Category Archives: Sermon

Sermon by Prof Adriaan van Klinken – 22 March 2020

Notes from the sermon by Prof Adriaan van Klinken – 22 March 2020. You can see the service on our Facebook page

Readings:

Bread? Finished.
Rice? Finished.
Pasta? Finished.
Long-life milk? Finished.
Tinned food – tomato, beans, chickpeas? All finished.
And of course, toilet paper. Famously finished.

Everyone who has been to a supermarket in the past 10 days or so has seen the empty shelves.
People have been hoarding like crazy. Trolley after trolley after trolley.
The shelves in the shops are empty. The cup boards in our kitchens are full.
That is, for most of us. Not when you are a nurse and spent a long day at work, only to find empty shops at the end of your shift.
Not when your cash is limited, and you can’t afford buying food for weeks ahead.

If the Britons once had a reputation for keeping calm and carrying on, that reputation has now gone.
In the years to come, psychologists will be discussing this panic buying, the anxiety and fear it reflects, and whether or not it is irrational.

On the first Sunday of church closure because of the corona crisis, the lectionary gives us Psalm 23 to read.
Usually, in our services at All Hallows we skip the Psalms.
But in situations like ours today, the book of Psalms – basically a collection of prayers, confessions, and meditations – appears to articulate and address the anxiety and fears that many of us experience, but it also offers us comfort and hope.
In particular Psalm 23, one of the most well-known psalms in the Bible.
Take that opening line: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
A statement of faith that directly counters the tendency for stock piling and panic buying that we have seen in the past days, also in ourselves.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I will lack nothing.”

The image of the Lord as shepherd is a popular one in the Bible.
It is particularly dominant in the books of the prophets such as Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel – texts that date back to the period in which the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon.
Exile meant that their flock was scattered all over the place.
Exile meant uncertainty about the future – would they ever return to their God-given land?
Exile meant existential questions about their existence as a people, about their identity, about adjusting to new circumstances or longing back for the past.
Exile caused fundamental anxiety and despair.
In that context, prophets kept alive the promise of God. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel:

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited part of the land. I will feed them with good pasture. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 34: 13ff)

Psalm 23 can be seen as a response to this prophecy. It expresses the faith of the people of Israel that yes, this prophetic word will come true:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.

When we read and sing this Psalm today, we join a choir of people throughout centuries, who have claimed these words to express their faith and hope against all odds.
The words of this Psalm come alive to us, again.
They give us hope in these days of despair; comfort while we spend our days in self-chosen or forced isolation;
they bring relief while we may feel ill or worry about symptoms of the virus; they reassure us in the midst of uncertainty about our future.

In our gospel reading Jesus is depicted as the good shepherd who truly cares about his flock – going to the extreme to show love for his sheep, even protecting them with his own life.
Jesus is contrasted to someone who is hired, paid to look after the sheep but does not own them, and therefore is not invested in their well-being.
As soon as a wolf shows up and attacks the sheep, such a hired man will run away, trying to save his own life.
But Jesus goes to the very end – risking his life, showing deep care, true commitment.
As the good shepherd, Jesus did not even hesitate to touch people who suffered from one of the infectious diseases of his time, leprosy.
I’m not sure whether we should follow that example literally today, but we should follow it in the spirit: physical distancing does not mean social distancing.
Let’s keep looking after each other, support and care for one another, in our church community, in our neighbourhoods, in our city.

Our reading from John is highly appropriate for this period of Lent.
It reminds us of the extent to which Jesus cares for his people, us included – caring so deep that it costed him his life.
But our reading also anticipates the reality of Easter, as Jesus says: “The reason why my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.”
Because of Jesus’ suffering, his death and resurrection, we as Christians know:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
because you are with me.

In Jesus, God is with us, whatever we go through.
Even in these days of corona-crisis, when many of us suffer from anxiety, struggle with uncertainty, feel isolated, fear for our health, our jobs, our future. We are not alone.

Instead of constantly watching the news for the latest developments and updates of this crisis, can I suggest that this week we read Psalm 23, every time we are overwhelmed by what is happening?

No panic buying and stock piling, not even the multi-billion government plans to save our economy from collapse, can give us the reassurance that God offers us in Christ:

I am with you;
I prepare you a table of abundance;
my goodness and love will follow you all the days of your life.

Sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 15 March 2020

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts on 15 March 2020

Readings:

Our readings are two stories which seem to be connected by water. In the wilderness are the people who God has redeemed from Egypt, who God miraculously and marvellously brought through the terror of the water of the Red Sea. These people, who are really special to God, are now facing a different encounter with water. They are thirsty and it’s not hard to imagine how tough that was. We flinch at the thought of not enough loo roll…what’s it like to have no water coming out of your taps!

In the second story a lone and lonely woman in Samaria also needs water.

Water has significance in the history of the Jewish people. it means chaos when it’s broad and formless and threatening. Water is implacable when it’s sea.  It means things are falling apart. It may well bring death but water is also a gift of life. The psalmist walks beside still waters. In Eden there were rivers, not seas.  Jesus calls himself living water.  Water washes the disciple’s feet, in its cleansing capacity, as we need to be washed symbolically. We need to remember these symbols when we hear Jesus interacting with water.

Both these stories are about a need. However these aren’t stories so much about how those needs were met as of the way of getting the water which is wanted and the attitudes which surround the two stories.

In the first story, the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham are wandering, we are told ‘as Yahweh told them’. They were trying to obey God. But when they were desperate, they forgot all about their protector and turned on Moses, who then redirected them to God. ‘It’s God who gives water not me’ says Moses. Moses was furious for God’s honour and worship. The necessities of life will come to you…..when you honour God.  (Which incidentally was a lesson he forgot later, when something similar happened and he was excluded from the Promised Land because of his arrogance.) I love Moses, he’s such a fiery impatient flawed character. He must have been totally fed up with the people he led, moaning and groaning and expecting him to do it all, to be the one who always had to be the one saying it’s not me, it’s God you need. The people shamelessly forgot God and demanded that he do it all.

Now let’s think about the woman at the well.

We know about this woman. She has typically been portrayed as no better than she ought to be, in that funny phrase, a woman who had no husband which was a shameful thing to be. But more recent thinking suggests that she was an abused woman, a woman who may have been simply passed from man to man for all sorts of reasons, as women were in those times. She had had five husbands, legitimate relationships but probably not relationships of her choosing, and was now under another man’s charge.  Relationships enough to make her unacceptable in purity terms to the other women who came to the well when it was cool, not in the heat of the day. Relationships which excluded her from simple friendly everyday interactions by pointing the finger at her shame.

But she’s not stupid, she’s lively, she’s not afraid to hold her own. I like her. Whether I would have liked her if I’d been born then I don’t know: we all exclude people not like us, who break our codes.

Jesus the Rabbi, who is not supposed to teach women, meets her as she’s alone at Jacob’s well, at a time when she wouldn’t expect to have to face anyone. It has historic references:  Jacob met Rachel at the well, much more properly with her maidservants:  Jesus is signalling that times have changed in the new kingdom, that these excluding customs are not needed any more. Because he too is alone. It must have been a strange tense meeting: a man, and especially a rabbi was not supposed to be alone with a woman and vice versa.  This woman was already an object of shame, probably to herself as well to the rest of the town, and she was desperate for water. So, importantly, they both break the code of purity. As Jesus so often does he joins the woman in her shame, in her vulnerability and openness to criticism, in the same way as he touched the woman with an issue of blood, as he refused to condemn the woman in adultery. Jesus says if there is excluding shame around I’m in there too, taking the same shame, not one bit superior. He had to presume this would get back to the Pharisees and be one more black mark. Jesus was quite wonderfully and gloriously shameless in his inclusion. 

He began by asking for something, always a good way to break the ice. And the woman effectively says ‘how shameful’. She has the upper hand: she’s already bad so she can challenge. ‘you’re a Jew, you don’t associate with me, so because you are asking me for something I’m going to challenge you back. Why are you asking? Does she suspect an ulterior motive of some kind?

Jesus gives her an answer that in some way speaks to her: ‘if you only knew what God is offering…you’d be doing the asking and you’d get living water’, meaning  himself as the water of life. Puzzled but intrigued, she challenges him again: she claims connection with Jacob, – that Rachel meeting again! –  saying I’m as good as you in my ancestry and you are an arrogant Jew claiming to be greater than Jacob! This serious intrigued banter goes on: Jesus insists on his point about living water. ‘Well Ok then’ she agrees,’ let me have some.  No more well visiting at midday for me’.

Jesus really wants her to understand. He’s so loving to this woman. He’s drawn her interest and trust by speaking directly with her and she’s intrigued. So he goes for the jugular. God can do this: we become intrigued, we go along to church or have conversations or whatever and then we are by God’s mercy faced with the real, the terrifying and wonderful consequences of our interest in God. ‘Go get your husband and then come back’ he says. Ouch and ouch again!  It’s such a slap in the face. She must have thought she was doing quite well talking to a rabbi on equal terms, then he suddenly reminds her that she’s scum.  It’s outrageous to our ears. It must have rocked her right back to the sense she came with, of being an ashamed outcast.

But Jesus has already shared her shame. It’s so important. Jesus doesn’t approach us as someone who is trying to make us feel bad. We are loved beyond measure as Becky reminded us so powerfully last week, but she also reminded us that wisdom doesn’t come without effort, it can’t just be picked from the tree. God walks with us in the gaining of that hard wisdom, through the desert temptations, through the terrors and challenges.  Here’s another person facing a tough challenge.

 The woman meets it, she doesn’t scuttle away, she answers back truthfully, and in return gets another shock. Jesus knows her history, and commends her for being truthful. Jesus loves it when we face up to the truth about ourselves because only then can the spirit begin to work. AA knows about this – we have to see the truth of ourselves, however beautiful that often is – before we can be open to receiving. No short cuts. Our shames have to be named and transformed by the love of God. When we are known we can be loved and God knows us and loves through and through. There is no point in anything but truthfulness before the love of God.

The Israelites were shameless. They just demanded, with no recognition of their own relationship with God. But with the truthful receptive woman Jesus shares the knowledge that she has met the Messiah they both look for. She is no longer excluded: she’s known, and to be known can be to be healed.  But she has to be inclusive too because Jesus tells her that salvation comes from the Jews.

And finally nothing Jesus does is about or just about individuals. Scripture is always pointing us to the spreading of the word, and the woman belts off to tell everyone about her meeting.  The Samaritans were – although much less so now – a group who had an uneasy relationship with the Jews. Jesus is accused of being a Samaritan and demon possessed at one point. He’s not ashamed of that. He talks about the good Samaritan and the one leper who came back to thank him was a Samaritan. He was softening up the disciples’ excluding prejudices through his stories and now they didn’t dare challenge him but meekly followed him to stay in Samaria for a few days.  

So a conversation with one ashamed excluded person becomes a way into an excluded community.  The healing of one is the healing of many. I’m still thinking about how that works here, among the people who come to All Hallows. How can we too meet them wonderfully unashamed or superior, seeing the face of God looking back at us.

Sermon by Becky Reeves – 1st March 2020 – Lent 1

Notes from the Sermon by Becky Reeve on the 1st March 2020 to celebrate the first Sunday in Lent

Readings:

May my words speak your truth and be a blessing to your people.

It is so tempting to see Lent in the same light as our New Year resolutions, a chance to find something about ourselves which we think falls short and to use Lent as a chance to improve it. Taking our cue from the old monastic fast patterns we dutifully give up chocolate, or alcohol, or swearing. Of late there has been the fashion to pick something up for Lent rather than giving it up, with the encouragement to exercise more, give more to charity or read improving books.  What I suggest though is that both approaches miss the point of what Lent is for and what it is really calling us to.

The danger of engaging with Lent as we often do is that the season becomes some kind of personal improvement project,  to make a new improved version of ourselves with added or reduced features. To stage-manage ourselves into being a more holy/ more ethical/ more sustainable version of ourselves. A better Christian product. But these are products of our own making and our own design. A product ripped from the tree of knowledge before it is ripe and ready.

In both our readings today we encounter the temptation to see ourselves as products to be extended; one reading where the temptation is resisted and one where it is not.  Both readings riff on the temptation to be perfect- to aspire to be more than we actually are- to attain through foul means that which we think will make us whole and our lives complete.  To refuse the role of humanity which is to be incomplete and dependent. Because if there is one thing which makes us human, it is surely that we are provisional beings, always needing to be in relationship with God in order to find completion.  In the Genesis reading we see the voice of the tempter lure Eve to contemplate a life of perfection, being, like God, a complete being. This episode reminds us of how attractive our fantasies of perfection can be – ‘good food and a delight to the eyes’ as Genesis puts it. But we know how that story ended up…..  In the wilderness Jesus was also tempted with things which seem good- the ability to feed himself and others, definitive knowledge of God’s care -and worldly power. Jesus, however, modelled the correct response to the temptation to work to improve ourselves as a project separate from God, giving 3 instructions for how to live: ‘by every word that comes from the mouth of God’, ‘not putting God to the test but worshipping’ and ‘serving him’. It is not God that Jesus puts to the test, but Jesus himself, allowing himself to be tempted and vulnerable, and in the process gaining true knowledge which he has struggled for rather than off the peg answers.

There is nothing wrong with knowledge. There is nothing wrong with study and intellectual pursuits. But one of the many things these passages tell us is that there is no short cut to wisdom. Anything that is truly worth knowing cannot be picked up off a shelf, or off a tree. It is only by struggling with knowledge, by facing down trials, like Jesus in the wilderness, that we can come to a place of true knowledge, which goes beyond the superficial and which is rooted deep in our souls, even if the trials happen solely within our own hearts and minds. As TS Eliot puts it, ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

In refusing Satan’s temptations to improve his external holiness credentials Jesus categorically resists a functionalist approach to character, which always craves bigger and better. Jesus recognises that his limitations are not flaws, but the shape of his humanity, as a created child of God. We find it so hard to believe this- that we are loved as we are without needing to improve ourselves and iron out our dodgy bits. Without proving our worth and earning God’s grace. We have created a narrative of Original Sin which portrays us as inherently flawed and needing fixing, but this is not the story Jesus tells us about ourselves. In Lent we start to face towards the cross, the stage Jesus used to tell us the story of how much he loves us, and how God will stop at nothing to bring us back to him and show us his love.  How much he loves us already, before we have done any improvement projects. The stories God tells are always better than the stories we tell.

I challenge you this Lent to sit with yourselves neither adding nor subtracting. The real question of Lent is not what we want to change about ourselves but what we want to learn. Deep learning, which can only be drawn out over many days, like Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness.  You don’t need any resources for this, any Lent books, or diet plans, or special practices.  In the words of the Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse: ‘To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.’  Similarly Isaac the Syrian taught that the way to God is through our heart saying ‘Try to enter the treasure chamber that is within you and then you will discover the treasure chamber of heaven. ..The ladder to this kingdom is hidden inside you, in your soul.’

You are a child of God, built of the DNA of God’s universe. You need nothing more. Sit with the God that is in your depths and allow him to bring you back to being what you were created to be. Perfection is not something beyond ourselves to anxiously chase or to work towards, it is something we find in embracing the God who is waiting for us, the one who is as close as our heartbeat. Jesus knew this and it is what drove him into the desert to meet with his God and to face his doubts and limitations. It was only after this desert time that he launched into his ministry of healing and teaching. The wilderness created the silence which was needed to go deep.

It is only by giving up the striving to be better, more spiritual versions of ourselves through our own efforts, and relaxing into the knowledge that Jesus’s death is the final full stop to the statement of God’s unalterable, unflinching, unshockable love for us, that we can grow into the people we are called to be. As St Irenaeus said in the 2nd century- ‘The glory of God is a human being, fully alive’. Not powerful maybe, or infallible or even wholly good, but glorious none the less. The people who will actually be God’s hands and presence in this world. Not because we have made a personal commitment to grit our teeth and make ourselves do it for the next 40 days, but because we are beginning to live a different way- the way where our will is aligned to the will of our father, who wants only good things for us and who knows us better than we know ourselves. And so we come back to where we started- back before the fall- however you conceptualise that, to a state of grace with God- the ground of our being. …. So, if you must give something up this Lent, give up the voice which tells you that you must be more or better. And take up God’s invitation to rest in his love and to let it draw you back to being the person he made you to be. And that is good enough for anyone.

Just before I finish, let us take a moment of quiet to start a Lenten journey within, to meet with the God who is waiting for us deep in the silence of our hearts.

(light candle) Taste and see that the Lord is good………

May the Spirit lead us this Lent by unknown paths into the tombs of our hearts, and in the dark, hidden places may we be born again in you. May we too burst from the tomb, radiating the light of your indwelling.

Amen

Sermon by Dr Jan Betts 16 January 2020 – Calling (Part 3)

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts 16 January 2020 – Calling (Part 3)

If you could spend your week doing anything you like what would it be?  Watching your favourite box sets? Climbing mountains? Sleeping..I wonder..

I’ve just had a lovely holiday and when I got back what did I find? Two kinds of jobs to be done. One set was lovely, contacting friends, and family, gently pottering in my garden. The other set were not so nice – tough emails to answer,  bills to pay, the hoover has packed up, the car needs its MOT, the last light bulb has gone in the bathroom… lots and lots of jobs need doing and they have to be done or there will be consequences.

One of my solutions to getting jobs done is to get someone else in to do stuff which I really can’t do.   We have jolly chats, and I go about what I can do cheerfully while someone else does what I can’t do or haven’t time to do properly. I feel so much better for the company and the sense of parallel working which it gives me.

I have slowly come to recognise that I can’t do it all in my life at home and am comfortable with that. But what I struggle with and have struggled with all my life is how I find a balance in my ‘working’ life with God.

I know God is not interested in how much I ‘do’. I’m not ‘paid’ with eternal life for being a good worker, thank God. I have a relationship with Jesus which asks me to be wholehearted and utterly committed, as he asked the rich young ruler to be, as he asked Nicodemus to be. Despite that I have struggled with a feeling that I need to be constantly saving the world on all fronts!  As if I could!  

But in a recent sermon on the reading we have today of the five loaves and two fishes I began to join up the dots a bit differently.

John 6:1-15

What hit me between the eyes was that ALL there was in the basket which fed everyone was five loaves and two fishes. That was all.

I thought about this little lad. He was probably running about half listening to Jesus, being with his mates and his family, looking forward to lunch and his little pack up. They would taste so good and he was hungry. And maybe he was standing close to Jesus when Jesus felt sorry for this hungry crowd.

Jesus says to Philip ’where can we buy some bread’? Not where can they buy bread but where can we buy bread? The disciples were knackered and in fact Jesus had brought them to this place to rest but hey ho, the people just wouldn’t leave him alone and he felt sorry for them.

So Andrew takes the hint and goes round asking if anyone had any food with them? There wasn’t much response that we hear of. I imagine the boy is puzzled. Is he the only one who has a pack-up? But he looks at Jesus and he looks at the crowd and he says honestly and simply ‘I’ve got some food’.

The straightforwardness of children is delightful. You’re asking if anyone has any food to share -well yes he has and maybe he could spare some of it.  What were his feelings if no one else was willing to share?

So he offers Jesus his basket thinking Jesus might take a roll and be grateful. And Jesus takes the lot!!! No half measures. He just picks up the whole basket. Hey that’s my lunch says the boy. And watches with amazement while Jesus feeds everybody with it. Did other people bring out their loaves in shame? It really doesn’t matter at one level but I hope so!

Jesus asks us for all of our five loaves and two fishes. We hear this over and over again. If you want a relationship with me you have to be all in. Be born again, be willing to sell those worldly goods which you feel so responsible for, leave your fishing career, stop worrying about impressing your neighbours, or filling your barns full of corn. Come and be part of my Kingdom totally whole heartedly.

What really really struck me was Jesus wants my five loaves and two fishes but I can’t offer more than that. I don’t have olives or cheese or cake. I truly believe that Jesus would never ever ask me to be a treasurer because spreadsheets are not in my basket.  But he does ask for the things I have got such as they are, because they are part of our relationship. I can use them to feed others as well as feeding you, he says. Give me your ability to write or to organise and you will get joy out of it and so will others. And if you give me those and others give me their gifts, their financial skill, their large hospitality, their love for children, why then you’ll get that too because it will be share around for you.

Jesus wants the lot, and he wants the lot the lot from all of us but he wants only what we’ve got. I am thrilled that others care so passionately about climate change that I can hear from them and do small actions. This church punches way above its weight in terms of loving actions in the world.  I am thrilled that Hannah and others love children so much that I can share in the delight of seeing them grow as young Christians and young people.  I am thrilled that people do so much for asylum seekers here and I can contribute what I can to their work. I love the way we affirm people of every sexual orientation. I share in the loaves and fishes which other people have in their baskets to do this caring work, and we are very committed to it as a church community.

Our community is first and foremost this  Gospel-shaped caring. But is it more than that?

Let’s read Acts 2:42-47 and Philippians 2:1-11

We hear in these passages about the way in which the early church worked together, in humility, sharing the love of Jesus among themselves, being Gospel shaped caring. But they also shared  their resources. They fed each other and they took care of the widows and orphans. Lucky people they didn’t have buildings to look after or minutes to take at meetings but we do! What they did do was to give what they had and to support the community of believers.

So I am equally and perhaps even more thrilled that there are people here who share their five loaves and two fishes of talent and energy with us all when they do the chores which need doing  or there will be consequences! I am thrilled that there are people who put the bins out, clean out the chapel, work so hard and with such frustration  to find a way of getting us a new roof, write policy documents to keep us in good standing with the Diocese, who check that the fire alarms are serviced, who notice when there is litter and pick it up, who write contracts for our staff  and  serve with cheerfulness on PCC and do Health and Safety checks.   When I was on PCC we used to say that changing a lightbulb was a holy act of service and it is – it’s a loaf or a fish, and we need to see that as cause for celebration as much as anything else we do.  It’s something we do together, and we get joy out of doing it together and feeding each other. Buddying up to do stuff is so much more fun than doing it on your own. No one can do it alone.

So now I want to give you the challenge which I find so hard, and which reduces me to tears sometimes.

At least 10 years ago we looked at our small community here and our leaky church and our tired faces and we had a whole church discussion and then a vote,  praying and thinking  through whether we stayed in this building or moved out into a school or joined with the Methodists or whatever.  We committed ourselves to staying, which was a momentous decision, and we have worked and prayed to that end ever since. We turned down quite a lucrative contract because it would mean the building wasn’t available for the community during the week. We were trying to live the Kingdom and to live for the love of God together in this community. Those years since have been a long time to be working this through and we still have leaks in the roof, but we’ve done an awful lot else as well, by the grace of God.  We also – and Heston told me to put this bit in – have some tired people who have been working for that long time and need rest.  Giving your lunch, your little bit which grows to feed everyone is not a one day event, but neither is it a life sentence and what we do this year may not be what God asks of us next year.

What he didn’t tell me to put in is to share with you how many people have said they are worried about him when he goes green with tiredness. He also has five loaves and two fishes and while he gets paid it doesn’t give the rest of us leave to not share ours.

So what might be the bit of the loaves and fishes which you could offer in the next five to ten years to keep the vision of our community alive? Every little bit of offering can be transformed when we do it together in the love and praise of God as the early church did.  If we all do it together we get to have a great picnic all the time, others see how much we love each other and no one feels overloaded.

At home as I said I employ someone when I can’t do things. Do we need to think about that? Life has been transformed by having our administrator and thank God for the money that has let us employ lovely Dee to do that role. Some of our loaves and fishes may be more money rather than time, or skills.

Thinking about my five loaves and  two fishes has left me so much more thankful for what I can actually offer, willing to give God back what I have been given and to share it with the saints around me but also clear that I don’t have to offer what isn’t there.  Someone else will share their oranges – in other words do the spreadsheets. I offer what I have to my relationship with God and rest in the hope that we all share together in the harvesting  of the Kingdom.  

Our Calling – practising the presence of God

This morning, as part of our current series on “Calling” Heston shared with us about “practising the presence of God”. Here are some notes from Heston’s talk:

We seek to live in an atmosphere of praise and prayer. We aim to be constantly aware of God’s presence, so that we may indeed pray without ceasing. Our ever-deepening devotion to the indwelling Christ is a source of strength and joy. It is Christ’s love that inspires us to service, and strengthens us for sacrifice.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed. – Nikos Kazantzakis

A prayer of St Anselm
Now, my whole heart, say to God:
‘I seek your face; your face, O Lord, do I seek.’
I will seek you by desiring you,
and desire you in seeking you.
I will find you by loving you,
and love you in finding you.

The holiest and most necessary practice in the spiritual life is that of the presence of God. It consists in taking delight in and becoming accustomed to God’s divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with God all the time, at every moment, without rule or measure. We must continually apply ourselves so that all our actions become a kind of brief conversation with God, not in a contrived manner, but coming from the purity and simplicity of our hearts. — Brother Lawrence

Spirit of God, come afresh on us…
Open our eyes, that we may recognise you walking with us;
Open our ears and our minds, that we may hear your word;
Open our hearts, that your love may flow through us
and bring the blessing of new life to all we meet;
For you are the God who makes all things new,
and surprises us into understanding.
Blessing and honour and glory and power
be yours for ever and ever. Amen.

Practising God’s presence in beauty

The world is charged with the grandeur of God – Gerard Manley Hopkins

Practising God’s presence in the desires of our hearts- opening our lives to God’s grace

Song Purify my heart

Practising God’s presence in self-giving

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. – Mark 10:45

Jesus calls those who would serve him to follow his example and choose for themselves the same path of renunciation and sacrifice. To those who hear and obey, he promises union with God.

Song Brother sister let me serve you

Practising God’s presence in our daily work (calling)

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
— Matthew 5:13-16

Song Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee

Practising God’s presence in prayer and silence

A prayer of St Anselm
Come now, little child.
Turn awhile from your daily work;
hide yourself for a little time from your
restless thoughts,
cast away your wearisome distractions.
Give yourself a little leisure to talk with God,
and rest awhile in him.
Enter the secret chamber of your heart,
shutting out everything but God,
and that which may help you in seeking him.
And when you close the door, seek him.
Now, my whole heart, say to God:
‘I seek your face;
your face, O Lord, do I seek.’
I will seek you by desiring you,
and desire you in seeking you.
I will find you by loving you,
and love you in finding you.
I praise and give thanks to you
that you have made me in your image,
so that I can remember you,
think of you, love you.

Practising God’s presence in bread and wine (on Sundays) and fellowship (every day)

Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. –– C.S. Lewis

Like it or not, heaven is other people.
Did you think it was God?
You are right; but it is God in people, just as it is God in you.
— John V. Taylor

Closing songJesus Christ is waiting in the streets

Heston challenged us to spend at least a minute a day in silence, listening and waiting in God’s presence.

Heston recommends reading ‘An Altar in the World’ by Barbara Brown Taylor

Sermon by Rev Dr Angela Birkin 12th January 2020 – Epiphany 1

Notes from the sermon by the Rev Dr Angela Birkin 12th January 2020 – Epiphany 1 – The Baptism of Christ  

Readings

We are in the season of Epiphany and today is the feast of the Baptism of Christ.

The word epiphany comes from Greek and means “revelation from above”, and during the season of Epiphany we discover who the baby whose birth in Bethlehem we celebrate on December 25th is.

Today God is showing us something very important about Godself, about Jesus and about us in the account of the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

As, this morning, we are using the account of Jesus’s baptism from the Gospel of Matthew it is useful to summarise what Matthew has told us so far in the first 2 and a bit chapters of his Gospel before we meet the adult Jesus.

In our services we read bits of Matthew’s Gospel here and bits there separated by days if not weeks, so we don’t get the force of the picture that he is building up leading to today’s account of Jesus’ baptism.

It is definitely worth sitting and reading the first three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew – if you do you will read an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham, which contains four interesting women!

This is followed by Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus which in only 8 verses tells us that Jesus is divine as Mary is with child from the Holy Spirit, but that as the adopted son of Joseph is also a son of David, a messianic title as well as a family description.

Jesus will save his people from their sins as signified by his name, the Greek version of Joshua which is derived from the Hebrew verb to save, Jesus fulfils the words of the prophets in the scriptures, and he is Emmanuel, God is with us.

Jesus will manifest God’s presence with the people he has come to save.

We are so familiar with this story, or we think that we are, and we miss how amazing it is.

But is gets more amazing as the infant Jesus is visited by Gentiles, wise men from the East, who find the child born king of the Jews not in the palace of Herod in Jerusalem but in a humble house in Bethlehem. Jesus’ birth is significant for people beyond the Jewish world it seems.

Then this story which inspires beautiful  Christmas carols and  cards becomes a story of fear and horror and sorrow as the child who is Emmanuel, who will save his people from their sins becomes a refugee from a tyrant and bully who is prepared to kill young children indiscriminately to protect his position. A story that is sadly all too familiar throughout history, but is not the story expected for the Messiah, for the Christ.

When it is safe the Holy Family returns to Judah from Egypt and settles away from Jerusalem and Bethlehem where the children were massacred, in Nazareth in the district of Galilee; not a place you would expect to find God’s anointed one.

Next, we meet John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness, whose dress recalls the prophet Elijah and who is preaching the need for repentance and a new relationship with God. John baptizes those who come to him with the water of the river Jordan, baptism acting as a ritual cleansing, and tells them that one more powerful is coming who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And this is when the adult Jesus walks into the story.

The one who will save the people from their sins, who is Emmanuel, God is with us, who is the King of the Jews, comes to John at the Jordan to be baptised, insists on being baptised despite John’s protestations that Jesus should be baptising John.

“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”

As Jesus came up from the water of the Jordan the Spirit of God descended on him and God said, “This is my Son.”

Jesus, the Messiah, Son of David, Emmanuel, Son of God. Matthew tells us all this in just three short chapters.

Three things to note about Jesus’ baptism, three things to be aware of for ourselves.

Firstly, Jesus is baptized at the very beginning of his public ministry. Baptism is not the end of something but the beginning of something new.

The activity of the Holy Spirit is always creative, new and radical. John baptized with water, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire as John recognised in Matthew 3v11. Jesus experienced the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him at his baptism, and it is the same Spirit who comes to us, empowering, comforting, encouraging and guiding as we step into the future with Christ.

Baptism is just the beginning, but a wonderful beginning.

Secondly, Jesus’s baptism was followed by service to God, service which fulfilled all righteousness, service of self-offering for others. Service described by the beautiful servant song of Isaiah 42 which we heard this morning.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

Isaiah prophesied and spoke into the context of his own time but from the time of the earliest Christians, Jesus of Nazareth has been seen as the perfect fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesies.

The Messiah, Emmanuel – God with Us is also the Suffering Servant. This is the one we are called to follow, whose way is the way of justice and mercy and peace and forgiveness and love, even love of enemy.

It is not an easy way, and some of our sisters and brothers throughout the world suffer greatly in following the way of Jesus Christ, but we are never asked to walk the way alone for the Holy Spirit is with us.

Thirdly, at his baptism Jesus was not given a to do list by God. God did not say ‘If you do this, then I….’.

God said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, greatly and dearly loved is affirmed clearly and unambiguously, and he hasn’t done anything yet except come to John at the Jordan. Everything that Jesus does, his public ministry, teaching and healing, is done in the knowledge that first and foremost he is the beloved Son.

And we are adopted into God’s family in Christ Jesus.

And God loves us, each one of us.

We have done nothing to earn that love, and we can not do anything to make God love us more or less.

God loves us because God loves us because God is love.

God loves you.

Our baptism is the beginning of a wonderful if challenging journey following the way of Jesus Christ, the way of service for others, accompanied and strengthened by the Holy Spirit with the soundtrack of God’s love song “You are my child. You are dearly and deeply loved. I take great delight in you.”

Sermon by Rev Hayley Matthews 5th January 2020 – Epiphany

Notes from the sermon by the Rev. Hayley Matthews 5th January 2020 – Epiphany

Readings:

I was introduced to what3words this week. It’s a little app where the entire world has been marked by a metre square grid that has been given three unique and unrelated words. For example, sat up in my bedroom writing this the three words for my precise location on the bed were disturbing.readjusts.tension* – apt, perhaps, for sermon writing – whereas where I enjoy my morning lemon and ginger tea in the kitchen the three words are insects.performer.taps*. The aim is to help the emergency services locate you so that rather than say, ‘I’m at Bolton Abbey not far from the Strid,’ you can say starting.binds.tutorial and they will be able to locate you and your broken leg much more accurately.

But there’s one Word that covers every square metre of this earth, the universe beyond, and one star that leads us all there, past, present and future, and that word is the Living Word; Jesus born to us as one of us, and yet surpassing us all. But, like all the best things, He is secretly hidden to be found only by the true seeker – and yet hidden in plain sight so that anyone might find the hidden treasure when they least expect to.

Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this perfectly in his poem God’s Grandeur:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It is a poem that speaks so clearly of the passage in John’s gospel; just as John the Baptist was not the true Light that was to come into the world; just as the good deeds that we do should not point people to ourselves but lift peoples’ attention to a greater Love; just as the glory of the universe scattering the awesome wonder of the Northern lights across our skies is not the Light that brought everything into being; so even the darkness and dirt of life’s journey nor our suffering and sorrows can snuff out the True Light from our darkness, however dark that may be.

Three years ago I was very sick indeed and my recovery was not a given. The treatment was called ‘radical’ and they weren’t joking. Just after my first dose of chemotherapy I was pacing around my garden after midnight in desperate need of fresh air and relief from both pain and sickness. Living alone seemed harder than ever when I felt in such need. Yet it was a beautiful night; the sky was clear and dark, the stars showing off their constellations like diamonds against black velvet. I can still hear the breeze whispering through the many trees that surrounded the vicarage garden. Suddenly I became aware that although I knew it was beautiful, I could no longer feel it; no longer experience it. I realised that somewhere along the road of life the many small darknesses – and some of the bigger ones – had completely dulled my sight.

I could no longer experience or feel the beauty of an exquisite night that surrounded me with all that would once have delighted me. I could no longer see the dearest freshness deep down things – I could no longer experience God. That revelation hit me harder than my diagnosis for it seemed to be saying to me, ‘you may as well be dead, because you are dead to life already; you’re even dead to God’.  It was such a shock after so many years of devoting my life to God’s service – how could I have lost God along the way? He was in the world, and the world came into being through Him; yet the world did not recognise him.

Fast forward so many weeks of the most arduous treatment. Again, alone on my bed one summer’s afternoon, unable to move my head because the chemo-radiotherapy made me so dizzyingly nauseated I dare not move a millimetre, I said again the only prayer I could manage; ‘Jesus, heal me, protect me, save me’.

These seven words were my mantra for many months and that afternoon they were no different to any other. Yet, at that moment that sun shone in through my bedroom window in one of those piercing shafts of light where the dust dances like a thousand tiny fireflies, glittering in the light. I watched it, absolutely mesmerised by the beauty of those tiny dust particles in the sunshine – and I thanked God; the God who made even the dust able to take my breath away and fill me with wonder – even there, unable to move on my sickbed.

Better still, I knew at that moment that I was healed – not necessarily that I would recover from either the treatment or the sickness, which, praise God, I have – but that I had had my sight restored. Once again I was able to see the light that had always been around me, that will always surround me; we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truthand from His fullness we have received grace upon grace.

No wonder the writer of Ephesians goes into such a paean of praise! He just can’t help himself as he lists all the benefits we enjoy as blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing

We discover that we are chosen – so important when so many of us are in fact rejected from our own families for one reason or another; that we are adopted into the family of God, sons and daughters of a divine Mother and father who cannot but adore us; I’m not sure I fully realised just what that meant – for me to have been adopted by God – until I adopted my own two children. For God is the One who wills the very best for us and weeps with us over our faults and failings – pouring out God’s very Self on the cross in order to put that right… the forgiveness of our trespasses secured through Christ’s own blood. God’s beloved given that we might be beloved – have you thought about that?

God’s beloved given that we might be the beloved.

Then upon each and every one of us the seal of God’s spirit – that dearest freshness deep down becoming up front and centre-stage; leading and healing us into our futures as beloved sons and daughters of God.

We also discover that we are already part of a plan so much greater than any hope or dream we have had dashed along the way; a plan that in the fullness of time we shall all be caught up in the joy of a redeemed world; a world where all who have sought refuge will find it; where all who have been rejected are welcomed and belong; where all who have been abused or oppressed are freed from the perpetrators that would use and discard them as if they were of such little value when each and every one of us is of such enormous value that Jesus offers Himself that we might be freed –  our inheritance is that of the full goodness of God, why Jeremiah writes that even the priests will be given their fill of fatness writing ‘my people shall be satisfied with my bounty’.

And although at times such scriptures have been used to suggest that there is a religious elite, a chosen few, they have been given for all. These gifts are not just for the precious few; for the good and the great and the Godly, although they too shall receive their share; they are also for the poor, the lost and the broken; for the priest who knows only inner darkness and the mother who fears she may have to leave the children she has only just brought to the light; for the woman who has been so badly damaged she fears her life has been ruined and she might never know love and for the man who fears he may never know the security of a living wage; they are for the child who cares for the adults and for the child who does not know care at all; they are for the prostitute using heroin to get through her next trick and for the man hiding a gun in his Mam’s cellar while the police raid the estate; they are for Her Majesty the Queen, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and they are for the cleaners of Church House, most of whom barely speak a word of English, and who are delighted when we leave our meeting buffet trays for them because we are all too fat to eat any more.

The promise is of comfort for mourning, dancing where there was sorrow, wine, grain and feasting where there have been foodbanks and fasting; that we shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.

I don’t know about your darknesses, whether you have passed through them, whether the world seems bleak for you right now, or whether you’ve ever seen the light at all.

But this I know, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I promise you, it’s true.

I’m living proof.


[* Just in case you have tried Hayley’s what3words and found that she seems to sleep in the ocean or drink tea in the Australian bush fires we have changed the words to protect her privacy though the replacement words hopefully convey a similar meaning! If you try using what3words please remember that if you share the words connected to where you live you are sharing your home address.]

Christmas Day “Sermon” by Rev Heston Groenewald

It came upon the midnight clear 
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to all,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Peace on the earth goodwill to all, from heaven’s all-gracious king – yes please! Because peace and goodwill are things we humans can’t seem to do without help. This feels especially true in these divided weeks after the general election. One day I suspect (I hope) we’ll look back at this point in (Anglo-American) history, and we’ll shake our heads in amazement. We’ll wonder how we got ourselves into such a mess; how we let our society get so ‘broken’; how we allowed our greed and pride and self-interest to go so totally haywire. 

We need a bit of hope to break into this craziness. And that is exactly what Christmas is all about. And that is exactly what this carol (It came upon the midnight clear) is all about. But I’m grateful that the hopefulness of our Christmas carols isn’t just blind optimism. I’m really grateful that many carols are written in a minor key – rather than whitewashing everything with jolly happy jingle bells. And their hopefulness faces up honestly to life’s difficulties and complications. In today’s ‘weary world and sad and lowly plains’ (austerity society? insane working hours/culture?) I’m grateful for the sobering side of Christmas. 

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.

 At this point in history, I really need to hear the angels’ song- and I wonder if you do too?? I’m grateful to hear them sing that Jesus, who I love and serve and try to follow, was born in a barn, not a palace. 

I’m grateful that the first people to hear this good news were shepherds – outcasts – not the rich and powerful.

I’m grateful that strangers from the East – from a different religion and world view – were some of the first to perceive this good news, and to honour Jesus with their presence and presents. 

I’m grateful that the angels sang a song of peace to ALL people – but really it was only the sheep and the shepherds that witnessed it. 

I’m grateful for the sobering side of Christmas – the rough broken hurting realistic side.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise of mortal strife,
And hear the angels sing.

I’m grateful that God came to be *with us* – Immanuel – in human form, vulnerable as a baby, to share our humanity and all the mess and pain of life. 

I’m grateful to remember that for Jesus during his lifetime, there was neither fame nor power, wealth nor glory. That Jesus’ family was forced to flee to Egypt as refugees. That Jesus would grow up without a penny to his name. That Jesus would die as an enemy of the state, scorned by the crowds, and betrayed and abandoned by his friends and followers.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

I’m so grateful to hear the angels sing about Immanuel – God with us in the reality of human life. He humbled himself to live and walk with us, to share our humanity – and to show us that human life can be a sharing in his divinity. If we are ready to let our self-seeking lives be turned upside down by the endless self-giving love of God. 

This is why God was born in our midst – to invite us back to the path of love which is the blueprint for our truest humanity – love for God, love for our neighbours, love for our enemies, and even love for ourselves. 

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

In these crazy times we live in, I think the whole world needs to hear a Christmas song of peace and goodwill. So this coming year, let’s go share it with them! Let’s be angels (messengers from God) and LIVE this song in love generosity justice and joy. And for this morning, let’s be angels and SING this song of the hope we share: 

It came upon the midnight clear 
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to all,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Sermon by Adriaan van Klinken 22nd December 2019 – “Good God, Meaningless World?”

Notes from the sermon by Adriaan van Klinken 22nd December 2019 – “Good God, Meaningless World?” (Advent 4)

Readings:

The question of the existence of God is one of all ages.
In the scriptures of the world’s major religions, in traditions of myth and folktale from global cultures, in lengthy philosophical treatises, in libraries full of books – human beings for many centuries have been thinking about god – or a higher power, a supreme being, or however you want to call it.
The belief in god, or in this power or being, has taken many different forms and expressions.
Does this phenomenon we now call “god” exist in plurality – are there multiple gods and divinities out there – or is there only one?
Is “god” a person-like figure, or more of an abstract source of being and power?
What is the relationship of this god, or these gods, to the world, to us humans?

The historian of religion, Karen Armstrong, in her book The History of God, documents how the modern western idea of “god” is the result of an evolution of human thinking that has its ancient roots in the Middle East.
Scholars of ancient Middle Eastern cultures show that in the text of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, we see this evolution taking place.
Traces of polytheism – the belief in multiple gods – are visible in a text that, by and large, reflects a newly emerging monotheism – the belief in only one god.
In fact, the Hebrew word for God, elohim, is a plural, indicating its polytheistic origins.
Psalm 82 suggests that the God of Israel is the presider over an assembly of gods.
The gods of neighbouring people are presented here, not as false idols, but as lower ranked in a divine hierarchy.
Only later in Judaism, and particularly with the emergence of Christianity, the idea comes up that the God of Israel is, in fact, the God of all people.

Although for many centuries human beings have been thinking about “god”, one thing was almost commonly agreed: that something like god or gods exist.
Thus, the existence of “god” itself was out of question – the debate, instead, was about the nature of “god”.
As Psalm 14 boldly declares in its opening, only the fool says in his heart, “There is no god”.
At that time, you were seen as foolish if you did not belief in god.
And the few people who may have been such fools would only say so within the safety “of their heart”.
Making a public statement about it – publicly rejecting the belief in god – could have had serious repercussions.
Indeed, you would be seen and treated as a fool, if not worse.

How have things changed!
Today, the popular idea seems to be that the fool is the one who says, “There is a God”.
Our world is dominated by voices such as Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion became a bestseller, translated in many languages and with millions of copies being sold across the world.
In this book, Dawkins, a biology professor at Oxford, argues that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist.
The belief in a personal god qualifies as a delusion, that is, a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.
Dawkins is only one voice among many.
Since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, Western culture has slowly but steadily adopted a worldview in which there is no, or only very little, room for god.

And yet here we are, as Christian believers gathered on a Sunday morning to worship God.
Are we fools?
Is our worship an illusion of the human mind?
Is our belief in God a delusion?

When David (the writer of Psalm 14), writes about the fool who says “there is no god”, he does not so much have in mind a person who rejects the existence of god for intellectual reasons.
Indeed, such a form of atheism may have been unknown to him.
The fool David refers to is a person who leads their life as if there is no God – vile, morally corrupt, not doing good but offending the laws of God with their actions and behaviour.
As the Psalm unfolds, it becomes clear that the fool is the one who “frustrates the plans of the poor”.
He doesn’t care about the poor and those who are suffering.
He is indifferent to God who sides with the poor and the suffering, a God committed to justice and compassion.

David appears to be in despair, as he writes:
“The LORD looks down from heaven on all humankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.
But all have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
A recognisable feeling, perhaps, for those of us who are feeling desperate after last week’s election results.
Personally I do not want to be as gloomy as David – there are many people of good will left in this country, although they may have voted in a different way than I might wish.
But yes, our society, our world, can seem to be dominated by fools in the sense that David has in mind:
morally corrupt, influenced by the powers of Big Money, brainwashed by an ideology of neoliberal capitalism, buying into a consumerist culture that threatens our earth.
Fools are those who frustrate the plans of the poor, who oppose God’s vision of a just and compassionate society.

David’s cry that “there is no one who does good, not even one” also calls for introspection on our side.
We should not just be blaming other people, and call them fools (because of how they vote, how they lead their lives, the choices they make).
We should, first and foremost, think about our own complicity in this immoral world, the corruption of our own heart and mind.
That’s the beginning of a process of repentance, conversion, transformation, and healing.

Is there a link between the intellectual atheism of Dawkins and the likes, and the moral atheism that Psalm 14 writes about?
I’m not suggesting that atheists are immoral.
There are many great people who do not believe in God but are deeply compassionate, loving, justice-seeking.
And the other way around, there are many people claiming to believe in God, indeed worshipping God in church, but behaving as if they could not care less about what God, from a biblical perspective, stands for.
As Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

But intellectual atheism – the rational belief that there is no god – leaves us as humans with little ground to resist the moral corruption of our world.
There is no ultimate reality we are accountable to, there is no fundamental ground for our moral compass.
Our world becomes a place of the survival of the fittest and the strongest – and the poor and marginalised will be left on their own.

For David, the hope that we can overcome the moral corruption of our world, is rooted in his belief in God.
He concludes the psalm by saying “that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!”
David joins a long tradition of prophets and seers, in biblical times and long thereafter until today.
Prophets and seers such as the legendary Martin Luther King who are inspired by a vision of salvation to come, a dream of the world restored and transformed.
That vision does not make us sit down and wait for God to make all things new, but makes us stand up and resist the powers that be and work for a better world.

This vision is also reflected in the song of Mary that we read from the Gospel of Luke.
After Mary has been visited by an angel telling her that she will give birth to the Messiah, she bursts out in a song:
“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour / for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”
This song, often referred to in Latin as the Magnificat, has become one of the most famous ones in the Christian tradition.
It sings of God turning the world upside down – with rulers being taken from their thrones, while the humble are lifted up; the hungry being filled with food, while the rich are being sent away.
God wants our world transformed, the inequalities in our world levelled out, a vision of justice and compassion to be materialised.

The Magnificat is such a powerful song because it is not an abstract manifesto of social renewal, but is born out of Mary’s personal experience.
She was a young woman of insignificant descent, who became pregnant out of wedlock, with her fiancée ready to leave her.
Yet she was chosen to bear this precious child, the Son of God.
It is her personal experience that grounds her faith in God restoring the world and elevating the humble and poor.
Just as for Martin Luther King, his personal experience of being affirmed in his blackness grounded his faith in God giving freedom to all black people.

Personally, I’ve never been too bothered about the intellectual question of the existence of God.
One can have long philosophical and scientific discussions about all the arguments for, and against, the existence of God.
But in the end they don’t lead anywhere.
Because faith in God is not a science but a relationship born out of the encounter with the divine through which we are affirmed, elevated, and nourished.
Faith in God is not a science but is about imagination, the ability to imagine a different reality than what we see with our eyes, what we read in the newspapers, what we watch on TV.
This imagination is not just wishful thinking.
It is born out of our experience of God – not God as an abstract supreme being far away in heaven, but God as the heart of our reality.
God is not far from any of us, the apostle Paul preaches at the Areopagus, in Athens, Greece – the centre of philosophical debate at the time.
God is not far away from us, as the Greek philosophers tended to think, but God is the reality in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17, 28).

This would be the beginning of my response to Dawkins and the like, who argue that the supernatural God is a delusion.
I think of God, not so much as a supreme being out there who enters into our universe occasionally to solve things.
With Paul, I’d like to think about God as the ground of our being, as an encompassing Spirit – the one who is all around us and within us.
In the Christian tradition, we believe that this spirit is personal, in the sense that it is relational.
We can be, and we are (knowingly or unknowingly) in a relationship with this God, because the divine spirit breathes in us (to use that biblical metaphor of creation, where God breathes his breath in the first human being calling them to life).
In the Christian tradition, we also believe that this spirit, this divine breath, has been embodied to the fullest in Jesus.
Born in a manger and dying on a cross, he made God visible in the midst of this world, vulnerable but strong in his radical love and compassion.
If God is the heart of reality, Jesus is the heart of God, revealing the mystery of God.
He embodies the salvation coming out of Zion that David speaks about in Psalm 14.
In him God restores humankind, renews our spirit.

Are we fools to believe in this God?
The apostle Paul suggests that we might be:
the gospel of Jesus Christ is foolishness to the world,
but to us who believe it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1, 18)

God of mercy, God of grace,
Give us eyes to see.
Eyes to see your smiling face,
Within the mystery.

Sermon by Toby Parsons 10th November 2019 – The Eucharist (Part 6)

Notes from the sermon by Toby Parsons 10th November 2019 – The Eucharist (Part 6) and Remembrance Sunday

Readings:

“I’ve forgotten where I’ve put my keys – again”
“What on earth is that person’s name, who I’ve already been introduced to three times?”
“Which of my seventeen passwords have I used for that particular online account?”
Sometimes we can’t help forgetting things. And of course medical or age-related loss of memory can be extremely difficult for family and friends, as well as the person concerned. Conversely some memories, particularly painful ones, can be hard to put away, even if we want to.
But on some levels we have a choice in what we remember, certainly in what we commemorate. As a country – and beyond – we come together this Remembrance Sunday to acknowledge those who have suffered and died in conflict. And as Christians we remember the death of Christ, celebrated in the Eucharist.
Today, we’ll be weaving together some thoughts on both Remembrance Sunday and the Eucharist. And to do that, we’ll focus on three themes – sacrifice, pain and promise.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, guns that had injured, maimed and killed almost ten million soldiers fell silent. Battles that had raged for 51 angry months ceased. It was a moment of quiet to bring to an end four years in which the huge technical and mechanical advances of the nineteenth century were perverted into creating tools of death and destruction on an industrial scale.
The enormity of the numbers can overshadow the individual stories, and the individual sacrifices. I suspect some of us approach Remembrance Sunday with a slight hesitation. We may find some tension between feeling that we’re commemorating war or violence, and our longing for peace. We may wonder about the justness, or otherwise, of the causes are fought for. But if we think about the very real people who took part in any conflict, we see them recognising something bigger than their own needs and welfare. Whether we look at the soldiers who fought; those who worked around the clock in factories; the not-so-old children who cared for their younger siblings as their parents weren’t at home; in all these situations there’s an example of selflessness, of sacrifice.
In some cases, that resulted in them paying the ultimate price, at least in earthly terms. They remained committed to what they were doing, and to their comrades, even to the point of death. And that selflessness is something which we can affirm; putting others first is hard, in any situation. But millions did, and we remember their sacrifice on this day.
And if we turn to the Eucharist, sacrifice is of course a central theme here too. How we see Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross could be a series in itself – was he literally taking on our sin and dying instead of us? Was he showing the limitless power of love, and in doing so creating an example that brings us back to God? We could find many discussions about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice, from early Christians through to medieval figures like Anselm of Canterbury, and onto today’s theologians. I’m not going to try to unpack what exactly we mean by “Jesus dying for us” – how we see that is perhaps part of our personal relationship with God.
But I think most Christians could readily agree that Jesus’s death was sacrificial, in that he chose to give up something important and valuable in order to get or do something more important – that’s pretty much the dictionary definition of “sacrifice”. He gave up something important or valuable (his life) in order to achieve something more important (our redemption, our freedom, our relationship with God).
And isn’t that the amazing thing? That he chose to die for us. And that the “cause” he died for wasn’t the victory of one nation over another; it wasn’t the enforcing of one political ideology; it wasn’t even the defeat of a dictatorial regime. His sacrifice was about us – each of us, individually, as human beings loved by God.
So sacrifice is one of the things we remember.

We’re going to pause at this point, and we’ll come back to think about pain and promise. But as we now approach 11 o’clock, we’ll listen to a recorded version of It is well with my soul. It will then be faded out and a chime will mark the start and end of two minutes of silence.

Tomorrow will be 101 years since the armistice that brought the First World War to an end was signed. The tradition of a two minute silence on the 11th of November began the following year, 1919. The next day’s edition of the Manchester Guardian included the following description of that first silence;
“The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.
The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.
Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”
Pain. Anguish. Grief.
Many of the images of the First World War (or indeed the Second, or other conflicts) which we’re familiar with convey a sense of horror. But even so, we can underestimate the pain which so many would have felt – and so many feel today. In November 1919, parents would still have been grieving the children no longer sitting in the empty chair; ex-soldiers would have been re-living terrifying moments in their nightmares, as well as enduring physical pain. And the whole community would have been reeling from the indiscriminate flu epidemic that had taken hold and which killed more people worldwide than the war. People were hurting, intensely and in many ways.
And if we turn to the eucharist, there’s certainly reverence and reflection. There’s perhaps also chaos and a bit of fun – certainly if you were here for the eucharistic meal we prepared and shared together three weeks ago! And we do have space set aside for healing prayers each week, recognising the pain we may wish to bring before God.
But I wonder if we sometimes gloss over the pain experienced by Jesus when he broke bread and shared the cup of wine with his friends. He was facing death. And not a quiet passing, surrounded by family – incredibly hard though that still is. He was to be betrayed, humiliated, abused, and crucified. The pain – the mental anguish of anticipation; the physical suffering of the cross – would have been intense. And Jesus, as God made human, would have felt that, just as we would have done.
And, whilst terrible, isn’t that a second amazing thing? That God has experienced and knows all-consuming pain. The pain that was there in the First and Second World Wars and in countless conflicts, and which is so evident is our world now. It’s a reality, but it’s a reality that God shares with us.
So pain is one of the things we remember too.

“The war that will end war”. That was the title of HG Wells’ book about the conflict that had just stated, published in 1914. Despite the cynical or ironic slant given to the phrase in subsequent years, at the time it represented the optimism and belief that humans could move forward to a peaceful era. Woodrow Wilson, the American president who led the United States into the war in 1917, subsequently committed himself to establishing the League of Nations, as a way of bringing countries together through diplomacy, to ensure peace. Not much more than twenty years later, the world was again at war.
Thirty years ago yesterday, the fall of the Berlin Wall was being celebrated as the culmination of the largely peaceful transitions that were taking place across Europe. Millions of people felt that times were changing in a fundamental way, in a way that created new hope and promise. In the words of two East German citizens who lived through that day;
“But what I see today doesn’t just take my breath away, it leaves me reeling: the Wall is open! I can’t believe it.”
“It was the joy and the release, the surprise of it all, and the thrill of it being a shared experience.”
And yes, Germany was reunited a year later, and for many people new possibilities emerged. But walls haven’t gone away. Perhaps the ones we’re most familiar with are focused on keeping people out, rather than in, but they’re still very much there – on the Hungarian / Serbian border, or on the American political agenda. There are new walls that impose barriers, that insist upon division.
We try to learn from our experiences, from history itself. We make promises about what we will or won’t do again. We hope for the future. And it would be a pretty bleak world if we didn’t. But we find it so hard to keep those promises.
And if we turn to the eucharist, we see promise there too. Not a promise that all will be well immediately, for we know that sacrifice and pain were very much part of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. But a promise that God’s love is eternal, unlimited, and sufficient to overcome the darkest moments, even death itself.
In the very first week of this Eucharist series, Paul spoke of signs of hope and signs of love. Of a meeting place for God and people – who are sat down together, sharing food and wine, listening to one another and caring for each other, sharing one another’s joys and burdens, recapturing God’s plan for all of Creation.
And when Anna talked the second week about kingdom economics – how the Eucharist should challenge materialism and consumerism – she reminded us that God sees our intentions for good, and that even if we don’t hit the mark every time, even when we buy something unethical or fail to invite our neighbour in for tea just because we are tired, there is always forgiveness and grace.
And that’s the third amazing thing. That God’s promise holds true, even though – perhaps because – we struggle to keep ours.
So promise is one of the things we remember this day.

Sacrifice, pain and promise. We remember them in particular this Sunday each year, but we also remember in the eucharist throughout the year.
And I just want to finish, both this sermon and this series, by thinking about where that remembrance leads us.
We’re used to the familiar words of the communion service – “do this in remembrance of me”. I guess the instinct is to think of “do this” as meaning “break bread and share wine”. And undoubtedly bread and wine are central to the Eucharist. A fortnight ago Angela touched on the different beliefs about what happens to the bread and wine during the prayer of consecration, and the different practices for communion that can result. The sharing of bread and wine is a simple but powerful act, and is part of our remembrance of Jesus. But can we also read the instruction “do this in remembrance of me” as referring to the action, the sacrifice, that Jesus was about to make following that very first communion?
“Do this”…
“Do as I am doing”…
“Show the unconditional love that I am showing to my disciples and for the whole of humanity”…?
Few of us would be able to literally pick up our cross as Jesus did, and thankfully we’re unlikely to be asked to, although some of the information Jan shared last week about current persecution of Christians around the world was sobering.
But we are asked to think about how we act in this world. Our hymn at the end of today’s service will be For The Healing of the Nations. It was written by Fred Kaan, a man who spent his teenage years in occupied Holland during the Second World War. Its words touch on hatred, dogma and unequal sharing. But it highlights God’s love too, and it prays “to a life of love in action help us rise and pledge our word”.

Remembering matters.
And whilst you’ll be pleased to know that the next part of the service isn’t an exam paper to test what we’ve all remembered from this six part series, please do take the time to reflect some more. There are several books linked from Phil’s mini-website about the Eucharist, as well as all the sermon texts. And there’ll soon be some notes and questions that could be used in Rainbow groups or house groups. Have a look, and see what’s useful to you. But above all, when we come to receive communion, Eucharist, mass, the feast of life, or whatever we choose to call it; when we break bread in the name of Christ, let us remember the sacrifice, pain and promise of when Jesus broke bread for us.

FINAL HYMN: For the healing of the nations (Fred Kaan)

For the healing of the nations, Lord, we pray with one accord,
for a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords.
To a life of love in action help us rise and pledge our word.

Lead us forward into freedom, from despair your world release,
that, redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace.
Show us how through care and goodness fear will die and hope increase.

All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned:
pride of status, race or schooling, dogmas that obscure your plan.
In our common quest for justice may we hallow brief life’s span.

You, Creator God, have written your great name on humankind;
for our growing in your likeness bring the life of Christ to mind;
that by our response and service earth its destiny may find.