Don’t get thrown out the party! Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14

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My husband spotted that the words of the memorial plaque he tends to sit by at church echo the words of Phil 4:1-9 and the themes of this sermon.

It could be quite fun to be able to say that I know what it feels like to be thrown out of a party, but sadly I don’t.

At college in the 80s I’d make all the effort, put my make-up on to the sound of Bonnie Tyler, don the leather skirt, and try and join in the parties. But the leathers were olive green not black, the music was rarely ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, and by mid evening I’d be sat in the corner, stone cold sober, being hailed as everyone’s sister, and no-one’s girlfriend. Drugs weren’t even an option – those friends who did them, quite consciously wouldn’t even offer me any and told me so. I’d frequently leave early, or be the one who made sure the drunks got home safe, or else I’d pick up the pieces when they didn’t. Probably because of all this, I never did get thrown out of a party; instead I left uni without an overdraft, with friends that have lasted a lifetime, and with the man of my dreams who was, and is, my hero. But even as a ‘goody two-shoes’, I may yet get thrown out of the party God’s holding, if I’ve not changed my clothes.

Now I’m pretty hopeful that there’s rock music in the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as Allegri’s Miserere, but it’s interesting to consider this morning, based on our scriptures, why we might be in danger of being the biggest party-poopers at God’s mega-gig, and actually be the one’s thrown out because we’re not wearing the right gear.

Let’s get one thing straight, what we wear to God’s party is down to us. The old idea that the King in Jesus’ parable gave the guests he’d had dragged off the street a new suit of wedding clothes, is a myth. Scripture doesn’t tell us that, and whilst it might have seemed a nice idea to St. Augustine that the wealthy of Jesus’ era were that generous, apparently the idea doesn’t hold up against the historic record.

This is a parable, and parables aren’t factual, straightforward or easy to understand. Neither do they have straight-forward linear timelines, which is how come the food doesn’t go off whilst the King is waging war on those favoured few who got his initial invitations, ignored them and murdered the messengers. So it’s OK if we’re the ones dragged off the street as he widens the field of his generosity, we’ve got plenty of time to put on our glad-rags once we’ve realised where we’re going.

The thing is, have we realised? Have we sussed the significance of the party? Have we spotted that Jesus is the bridegroom who won’t meet his bride, the church, until after he’s joined the murdered messengers via the cross? We are after all guests on the bride’s side… so what are we going to wear?

Surely, it’s our “Sunday best”? If the bride’s the church, and we’re the people who make up the church, then putting on the trousers with a bit of give in them so we can kneel, the sensible flat shoes that mean my feet don’t ache after two or three services, and the warm jumper that can be slipped off if the heating is working, all seems like the best get-up.

But that’s hardly party-wear. We’re not meant to be in our “Sunday best” but in our wedding robes, an outfit suitable for Jesus’ wedding. It would be nice to think they’re the ones we don’t wear very often, the back of the wardrobe suits and ties, the dresses we can spend a fortune on just to squeeze into once. But no, it’s not them either.

If we’re not wearing the robes of purity, truth and justice that St. Paul talks about the Philippians community needing for their survival, then whether we like it or not, we’re going to be the party-poopers that get thrown out of God’s banquet, whether we reckon ourselves among the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ whom he brought in off the street in the first place.

We can only wear purity if we know what it is to be forgiven, and have sought God’s strength to change our ways accordingly. I don’t think purity is a pristine white – that’s simply what’s left when all the colour of our lives has been taken out. What God wants to see is our natural God-given selves revealed in all their glory. So, we have to look what lies beneath our well-worn oft-repeated stories to make us look good, the short-cuts to generosity offered through charity donations, or dare I say it, the lengthy prayers that show we’ve read the news. They may make us feel good about ourselves, but purity means we guard our hearts against the pride that can accompany our ‘good works’, all without showing off through our grumbles about how much hard work it all is.

We can only wear truth, if we search for it and then tell it. Finding the truth is hard enough; but the search for truth is what inspires people to actually go to the problem areas of the world and see what it’s like on the bombed out streets of Aleppo, or in a home where the nearest disease ridden water supply is an hour’s walk away. Unless we’re wearing their shoes to the party, we’re in the wrong footwear. The truth says people need the foodbank because of financial difficulties, and the source of those could be legalistic government penny-pinching, family breakdown, or it could be that some people spend too much on unimportant things. Telling those truths isn’t guaranteed to help us build easy relationships, or changing the facts, so we have to learn to tell the truth with gentleness, patience and self-control, and keep telling it until someone other than God listens, and helps us change things for him.

Which is why we can only wear justice if we know both sides of the story. Justice doesn’t dress in a crisp black and white suit, it’s more of a dirty brown, mixed from myriad colours of ancient history, vested interests, inadequate learning, societal breakdown, and conflict. If we don’t understand, or choose to ignore these, we’ll never wear anything more than a black dustbin liner, tied with white plastic.

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During the next hymn, as we ask God “not to let us go”, there will be the chance to make an act of commitment not to let go to what it is God is calling us to change in our lives.  We can chose to take a shirt of purity, or truth or justice to act as a stimulus to our private prayers this week, as we remind ourselves what it is we’re called to be wearing to God’s eternal banquet.

Some of us might know ourselves to have been the bad people that God invited to his party. Through faith and sheer hard work we have changed our lives and that of others, and so put on the clothes God is delighted to see us in. But complacency is dangerous, clothes can become too tight, uncomfortable, and be taken off.

Others of us will reckon ourselves the good folk that God has drawn from the streets, and it’s tempting to think we don’t need to change. But that means we’re most likely to be the ones thrown out this party of righteousness, because we’ve not bothered to look for the Christ-like clothes of purity, truth and justice.

If we’re going to be excellent and worthy of Jesus’ praise, to party and rejoice in the Lord, then we’re the ones that have to check what we’re wearing.

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Celebrating God’s creation #Harvest Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 12:16-30

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Bramshill Mission Chapel

The hidden gem of the Parish of Eversley and Bramshill is that there is a mission chapel in the woods at Bramshill, where the locals still gather to worship once a month. It seats 24 – in old cinema seating derived from a source I’ve not yet managed to discern! It also, as of this month, boasts a new (to Bramshill) organ – a gift from a local Roman Catholic parish – with which a ‘full-house’ sang the harvest hymns this evening.

Celebrating God’s creation as the bedrock of our life and faith.

Why is it that as Christian’s we make such a huge effort in our harvest celebrations?

It’s not like it’s a festival that celebrates a part of Jesus’ life, like Christmas, or Easter, or even his continued ministry among us through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Harvest formed no direct part in Jesus’ story, despite the number of agricultural parables and images he used.

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The inside of Bramshill Mission Chapel, decorated with garden produce and flowers for Harvest

Why is that some come to adorn our local holy places with produce and share in worship at harvest more than other seasons, and without the stimulus of the significant secular commercialism that adorns at last some of those other festivals?

As we gather the fruit and vegetables, the flowers and the autumn leaves to beautify even this simple place of Christian worship, we are reaching back to our most basic understanding of God, and the bedrock of what he has gifted us with: life.

Tucked away in the woods by a garden pond, corrugated iron roof resounding to the scrape of branches and the ricochet of this years abundant crop of acorns and chestnuts, one might be forgiven for thinking this chapel is dead. Certainly many locals, including until recently myself, live in ignorance of it’s presence, or at least it’s location. And yet this place is a symbol of the riches of life, renewed and re-used for God’s glory, whether that be in the comfort of cinema seating or the swell of the freshly inherited organ. Here is life to be celebrated rather than hidden away.

The abundance of colour and produce here, against the backdrop of simplicity in this place, reminds me of two other ‘hidden’ places.

  • One, which I visited earlier this year, is the Chapel in the roof space at Talbot House, at Poperinge in Flanders, a pilgrimage I may reflect more on at Remembrance. In WW1 and still today, it is decorated with the rich harvest of that fertile but scarred land… hops.
  • The other I have only read about, for it was only briefly a place of Christian worship planted into a mosque, within the confines of Changi prison after the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Rev’d Eric Cordingly* created St. George’s Chapel within Changi, and in the autumn of 1942 invited the inmates of that most notorious of prisons to celebrate harvest. One might wonder, given the starvation rations and forced labour of their circumstances, why and how, both practically and spiritually, they could possibly celebrate the abundance of God’s life? But celebrate it they did. Eric writes:

“It was useless to attempt to decorate until the cool of Saturday evening, and then there was no dearth of helpers… sweet potatoes, purplish-green egg plant, those odd-looking “ladies fingers”, tapioca root in its twisted and distorted shapes,… bundles of green leaf vegetable [were] in evidence. Numbers of palm branches had been cut and were then fastened against the pillars of the Church. Tremendous bundles of brilliant hued flowers were left shyly at the entrance of the Church by the giver. The gift of flowers had meant a journey with a fatigue party outside the wire [as] the amount of flowers growing within the limits of the camp was very small…

As the sun set the Church seemed to fill with that typical smell that fills our Churches at home at Harvest, [and] someone had made a huge cross entirely of [the] pure white blooms [of frangipania]; over a thousand of them went to make up this symbol of Christianity.”

As I received… the gifts I felt deeply conscious of the sacrifice entailed… The services need not be described in detail, the enthusiasm was typical of that shown in decorating… Among those present was the… commanding officer of the Dysentery Wing at the Hospital… to [whom] we were sending the gifts which decorated the church… The harvest hymns were sung for we realised that as we were thanking God for the fruits of the earth over which we had toiled, our prayers too were thanksgivings for the Harvest at home.”

Here amidst the death that pervaded Changi, was a community celebration not just of life, but of love and sacrifice in the presence of conflict, injustice, suffering and constant, un-necessary bereavement due to starvation. The “veneer of civilisation or reticence” which Eric writes of having been stripped from them all, reveals that at the bedrock of human existence is a thankfulness for the harvests by which our life, both it’s physical life and it’s spiritual core, are maintained by God. From one day to the next, they did not know if they were to live or die, what clothes or food they would have, but they wished to celebrate life, and God’s provision within it, without visible anxiety for that future over which they had no control.

That harvest celebration in Changi in 1942, to my eyes at least, was an example of living out our Gospel reading today. Jesus’ parable is warning against hiding away that which we have been given, and which our own sacrifices have produced or gathered in. Death will come all too quickly, especially to the human soul, if the abundance of life is not celebrated and shared when opportunity presents itself.

Jesus’ reflection on the birds and the flowers isn’t some kind of romantic mysticism, but an encouragement to recognise that which we have been given; what it is that can be used to focus on a very necessary recognition of what God has given us both symbolically and practically, in the life of the natural world with which we are surrounded. Surely in the economy of God’s Kingdom, the beauty and productivity of the land is a foretaste of the treasures of heaven with which we will be surrounded when it is more fully revealed? Jesus is reminding us that if we are to be rich towards God in the now and not yet of this kingdom, then we must celebrate and share that which we have been given, and the sacrifices of toil with which we have shared in the labours of his beauty; life, today, in all it’s fulness.

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The harvest loaf, Bramshill Mission Chapel 2017

This chapel, these harvest gifts that you’ve so faithfully brought in, our hymns and prayers, and the meal which we shall shortly share, are a witness to the goodness and riches of life that God has given us. Our celebration of these good things should also not be hidden away, but brought out into the open in our lives, so that the riches with which God has blessed us are shared with the world at large, witness to our faith in our creator God. That means not simply finding productive and helpful places in which all this beauty can be shared, but considering how the beauty and riches of our lives can be more creatively used to feed the physical and spiritual needs of others, and point to God’s coming Kingdom.

*Rev’d Eric Cordingly became Bishop of Thetford and his secret notes from his life and ministry at Changi and on the Burma Railroad were published posthumously by his family as ‘Down to Bedrock’.

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Harvest prayers #VisitorChaplain #WinchesterCathedral

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Harvest at the Nave Altar of Winchester Cathedral, October 2017

One of the particularly lovely bits of my monthly cycle of ministry is acting as a Visitor’s Chaplain at Winchester Cathedral. My normal pattern of activity during a shift is to perambulate the Cathedral, chatting to fellow volunteers (often guides) and staff like virgers, any visitors who want or need time to talk, and sometimes members of Cathedral Chapter or Diocesan staff. 

I make a habit of sitting quietly for a few moments and writing fresh prayers that are pertinent to the moment: the activities in the Cathedral that day, the liturgical season, and world events. These I then use when I lead the ‘Prayers on the hour’ that punctuate the Cathedral day and remind visitors of the purpose and significance of the building.

And lastly, I tend to keep my mobile phone camera to hand, to catch the light through windows, the Cathedral decorations or community displays, or anything else that strikes me as significant or important ‘in the moment.

This week, the harvest display was still up after last weeks celebrations, so my photographs and prayers reflect that:

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Harvest Flower – Winchester Cathedral 2017

Dear God,
As we take time in this holy place to acknowledge your presence, we remember that you do not rest simply in buildings dedicated to your worship, but through your Holy Spirit walk beside us as the crucified Christ, in the joys and traumas of our daily lives.
As we celebrate the gifts of your creation in this Harvest season, we ask you to encourage the political leaders of this world to work for peace, that we might beat the swords, guns and armaments of our nations into the ploughshares, water wells and irrigation systems that will enable us to feed the world family.
We pray that together, in this way, we might bring hope in the name of Jesus.
Amen.

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Fine needlework on the lecturn of Winchester Cathedral – Harvest 2017

Lord God,
Around us we see the work of human hands wrought from your creation in stone, and wood, and glass, in stitch-work and flowers. So often this place resounds to the human voice in prayer and song.
Thank you for the skills of all those who celebrate your Word and Power and make for us this place of peace and restoration. Continue to gift those who care for this building with the wisdom and love that enables it to glorify your name,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

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By whose authority are we living? Matthew 21:23-27

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Pipe-cleaner man reminding us that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. One of the prayer stations at ‘Gratitude’ the first service at which this sermon was preached on Sunday. (‘Man’ and photo by my husband Graham!)

So this week provided the chance to talk about baptism at a baptism… sometimes I just love the lectionary! And I didn’t fall off the plinth the font is on either…

In our Bible reading this morning, it’s Holy Week. It’s a day or so after Jesus’ triumphal if confusing entry into Jerusalem as the Messiah, the Jewish king. He does so on a do nkey, to shouts of ‘Hosanna to the son of David’, or we might say, ‘son of David, save us’. But he’s not there to conquer the rule of the Roman oppressors of the Jewish people, he’s there to show who’s authority he’s acting under.

For this reason, Jesus is spending time in the most holy place in the Jewish faith, the Temple in Jerusalem, and he’s been doing things that remind people just how holy that place was meant to be, a place where God’s presence was at it’s most tangible, if it was allowed to be. So he’d thrown out the people selling things for financial gain because that wasn’t the sort of justice and freedom to receive God’s forgiveness that God wanted, and he’d been healing people, giving them a better life. Now, a group of leaders of the Jewish people who don’t like this behaviour, are trying to get Jesus to say something that puts him in trouble, so they can arrest him, and effectively silence him. It’s all a question of authority: who has the right to change the traditions that the faith leaders have built, or allowed to be built, around their worship of God? Who has the authority to heal people, God or someone else? Who holds authority over our lives?

Let’s think about the idea of authority for a minute? Some of us will remember the game ‘Simon says’ where a leader tells the children to hop, skip, jump, or any other directions and the children will DO what “Simon says”, but otherwise they should NOT do the command.

[Play: “Rev’d Rachel says…” (remember to say some WITHOUT the ‘Rev’d Rachel says’) hop, kneel, clap, jump, turn all the way round, stick your right arm up, hug someone near you.]

Explain to the children that Simon/Rev’d Rachel is the one who has the authority in this game.

Jesus knew that as God’s Son, his authority came from God, but he also knew that was exactly the answer that would get him arrested, because the leaders of the Jews thought they were the only ones who had God’s authority to teach people, to judge people or tell them off, to help people or make things better for them. Jesus also wanted people, including the Jewish leaders, to work out for themselves by what he was doing, where his authority came from… good psychology that, people learn at a deeper, more life-changing level, if they work things out for themselves, rather than simply believing or doing what they are told!

So, Jesus gives the Jewish leaders a riddle, a riddle about another man they have recently had arrested and killed. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, the other man who we hear about being born as part of the Christmas story, and the person who God had helped to preach and baptise among the Jews in the months leading up the start of Jesus’ ministry, [what was called a prophet]. John was someone whom the Jews, or at least some Jews, had understood to speak God’s truth, and had told of a special person who was coming after him who was the Son of God (Matthew 3:1-3) and would act with the authority of God himself (Matthew 3:11-12 and John 1:19-28).

Jesus asks the Jewish leaders something that could have a straightforward answer; “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Was John the Baptist a prophet sent by God, or was the baptism he offered, just something he made up, and therefore of human origin.

Baptism. We’ve got baptisms today. We know it as something that happens often at a font, where water is sprinkled on someone’s head. In some circumstances it can happen in a giant bath, pool or even a river, which is where John the Baptist did his baptisms, in the River Jordon (Matthew 3:13-17).

When John was baptising people, he was asking them to turn away from their sins, i.e. the things they do that are not what God wants, and do the ones he does want them to do; to accept God’s authority in their lives. The symbolism of water was about being washed clean, made new, renewed to live the life God wanted to give them. [If I put this very muddy ‘person’ in this bowl of water, they will come out as clean and new as the day they were made.]

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was himself baptised by John in this way, not because he had done things that God didn’t want him to do, but to show his humanity and his divinity, to show by whose authority he would work. He was just as human as you and me except he was God’s Son and therefore perfect; he had never done wrong. When John baptised Jesus he had been anointed with the Holy Spirit to do the work of the Messiah, declared to be God’s beloved Son.

Jesus was pushing the Jewish leaders to decide and say out loud that they understood what John had been doing, and that he, Jesus therefore had the right to behave in the Temple as the Messiah, the only one with authority greater than the Jewish leaders to change their traditions, and with those traditions their understanding of God.

The leaders were incredibly worried by what the crowds who’d followed John, some of whom now followed Jesus, would say: denying John was a prophet from God would make them very unpopular; admitting he was would meant the lost their own authority in the eyes of the Jewish people. That question,  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” only turned into a riddle because of people’s fear and selfishness, in other words their unwillingness to believe that God was doing a new thing through Jesus, a new thing for the whole world (John 1:15-18).

Baptism, or if we’ve been baptised as a child Confirmation or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, is a sign that we know the answer to Jesus’ question: the baptism that John brought as God’s prophet, was from heaven, it was from God. Through being baptised, and having our children baptised, we are saying we understand that Jesus was the Son of God, and that we accept God’s authority in our lives. We’re not playing ‘Simon Says…’ or even ‘Rev’d Rachel says…’ but ‘God says…’ For this very reason, when I stand at the font and baptise it may be ‘Rev’d Rachel’ saying the words, but I do it in the name of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit, the means by which we can all recognise ourselves as children of God.

So when you think about baptism, your own, or someone elses, remember that it’s about giving up your own authority, and if necessary your use and misuse of that authority, and accepting that God is the one whose authority we live under as baptised Christians. Jesus is the supreme example of how we should use that authority, to offer God’s forgiveness so others can live renewed lives, to work for healing where people and relationships are broken, and to seek justice where authority is being abused.

 

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Valuing those that come last – Matthew 20:1-17 and Philippians 1:21-end

With the licensing of our new Priest-in-charge things were a bit busy last week and I didn’t quite get to post the sermon. It was a challenge to the parish, that we responded to this week in our Baptism service. (I think I need some more interesting illustrations too… text only I’m afraid.)

What is it that we value most in life?

Is it our health, our wealth, or our family? Perhaps it’s our sight, our hearing, our home or the countryside? The freedom to travel? Our ability to continue a much loved hobby?

What about Jesus? What value do we place on our relationship with him?…

What value has he placed on his relationship with us?…

In today’s Gospel reading, our collective alter ego as disciple, Peter, has got in a grumpy mood. Peter has listened to Jesus encouraging a rich young man to give up everything he owns to follow him, only to watch the same man walk dejectedly away. In doing so, Peter has realised that he and his fellow disciples have done just what was asked of the rich young man, given up everything to follow Jesus. So, he asks Jesus what value has been placed on their obedience, their service, their sacrifice? Effectively he’s asking, what’s in it for them?

The first part of the answer is that in eternity, the disciples will get to sit incredibly close to God’s presence, places of significance. The second part of the answer is that so will everyone else – including those who in human terms are the last to hear, receive and respond to God’s call on their lives. The Gospel this morning is that second part of the answer: the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

When the third group of labourers are brought in from the market place in the last hour of the day, there is no mention of money. For some reason no-one had wanted them. But the importance and urgency of this landlord’s work is such that they are needed, and valued, for what they can offer. Self-esteem is so important to those who feel their skills are un-appreciated, and the anticipated bonus of a small proportion of the day-rate of pay which may just have paid for a meal, would have been an added encouragement to their hour’s hard labour on an empty stomach. To unexpectedly receive the full day-rate for that single hour’s labour, gives them the additional dignity of early payment, and a wage equal to that of those who had sweated through larger parts of the day.

Jesus was teaching the disciples not to be concerned about what human society said about them giving up their material security to place at the centre of their lives someone who operated at odd’s with their traditional faith leaders. Through God’s grace they would receive an appropriate reward, but it would require them to be equally generous in their view of those others who would start to follow Jesus much later in time than they. The value they must place on their relationship with Jesus must be such that it really doesn’t matter who joins their fellowship, or when. What matters is that those others are valued identically by God, because of the economy of his amazing grace. The divine economy of love and grace which doesn’t relate well to our human economies!

Paul is talking about this divine economy in the passage this morning from Philippians. For Paul it is the fruitfulness of his labour, and the fact that it is for Christ, that keeps him from preferring an early journey through death to God’s eternal presence, to his present state, harassed and imprisoned by the Roman authorities. Being valued by Christ so much that he continues to have a role in working for the extension of the Kingdom of Heaven, is in part what keeps Paul alive. Paul, the persecutor of the earliest Christians, now apostle to the Gentiles, was after all he who met Jesus much later than the other disciples; well after the Resurrection of Christ on the road to Damascus! In the economy of God’s grace Paul has already received the remuneration, not for his labour, but unasked for, a revelation of love and forgiveness.

God values each of us so highly that we are all offered the same wage; God’s love and grace paid for in full by Christ through his death and resurrection. His is really the labour, not ours. If in faith and repentance, we in turn value that so highly as to make it of first importance in our lives, then we will respond to that loving relationship with God by reflecting in our lives the values that Jesus set in his Gospel; we will put the last first, and the first last.

As with many things with our faith, it is the putting it into practice that comes hardest, and the point where we are most likely to identify with those who have slaved through the heat of the day, and forget that we ourselves are among those who have come late to work the vineyard. Like me, you may have grown up in the Christian faith, or you may be someone for who has loved Jesus for decades because of your own Damascus road experience. If so, it can be easy to forget that those who are yet to understand themselves in receipt of the grace we’ve encountered, are now God’s priority, and therefore should be ours as well.

It might not feel like it, but we are still serving our one hour’s hard labour in vineyard at the end of the day. We can’t therefore act like those who feel cheated of an extra wage, and demand more. God’s love and grace can’t be more than what he gave on the cross. Instead, we must look at where God’s priorities now lay, and welcome in those being valued by him at this moment. And just as those who come to faith in the last weeks and hours of their life are loved and cherished by God as much as us, so too are those who are younger, those just born, their families and friends, those whom we are asked by God to welcome into the field of fellowship with him.

I’m going to give this as a specific example, because this situation is going to happen next Sunday when we have a baptism service. Those children and their families who come for baptism, may be like those who had stood hungry and unvalued in the market-place of this morning’s parable. Our role, our labour for this hour, is to value them as much as Jesus does, because otherwise they won’t be able to hear his voice calling them to join the workforce, to understand their own value to him, and understand that he has already died and risen for them.

As with all our children and young people whom Jesus told us not to hinder when they turn to him, we need to put these families first. For example, let us make sure that as many of us as possible are here to give them a really warm welcome. Let us give them the best seats in the house, and not hide them behind a pillar as I understand may have happened sometimes before. We can encourage them to give the service their full attention by doing likewise, remembering the significance of being the community of faith that lives and gathers around them. Likewise, let us make sure that we give them our attention first after the service, and not prioritise the new vicar – he could be around for years to come; they may not be if we don’t show them what God’s lived-out grace looks like.

As we go forward to receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion this morning, we can do so remembering what it is like to be the ones brought forward to receive an unexpected payment. In the body and blood of Christ, we receive afresh the un-dreamt-of riches of his Kingdom, and once again know ourselves to be forgiven, loved and valued by God, just as we are. God is utterly and endlessly generous, it is what defines him, and we give thanks for that in our worship of him. So we shouldn’t be too surprised if he is equally generous to the people that come along behind us, and that he expects us to be likewise.

 

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What is the culture of this church? Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

20170917_121811I wonder what sort of yogurt you like?

Do you prefer the thin, natural yogurt, that’s dribbly and perhaps a little sharp and acidic in it’s taste?

Or perhaps, the thick, very set Greek or Turkish style yogurt, which almost has a crust to it, that you have to cut through to get to the spoonfuls of jelly-like goodness below?

Or you may be a thick spooning yogurty sort of person, whether that be of the milky kind, or the coconut based, lactose free variety that I discovered recently?

Or is your yogurt of preference, not just thick, but also creamy and full of fruity goodness, giving the tastebuds a treat, as well as possibly the waist-line?!

Now, if you’re not a yogurt eater, or perhaps even you may be a yogurt hater, I beg your indulgence this morning, and ask you to stick with me on this analogy! Think of it as a little bit of culture on a Sunday morning ;-/

Because that’s what I’m asking us to consider: what is the culture of St. Mary’s as a church? Are we a bit thin, sharp and acidic… or growing towards a thick, fruity goodness that will add to the church’s waistline, in the quality of our faith and discipleship as well as in our numbers?

In our Epistle from this morning, we are reaching to the core of the second half of Paul’s message to the Christian community in Rome. He is emphasising that the love that believers must show towards each other should be a response to the love they have received from God, about which he has talked at length in the first half of Romans. For example, “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8-10). The exhortations of Romans 14:1-12 however, suggest that in this community, love is thin because faults are thick.

The passage addresses a conflict in the body of Christ about ceremonial practices that are peripheral to the gospel. Some — whom Paul calls the “weak” — believe that, according to Jewish tradition, certain foods are to be avoided and certain days are holy. Others — normally called the “strong” by way of contrast — believe that all foods and all days are equally fitting for believers to enjoy.

Paul is not addressing the issue of righteousness by works of the law or suggesting that the weak are somehow seeking a “works-righteousness.” Rather, he sees the choice about practice as of a matter of conscience and an expression of faith (Romans 14:5-6). Paul largely directs his words to the “strong” because the issue with which he is concerned is the absence of love and unity in the body of Christ. While the practices regarding food and days are peripheral to the gospel, the way believers in the community treat one another is central to it. In other words, what people were eating and drinking and why, was totally immaterial; what was, and is, important is the love that people have for God, and whether they show it in the way that they treat each other. That isn’t lived out if people in a community are constantly judging one another… something Paul thinks is so important that he mentions it 5 times, across 4 verses, in this one short passage.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus’ theme of unlimited forgiveness isn’t so dissimilar: The unforgiving servant is effectively a chief finance officer, with control over the movement of vast wealth. The astronomical “debt” or “loan” he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid of patronage. In the old Mediterranean economy, the goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid. When the king forgives this persons enormous “loan,” his obligation to the king is not so much wiped clear, but actually intensified.

The mercy, generosity, and forgiveness that God offers out of love for us his people, could and should be endless, but in reality it only stretches as far as we are willing to show that same mercy, generosity and forgiveness to others, as this power-filled finance manager discovers when he tries to pull rank on those who have in effect, greased his way to the top. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of the financial amnesty or jubilee he was given in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonours the king himself. Through his actions, this unforgiving servant binds himself not to the king’s mercy, but to the old system of wealth extraction and violence. He thus binds the king in turn to deal with him once again within the confines of this system. God’s forgiveness is shown to have necessary limits, and they are the ones we set through our own words and actions.

So where do these scriptures this morning leave us with regard to our own personal response to the grace and forgiveness that God has shown us, and in terms of our corporate life as Christians, and therefore our culture as a church?

In Romans 5:2 Paul writes that, “through [Jesus] we have obtained access to [God’s] grace, in which we stand.” We therefore need to remember that it is on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, that God welcomes all believers as those who were weak and sinful (Romans 5:6-10). From this perspective, if we re-read Romans 14:1-12, none of us are strong. The point is that as believers, we are the weak-made-strong who stand in God’s grace now, and who will be made to stand confidently at the final judgement because of God’s gift of redemption in Christ. Since this is the case, who are we to sit in judgement over one another? Who are we that we dare not to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven? We must aim not to be thick with faults, and therefore thin in love, but thin in faults and fault-finding, and therefore thick with love, for God and for each other.

20170917_112358c

We don’t want to be have a weak, watery, acidic church! (Photo snuck by Graham, without my knowledge.. he took the one above, as requested!!)

As a church, and as individuals, it is not our place to judge, either privately or publicly, the choices that others make about what suits and feeds them, or their family, in a spiritual sense. Neither is it healthy to hold on to un-forgiveness, particularly within the Christian community, incredibly tough though that can sometimes be; it’s not healthy for us as individuals, and it is certainly not healthy for us as a church, because it stops God fulfilling the grace and forgiveness that is his character. Some of us may be in a pastoral position to gently and privately ask questions and challenge decisions or actions, but if as a community we openly pick holes in each other, tending to hold grumps and grudges, we create a culture of weak, watery-ness that makes us acidic to people’s taste, probably unattractive to outsiders, and generally thin on love. Not a helpful, rich or healthy culture.

Our desire as a community should be that we are a culture that is thick and creamy, attractively full of fruit, because we exhibit the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) as well as forgiveness and a non-judgemental generosity. If we consciously seek to make ourselves, well-filled in these fruit, we’ll naturally become stronger as a Christian community, richer in flavour to those who we pray will come and taste the love of God among us, and so add to this church’s waistline of faith and discipleship.

 

I’m finding the commentaries on Working Preacher really inspirational at present (for which thanks to them), and will freely admit that a couple of significant chunks of this sermon are from here, and here. The metaphor and the focus of my sermon was however all my own work!

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Can we sing like Mary sang? Luke 1:46-55

StME banner

The banner at St. Mary’s Eversley

Today we marked the Patronal Festival of St. Mary’s Eversley, and so the sermon is a reflection on The Magnificat:

Do you sing for joy?

When your emotions have been pent up, whether it be with confusion, fear and concern, or impatience to reach a longed-for goal, and they encounter something or someone which suddenly swings your emotions into a more positive framework, how do they release themselves? Do you sing? Or is singing an emotional release in and of itself? Are there hymns or songs that have a tendency to make you especially joyful, or reduce you to tears? Or is it that sometimes you go to football stadium, or come to church, all wound up with the cares of your life, and find release in singing?

The young girl who sings the song that forms our Gospel today, had had her life turned upside down in the days immediately before she decides to hurriedly trek into the hills, to visit a cousin for a little mutually supportive break. For them, as for many women, pregnancy brings with it a raft of emotions that hormones bring rather closer to the surface than they might otherwise be. But given that both Elizabeth and Mary had conceived through the miraculous power of God’s concern, not just for them, but for the whole of humanity, it was unsurprising that the pleasure they experience of encountering the evidence of each other’s story is released in shouts and songs of joy.

Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat, after the opening phrase “My soul magnifies (or extols) the Lord”. And what strikes me, given the situation in which Mary finds herself, is how little of the song is about herself. Yes, her spirit rejoices because of the favour shown her by God, but it was a blessing that she had received with initial trepidation and some significant angst for her relationship with Joseph, so wanting to proclaim God’s part in proceedings is socially significant in the first place! As a unwed teenager in a religiously-conservative community, how stunning is it that Mary finds the courage to sing, “from now on all generations will call me blessed. For you, Mighty One, have done great things for me, and holy is your name.”[i]

Then, Mary places her pregnancy not within the context of her own short life and the changes being wrought upon it, but in the context of the history of her people and the world at large – a mercy that stretches from one generation to another, the dream of ancient Israel. God had promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. Mary was soaked in the psalms and prophesies that had carried the hope of God’s mercy, revolution and victory to the era of servitude. That is why there are so many echoes of Hannah’s song over another small boy in 1 Samuel 2.[ii] How awesome is it that amid the shock of her pregnancy, both the fact and the means of it, she recognises that the son she now carries, is the fulfilment of those dreams, and that hope?!

As Mary sings a fresh prophesy over the son growing in her womb, it’s almost like she is the first to tentatively grasp that this child will bring a mercy and a revolution that is quite unlike what her people are expecting. In this “overture to the Gospel of Luke… [the] lyrics set the tone for Jesus’ radical and controversial ministry”[iii]…:

  • He will fill the hungry with good things both spiritually (e.g. The beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-11) and practically through his miracles (Feeding 5000 e.g. John 6:1-14), and send the rich man away empty, until he can set aside his wealth to live generously (Matthew 19:21-22).
  • He will bring down the powerful from the protected thrones of self-satisfaction (Isaiah 40:23 fulfilled in Pilot’s washing of his hands, Matthew 27:23-24), and lift up the lowly who are sat blind (Luke 18:35-43) or disfigured (Mark 2:1-12).
  • He will scatter the pride of the faith leaders whose hearts and actions show the hypocrisy of their words (Matthew 23).
  • He will show his strength, as the Son of God, the Messiah, in humble arms flung wide upon the cross (Luke 23:32-43).

Mary is singing about everyone but herself. She is praising God for the gift of this son, and offering her understanding of both her place, and much more importantly his place, in the context of God’s revelation through the people of Israel, for the whole world. The very fact that this hymn of praise and prophesy has been treasured in Elizabeth’s memory to be repeated and retold down generations until it was captured in the amber of Luke’s Gospel for perpetuity as an offering us, suggests that it should have similar significance for our lives. We who profess ourselves Christians, carry the Christ-child within us. Could we sing a song like Mary’s, focused not on ourselves, but on what God has gifted us with, and its purpose for the world?

The cost of Mary’s song would be fulfilled throughout her life:

  • we hear it in the trauma of becoming a refugee in an effort to protect her child (Matthew 2:12-14);
  • we listen to it in the frantic searching of a hysterical parent for a lost child whose wisdom and knowledge rapidly grows beyond her apron strings (Luke 2:41-52);
  • in silence we witness it at the cross in her mute acceptance of the protection of a new child, the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27)
  • we even encounter her whispered prayers, with the others gathered after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension (Acts 1:14).

Forget whether we can actually sing in tune or not, that’s not the point here. If we think of our lives as a song, are our lives singing with the prophetic passion with which Mary sang? Are we paying the price for carrying Jesus that she paid, and are we still praying, with her?

We are all very good at focusing on ourselves; I know I catch myself doing it, time and time again through each and every day, as my mind slips back from what I’m meant to be doing for others, to what I want to do instead, what I think is right, what my dreams are.

In a world context, collectively humanity is also very good at focusing on the present, and forgetting the prophesies and lessons of the past: otherwise we wouldn’t be looking down the barrel of a nuclear war, forgetting washed up refugees on distant shores, wasting millions with interminable arguing over political relationships whilst people wait for hours on hospital trollies.

But

  • If our lives sing a song that feeds the hungry, both physically and spiritually,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our actions lift up the lowly, and puncture the self-satisfaction of the powerful,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our voices challenge pride and hypocrisy among our leaders, including if necessary those of faith,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our arms are flung wide in sacrifice,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
StME Patronal flowers

Flowers in front of the Chancel screen for St. Mary’s Eversley, Patronal Festival.

Mary was one, lone, pregnant teenager, and because of her humility, and her understanding of what God wanted of her, for the good of the whole world, she sang a song that changed the world.

Can we sing, like Mary sang?

[i] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

[ii] Tom Wright ‘Luke for Everyone’

[iii] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

 

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Going the ‘long way round’ – Matthew 16:21-28

Going the long way roundMuch at St. Mary’s Eversley is now focused on preparing ourselves for the arrival of the new Priest-in-Charge of Eversley and Darby Green, and the work that will be done with him in the months and years to come, following Jesus, and proclaiming his love for the world. So yes, sermons have a particular bias in that direction over the last couple of weeks:

If we’re going on a journey, perhaps a walking journey, what do we need to have with us? Boots, wet weather gear, bag, food, water…. But how do we know where we’re going? We need a map, compass, or perhaps satnav or some sort of gps system. We need to know where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there, before we start; then we need to have a plan of the route, know what the obstacles are going to be – is there anything we are going to have to go round? And we also need to know the destination we’re aiming at.

I suspect that almost all of us have had cause recently to look at a map, of one form or another. I’m getting used to having a car with built in sat nav, and it amazes me the route variations that it offers, some of which are wildly different to what seems obvious, to me at least. Sometime taking the sat nav’s suggestions seriously can be a good thing, sometimes er… not so good. Trust me, if you can, whatever your sat nav says, avoid the centre of Exeter when heading to the edge of Dartmoor!

Some of us who have been to the West Country over the summer, have had to take a decision: do we drive past Stonehenge very, very slowly, with the queues of other holiday traffic, or get up at crack of dawn in the hope of avoiding the jams, or seek an alternative route, that is much further and apparently a longer way round, but is less stressful, and may get us to our destination much faster?

If we heard or read the Gospel last week, or remember our scriptures well, we know that a few days before our reading this morning, Simon Peter had effectively worked out the destination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He’d sussed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the ultimate ruler that the Jews had been looking forward to for generations, the one who would liberate them.

So when, very soon after, he hears Jesus talking not of an authoritative assault on Roman rule in Jerusalem, but that Jesus expects their own Jewish leaders to torture and kill him, Simon Peter the ever impulsive, tells Jesus that he’s talking dangerous, defeatist, nonsense.

But of course, Jesus isn’t talking nonsense. Simon Peter and the other disciples may not be able to see it, but Jesus understands the map that his Father God has given him, and he doesn’t get to the destination, to fulfilling the role of Messiah by being on the aggressors’ side of a conflict. He has to take a different route.

The journey that Jesus has to take involves… a sarcastically offered purple cloth, a crown of thorns, a heavy cross – the cross that he won’t just have to carry, but he will be nailed to!

The divinely ordained route to Jesus being fully revealed as the Messiah, involves being on the receiving end of mis-understandings, injustice, and pain; it involves being tortured, and being killed, and only then, at the resurrection, will the destination be reached. Jesus is going the long way round; he has to, he doesn’t have a choice.

If we’re faced with something daunting, scary, something that at least part of us doesn’t really want to do but we know we can’t avoid, we are all prone to getting a little short with people who ‘don’t get it’. Jesus it seems was no different, and in a very real way, what Simon Peter was suggesting was the devil’s way out; if Jesus didn’t go to the cross, there wouldn’t be the light that breaks through darkness, the good that overcomes evil, God’s forgiveness of our sins, the resurrection to eternal life, and two millennia of us being able to witness to our risen Lord.

At the heart of the message in our Gospel this morning is not just what Jesus would have to do as the Son of God on earth, but what we are called to do as a result, and Jesus is quite blunt about what it is. We are also called to carry the cross to follow him… we also have to go the long way round, to get to the place where God is revealed to the whole world in the person of Jesus.

Like Simon Peter, we have a human tendency to want to go the quick way, to bowl into situations where we feel we know the ‘right’ thing that should happen, or even the way we’ve ‘always’ done things. Then we expect people to recognise us as Christians, to listen to the message we share, and to automatically recognise Jesus in us and so come and join in with what we’re doing. But life isn’t like that, and this morning is a very good reminder that we have to work out the divine route to showing God’s love for the world, and to remember that it probably requires a lot more tact, patience, hard work and sacrifice than we feel is either necessary, or ideal.

In the other passage for today, from Romans 9:9-21, St. Paul makes this equally clear. We might get to rejoice in the hope that comes from Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but we are also called to be patient, to persevere. When Paul tells us to ‘bless those who persecute us’ and ‘not to be haughty’ it’s pretty obvious that we will need to be humble and forgiving of people who don’t understand that sometimes we need to go the long way round to achieving God’s aims. As Jesus found with Simon Peter, sometimes it will be other followers of Jesus that may be the ones we feel aren’t understanding the route of humility and sacrifice he has prescribed.

As a church, we’re gearing up to start exploring the next bit of the map, and to discern the route, the divinely ordained route, to making Jesus’ Messiahship better known in our local communities. The map and compass, or the sat nav, that must inspire us, are scripture and lots of prayer, inspired by the Holy Spirit. It will require the building of new relationships, changes to some, and perhaps even the hard work of repentance and forgiveness for the healing of others. The one thing I think I can guarantee, is that it will require going the long way round various obstacles in the way, obstacles that we wish weren’t there. It will take longer than we think, or want it to. Like Simon Peter we are more than likely to get some things right, and then make sweeping assumptions and get things wrong.

We will all be required to make sacrifices of some sort or another, perhaps giving up treasured ways of doing things, or picking up burdens of care and commitment to new projects or particular people. These are the sacrifices due to Jesus, tokens or small offerings in gratitude for his greater love and sacrifice for us. The destination we know; it is the return of Jesus in glory.

Let’s load ourselves up, map, compass, gps… patience, forgiveness, prayer and humility…. cloth, crown, nails, cross and all… and follow Jesus route to glory, the long way round.

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I believe… we are the church Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20

20170629_150226cAs a nation we’ve just concluded the annual event that is the season of exam results, with the GCSE results being issued last Thursday.  The exams this year have been touted as the hardest for a while, with new curricula in Maths and English. Students preparing for these exams would have had to learn a lot of things by rote to get just the lowest or foundation grades, like tediously doing all the steps in a maths calculation to ensure that even if the final answer is incorrect some marks might be scraped for the “workings”.

But the higher grades would only have been accessible to those who went above and beyond such basics, and learnt to apply these fundamentals to new situations; to be creative, to think outside the box.   It’s all very well learning by rote a bunch of physics equations, but it requires a bit more thinking to use these to calculate the gravitational potential energy of one of my pears, to its kinetic energy as it falls out of the tree!

Such equations have been thought and puzzled over for centuries. Many people look at them, learn them, regurgitate them for the exam and afterwards forget them as being of no understandable use for their future lives.  A few folk take these equations and use them to build satellites to land on asteroids, photograph planets, predict an eclipse and ensure that we can talk to Uncle Bob in New Zealand.

And this is where our readings come in.  In our Gospel this morning, Jesus asked the disciples who other people think he is; and based on what they know through listening to the people that have been gathering around Jesus, and have learnt from scripture in the past, they offer a variety of answers. The local rabbis would have been proud – their scripture classes had born fruit!

But then Jesus asks a more difficult, challenging question, “who do you say that I am?” You can almost hear the shuffled feet, the hesitant scribbling, and then rubbing out, of a pencilled, potential answers; and the despairing cries of ‘we weren’t expecting that question’ and ‘you haven’t taught us that!’

Simon, class swot that he tries to be, offers an answer. It is an answer based partially on what he’s been taught by, and witnessed of, Jesus. It is an answer that shows he is applying what he’s learnt, both from the rabbinic teaching of his community AND his current experiences, to the question. It is an intuitive answer, inspired by the Spirit of God working in and through him: “you are the Messiah, [he says to Jesus], the son of the living God.” Simon has thought for himself, and come up with an answer.

Simon isn’t always right, as we will discover next week. But this time he is, and the fact that he has come up with the answer in the way that he has, is as important as the answer itself. In fact the two are linked: unless there was a living God, Simon could not have been inspired to give the answer he did! Unless he had personally encountered and lived with Jesus, seeing the Messiah’s miracles and teaching for himself, he could not have applied that to the Jewish teaching provided by his upbringing and culture, and given the answer he did.

How we identify Jesus should be based on our personal encounters with God, even though it is informed by our continual reading and re-reading of scripture and by reasoned dialogue with others. Who we say Jesus is, should be grounded in a conversation with God whereby we adjust what we think we know as we experience more and more of him. Our church, our ministers, our Sunday or school teachers and others will have their opinions, but in the end we have to decide for ourselves in conversation with God, what it is in the person of Jesus that inspires us to love him. And then we have to tell him that we do.

God has created, and knows each of us as individuals. He is the potter and we are the clay (Isaiah 64:8). We are the work of his hands, (Jeremiah 1:4-5). He expects us to be able to respond to him in a way that is individual to us, and not simply repeat by rote a stock answer, creed or prayer. We have to step out from those around us, and if necessary look like we want to be the class swot, and say ‘This is what I believe…’ and be prepared for that answer to be temporary, provisional and developed further as we learn more.

Because when we stand up as someone who knows themselves to be loved by God, and declare our faith in Jesus as the living God, the chances are that it’s at that point that the importance of the individual stops, and the importance of community starts. Just as Simon discovered.

Simon. Simon Peter. Peter, the name meaning rock on which the Church was built. We know that, we’ve been taught that. Yet in a play on words hidden in the Hebrew, the word rock is also related to the church – it’s to do with the fact that ‘rock’ and ‘church’ are written in the feminine form. The community of Christians we know as church is also meant to be rock-like, to stand firm for the principles of love, grace, forgiveness and justice that Jesus taught, both spiritually and visibly, in heaven and on earth. It is,… we are… the body of Christ, made up of the many parts and callings outlined in the passage we heard in Romans.

We should be a body that exemplifies the individuality of our grace-filled relationship with Jesus. But we are called to serve, teach, comfort, encourage, give, prophesy, to each other, and to the world, all with single-minded, God-focused, energetic, cheerfulness,… together. Collaboratively and corporately, linked by the joints and tendons of our shared faith and willingness to make sacrifices, Christ-like sacrifices.

The era when we couldn’t tell anyone of our faith in Jesus is long gone. The reason for that was down to the timing of Jesus mission and the politics of the time. It should have stopped at the resurrection, and it certainly stopped at Pentecost. We have a personal and living faith, in a living God, Jesus Christ the Messiah, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit gifts us to be the church, the body of Christ.

So the questions this morning, and in the months to come as you pray, study and work with a new vicar, are tough, challenging ones:

To what extent is St. Mary’s as a church, trying to pass an exam at a foundation level, based on facts you’ve been taught in the past, the standard principles and calculations of how things have always been done?

And, to what extent is St. Mary’s living as a church of grace-filled, individually called and inspired Christians ready to use it’s Spirit-filled intuition, cheerfully and energetically to proclaim our faith in Jesus, to teach and inspire people who’ve not encountered Jesus, to serve the community, to comfort those in pain and grief, and to prophesy hope, forgiveness and resurrection, together as the body of Christ?

I’m going to ask you to do something different now. We are going to say the creed, to proclaim our faith in Jesus, the Messiah, the son of the living God. We are going to do that together as the church, the body of Christ, the sum of many parts. But we are, for the majority of it, going to say “I” and “my” rather than “we” and “our”. So each paragraph will start I, until we get to the line “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”. In doing so I hope it will encourage each of us in our own individual encounters with and faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and remind us that we are called to be one holy catholic and apostolic church, living out our faith together, in the name of Jesus the living God, and for the sake of the life of the world to come.

Please stand:

I believe, in one God,
The Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
The only Son of God,
Eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
Begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father;
Through him all things were made.
For me, and for my salvation he came down from heaven,
Was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
And was made man.

For my sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The Lord, the giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
Who has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in and are, one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the world to come.
Amen.

 

I’m very grateful to my husband Graham (currently raising funds for The Big Issue Foundation by running a slightly surreal online festival called ‘Not Greenbelt 2017’ #notgb2017 on Twitter) for both the exceptional re-writing of the first three paragraphs of my sermon to make them educationally accurate, and for supplying the entertaining image used to illustrate it!

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Being like the Elijah of the Canaanites

My deployment in Eversley continues – lovely to have a settled period of ministry, much as I enjoyed the peripatetic ministry of recent months. Today is 10th Sunday after Trinity and I felt the readings from Matthew 15:21-28 and Romans 11:1-2a and 29-32 present us with a challenge:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:..
(Merchant of Venice Act 4 Sc 1)

Merchant of Venice Act IV

The title page to Merchant of Venice Act IV from an ancient folio of Shakespeare in possession – one of those old books that smell wonderful!

One of the set texts I studied at school was the Merchant of Venice, from which that famous quotation is taken. It was the first thing I thought of when I looked at our Gospel for this morning, because both suggest that to act with mercy offers both a blessing to the person receiving the mercy, AND to the one offering that mercy.

In the reading from Matthew 15, in which our encounter with Jesus might well leave us initially uncomfortable, there is a sense in which Jesus himself is blessed by the act of mercy which he, perhaps grudgingly, gives the Canaanite woman and her daughter. As we consider why that is, we can also think of ways in which the acts of mercy, generosity and goodwill that we offer, can bless us – not as a motivator, but in understanding ourselves as contributors to the ‘now and not yet’ of the Kingdom of God today.

I rather admire the Canaanite woman; she knows much more about her relationship with Jesus than immediately seems to spring to his mind, or our understanding, and she is both succinct in explaining her request, and pithy in her response to his apparent rudeness.

The disciples take Jesus’ silent response to the woman’s initial plea as their cue to try and move her on. Jesus affirm this in his comment; “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24, NRSV). His silence, and his apparently racially motivated dismissal of her, jar painfully with the loving, healing God we usually encounter in such circumstances. Yet there may have been good reason for it.

Jesus knew that his relationship with God was signified through his birth as a Jew, a member of the people of Israel, the covenant people, the nation with whom God had developed a special relationship. It was a relationship that had brought the people of Israel considerable hardship and turmoil, and had brought God continual heartache and pain, as they repeatedly lost their faith in him and the long-term plan that would reveal his love for all nations, through them. Jesus was desperate that in the months before his death, the people of Israel should be his priority, for it was in his death that their role in that revelation would find fulfilment. He was silent perhaps largely because in this moment, he didn’t feel quite ready for the bigger picture, his ultimate gift to the world, to be revealed.

The Canaanite woman is not however willing to accept this reasoning, or the rudeness associated with it. She is more than capable of giving as good as she gets, since she is perfectly well aware of who he is. After all in her initial words she had signalled that she understood him to be both her Lord, as in her social superior as a man and as a rabbi, and as the Son of David, the long awaited Messiah of the Israelites. The fact was that her people’s blood ran through Jesus’ veins! If we think back to the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 we are reminded that it includes three women of Jesus’ ancestry; three Canaanite women; Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. By referring to Jesus as Son of David, she is reminding him of their shared ancestors – he is her Messiah, as well as the Jewish Messiah!

That’s the position of strength from which she comes back at Jesus after he calls her a dog! It is what enables her to return Jesus’ rude remarks without rancour and with considerable wit – wish that we could all do that! The woman’s cultural context differs from Jesus’ and she uses it to her advantage; Canaanites allowed their pets to be fed while the children ate. Israel may, quite rightly, be the children which are Jesus’ first priority, but that does not negate her determined plea for help, for herself, and for her troubled daughter. She is quite happy to seek the scraps of God’s mercy, until the time is right for the abundance of Easter blessing to be poured upon the whole world at Pentecost. In this way the Canaanite woman brings into that moment the future nature of God’s Kingdom.

This is part of something that Paul is seeking to explain more fully in our reading from Romans this morning. As a faithful Jew, and passionate follower of Christ, he is reminding us that even at it’s most unfaithful, God graciously always found a remnant of faith in Israel, even if it was the voice of one lone prophet. And, he is only too aware that God does not give his gifts of love for us out of admiration for our achievements – for we are all capable of following false gods, and becoming distracted from the purposes in which God is directing us, just like the people of Israel!

But the remnant, the faithful few, are always important; their voice is the means by which whole nations can return to the rightful relationship with God that is his gift in Jesus. Elijah pleaded with God by reminding him both the failings of Israel and God’s own responsibilities to save his people Israel. The Canaanite woman reminds Jesus that whilst he struggles to get that same nation to recognise and understand their long-awaited Messiah, the fulfilment of his mission on earth will come only when the whole world recognises him as the merciful God she knows he is called to be. She is, if you like, the Elijah of the Canaanites.

It is this level of understanding and faith that seems to impress Jesus, and in an effortless and understated healing, he instantaneously grants her prayer. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” It is in the woman’s clarity of understanding and will that he sees her faith, and it is that which leads to her daughter’s healing. That is the blessing that she came to take.

But in it, as he that gives, Jesus is also blessed, for in the mercy he gives, he finds the fulfilment of his ministry clearly recognised; in mercy, he is revealed as the Messiah of both Jew and Gentile. The woman’s faith brings with it a glimpse, as of a rising sun through clouds, of the Easter promise that brings about God’s new covenant with the whole world, the revelation that the Kingdom of God is not restricted to some distant future, but is incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So what of us. What does this story tell us of our role in the Kingdom of God?

I hope we don’t identify too closely with the disciples, assuming we know what Jesus is thinking and his motivation, and sending people away before they’ve had a chance to approach him with their own story, and their own understanding of who he is. Our task is to draw people to him, whatever their nationality, need or narrative so that they can seek his mercy face to face, and be blessed.

The person we need to identify with most closely, is the Canaanite woman, to know ourselves to have a special place in God’s Kingdom, and thereby have a voice in seeking his mercy for ourselves, and for those who are without a voice, like the woman’s daughter. It may be we can do this in something as simple as the persistence of our prayers for those who need to know God’s healing touch. But the chances are we are called to a more personal and practical call on God’s mercy where we are both the one who calls for it, and offers it in Jesus name. We already work through the Foodbank for those who need the mercy of emergency food provision, but there may be more to it than that. What mercies are required to change the root causes of their hunger, be it marital or mental breakdown, unemployment, debt or lifestyle? Equally there are people who feel themselves to be treated like stray dogs because of the circumstances of their lives, perhaps on the streets, or in hostels, or in refugee camps; where is the mercy with which we seek God’s action in their lives?

There are many mercies, and many healings, for which we may need to work, and all of them should point back at who Jesus is. In seeking and providing God’s mercy for others, we enable the future to break in on the present, the now and not yet of the Kingdom to be fulfilled in Jesus life with us. As we receive, for ourselves and for others, it is Jesus who is blessed because he is revealed for who he is, the merciful Messiah of us all.

 

 

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