Category Archives: Sermon

Easter Sunday 2019

Easter Sunday morning started early for some with a sunrise service at St Michael’s Church in Headingley.

Beautiful St Michael’s

Not sure why Heston has a bottle of Bucks Fizz!

At our main Easter Service Heston took us on a quick run through of the whole Bible (again!) from Genesis to Revelation stopping at every point that a river or a sea separated God’s people from where God intended them to be and, as you can see from the photos, we had a visual representation with a ground sheet liberally sprinkled with water!

The people of Israel cross the River Jordan

“It was so wide!”

So many times God has led His people from a place of separation to a place of relationship with Himself, so many times the people have had to cross the waters that divide. But the Easter story tells of that division being crossed once and for all by Jesus, no more slavery in foreign lands, no more wandering in the wilderness. And the vision or Revelations where there is no more sea to divide (Rev.21).

Thank you Heston for a memorable (and slightly wet) Easter service and Casper for singing such a beautiful song.

Sermon by Paul Magnall – Palm Sunday 14 April 2019

Notes from the sermon by Paul Magnall on Palm Sunday 14th April 2019

Readings

Over the last few weeks we have been looking at “What do we value?” One way of identifying what people value is to see what they invest in. In what they invest their

  • Money
  • Time
  • Energy

But how do we know if we are investing in the right things? A popular way of deciding what might be the right thing to do is to ask WWJD or What Would Jesus Do? So this morning I am going to ask the question WWYV or What Would Jesus Value and contrast Him with some of the other major players in the Easter story.

Palm Sunday highlights a clash of powers, cultures, forces, movements that climax on Easter Friday through to Easter Sunday. To know what these powers valued we need to look at what they invested in and what they trusted.

So, let’s go to Palm Sunday nearly 2000 years ago.

Matthew 21:1-17

The geographical context of this story is Jerusalem. On the whole Jesus has avoided the big cities and towns in his ministry so far. He has travelled the countryside popping up in one place and another and then disappearing into the quiet and the wilderness with his close disciples. The crowds build up and then he disappears again. The authorities feel threatened by his message and seek to arrest or kill him and then he disappears out of their reach.

But now it is his time. He goes to Jerusalem for the Passover, the BIG religious festival of the Jews where they celebrate their exit from the Egyptian empire and their freedom from slavery.

Central to this are the religious leaders, mainly the Pharisees.

The Romans were the conquerors. They were in charge and everyone knew it. A big Jewish religious festival celebrating freedom from empire meant there was a huge probability of trouble, protests against the Romans, even an uprising. So Pontius Pilate, governor of the region, would leave his base in Caesarea with a substantial force of soldiers to travel to Jerusalem to keep the peace. Caesarea was a nice Roman town on the Mediterranean coast, not a crowded, smelly, provincial city. And so Pilate arrives along a Roman road from the west to enter by the West Gate of Jerusalem, the entrance lined by local people forced to stand and cheer their Roman conquerors.

Another group, ever present, and one of the reasons the Romans left their nice coastal resort were the rebels. There were lots of different rebel groups who wanted to throw the Romans out of Judea and claim it back as God’s own country. Their big uprising would come later but for now they were a thorn in the Romans’ side, appearing, causing mischief and then disappearing again. They could be anywhere! They couldn’t quite get their act together but one day they would and that would lead to a major catastrophe with the destruction of the Temple.

And so to Jesus. As I said earlier, he had travelled the countryside and avoided the big centres of population. But now it was time, a nursing donkey and it’s baby donkey were organised, Jesus gathered his disciples and followers and rode into Jerusalem via one of the Eastern gates – both of which have huge significance which I haven’t time to go into here. And instead of long faced locals being forced to cheer he was surrounded by people who were genuine in their cheering. Such a contrast to the Imperial forces entering the West Gate – do you think Jesus was making a big point here?

So, what did these different participants in the Palm Sunday story value? What did they invest in?

The religious leaders, the Pharisees

  • They valued the law. They invested their time in studying the scriptures in order to determine how to be pure and set apart for God. They wanted to be as white as snow and get every detail right. They believed that if everyone in Israel was pure then God would drive out the Romans and Jerusalem would be restored to its former glory. (And we know what Jesus thought of this – he called the religious leaders whitened sepulchres and condemned the way that they imposed their moral correctness onto the rest of society creating a burden for the already downtrodden)
  • They valued the Temple – the centre of worship, the place where God dwelt amongst them. This for them was the place to be. And having Jesus talk about the Temple being demolished and rebuilt in three days was a threat to them.
  • They valued peace. Even if it was Pax Romana. The Romans were clever, they allowed the Jews to have their religion as long as the religious leaders kept the peace. And the Pharisees were rewarded for keeping the peace with money and land (something that was actually against the Jewish law … but then they just reinterpreted the law!)
  • They valued order, hierarchy, control, everyone in their place and theirs was at the top.
  • The outcome was that the religious leaders kept their place and privileges, the Jewish faith and practice was tolerated by the Romans, order is kept but the poor and weak are trampled on and kept in their place. The prophet’s words of justice, mercy and humility are ignored. (The next few chapters of the Easter story after the entrance into Jerusalem are about Jesus challenging the religious leaders and what they valued).

So, to the Romans.

  • They valued Empire, power and control. Their empire dominated the known world. They invested in their military so that they could control the nations that they had conquered and could defend and even expand their borders. They invested in roads and transport so that they could move their troops quickly to any trouble spots. I can imagine Caesar reclining on his couch when a messenger arrives.

“The English are revolting!”

“I know” says Caesar “they never wash!”

“No” says the messenger, “Theresa Maydica has declared something called Brexit and they are going to leave the Empire”

“Quick” commands Caesar, “Send our legionnaires Merkel and Tusk to stop them!”

  • The Romans valued the wealth of the nations that they controlled. In Judea alone they invested in the fishing industry, vineyards and olive production just to name a few. Fisherman like Simon Peter and his brothers would have to provide the Romans with fish who barrelled them up in brine and transported them along their excellent transport system to the markets in Rome. Land was grabbed from local farmers to turn into vineyards to make wine for Roman consumption. When we read about miracles and parables involving fish or wine they may well have had a much deeper, social or political meaning!

The Rebels or Zealots

  • They valued freedom from Roman control, they wanted their country back. Different groups had different ideas of how to do this but they all invested their time and energy in finding ways to subvert and overthrow the Romans, usually at huge expense to life as the Romans would just string them up on crosses if they captured them, or send them to the amphitheatres to fight lions or gladiators, or even demolish whole villages.

And so to Jesus. What Did Jesus Value? What did he invest in?

  • People. Jesus seems to have spent a lot of time with ordinary people, sick, poor, people on the edge of society, the needy, those who knew that something was missing in their lives, people who were hungry for something better, who hungered for justice and peace (see the Beatitudes).
  • Jesus invested in these people by listening to them, caring for them, loving them, by bringing God to them. As Jesus said to John the Baptist when asked if he was the one that God had sent “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Luke 7:22 NIV
  • Jesus invested in ordinary people and valued them for who they were in the sight of God – part of God’s creation.

I believe Jesus had a vision, a dream of what the world should and could be like (Martin Luther King caught some of that dream). How the creator God had planned it to be like. Jesus wanted to share that dream by showing it happening, letting people know it was possible even with the forces of empire and domination against them. He was investing in what God had invested in when she created the Universe. It is a dream or vision that the prophets saw and spoke of ….

Micah 4:1-4

What Jesus was investing in is what he described as the Kingdom of God, not a place where the 1% live in ultra-luxury at the expense of the 99% (is there a parable there?) but where we all live together in the “Joy of Enough”, where there are no wars for control of oil fields, there are no climate refugees, no children picking rubbish off landfill sites, where we don’t have more plastic than fish in the ocean, people dying from polluted air or water. “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid”

As Jan said last week, God is passionate about Her creation, about us, about the world in which we live. This is why God invests in us!

 

On the sixth day God saw what he had created, what he had invested in and it was very good.

God so loved what He had invested in He sent His only son….

Jesus believed so totally in the Creator’s investment in us, in the whole of creation that he came and invested his whole life, even to death, for you, for me, for the whole of God’s creation.

Do we know our value?


Notes:

Some websites about Palm Sunday and the Eastern Gates. Apparently there are two Eastern Gates, the Golden or Mercy Gate (see websites below) and the “lamb” gate through which the lambs were taken to the temple for sacrifice. Both gates brimming with significance that we never seem to hear about on Palm Sunday!

Through The Eastern Gate

In through the Back Door

Shaken to the Core

 

 

Sermon by Dr Jan Betts 7 April 2019

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts 7 April 2019

In the name of God, passionate creator, redeemer, sustainer.

Today is Passion Sunday. It’s traditionally about the beginning of the last two weeks of Jesus’ human life and the suffering which went with it.

But when we think of the word passion we don’t usually go to the word suffering. We think of things we care about very deeply, which we’re really, really committed to, and today I want to link those two meanings, of our deepest convictions and desires and Jesus’ suffering.

Passion v Enthusiasm

But when I talked to various people about the question of what makes them passionate we came up with the difference between passion and enthusiasm. People said they were passionate about things like curry or being in the mountains. I’ll talk travel or gardening or books with enthusiasm. But passionate?  I wouldn’t go to the wall about whether Jane Austen is a better writer than J K Rowling. But I would take a lot of abuse if someone disrespected me or other women as a woman, or if someone disrespected a homeless person. Passion, we decided was something else. It’s when you would be willing to really fight for something, where you feel anger and massive delight and hurt and you can be illogical or cruel or be willing to be abused for it.  That’s a bit different to enthusiasm. Passion is a kind of hunger. It’s about what is at my heart. And I could and do dream of being quite violent towards someone who has offended my passions and I can and do give way over the odds of myself to someone I am passionate about. Our passions, show us what is important to us, where we are wounded and where we laugh and love and feel alive and joyful and free.

We’re not often invited to think about either our passions in the light of our faith. But we do have longings and passions, because we’re made in the image of a passionate God.

Invitations to passion

There are some wonderful spiritual traditions which do ask us about our desires and passions. St Ignatius of Loyola has a series of quite gruelling exercises which are all about ‘what is that you desire’ and which take people  into some very tough places. The author of the Song of Solomon celebrates our physical passions. Alan Ecclestone, a committed passionate Marxist priest, wrote that it is the job of prayer – and so the job of life – to refuse to be disengaged, to be constantly passionately committed.

So point one. Our passions show us where we are focused. What we long for. We are right to listen to our desires and to ponder what our passions are, where is the heart of us. If we could ask God to do one thing what would it be?

Let’s listen to a passionate fearless woman …

John 12 1-8

Jesus sorts out our passions

Mary was the one who went and listened to Jesus when Martha was cooking. She was passionate to know and follow what he said, to treasure time with him.  Jesus said this was good and smiled at her and I bet in this story they also both enjoyed the wonderful small of the perfume – perhaps quite a sexy moment? Women must have loved Jesus passionately, even if he was unavailable – Mary Magdalene in the garden was desolate. But Jesus was there to show them that passion needs to be focused not on possessing but on giving. ‘Mary, he’s saying  I know we like each other but there’s another way, a better way and you have learned this, which is why you have done this to me now…..’

And now a man of a very different type but with his head and his passions turned around 180’ by Jesus

Philippians 3 4b-11

Jesus ministry so often pinpointed people’s passions and challenged them. The rich young ruler – you think your passion is to serve God but let me ask you what you won’t give up, let me turn your passion for being a good Jewish man into being a follower of life? The woman at the well – you think you want security with a man but let me offer you a different more challenging kind of security and see if that’s what you want? To the fishermen – you want to fish – but let me make you different fishermen and see what happens… Zaccheus you want money, you think, but let me show you what can be done with money when you don’t want it more than anything. Then here to Saul – your passion is to make people keep the law, to explain it to them as a Pharisee would, but let me offer your passion a different direction, a direction of life? Over and over Jesus found the passion and challenged it to be turned from self-serving, feeding our own hunger, to the service of others and of God. He challenged people to lose their slavery to passions which hurt them and others to passions which freed them for love.

What we want passionately is so often not bad in itself but we can often try to meet those longings in wrong, self-focused, disordered ways.  How can we find the good in our passions? We can want things – but not at someone else’s expense. Satisfying our passions at someone else’s expense leads to abuse. Often this happens because we are looking for security in the wrong place. We get scared and then we get focused on our own needs alone.  Asking God to align our desires with hers, to trust her to make them rightly ordered, is the first commandment.

And it’s tough. None of these biblical examples found it easy to give up their scared passion and just go for the one which led to a more risky life focused on giving as well as receiving. Even Jesus was terrified in Gethsemane. He felt abandoned on the cross. Wanting to be aligned with his Father’s will was utterly awful for him. But as he had said all through his ministry, this way of loving passion to be about his father’s business, the business of the kingdom, was the only way.

So point two: Good passion is focused on the good of all, on the spreading of God’s love for all including ourselves, not on possessing others in any way. We need before God and with God, to sort out our orderly passion from the disorderly. NOT necessarily the right from the wrong. And it’s not easy.

I said we are made in the image of a passionate God.

So point three and most importantly: what is God passionate about. Because this is what enables us to be rightly passionate.

God is passionate about you, about me and about all creation. God is passionate about helping us to live as she wants us to live.  That’s what connects our two meanings of passion, the joyful love which leads to suffering.  Following the passionate way of Jesus is sometimes about suffering and abuse, as well as about freedom and joy because it’s not the disordered way of satisfying our own passions above others, of always in whatever way seeking our own passions. The two go together.

And we get managing our passions wrong. BUT God the passionate father/mother is always standing watching for us, day after day waiting for us to appear at the turn in the road leading back to the house where we belong. Always, all the time, God wants us to be in relationship with her, doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly and having fun. The passionate love shared between the trinity and all creation was what led to Jesus human passion, and suffering and then to resurrection. God trusts us to be passionate about being part of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, about loving fully and being alive to our passions. What are our passions and how can Jesus turn them for us into passions which free us rather than enslave us, get rid of our fears not feed them?

In the next two weeks we read with horror of the way in which political agendas were played out in first century Palestine to kill this man who stood for fearless passionate love, truth, life, and light? He was real and he was killed for it. And that still happens. We pray for peace but we pray also for those who are passionate about the way of Jesus and suffering for it to know God’s sustaining love as they hold to that passion. And we pray for each other to be challenges as we follow Jesus’ hard journey this Lent, and to be released into our own joyful passion for God.

Paul’s prayer:  Ephesians 3 14 – 19

Sermon by Angela Coggins 24 February 2019

Notes from the sermon by Angela Coggins on 24th February 2019, the third and final part of our series “building a house / church / lives where love can dwell”

Readings are from

Its lovely to be here and to be given the privilege to preach. Thank you to Tony for letting me pinch his sermon slot at late notice. A little bit about me as I am new to All Hallows, and I’m sort of passing through. I am in my third-year training to be a Reader, which is essentially a lay minister. I was encouraged to find a church placement that was different to my own church setting, and so I grabbed the opportunity to come here as I’d heard so much about All Hallows and my church, St Michael’s East Ardsley, donates our harvest festival produce to the Rainbow Junktion Café. You may have seen me dotted about the place taking notes, as there are so many wonderful things happening here that I don’t want to lose count. This sermon will be assessed by a variety of good folks in the congregation, and if you have any comments, observations, please do pass them on, as I’m learning and need to know!

This brings me to the theme at the end of this 3-part sermon series on Building a house/church/lives where love can dwell. There is so much already been covered by Jan, and Anthea and the readings also lend themselves to further explorations, so I’m just scratching the surface. There’s so much I want to bring in, but I’m going to try and be focussed and disciplined!!!! The 3 themes of construction connectedness and community came to mind. – how do we build, how do we keep going and how do we relate to each other? Using the parable of the two builders and the passage in Ephesians describing being built together with Christ as Cornerstone.

Construction. The story of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew is so well known, some of us can probably remember the Sunday school song -the wise man built his house upon the rock ……and sometimes when we hear a parable so often we might not be fully attuned to its dramatic reception for those original hearers.

The gospel reading from Matthew 7 comes as the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount,
Let’s just pause a while – the Sermon on the Mount, the radical humanifesto of kingdom values – Jesus’s call to moral and ethical living, confronting social injustice and the abuse of power, seeking the restoration of human dignity and honour otherwise known as “entry requirements of the kingdom”. The call to be not only hearers but doers. Jesus said “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
Construction – Jesus knows about construction, the importance of foundations, He was a carpenter and therefore in the building business. Living in first century Jordan valley, sudden flash floods, sandy river beds, were features of the landscape. We have all seen enough on our news screens to have an idea of the damage effects of extreme weather, rain, streams, winds. So obviously good strong foundations are vital. Digging the foundations requires effort, application and patience. Perseverance even. Digging right down to the bedrock.

It’s fascinating to see how many times the imagery of rock, of foundations, of cornerstones are used in connection with Jesus. There are huge amounts of study to be done looking into connection with the Temple but not time here this morning to pursue. Certainly, throughout the New Testament Person replaces Building. Peter declares Christ as the living stone, Paul in Corinthians Christ as the Rock, Jesus, himself, refers to the stone which the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone. The cornerstone, the precious stone, in construction terms – the stability of the whole building, depended upon it. Being lined up, using it as a measure – “the Holy Spirit level” as it were.
All Hallows is facing a time of construction, the building to be repaired, refurbished. So looking at foundations and what makes up the precious cornerstone, is rather apt. Jesus as our cornerstone, by which we measure all our actions, words, doings.
So the challenge to us is to hear and do – to be like the wise man building on the rock. All Hallows leads the way!
But this has a cost – This can appear so overwhelming, can’t it, to live a life of complete integrity, living by the standards presented in the beatitudes, loving enemies, not judging, not serving two masters, not worrying, always producing ‘good fruit’? Being tested, by the storms of life, utterly exhausting after a while in our own efforts. We soon come to the end of our own resources when faced with these enormous challenges. But Person replaces Building.
Jesus replaces the Temple.

So that leads us onto Connectedness (a bit of a clumsy title – but it begins with C!) Thankfully the foundation is built on our relationship with Jesus. We are not about following some specific ethical formula but attending to a specific living person in Jesus. Who brings, through the Spirit, in union with the father and mother of us all, renewal and refreshment, who energises and replenishes. We are called into a relationship of intimacy and mutual affection, radical grace, and unconditional love. Which we live out in the power of the spirit.
Our daily challenge is to attend to this relationship, through prayer, through reading through being still before our Maker.
My weekday life I am an adult education tutor, teaching parenting, mindfulness and emotional well-being. Mindfulness is very much in vogue at the moment, learning to live in the present moment, being intentional, and paying kind attention to oneself and others. Where unconditional positive regard, non-judgemental acceptance, are recognised as vital for health, healing and wholeness. This is lots of counselling-speak for love. Where we are encouraged not to not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Sound familiar?
Our challenge is to be more mindful /still before God, to give space in stillness, to hear the Word of life, to be transformed into those Living stones where God the author of Love, can dwell. Some people find icons helpful, particularly this one representing the Trinity painted around 1410 by Andrei Rublev
The image is full of symbolism – designed to take the viewer into the Mystery of the Trinity.
Look at the colours, the gestures, the shapes,
Figures arranged with a space for viewer to complete the circle.
Hospitality, invitation, spiritual unity, mutual love, shared communion.
Come follow the Spirit up the hill of prayer.
Come, live in the shadow of the Son of God, rest yourself beneath his tree of life.
Come, journey to the home, prepared for you in the house of your Father.
The table is spread, the door is open. Come.

To connect and be made welcome. As the letter to the Ephesians says “and in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

So we move on to our final theme, Community.
The life of such a vibrant and eclectic RAINBOW community as All Hallows is amazing to behold. Have you any idea how exhilarating it is to be around such an affirming and loving and creative community??? Where one of your church wardens is 22 and chairs PCC’s with great flair? Where you provide a space for children to learn trapeze skills combined with knitting! Where your welcome and hospitality set the standard, and are what Henri Nouwen reminds us essential for healing and wholeness. The list goes on.

As an observer, there is so much to see and give thanks for. A community of ‘Living Stones’ where all are welcome, (the refrain from that beautiful hymn we sang a few weeks ago ‘All Are Welcome’ – which is like a pleasant ‘ear worm’ – I can’t get out of my head). An activist church, which hasn’t got a traditional congregation like other congregations, it has groups of friends meeting up together, so Jean described to me. A bunch of friends who meet up to share Jesus’s love. A rainbow group of friends drawn together to live out that humanifesto of Jesus, calling for social injustices to be righted, to proclaim better stewardship of this beautiful planet we call home. A safe place – just to be. A touching place. All Hallows, creating spaces where we can be reminded that we are made in the image of God, a son a daughter, never strangers but fellow citizens. Where hospitality is deeply embedded in your DNA .In community, in communion, sharing bread, sharing wine, sharing lives. Setting the table for the whole world.

What makes up community? I’ve just returned from Denmark after visiting my daughter who is studying there. I was reflecting on the description of Denmark being one of the happiest countries on earth and what constituted such a title. Something about the value and worth they give to people. Smallest pay differential in the world- from carer to doctor just over2x salary. Peoples roles are valued more. Families are supported way beyond we could ever imagine. Students are paid to go to university – because why wouldn’t you want to support young minds being stretched and challenged? The emphasis is on people meeting up around the table, sharing food and friendship amongst stylish furniture! (Even the students) Everything is ‘hyggeligt’. The land of lego and construction, Lego means to play well. Community -value -worth -sharing around the table. All Hallows has it in shedfuls. The challenge ahead as you grow and numbers increase, is to be able to sustain/maintain/ encourage this Christ shaped community to continue. All-inclusive worship, every member ministry, Rainbow groups and house groups, the Junktion café, the quiet conversations, the practical support, go a long way to establish this. Through Christ we are all intrinsically linked, we are all embraced by grace, and our prayers, like those of the Ephesians with Christ as our corner stone. “The whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit”. That we may continue to be a community, connected and constructed Where love can dwell, and we can be fully human, remade in God’s image. Amen.

Just another brick in the wall!

On yesterday’s wander around Fountains Abbey this weathered multi-hued wall caught my eye. Today’s Sunday message took in Pink Floyd’s bleak “just another brick in the wall” along with Isaiah’s call to be rebuilders and overcomes of injustice. #beautifulstones #uniquelyshaped #weathered #acidrain #fountainsabbey #sundaymessage #radical #renovation #nofilter

Janet Lindley

Sermon by Rev Anthea Colledge 17 February 2019

Notes from the sermon by Rev Anthea Colledge 17 February 2019

Isaiah 58:6-12
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday. 
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
   and satisfy your needs in parched places,
   and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
   like a spring of water,
   whose waters never fail. 
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
   the restorer of streets to live in. 

 

Matthew 16:13-18

 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

 Sermon

Thanks Heston for inviting me here today. It’s been a while but I always enjoy being around All Hallows folk. I work at the four central Leeds universities as their Anglican chaplain, but mainly at the University of Leeds. I’m also a part-time student at the University, so I’m really pleased to be here speaking today on Student Sunday. And of course it’s lovely to have faces I know from the University here today. And only very very slightly worrying that one of those faces belongs to one of the academics from the department where I’m a student…

So this is student Sunday, but I believe you’re also in a sermon series on the theme of building. So I had a think about how to bring those two things together, and what I came up with was – Pink Floyd. Anyone want to hazard a guess why?

The song – another brick in the wall. I was going to play it at the start of the sermon, and then I listened to it, and thought no, that’s going to depress everyone. But can anyone remember the lyrics?

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

Round where I grew up, all the schools had been built at the same time, and they all looked the same, and were all built out of those small red corporation bricks. So when I hear Pink Floyd’s song about a particular kind of rigid and oppressive teaching that’s what I imagine – walls of those red bricks, all looking the same, no creativity, just dull.

Of course, today’s students have decided that they do need education. And university education definitely isn’t intended to squeeze everyone into the same boxes, and it has nothing at all in common with the negative kinds of teaching Pink Floyd were talking about. But that fear of conformity, a fear of being all the same, of just having to accept the status quo – that fear still exists.

The stage of being a student is often a time of transition for people, maybe because they’re young and starting out in adult life, maybe because they’re older and changing career, maybe they’re not able to work and they’re studying part-time as part of their recovery. That kind of transition encourages you to think about your place in the world, and students often express that kind of fear that they might somehow end up becoming just another brick in the wall. But I don’t think it’s exclusive to students – from time to time we can all share those feelings.

So for anyone who shares that horror of being just another brick in the wall, there’s good news from our two Bible readings, both of which touch on this theme of building.

– Isaiah 58 is a text of dissent, an internal critique of the prophet’s own religious community that leads to an image of the community as creative and restorative builders

– And part of Matthew 16, that talks about being known and named by God as an individual, specifically Simon being called Peter the rock

Isaiah 58 was most likely written during what’s called the exile – at this point Jerusalem has been destroyed, the holy place, the Temple has been destroyed, and the people of God have been scattered, forcibly sent away from the places they call home. They still have a strong sense of being the community of God though, and twice a year have periods of fasting and prayer, setting aside time to give up some of the comforts of life and focus on praying and worshipping God. In fact it’s probably more accurate to say that the fasting wasn’t just a kind of spiritual discipline, as people might think of it today. The fasting was part of their worship of God and part of their life together as a religious community, part of being in a right relationship with God, not just as individuals but also as a community. They had lost their home, their sacred place, and their king, and they brought this before God in their fasting and prayers, looking for God to help them in their troubles.

For these people of God, everything had been broken down. The city of Jerusalem and the holy Temple have been reduced to piles of rubble.

In the verses just before our reading started, we hear them complain to God:

‘Why have we fasted,’ and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

In other words, come on God – have you seen this mess? We’re trying our best here, we’re fasting, we’re praying, we’re worshipping in exactly the way that you told us to… We’re trying to rebuild this people, this community, and we’re being really careful as we do that we follow the rules for building – look, all the bricks are the right size and shape, the regulation size and shape, and still there’s no sign of you.

God doesn’t say, yes I’ll rebuild this for you. Instead, the prophet Isaiah offers quite the criticism of his own community. Isaiah points out that while the people are careful to fast and pray in the way that they’ve been commanded to do, they aren’t so careful about the rest of their behaviour. Even on the day of fasting they’re exploiting their workers and behaving violently to each other. Is that the kind of fasting God is looking for? Isaiah says not. Instead, we have the words that we heard just earlier:

THIS is the kind of fasting I have chosen:
loosening the chains of injustice and breaking the yoke of oppression, sharing your food with the hungry and not turning away from your own flesh and blood.

And then a promise to the community: IF you do this kind of fasting, then your light will rise in the darkness.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of broken walls,
   the restorer of streets to live in.

The Matthew reading is a different kind of dissenting text. In Caesarea Philippi, a town named after the emperor Caesarea Augustus, Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?” It’s Simon who dares to step forward, answering, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Quite a political claim to make in that place of empire.

And Jesus blesses him, and then calls him Peter – sometimes translated as Cephas, or in Greek, Petros, the rock. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus sees something in Peter and names it, with a joke – you are Rocky and on this rock I will build my community. Tradition tells us that Peter was initially an unlikely candidate for a nickname implying stability and solidity – he rushed in impetuously, spoke before thinking, and denied Jesus. On the other hand, a rock might crush some things on the way down but once it’s in place it’s not likely to move… On another day perhaps we would want to think about what Jesus might see and name in us as he builds us into the church. But for today it’s enough to see that the kind of bricks that God uses to build God’s church are never ‘just another’ brick in the wall.  We are individually known and named.

Far from the oppressive red brick wall of my imagination, these readings are about liberation. A life-giving and generous community in which food is shared, injustices are challenged, and heavy burdens lifted becomes known as the builder and restorer of broken walls. Peter recognises Jesus as Messiah and in turn Jesus recognises Peter as a rock, one that will be built into the church.

So having talked about red brick walls, I want to leave you with a different image. This isn’t one where all the bricks are the same and a wall can be put up in a day if you know what you’re doing. Think instead of a dry stone wall where all the irregular shaped stones are carefully chosen, and then fitted together, and a wall takes weeks even when you know what you’re doing. I’ve known more than one person going through a divorce take themselves off on a dry stone walling course. There seems to be something about the process of choosing and then fitting stones into just the right place that’s almost like meditation. And of course, the walls will withstand the wind and rain for what, decades, if done well. When we talk about building and being built by God, that’s the kind of building we’re talking about.

Amen.

 

Sermon by Dr Jan Betts 10 February 2019

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts 10 February 2019

This is the first of three sermons on building, which lead up to Lent and further into the future to our AGM and on beyond that. We want to think about what kind of church we want to build and are building and how we go about building.

We’ve done some building already, literally, in our toilets and a big hand for the building group, if anyone wants to join it hurray!!!!! And we have a leaking roof.

But today I want to focus on a really exciting Old Testament story where they had a similar problem, of communities which needed encouraging broken buildings which needed fixing . We don’t often focus on the OT but Jesus was steeped in it and built on it, no pun intended….

The two books of Ezra and Nehemiah are really one book, a slightly confused book in terms of timeline but telling a real story about two men who were prophets and builders.

Both these men were exiles. They had been swept up into the great empire of the Assyrians who held sway about 4-500 years before Jesus was born. It was a tough time for the Jews – remember ‘by the rivers of Babylon’? That was the Jews in exile. They were ruled by some ruthless and very clever kings, who actually respected local people and customs and who seem to have been impressed with some of the people who came from Jerusalem because Nehemiah we know was the king’s cupbearer, a very trusted position as he could easily poison the king if he wanted to – not that he’d have lived long afterwards!

Really importantly, both Ezra and Nehemiah seem to have kept their faith in God alive in exile, and for it to be known about and accepted as long as they were still loyal to the king. The problem of what to with minority groups was a live issue then as well.

Both Ezra and Nehemiah were concerned in their exile about the state of Jerusalem, about the worship which was happening there and the state of the buildings. We know more about Nehemiah, who one day had a message that the walls of Jerusalem were falling down and no one was doing anything about it. The temple was OK, but the great walls which were important as part of the city of God were in pieces, crumbling and making it very vulnerable. The walls were as much part of the city as the temple, illustrating the protection Of God for his people. Without walls, the people of God are disgraced and look defeated, as though without a protector.

So Nehemiah has a tense moment about what to do.

Reading – Nehemiah 2: 1-10

This is our first point about building our church. Nehemiah trusted God. His building had solid foundations. Let’s go on and see a bit more about how this works.

Nehemiah was sent back to Jerusalem as a Governor in Judea, with a promise to return, and was given all the resources he needed to build the walls. He was clearly a man who absolutely kept his word.

When he got there he was really clever because he’d learned from a master ruler. He was very quiet about what he was up to and took a small group of men out to inspect the gates by night, walking round the walls from the northeast corner to see how they were and he was horrified. In the same way Ezra had been horrified a few years earlier when he went back and found the temple worship in disarray and spent time teaching the people the history of their nations covenant with God and beginning to set in place the great story of the Jewish nation and their covenant with God. They both knew that the basis for their faith was the faithfulness of God and no building would ever last without this knowledge.

Jesus made this clear to his disciples too when he called them in Luke

READING – Luke 2 1-8

Jesus says to the disciples ‘look you think you know stuff but actually unless you trust me you can’t do it’. if we are to build anything, be it ourselves, our community our building we start by remembering the faithfulness and love of God in Jesus, as E and N remembered the covenant of God with his people.

Last week Graham asked what we were expecting when we came to church and that was a beautiful thing to ask. Today I want to continue that theme by asking are you here because you trust God to be here with you in some way, that however bad or good you might be feeling God has given us her love totally and we believe that? Are we here because we know through the work of God’s spirit, however dimly that God loves us and is the foundation of our faith? ‘Except the Lord build the house they labour in vain who build it’. ‘Build your house on rock not sand’ says Jesus. What happens to our sandcastles….

The foundations are the key to any building. Nehemiah called together those who still trusted God and they set to work.

So here comes the second bit of building principle. Nehemiah made the people work together, in Rainbow groups, the known as tribes, to do stuff. He gave them each other to help get the work done. We can’t build alone. We need each other to build up our own knowledge and experience of God and to do practical stuff. Ezra made the people read the law together – principle one, we are grounded in what God has done – and Nehemiah made them work together, principle two.

Did we come to church today as an individual? Or did we come as part of the body of Christ to support and be supported by each other? How willing are we to give to the work of God, building the people and building the place? This is a real practical plea in the year ahead when we are losing about a third of Heston and we need to keep building our church literally and spiritually.

It wasn’t easy going for those people of Jerusalem. They were harassed by enemies and Nehemiah made them work with a spear in one hand and trowel in the other, scared but determined ad encouraging each other. If you want to build a wall and only have one hand free you have to work together.

They fell out with each other, people were lazy, sometimes they grumbled like mad or even fought or didn’t feel like doing it, but this was their community and they worked hard because they were loved by God.

While they were working there were horrible political shenanigans going on. Their enemies wrote to the King that the Jews were plotting rebellion, and Nehemiah and Ezra had to fight this with shrewd political responses, getting the king to read back into old decrees and find out the truth. Nehemiah eventually went back to make sure the king knew he was loyal. They had to be brave and to look out for each other. Which led to more trouble as some Jews had been exploiting the labour and property of others and they had to be publicly called to account and remind them that God, their God didn’t allow this and that had to be sorted out with repentance and practice. Nehemiah had to face trickery from his enemies who tried to get him to enter the temple as eunuch which was forbidden. It was a really tough time which they got through by being supportive of each other and willing to admit where they had failed to live up to their own standards.

But eventually the gates of Jerusalem were put back into solid walls. Then principle number three comes into play for us. We have our foundation in the love and inclusivity of God. We build ourselves up, the walls. AND THEN we put the roof on. The roof which welcomes everyone who comes under it, which allows us to build for a wider community than our worshipping one and which helps us literally and metaphorically to be a ‘tent’ which covers and shelters and welcomes all. This is why we build community and church, to be the place and the people who share the love of God in Jesus.

We can’t and shouldn’t try to build alone. And that means every one of us matters, as Toby reminded us, we are the body of Christ. We work together with God, with each other and with our community.

Sermon by Toby Parsons 27 January 2019

Notes from the sermon by Toby Parsons 27 January 2019

“The outsider is among us, beware.”

I saw these words scrawled on a pavement in Leeds city centre on my way to work recently.

“The outsider is among us, beware.”

I don’t know about you, but my immediate reaction to those words was one of unease.  I don’t know who wrote them, or what they were really meaning, but it seems like a message that’s intended to promote suspicion and fear.  There’s a sense that somebody or something is different, that we don’t really understand or connect with them, and that consequently we should distrust them.  In this time of uncertainty in particular, it doesn’t seem helpful to promote division and hostility.

And then I started to wonder about Jesus.  Not whether he’d have said those words – I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have done, unless in a challenging parable that we’d try to unpack one Sunday morning.  But whether they’d have been said about him.  And I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that they would indeed have been heard at the start and end of his life.

We can think back to the visit of the magi – the three wise men, or, if you were here for the nativity a few weeks ago and watched Andrea and Hannah riding imaginary camels, the two wise women.  But whatever their number and gender, their purpose in seeking a new king was far from welcome at Herod’s palace.  He indeed would have seen Jesus as an outsider, and as a very threatening one at that.

But I suspect it wasn’t only Herod who might have spoken those words.  And perhaps it wouldn’t just have been about Jesus himself.  Mary, too, would have been considered an outsider.  Even though Joseph stood by her, she was an unmarried mother and as such would have faced shame, ridicule and potentially a lot worse.  I watched the film The Nativity just before Christmas, and one question that it implicitly addresses is why Mary and Joseph didn’t just stay with relatives in Bethlehem – it was Joseph’s home town, he was bound to have extended family there, and the bonds of family and hospitality in that culture were strong.  The answer the film weaves into the storyline is that the family wouldn’t associate with Mary due to her pregnancy – she was surely an outsider, treated with a mixture of fear and contempt.

And of course at the other end of Jesus’s life, at his trial and crucifixion, there’s a real sense of him being turned into outsider, abandoned by all but a select few – indeed one of those who stood by him was Mary, his mother.  And whilst that might have been simple maternal instinct, or a better understanding of his divine purpose, you wonder how in those moments her memories of having been an outsider herself affected out.

But I wonder about the rest of Jesus’s life too, the years between the stable and the cross.  We read regularly about his relatively short period of active ministry, travelling and preaching.  And I know that my picture of that is probably an overly-sanitised one.  If I think of him preaching to a crowd or arriving in a town, it’s normally sunny and pleasantly warm – rather than dusty and scorchingly hot! And my mental picture implies that he’s welcome.  If he’s asked awkward questions by scheming religious stalwarts, then even that’s still in quite an open, non-threatening way – a respectful debate, not an edgy, confrontational, hostile environment.  But I wonder if it was often more like the latter, if Jesus – whilst being confident in his mission from God – felt unwelcome and threatened, with the real possibility of arrest or of mob justice.

And what about before his active ministry?  How would the 20 year old Jesus have related to the concept of outsiders?  Well, the short answer is that we don’t know.  But we can be certain that there would have been those who were shunned by society, those who were considered unclean at any given point, and those who quite simply felt they didn’t fit in.  If Jesus had been completely tearing the rule book up in his early years and inviting every local outsider to wild house parties, that would probably have made it into the bible!  We do get a snippet about a younger Jesus in Luke 2, when he was inadvertently left behind in Jerusalem by his parents at the age of twelve.  Luke goes on to say that Jesus continued advancing in wisdom and stature, and found favour with God and men.  If he’d openly challenged the religious or political authorities, or broken with social expectation in the ways he did later, surely Luke and others would have recorded it.  So I suggest we’d be wrong to think that Jesus was forcefully over-turning social convention throughout his twenties.

But I wonder if he was still quietly affirming the outsider.  If, in modern equivalents, he was the one making time to speak to the person begging on the corner of the street; if he occasionally popped round to the eccentric person who rarely left their house and who everyone else was slightly wary of; if he was the one who didn’t internally judge the passer-by with the extreme appearance, but wanted to know the person underneath.

And if those small actions were being taken, then perhaps they were having an impact – not on the scale his later ministry and ultimate death would, but still important to individuals who’d remember the way he reached out to them.  That’s speculation, of course, but I think there are enough examples from his active ministry to make it plausible – his reaching out to adulterers, tax collectors, Samaritans.  And it’s certainly more realistic than my image of gentle debates in pleasantly sunny locations!  So I think that overall, it’s fair to say that what we learn from Jesus is to welcome the outsider.

 

In last week’s service, John spoke about gold, frankincense and myrrh as representing the past, present and future.  The use of myrrh as an anointing oil prompts us to think about our purpose and calling – how we work for God and others as we go forward.  John’s sermon defined anointing as “setting apart, signifying for a special purposes” and talked of “collectively recognising a gift, a vocation, a path, a purpose”.

Now when I reflect about callings and vocations, I tend to think either of fantastically dedicated people who bring practical relief in extreme situations – the aid workers who respond to natural disasters; the health workers who provide care in refugee camps.  Or I think of those who minister God’s word on a daily basis – Heston and other vicars; perhaps nuns or monks.   And I’m none of those, so I can easily end up thinking that I don’t have a calling – and I’m guessing that I’m not alone here in feeling that.

But if we think back to today’s reading, we’re told that every contribution matters, every part of the whole is important.  The verses from Corinthians that we heard this week put it in the context of the body.  The smallest organ in our bodies is the pineal gland, in the brain.  The philosopher Descartes considered it “the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed”.  Even if that’s not reflected in today’s scientific wisdom, we do know that the pineal gland produces something called melatonin, which affects our sleep patterns.  And as we all know from those nights when we’ve just not been able to doze off, or when we’ve woken every hour, on the hour, sleep is pretty important.  Our smallest organ is by no means our least important.

And last week’s reading talked of different spiritual gifts, and how we should each use the skills with which we’ve been blessed – without expecting to be able to do everything, and without looking down on some gifts as being less worthy than others.

We each have our own calling and purpose, and it sets us apart.  Those who are musically gifted are different from those whose skills are in organisation.  Those who are passionate about environmental issues are different from those who love to offer pastoral care.  None of us can do everything, although we may often try, and end up sinking.

And of course in some ways our calling will mark us as outsiders within our wider communities.  For a few, that’s been in fundamental and life-changing ways, which have become widely known.  We might think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood out against the Nazi regime in Germany, or Desmond Tutu, in both his opposition to apartheid and his subsequent calls for reconciliation.  But for most of us, it may be as simple as our attempts not to be caught up in consumer culture, and instead to take moments when we turn from the material to the spiritual.  Or our efforts not to bite back at criticism or ridicule, but to focus on healing and forgiveness.  These things may make us stand out, and in turn draw attention to the place of God and Jesus in our lives.

And so for each of us, there’s the challenge of thinking about what our own purpose and calling is – what are we being set apart to do?  It may not be as prophetic, as transformational, as the calling that Jesus announced for himself in today’s gospel reading from Luke, when he spoke of proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, and recovery of sight for the blind.  And we may not have the same confidence that Jesus did when he stood up in the synagogue and announced so clearly that “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”.  But when we think about the gifts of the magi, and we move from the gold of the past and the frankincense of the present to the myrrh of the future, we’re encouraged to think afresh about what our calling is.

We started with the phrase “the outsider is among us, beware”.   I said at the beginning that it made me uneasy – and it still does.  But if we were to lose the final word, if we were just to say that the outsider is among us, I think it starts becoming more of a positive statement about where we want to be as God’s church.  Jesus welcomed the outsider, and we aspire to do that today.  And we can go further too, and put ourselves in the position of the outsider.  Maybe as one of the seemingly few voices speaking out about social or environmental injustices in our society.  Or maybe as one whose particular passion just makes us different from the majority of our church – perhaps we’re the one who truly loves collecting, copying and filing electoral roll forms in alphabetical order.  Perhaps we’re the one who’s content to wash and dry the last cup an hour or so after the end of the service.  Whatever our interest – our purpose – our calling – it sets us apart as one of the many unique individuals who come together through faith.

We can each be anointed, as we’re reminded through the symbolic gift of myrrh.

We can each be signified for special purpose, even if it seems routine to us.

And we can each know that, even when our calling sets us apart, we’re uniquely valuable to God, to whom no-one need be an outsider.

 

Sermon by Jon Dorsett 20 January 2019

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

Isaiah 62:1-5

1 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 Terry’s 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 freezing unheated 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). Matthew’s 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 one person, 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!