pockets

I have a bottle of water. Would you pay me £2 for it? No, because calculating with our pockets says no.

Would you give me £2 for it for the roof fund? Well maybe…

Calculating with our considered heart says maybe, because £2 isn’t a lot and we’ve done a good deed.   

Or we can make a judgment about what something is worth out of pure love and compassion. My teddy Henry is beyond any monetary value. The only thing that would persuade me to part with him is pure compassion, say if a sick child wanted him, a very pale reflection of the compassion of God for us in Jesus. Only God’s compassion can totally break down the places where we hang on to things for ourselves, and keep ourselves out of God’s kingdom.  This challenging loving person Jesus shows us that the kingdom of heaven is given us freely and is beyond any price except our love for God in return for God’s passionate love for us. We were worth Jesus’ death and Jesus walks alongside us in the way of com – passion, of suffering alongside. Our judgments about whether we are part of the Kingdom are made out of the love we have for God.  

A week or two ago Heston used a quote from Richard Rohr which blew me away.

“When we attach, when we fall in love, we risk pain and we will always suffer for it. The cross is not the price that Jesus *had* to pay to talk God into loving us. It is simply where love will lead us. Jesus names the agenda. If we love, if we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world, it will crucify us.”  — Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs

The cross is where love leads us.

It’s cross shaped.

To make a cross you need two pieces and one is God’s love for us love and the other is what the way of love leads us into.

It is hard. Some of us are reading psalms ad so many of them are personal lamentations about how the writer feels abandoned, lost, apart from God, God has hidden his face. Jesus knew and loved these psalms, a hugely important part of Jewish worship. But the writer nearly always come back to how God is faithful.

It’s hard to see the faithfulness of God sometimes. But we are called to be disciples with all of our scared proud, little ourselves and that’s what this invitation of Jesus is about.

Sermon by Heston Groenewald 29th July 2018

Notes from the sermon by Heston Groenewald 29th July 2018

Reading – Luke 13:31-35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32 He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when[c] you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Here is Jesus, with tears in his eyes proclaiming judgement on his beloved city. With its people (his people) keen to pick a fight with their Roman occupiers, in the name of Jewish nationalism.

Which is very very interesting in the light of our ‘Brexit’ situation today, with our (slim) majority of EU referendum voters who chose the ‘wide door’ – the popular path of reclaimed national sovereignty and wealth.

And of course 21st century Britain is not 1st century Judea, but there are parallels. In both cases the marginalised in society are the worst affected by a nationalist agenda. And in our day and age, we have a similar prophetic role to that of Jesus amongst his contemporaries.

Jesus’ message was, don’t get so caught up with Jewish national identity, that you lose sight of (or deny) God’s bigger picture – which is about fullness of life for ALL of humanity. And God’s intentions besides, you just can’t rebel against the Romans! If you stick to your guns (swords) there is only heartache and horror in store for you. They are far too powerful, and if you look for God’s kingdom down this popular path (through this wide door) there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and you will be thrown out. All of which happened as Jesus predicted, in 70AD when the Romans decimated Jerusalem and scattered the Jewish people.

Jesus said, my beloved people, please please look through a different (narrow) door for a glimpse of the far better future that God wants for you.

Reading – Luke 13:22-30

22 Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, 24 ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” 26 Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” 27 But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” 28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. 29 Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’

The last will be first and the first will be last! Since the time of Abraham and Sarah, God’s chosen people (the Jews) had understood themselves to be ‘first’ – and therefore the Gentiles (everyone else) to be ‘last’. Jesus, in word and deed, announced that this understanding had had its day. He offered a different path, a different (narrow) door through which a different vision of God’s kingdom could be glimpsed. And in this kingdom, there was no room anymore for Israel’s national identity. God’s work within creation may have started with Israel, but was always for the sake of ALL humankind.

And so we find Jesus in the gospels challenging and expanding Israel’s ‘national identity markers’ – the Temple, the Torah, the Promised Land, and Jewish genealogy. Jesus tells his people to give up these ‘Israel First’ symbols, and to follow him through the narrow door into a far bigger future. The narrow door leads to a demanding and difficult road – the road of self-abnegation and trusting God’s power rather than the (more visible) power of the sword. But this road would lead in time to St Paul’s writing: ‘In Christ there is now no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.’ Fullness of life for ALL humankind.

How do we apply all of this to ourselves today?!

There are many ‘wide doors’ through which we can seek God’s kingdom. Lots of distractions and tempting offers which promise ‘heaven’ when we buy this item, or go on that holiday somewhere faraway and sunny, or be more like this celebrity whose life is amazing. Anything but the real day to day life that we actually live. Similarly with friendships: we can have hundreds of facebook friends or twitter followers, but they never demand the real relational hard work of one-to-one day-to-day friendship – getting to know one another, annoying one another, forgiving one another, sitting down to eat and talk with one another.

But Jesus offers us a different (narrow) door to God’s kingdom. A door called Incarnation. God meets us in a specific human body, in a specific time and place, stays with us through our darkest sickest situations, bears our pain and overcomes our self-centeredness, and offers us a whole new kind of life – both before and after death. God commits to this creation, this world, this human race, this nation, this family, this set of circumstances and reality. It’s hard work and not as glamorous as the fantasies and faraway holidays (this is partly what Jesus’ ‘temptations’ are about) – but if Jesus is right, perhaps all these things that glitter are not necessarily gold.

In the words of a colourful wonderful desert anarchist (!) called Edward Abbey, ‘only petty minds and trivial souls yearn for supernatural events, incapable of perceiving that everything- everything!- within and around them is pure miracle.’

Within and around us is precisely where God wants to meet us and shape us into Christ’s image- in the daily situations and relationships and joys and annoyances and reality that we call normal life. There are millions of escapisms and fantasies on offer, but if we can narrow ourselves down to committing to this workplace, this set of people, these circumstances, these heartaches with a neighbour, this real present demanding tedious joyful miraculous life- this is where God wants to meet us.

And it takes discipline to shape our lives to better pay attention to God’s presence. But as we do, so we can be freed from distraction and fantasy to meet God in the present moment, and in the miraculous nitty gritty of real life.  ‘Am I centered, grounded, and ready to listen deeply? Do i prepare and come ready to share? Am i mindful and present to others? Choices around healthy eating and exercise, giving time to someone in need, turning off our radios TVs and mobile phones, being truly present to family and friends, and choosing to do without more possessions, are all [good training!] (Laura Swan OSB)

There is a corporate aspect to this discipline – the shaping our life as a church – and so I am excited about our All Hallows Vision Day on Sunday 25 November.

And there is a personal aspect to this – shaping our lives as individual disciples. Labyrinths are an ancient Christian ‘tool’ for symbolically centering our lives. Jesus said, ‘where I am there my servant will be also’, and tracing the labyrinth journey can help focus us on Jesus’ presence (God’s presence) WITH US in our journey through day to day life. Wanting us to know how deeply deeply loved we are – just for being who we are, not for the things we do or for how popular we are. God loves you. God loves me. God loves us. So so so so much.

 

Sermon by Toby Parsons 8th July 2018

Notes from the sermon by Toby Parsons 8th July 2018

Reading Luke 12:1-34

Let’s imagine three friends meeting each other. It’s a bright sunny morning, there’s not a cloud in the sky and even though it’s early the sun is warm. They head down to their favourite café.  There’s a great aroma of freshly baked pastries. They sit down and enjoy a coffee or a fresh orange juice.  It tastes good.  They share a laugh and a joke, saying how much they’re looking forward to the day.

Then they each go on their way – one hops on a bus, and heads into town to plead with the bank about extending their overdraft again. One flags down a taxi, off to the hospital to get the results of their biopsy. The third walks down to the college, to sit their final exam.

There are many things in our lives that cause us to worry – finances, health and exams, to name but a few.  And, for most of us, I suspect we don’t start the big, daunting days by relaxing and chatting calmly about how much we’re looking forward to what’s in front of us.  The scene we’ve just imagined isn’t realistic. It isn’t what happens day after day in the world around us.

So when we read that Jesus said “do not worry about your life or about your body”, we might dismiss it as a nice but unrealistic call. Or we might feel guilty that we do worry – I guess we worrying about worrying.

But what is Jesus really saying in that third part of today’s reading, when he says in verse 29 “do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it”?  What’s he teaching us about worry?

There are three points I’d like to think about in response to that question. Firstly, that God shows and invites acceptance. Secondly, that taking action matters. And thirdly, that Jesus’s death and resurrection are the ultimate way of God providing for us.

 

I guess that just before Jesus starts talking about worry in verse 22, his disciples have shown some anxiety about how they’re going to feed and clothe themselves as they continue on their amazing journey with Jesus.

His response is clear– worrying isn’t necessary and achieves nothing.  He invites us in verses 24 and 27 to think about birds and flowers.  The ravens don’t sow or reap, but they’re fed. The wild flowers don’t labour or spin, but they’re clothed. And we can’t add a single hour to our lives by worrying.  It’s easy to see these verses as simply an exhortation not to worry – a good aspiration, but perhaps not all that helpful. But Jesus is also making the point that we’re valued for who we are.

Ravens don’t get a great press in the bible or indeed elsewhere. They’re scavengers, feeding on the dead and attacking the eyes first. Even British Bird Lovers Dot Co Dot UK comments that the collective noun for ravens is “An unkindness”.  And in Genesis, we read that Noah first sent a raven out of the ark when the flood was easing. It didn’t come back.  But God created ravens and values them; they’re accepted in their natural form for what they are and I suspect Jesus’s choice of the raven is deliberate.

God values the wild flowers too, giving them fantastic colours, making them a truly vibrant display.    And we read that Solomon was valued in his splendour – but Jesus knew and accepted that despite Solomon’s wealth and wisdom, his appearance could never compare with the wild flowers. He was valued and accepted for who he was, and who he wasn’t.

So there’s a call here to know we’re valued individually, for different things. Being accepted, and provided for, isn’t conditional on change – we’re accepted by God as we are. And in that context, the reminder that we can’t add a single hour to our lives by worry is perhaps an encouragement to accept ourselves as we are. Maybe we’re ravens, maybe we’re wildflowers, maybe we’re Solomon, but we’re all uniquely valued by God. And we’re all invited to accept ourselves – and, by implication, others – rather than worrying about how we could or should be different.

So… acceptance. An important part of how we think about worry. But not something that takes us away from action.

In the parable of the rich fool, from verse 13 to 21, we read about the futility of storing up earthly treasure. And you could chose to read verse 28 as a reason for not making an effort – it says “if that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown in the fire, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith”.  So God provides for flowers that do no labour and we’re told he’ll provide for us, so do we just need faith?  Can we put our feet up and relax, if only we trust in God?

Jesus’s words about worry are spoken to the disciples. A group of sometimes confused, sometimes doubting, sometimes amazed individuals at the centre of the most incredible phase of history. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be living at the time of Jesus?   Surely it would’ve been mind-blowing simply to be one of the crowd, let alone one of the disciples?  So an instruction for them to take action was perhaps unnecessary – you feel it would have almost been impossible to sit still and not be moved by what was happening, by the energy and passion of Jesus.

But Jesus does call the disciples to action in the last few verses of the passage. The instruction in verse 33 – “sell your possessions and give to the poor” – is much-debated, and no doubt worth a Sunday in its own right!  The key thing is about responding to God and about what we have in our hearts.

The small phrase at the start of verse 31 is key – “but seek his kingdom”. For the mistake of the rich fool was surely to look inwards, to be selfish, to ignore the needs that would inevitably have been around him.

There was much in Jesus’ day that wasn’t right – from the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, to the people who were shut out of their communities as unclean.  And there’s much in our own day that we’d want to change – from an asylum system that dehumanises, to the prevalence of loneliness. But Jesus didn’t just sit there wringing his hands – worrying about what was wrong. He didn’t just teach his followers, although that was certainly important. He acted in practical ways, being the one who touched those that others wouldn’t, who spoke to those used to being ignored.

Worry in its negative form is stifling, restrictive, de-energising. It can lead us not to act through fear of the consequences or of getting it wrong.  But if our heart is focused on God, if our “worry” is about things that pain God, and if we can act on that, rather than being worn down by it, then that feels in keeping with Jesus’ words in this chapter, with his call to seek God’s kingdom.

So action, to go along with our acceptance.

And of course the final point to reflect on is God’s provision for us. Jesus tells us in verses 30 and 31 that God knows our needs and will provide for us.  Our experience of prayer tells us that this doesn’t always mean that everything we need – or that we think we need – just appears in front of us.  And we know that material needs simply aren’t met in many places around the world.  Where there isn’t enough food, water, medication.

And here it’s perhaps not what Jesus says that we need to look at, but what he ultimately does. His acceptance of death on the cross, his resurrection from the grave, and his offer of eternal life.  That overcoming of death – the thing we might naturally fear the most – is the way in which God truly and completely provides for us, offering hope and inviting us not to worry.

To accept who we are;

to accept others;

to accept that we are loved and valued individually …

to act on the things that cause pain, and that place burdens on people …

and to remember the ultimate hope set before us, through the resurrection.

 

Sermon by Nigel Greenwood 24th June 2018

Notes from the sermon by Nigel Greenwood 24th June 2018

Reading Luke 11:1-28

It’s interesting how certain words become popular for a time and then fall into disuse ….. I recall that years ago, when I was a child, antidisestablishmentarialism was often used in spelling tests – yet I have to confess I still don’t really understand its meaning!

But occasionally a word brings something really special as it summarises a particular theme or trend.  For me, one such word is “inclusive” – it can mean many things, but most importantly in a social context it has a profound, extensive and vital significance when referring to an “inclusive society”.  For us as Christians, it is surely central to how we put our faith into practice – loving our neighbour as commanded by Christ, and there is of course the organisation Inclusive Church – a charity, Anglican in origin working in partnership with different denominations and churches to explore ways of becoming more inclusive and today I would like to consider what it means to be fully inclusive in expressing our faith.

Our Gospel reading this morning describes the occasion when Christ was asked by one of his disciples how to pray.  In his reply, Jesus began with a single, powerful phrase: “Our Father” – surely the ultimate expression of being inclusive.  No if’s or but’s, no get out clauses – just two simple words which draw all God’s people together. Jesus goes on to express adoration then aspiration: “Hallowed be Your name – Your kingdom come” ….. before asking for food and forgiveness – but He then emphasises our own duty to forgive others – ending with our request to avoid temptation or a time of trial.  This is a familiar passage which covers not only one of the cornerstones of both our worship and everyday living, central to our discipleship, how we put faith into practice in our daily lives and our interactions with others and relationships – but also makes clear our duty to respond to need wherever it exists,

As always, we receive guidance and support in order to do so: “ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you”.   Inspirational words which draw together asking, giving and receiving – so as we are strengthened through our faith, we are also obliged to carry this through by living the Gospel in our responses to people in need … by being inclusive.

The Lord’s Prayer gives us a rule of life, but in his reflection on the text, David Rhodes goes much further, saying if we speak the word ‘Abba’, Father, and believe what we say, we are instantly out of our depth, for it means that the Almighty and Everlasting God, whose name is Hallowed, loves each of us personally in the sacrament of the present moment.  It means that there are no barriers with God – no barriers at all.   Everyone we meet is held within that over-arching love – for this God is Abba to them too.

This reflection both motivates and challenges us as it offers what is surely the ultimate concept of inclusion, before David goes on to describe the Lord’s Prayer as dangerous and revolutionary – because  in its first word, it demolishes the boundaries between all of us.

I really like this concept of the Lord’s Prayer being revolutionary, for in today’s troubled world, the demolition of barriers is central to becoming inclusive, whether physical or practical in our attitudes or responses to situations or people.

So, where do we start ?  Well, an inclusive church is built upon an open and welcoming congregation where all God’s people are treated with warmth, dignity and respect in a way which reflects God’s own unconditional love for everyone – where people are not subject to discrimination, not just accepted but appreciated, valued and cherished for who they are regardless of superficial considerations. If I may say so, here at All Hallows you certainly model this with a congregation among the most inclusive in the land, and I recall a previous Bishop of Knaresborough saying every diocese should have a church like All Hallows.

Scripture abounds with relevant quotations compelling us to follow this vital principle of inclusion, so, if we are to reflect God’s own inclusive power and love in our daily lives as believers, living the Gospel as disciples, part of an inclusive church, we have much to learn.  Isaiah restates the depth of God’s decrees: my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Then, Jeremiah proclaimed God’s judgement on the nations “thus says the Lord – amend your ways and your doings and let me dwell in you”.  He then offers an underpinning principle of becoming inclusive, saying “truly act justly with one another”.   If only everyone were to follow this clear principle, the world would be a far better place, but too often our best intentions are compromised by human frailty.  Jeremiah’s clear words are reinforced by Micah’s inspiring phrase that the Lord requires us to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul uses powerful words to cover God’s own inclusive power and love: “those who were not my people I will call my people – they shall be called children of the living God” … So, as refugee week again draws to a close for another year, it is particularly relevant as it compels us to welcome all asylum-seekers and refugees, not only on humanitarian grounds but as an expression of our faith – “those who were not my people I will call my people – children of the living God”.

You may recall a frequently-used political catchphrase from a few years ago: “we’re all in it together” – perhaps a euphemism for being inclusive and undoubtedly true at one level, but rather too simplistic to reflect the underlying divisions in society.  Everyone has moral responsibility to contribute to the common good in society, but for Christians it goes much deeper as a full expression of our faith, truly acting justly with one another as we are told by Jeremiah.  David Rhodes concludes his reflection on the Lord’s Prayer by saying: “this one, small word ‘Abba’ – Father, blows apart the idea that prayer is a religious activity disconnected from life – for while I pray as I live,  I must also live as I pray !”

This Gospel imperative sums up the essence of what it means to be a Christian in the world today … for our Gospel ends with a clear assurance from Jesus: “blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it”.

I pray as I live, but I must also live as I pray – and we can all surely say Amen to that.