Tuning-in to God – Matthew 13 v1-9 and 18-23 Romans 8 v1-11

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Tuning in can be difficult and once we’ve found the right frequency, what we hear can be difficult to listen to and/or accept! (As true for divine guidance as cricket!!)

 

I have spent much of this last few weeks listening.

In the last week I’ve spent a few concentrated days fulfilling a long-standing commitment to take an annual personal retreat. I have sat in warm, dry surroundings and listened to the sound of rain on a flat roof, and then the creak the next day as the sun warms and dries the wooden construction – listening to the same building respond to the changes in the weather. I’ve also tried to listen to what God is saying in and to my life, and my ministry; why it is I am with you for the next few months, and what that might mean for you, and me; how might it grow us? This sort of spiritual listening is not just something to do one week a year, but something that I try to do all the time, it’s just easier to reflect on the big picture when you take a concentrated run at it!

In the last few weeks, I’ve also been trying to listen to what God has done, and is doing, through you. You as individuals, and you as a church, a community working together to extend his Kingdom on earth. It is helping me to discover who you are, what it is that makes you tick and gives you life and growth, and where there may perhaps be stuff that is making life difficult, and growth limited. It is about listening as a third party observer to what God is doing through the pattern of your lives, and it too is an ongoing process.

Much of all this listening is about tuning in to what God is telling us through the practicalities and problems of our everyday lives, the typical issues that we face. Tuning in to what God is saying can be tough, not least because the noise of the many things that have calls on our time and energy constantly try to crowd him out. We have to remember we’re not using a nice modern DAB radio, giving us crystal clear reception at the press of a button. It’s a bit more like good old analogue which requires much twiddling to get a clear reception, especially if we’re on longwave trying to tune in to the cricket commentary! Sometimes, as with that image, God uses the very ordinary things with which we interact regularly, to speak to us… if only we’re tuned in.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is using ordinary, every day imagery with which his listeners would have been very familiar, to explain to them the part they are called to play in the Kingdom of God. Unlike us, they were used to the imagery of someone walking a field, sowing the seed corn by hand. They’d have known that whilst the field would have been roughly ploughed and prepared, such a distribution method meant that some seed would fall prey to the birds, shrivel among the rocks, or be shaded out by weeds, rather than grow to productivity. But knowing something is true is one thing, but understanding that it might have spiritual significance is another, which is why Jesus said, ‘the one having ears, let them hear’. Were they really listening, had they really tuned in to what Jesus was saying about their specific role in the kingdom of God?

Hearing spiritually is related to the concept of deep listening. Deep listening is the idea that we listen with compassion, hearing not just what is said, but how it is said; recognising what needs to be said, and knowing how it might best be expressed to be heard. We listen to understand and we listen with intention, specifically the intention to act appropriately based on what we have heard. In other words, to open one’s ears is to open one’s heart, to the person speaking and to God, at one and the same time. Jesus the teacher, is ending the parable by telling the crowd to listen not only to understand, but also to act on the teaching, to obey, and in this particular case by obeying, participate in the manifestation of God’s kingdom on the earth.

As Christians, we can do this multi-tasking mode of listening, because we have the power of God working in us, the Holy Spirit. It is this that Paul is referring to in the passage from Romans this morning, when he compares the focus of those who are concerned purely with matters of the ‘flesh’ and ‘sin’ with those whose focus is matters of the ‘spirit’. Through God’s grace, we are gifted this ability to discern and focus on God’s concern for the world and his desire that we might all know life and peace, but it requires continual practice on our part to stay tuned to God’s frequency.

The Holy Spirit runs on a frequency that can be counter cultural and prophetic, to the life of the church, and/or to the way the world hears itself. As Christians we need to listen to each other’s joys and pains, fears, aspirations, and experiences – as individuals and corporately as a church. We need to do so with compassion and honesty, and with ears tuned to what God is saying to us, so that we can know whether, and if so how, we can contribute positively with guidance, healing or hope. It might be a personal contribution to the problems being faced by particular members of the fellowship, or it might be wisdom that helps us work out the direction and focus of mission in this church. It may require us to do something extra. It may actually need us to do less of something. By doing this spiritual listening, our journey with God becomes a life-giving adventure to extend his kingdom, reaching out to others in ways in which they will recognise as inspired by our love of Jesus, and his love of them.

Often when God is trying to speak directly to us about our own lives, he will do so through what we might describe as intuition. We have to respond positively for anything creative to come of what might be called a ‘holy hunch’. Sometimes we may need to create some space, some silence even, to listen prayerfully to our own experiences, or we may need to be patient wait for the pieces of a jigsaw to fit together as we discern the way forward in a complex situation. But I can also give testimony to the fact that it can be a moment’s sudden realisation that something spiritually significant has just been either said or done, and it’s in the moving forward with that promise that our lives are changed by God.

My listening here at St. Mary’s so far has suggested several things, but I’m not going to share all of them with you this morning. There is a need to be ready to listen corporately, and honestly, in the months after the new vicar arrives, to where and how God wants his kingdom extended in Eversley, in Derby Green and further afield – and to how that dynamic is going to work. But another thing that has struck me, is that for some people, consciously making space for some personal holy listening to God could be helpful. I’m no expert, but I’d be happy to use this book that’s been helping me, to facilitate others to do that too, so do chat to me later, or when I’m back off holiday, if that’s the case, and we may be able to create some plans for the autumn.

The law that brings life, is ruled by the compassion and love of God, and the mechanism for making that compassion and love available both to ourselves and to others, is our belief in the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to tune in to what it is saying to us, a process that requires us to be open-minded to this grace-filled gift in the ordinary occurrences of our life, and open-hearted to the needs of others. So, anyone with ears, let them hear.

 

 

 

 

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Doing the right thing – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end Romans 7:15-25

Printer issues!

Printer issues! (Right on cue as I post the sermon on the blog, the laptop can’t see the printer – and Graham’s at the cricket!!)

Doing the right thing doesn’t involve un-necessary guilt.

I have a constant and irritating problem, and it involves a computer. Well, to be precise my laptop and our printer. Quite regularly the former will not talk to the latter, in fact frequently my laptop can’t even see the printer. Over the months we’ve had the current equipment configuration, Graham has patiently shown me a whole raft of things that may be the source of the trouble, because it’s never quite the same thing twice. But I’ve a poor memory for tech stuff, and you can bet your bottom dollar that when he’s frantic to meet a marking or report deadline, it will be the moment I simply can’t make them talk to each other whatever I try, with a deadline of my own to meet. I feel guilty interrupting him to get him to fix it, he gets grumpy solving the latest glitch, and I feel more guilty still. Then some time later, problem solved and deadlines met, he gets guilty that he got grumpy. We both feel that we can’t seem to do anything right.

It can be the same with the ordering of church life. Those who have been called to and accepted positions of ministry and authority from those around them can, if they are not careful, live with a constant sense of guilt that they are able neither to fulfil the preferences and desires of every person in every pew, nor bring immediately to fruition every sensible and spirit-filled practice that prayer and prophesy lay on their hearts. We get grumpy, and we feel even more guilty. We think there is no good in us, and we can’t seem to do anything right.

Likewise, when we first hear and read this mornings scriptures, it would be very easy to be left with the feeling that we can’t do anything right.

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he’s dwelling on the fact that however much he, or historically the people of Israel, are aware through the Law (the Ten Commandments) that guides how they should live and what the right things to do are, they fail. The Law has in fact been there to show them just how wrong they are, time, and time and time again. From the Old Testament we know that each time Israel has been rescued by God, from starvation, slavery, and exile, it’s not long before they’ve forgotten the faithfulness of God, and they’ve wandered off to place their faith in idols and other gods, only to call on the name of the Lord once again when things turn sour and difficult. We are rightly challenged that we’re pretty good at doing the same thing, and surprised that St. Paul sees himself as being as guilty as any other Jew of his time, or any other man or woman of our time.

In fact, there’s almost a sense of relief for us, in the slightly tortured, guilt ridden words of St. Paul; relief that we’re not the only ones who may spend quiet hours wandering in our heads around the inside of our lives, our motives, our lack of faith, our inability to give enough of ourselves to others, or do the right thing. He may have been externalising his own thought processes to talk to fellow Jews living in Rome, but he couldn’t have highlighted his own failings and humanity better; or ours.

Our Gospel from Matthew this morning also seems to start by suggesting we can’t do anything right. In a conversation that has come out of John the Baptist enquiring from prison as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah, we find Jesus pointing out that their combined ministries have shown the Jews of their time to once again be a fickle generation. Both have been refused a hearing because they are uncomfortable to listen to, and failed to conform to the stereotypes of the current zeitgeist. Nothing changes. People still have a strong tendency of making a song and dance about their own populist agenda, refusing to consider an alternative focus or reason for their endeavours, and forgetting the love and faithfulness of God. We just can’t do anything right.

Or can we? Are we in fact making our things just way too difficult for ourselves, dwelling on our repeated failings, living with a misplaced guilt that suggests that we’re not achieving the right things, and the fact that we have sinned and constantly fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and all he has called us to be?

It is all very well admitting defeat when we can’t fix the computer, being honest about our failure to be always patient or loving towards our family and our neighbours, or knowing we’ve simply run out of our own ability to give because of our own health issues, but if we forget that under the new covenant we don’t encounter God in a list of rules and regulations but in the grace that revealed his love for us through Jesus Christ our Lord, we’re making our burdens heavier than they need be.

Living with a constant sense of guilt is not a cross that we are called to bear. Yes, we recognise that following the example of Christ can lead us through a narrow gate to a hard road (Matthew 7:14), and that we must take up the cross of whatever ministry we are called to fulfil in Jesus name, because not to makes us unworthy to call ourselves Christians (Matthew 10:38). But that road and cross should not include a load of un-necessary guilt.

Jesus, the gentle, prayerful priest in the second part of our Gospel this morning (Matthew 11:25-30), reminds us that we are called to learn from him, to be his disciples, not just in the things that we focus on doing in his name, but through knowing ourselves loved by God through having Jesus present with us on the journey.

The invitation to discipleship is about more than learning or knowledge, computers or even the ordering of church life; it is the adoption of a way of life that is expressed in terms of doing and being something in relation to Jesus. Jesus grounds the invitation in his own relationship with his Father (Matthew 11:27). The proper ordering of our relationship to Father and Son (we know the one through the other) can be deemed “light” and “easy” because an improper relationship to them surely makes for a much harder and more restless life! We ask ourselves what is our relationship with Jesus showing us, and if we forget the ongoing love, grace and forgiveness of the cross and resurrection, we’re missing something vital.

We do not rest in the presence of an absent master, but in Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). Doing the right thing requires us to remember why it is we gather around the table as the body of Christ, each individual, each called, each receiving the body and blood of Christ not simply in bread and wine, but in the sense of knowing ourselves to be chosen, forgiven and loved as God’s own children. That is what makes our burdens light, and lets us rest. Knowing ourselves, and those around us, as loved and forgiven, all made in God’s image and called as individuals but yet part of this corporate body, can dispel the load of un-necessary guilt. Yes, we are then called to practice that which we know ourselves to have received in Jesus, and that is what makes the road a hard one. Of course we will at times fail to meet his ideals and ours, but Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all, for all people and for all our fallings-short. The right thing to do is to remember that we can always and continually return, lay our failings and our guilt at the foot of his cross, repent, receive and turn with a lighter load, to serve him afresh.

“Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:25)

 

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Receiving Jesus, Being Jesus – Matthew 10:40-42 and Romans 6:12-end

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Among the welcoming things at Eversley, is a Sunday morning parking place!

Some words shared with the lovely people of St. Mary’s Eversley on this first morning of my deployment, when the Gospel seemed appropriately themed to ‘welcome’.

Of surprisingly personal interest among the welcoming congregations were a couple we last shared ministry with over 20 years ago, when we were involved in starting and leading the church plant that is All Saints Warfield together!

I have spent much of this week receiving a lovely welcome from various groups and individuals around St. Mary’s and Eversley, and I have to say it has been great to meet, and sometimes pray with, a few of you. I suspect the welcome will last a little longer, as there are many I’ve not yet met, and groups I’ve not yet been to. I look forward to each occasion.

But, I wonder what you are welcoming me as? A priest and curate, yes. The ‘temp’ filling in a ministry gap; true indeed. Anything more than that? A prophet? How many of those have you met recently? Someone helping you prepare the soil that will mean you reap a harvest of holiness as you extend the kingdom of God?! Sounds grand, but soil preparation tends to be hard, muddy, back-breaking work.

But you know that, because you’ve been doing it yourselves, with and for each other, and your community. For years, in many cases. But, has the work that you do for each other meant that you’ve stopped recognising the welcome you receive from each other? Do you receive each other’s gifts with the grace with which they are offered? It’s all very well welcoming me, but how do you receive the gifts of time and talents that you offer each other, Sunday by Sunday, week by week, from parent or fellow parishioner, from a child or a churchwarden? Do you see Jesus in them? Do they see Jesus in you?

Our Gospel passage this morning comes at the end of a tough, hard-hitting series of mission instructions to Jesus’s disciples. They’ve been taught about the mixed-reception they may receive when they arrive in a new place, the promise that at some point there will be rejection and suffering, and the challenge of discipleship, both in what they are called to do, and in its impact on their family life. But this last little passage then highlights those disciples who are just as ‘sent’ as all the obvious ‘twelve-disciple’ leader types, but whose field of opportunity is closer to home, less visible or heroic, and so often undervalued. This passage is for the disciples who simply keep on handing out the life-giving water of ongoing prayer, hospitality, planning, practical and financial support, week by week, and year by year. The almost invisible members of interdependent parts of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12).

The passage that we heard from Romans this morning seems to be dominated by the language of slavery. Not the drudgery of doing the same old tasks all the while, but our obligation to obedience. It’s about obedience not to our own natural, unthinking way of doing things that Paul sweeps up in the word ‘sin’, but to the way that God calls us to do them. There’s the knotty little word “righteousness” in this Romans passage, and in the Gospel, a word that theologians have spent centuries wrestling with. Yes, it’s about each of us being right with God. But there’s something more binding than that emphasised in Paul’s writings, something that keeps us enslaved, indentured if you like, to God. It is the new covenant of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, a covenant justice of love and grace that should be revealed in, and through,… us. The good purposes of our creator God, is putting our world to rights; bringing righteousness.

You might well poo-poo that statement given the gloom of news headlines, but God is working hard to bring the world back to something that more closely resembles his original intentions for love, beauty and peace, and we are part of that work. God’s covenant work of re-creation starts with us being transformed from within, with our thoughts, actions, and faith being changed, little by little. It means that we need to work hard, and perhaps against our natural instincts, to look for the itinerant Jesus, in those of no fixed abode; the prophet Jesus, in the words of a child; the healing Jesus, in the brief companionship of someone we meet on a walk; the broken Jesus in everyone and anyone, because we all carry hidden burdens.

Through the challenges presented in these and many other encounters with Jesus, through the discipline of trying to recognize Jesus in the most difficult of characters, we are changed. We become instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13), but also come to see the welcome we receive from them, in the trust they hopefully offer in response to us. With them, we come to know ourselves in receipt of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life. But the really amazing thing, that which some of us may forget, and which is part of our journey to righteousness, is that we realise others see and meet Jesus in us! For, in the opening words of our Gospel, “he who receives [or welcomes] you, receives [Jesus].”

It’s easy to forget that people should see Jesus in us. What we do, however seemingly insignificant, should make Jesus visible to others. Our obedience, our slavery to speaking and acting in ways that Jesus taught, with his love and grace, perhaps repetitively, hopefully with humility as well as occasionally with a gentle challenge, enables others to encounter Jesus. It can be hard, thankless work, and if we’re honest, we frequently won’t know whether, or how, the image of Jesus in us is recognised or received by those we meet.

In some of our activities we can perhaps make a direct connection between ourselves and Jesus and think that it’s just possible that others can see it too; things like the funerals ministers take, the time we spend sorting or serving at the food bank or in leading children’s work, the spiritual and physical nourishment we offer each other in Life Groups, all speak loudly of Jesus. But it’s perhaps more difficult to see God doing anything as we buy and prep the food for lunch club, boil the kettle for the coffee we serve, arrange the flowers or ring the bells at church, sing the slightly tedious alto line, or hand out a hymn book? Can people see Jesus in those actions? I hope so, because they too are contributing to the welcome we give people, people in whom we try to see Jesus, who are changing us towards righteousness, and making us more like Jesus ourselves. It is in relationship that we find Jesus, and grow towards righteousness.

The evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that yes, Jesus is alive and visible in Eversley. But it’s important to recognise and celebrate the fact. There’s something about being acknowledged for what we contribute, that helps us to feel valued, and to strive just a little harder to be a bit more Jesus-like in what we do and give.

So, thank you for the welcome you’re giving me, in all sorts of little ways, because in those things you do, I am seeing the patience, the sacrifice, the love, of Jesus. But please remember to thank each other too, and then practice the gifts you give each other on the stranger, your neighbour, the man driving the tractor down the lane who needs the space to pass, the woman struggling with screaming child in the supermarket, and a hundred other little encounters during a week, so that just perhaps, they too will discover that they have received Jesus.

 

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Leaving the family – Romans 6:1-11 and Matthew 10:24-39

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My final blessing at St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit – every priest gives God’s blessing clutching a pink sparkly balloon, don’t they?!

Last Sunday it was time to leave St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit for pastures sort of new in Eversley. I’ve been so busy since picking up the threads and meeting new people that I’ve not stopped to say thank you ‘in print’ to my Old Basing family for their generosity, patience, love and companionship during the three important first years of my ordained ministry. It has been something to treasure, together with the physical gifts I was given.

So here, for the sense of completeness is my leaving sermon: 

There are times in our lives when we have to explain some tough truths to people we love, and they aren’t always easy to live out. We might not all be parents, but we are all someone’s child, and whether it is as a parent or child, an employer or employee, a trainer or trainee, there will have been times when we’ve felt we needed to explain to people we love, that the cost of that love is that the nature of the relationship needs to change; or alternatively that something specific needs to be done by one party, which will of necessity change the dynamic of close relationships. It isn’t easy, but it is healthy. It’s about love, but it’s also about sacrifice.

Our Gospel this morning, is both an explanation and an example of this sort of ‘tough love’. After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is taking time out with his disciples to teach them about the expectations that will be made of them as they do God’s work with him, and then are left with the responsibility of taking it forward as his relationship with them changes after his death and resurrection. If our lives are going to reflect his, then the cost of that mission will be tough at times, require changes to our relationships, and involve sacrifice to bring about something new in God’s mission on earth.

If we’ve chosen to place ourselves here this morning in what we might term our “father’s house”, gathered to share in bread and wine at his Son’s table, then we’re telling each other, and the world, that we are a disciple of Jesus. Other people know we’re here, so it’s not like our faith is something we wish to keep hidden. Indeed, we might find ourselves challenged by some people, as to why we bother?! Hopefully we can respond by talking about what we understand Jesus to have done for us in his death and resurrection, and the new life we understand ourselves to live in as a result of our relationship with him (Romans 6:4).

That’s great, as far as it goes. The challenge then becomes what that relationship requires of us. The life of discipleship has to have an intensity that is parallel to that of the bond we have with Jesus. This is what makes whatever small bits of work God wants us to do, as vital as our time spent with God in prayer, worship and in receiving the sacraments. To become an apostolic witness, according to Jesus, is to experience the intensity of a relationship in which the teacher is in a sense reproduced in the student. Taking Jesus as the teacher, and ourselves as the student, C. S. Lewis put it like this: “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw people into Christ, to make them little Christs.” To do that, requires making sacrifices that at times take us out of our comfort zone, and/or away from our family a bit, and possibly into places in which we confront unexpected challenges. By making those sacrifices, we learn afresh what is means to trust the God who knows and loves every sparrow in the air, and every hair on our head (Matthew 10:29-31) – however many, or few, we may have!

This morning, I can’t help but make this personal. I was called here to St. Mary’s for my curacy because I am a disciple of Jesus. The church, an organisation which tries, at least at times, to follow the teachings of Jesus, wouldn’t allow me to play it safe and stay at home if I was to live up to my calling to ordination. I also knew that if I was called to serve the huge variety that exists among God’s people, staying in the lower church traditions in which I had grown up, wasn’t going to be helpful. As a consequence, the last three years have at times been challenging. Some of that challenge has been God making ME think about what I believe and do. I have to say you’ve made the pain very easy to bear, because you’re a lovely, welcoming, positive bunch who have seen a few curates come and go in your time, and you’re open to some of their wilder ideas… and shirts! But I’m also aware that some of the challenges have been for others, like… Fr Alec… and all of you too, and I really appreciate that too.

I’m not sure I’ll always have it quite so easy elsewhere, but to move forward with God there has to be this turning away from you; a loving, supportive Christian family who I will miss. It’s not easy, but it is the cost of discipleship for my family and I, as it is for you. It is part of the cost of being a training parish, and indeed of breeding ministers from among your own too; they depart all too soon. The other part of the cost you bear for setting your fledglings free, is to pick up on those parts of God’s mission that we have discerned together are important, which may mean more stepping out of comfort zones in different ways.

If we were to take an example, a fairly obvious one would be Messy Church. It may well not be your thing. You may not see wrapping wool around a bunch of nails tapped into a bit of wood in the shape of a cross, or getting kids to spell out ‘Hosanna’ in painty hand-prints as particularly worshipful, sacramental or part of being a disciple of Jesus. But for people who may not understand what worship or sacrament means, or for children who with perfectly valid reason, struggle to focus or sit still, there may be no other way in which they can hear about and meet Jesus. The personal cost of discipleship, in this example, isn’t just about helping make a Messy Church happen with offers of practical help to the team committed to taking it forward. It might be about inviting our neighbours and friends to come to Messy Church, and then coming with them – even if it’s not really your thing. If you are used to going round and cooking a meal, or giving a lift, when a family is in crisis, or you’ve recently volunteered to hand-out Who Care’s leaflets in the shops or at the carnival, bringing a family to Messy is just another way of being a disciple of Jesus. And it will change your relationships with our neighbours because you have to keep on doing it; once is unlikely to be enough for them to start wanting to learn about Jesus without continued encouragement!

Doing things we don’t necessarily want to do, or feel comfortable doing, is part of the sacrifice that is required of those who follow Jesus. Just as we have to leave the parent-child relationship of a training parish with a curate, so we need to build new relationships with people who don’t yet understand the love and grace poured out through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Just as the people who make up our personal family units change over time, with additions and subtractions, so does our church family. Those changes, alter the relationships and the dynamic of how our families work, quite often in a lasting way, and, at least in part, this is what Jesus was saying to the disciples in our Gospel this morning. My hope and prayer, is that just as you have nurtured and changed me and my ministry over the last three years, and as we share in the pain of parting, so you too will know yourselves and your ministry to have been changed by the experience, just a little, so that together as the body of Christ we will continue to share in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

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Be heroes of hope – Matthew 9:35-10:8 and Romans 5:1-8

Today has been the last time for the foreseeable future in which I will support the North Hampshire Downs Benefice before my deployment to Eversley. All ‘lasts’ are tough, but after a week visiting the battlefields of Flanders to a backdrop of news coverage from the UK of the horrors at Grenfell Tower, it has felt especially difficult to find words appropriate to the moment.

My thanks to the congregations of All Saints Odiham, and All Saints Tunworth for their usual warm welcome. I will miss my itinerant ministry as I go forward to a new phase of ministry. 

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Poppies of Remembrance in The Upper Room of Talbot House, Poperinge, Flanders, Belgium

The poppies are flowering among the fields of Flanders. No longer do they inhabit the acres of muddy ground strewn with the debris of battles only recently silenced, but instead they have been pushed to the field margins, replaced by neat rows of potatoes, flowering profusely in the summer sun like the pristine white tombstones of the Commonwealth War Graves they surround. Just as the debris of battle is now largely pushed beneath the soil only to be unearthed by deliberate excavation, the poppies have been sidelined – the now traditional image of blood and sacrifice more profuse in museums and merchandise than they are in the fields where initially they covered the death and detritus of war.

I have spent the majority of this week in Flanders, staying at Talbot House, better known as TocH, the chaplaincy and “Every Man’s Club” that lay in Poperinge, behind the ‘allied’ trenches in World War I. Designed as a study tour focusing on ‘peace and reconciliation’, it became for me a pilgrimage as I retraced in part, the steps my great-uncle trod with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment over the Messines Ridge in 1917 and again, this time in retreat, in 1918. Yet, standing on Thursday, watching the dragonflies dance over the pristine white lilies in the Pool of Peace that now fills one of the 19 mine craters whose explosion was the opening salvo of the 1917 offensive, I was only too well aware that the scene 100 years before would have been in as stark a contrast as, say, a burning tower block against a night sky.

The Rev’d ‘Tubby’ Clayton, the resident chaplain of TocH, was a man whose response to the horrors and suffering of trench warfare was at least two-fold. Firstly, he highlighted and celebrated the equality that lies between all people before God and between each other, for as the sign still reads over his door, “all rank abandon, ye who enter here”. Christ, the kingdom of God come near, died for all, no less for the Private, than for the Major or the General, and called as disciples Matthew the tax-collector to work alongside Peter, James and John the fishermen, who came together in proclaiming the kingdom.

‘Tubby’, also travelled among the “harassed and helpless” men in front line units, bringing with compassion the strength that comes through making visible the grace of God, and with it hope that in enduring their suffering they would come to a better place, in this life or the next. In the front-line confirmation classes and the prayers, this shepherd reminded the sheep that not only was Jesus standing with them in their suffering, but was present in their daily acts of heroism and survival among the horror they endured.

Today, rather than staggering through the mud and gunfire of Flanders, the “sombre national mood” (to quote HM The Queen) reels from the horrors of another seemingly random terrorist atrocity, followed all too closely by the even greater devastation of a towering inferno of sub-standard housing. Where I wonder are the poppies? Have they been sidelined to the field-edges of our consciousness, our yearning for the cost-effective productivity of ordered lives pushing aside our awareness of the inequalities that lead to unnecessary deaths? Where I wonder is the peace that grows like lilies on a pool, only when the violence stops?

The world needs more men and women like ‘Tubby’ Clayton, who with gentle good humour and the warmest of welcomes, can highlight the need for equality and the call to share equally in God’s kingdom building. His work continued through the foundation of the TocH communities around the world, and their focus on fairness, friendship, service to others and to the Kingdom of God, as well as the rebuilding of a church and community at All Hallows’ by the Tower after the horrors of a Second World War.

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‘Pool of Peace’, Spanbroekmolen Crater, Messines Ridge, Flanders, Belgium

When the debris of the initial horrors of the Manchester Arena, London Bridge, and Grenfell Tower have been sanitised and tidied away, we need to make sure our memories of the issues that caused each are not sidelined like so many poppies in the edge of a Flanders field. We are called as disciples of Jesus to remember that whilst we may first share the grace of God close at hand among our own communities, we are sent through the power of the Holy Spirit, to support, or even be, the heroes who offer hope, who speak and stand for equality among all people, equality of life, not simply in death.

Let us not wait for the enquiries and recriminations to cease before looking at the gaping holes created by the mine-field of social deprivation and the self-serving isolation, before realising that we are called be Christ on the front-line of our communities, so that through faith and endurance where we find it hardest to face what we encounter, we contribute to a pool of peace that will be the harvest of hope restored, not just to our land, but to the world.

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Growing in new ground: deployed curacy

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St. Mary’s Church, Old Basing and Lychpit

I wrote my last essay two weeks ago, handed in my training portfolio a week ago, and today it was announced that I am on the move, ministerially speaking. I see the Bishop to conclude the formal element of my curacy later this month. Then, it will be all change at the end of June.

I have spent three fascinating years with the people of St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit. They have been welcoming, loving, patient and kind; a joy to know. They’ve even seen the point of starting a Messy Church, and laughed at my husband’s jokes. I was told this morning by one gentleman that my smile will be missed – a very gracious comment to one who defaults to ‘serious’ when she has a lot on her mind. Another lady reminded me that it won’t just be me going, but that my husband will be missed too; apparently he could “sell snow to an Eskimo” (as the saying goes), though I think she means ‘books to a publisher’! [You have to have seen him selling second-hand books to realise she’s right.]

My occasional, itinerant ministry around the North Hampshire Downs Benefice over the last year will also conclude next month; one Basing gentleman has described me as a ‘travelling saleswoman for God’ of recent months. Helping ease their burden during a clergy shortage, as well as my formal placement there, has given me the confidence that I can to adapt to almost any liturgical context even at short notice, and I will miss them too.

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St. Mary’s Eversley

Instead of all this, I am being deployed by the Bishop a little closer to home, and indeed to the other parish to which my itinerant ministry took me last year: St. Mary’s Eversley. They, with their sister church at St. Barnabas Darby Green, are in vacancy and continue together to look for a full-time, stipendiary, Priest-in-Charge. In the meantime they need ministerial support, and in my half-time, self-supporting capacity, I’m it for St. Mary’s. I already know I will be among friends, as there are a few familiar faces from shared ministry with my sending parish of St. Peter’s Yateley, but there will be plenty of new people to get to know, to journey with in loving God, and to collaborate with in sharing the love of Jesus. The Holy Spirit isn’t averse to using obvious geography to support God’s church, and since I live less than a mile from the parish boundary and just three from the church building, it seems such a good idea – and the alarm won’t have to be set quite so early when celebrating Holy Communion at 8am!

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The giant Redwood in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Eversley – from tiny seeds grow…

Eversley was the parish of Charles Kingsley, the Christian socialist and author of among other works the “Water Babies”, but he was also a keen naturalist – I suspect a rather more knowledgeable one than me, and certainly far better travelled. The giant Redwood in the churchyard by the simple war memorial was a seed from a cone he collected in Yosemite, that was planted after his death by his daughter!

Today, St. Mary’s Eversley is a Christian community that describes itself as ‘mixed-economy’ in worshipping style; “a traditional church… with contemporary values”. I look forward to seeking with them how they can grow and strengthen; as I know from my own youth, a long clerical vacancy does not have to be a time of frustration and atrophy, but can enable growth in discipleship and people’s understanding of their own callings under God as they ‘turn a hand’ to tasks and find giftings they never knew they had! That’s part of my story, and I expect to grow as a priest and minister with them as I become part of their story for a while.

Whilst I will be continuing to seek a permanent house-for-duty role somewhere, and my journey with St. Mary’s Eversley will be of necessity short-lived (I have a year to run on my curate’s license, which is why I’m being styled a ‘deployed curate’), I am looking forward to the adventures we can have together. Here’s to 26th June when it all starts in earnest. First come the bitter-sweet good-byes.

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Sound-bites… or sacrifice? A sermon for ‘Pip and Jim’ at Winchester Cathedral – Isaiah 40:27-end John 12:20-26

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In the vestments of Winchester Cathedral (photo courtesy Graham Hartland)

The Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral offer the curates of Winchester Diocese the wonderful opportunity of preaching at Cathedral Evensong towards the end of the curacy. It’s a daunting thing, but a huge privilege, and today it was my turn. Normally, this would be undertaken in ‘choir dress’, but since tonight was the first Evensong of the Feast of St. Philip and St. James tomorrow, they got some of their gorgeous robes out and of course, I had to fit in.

There was also a serious message to share as well, and one I felt was timely in this ‘election’ season:

It is all too common in the media frenzied world we live in, that when some key moment in history is being played out, like the announcement of a General Election, those who live by a well-poised microphone, seek an interview with the key players. Sound-bites are demanded to enable us who feed on the all-consuming media-machine, to discern the so-called truth. The media wants to know ‘who?’, and ‘what?’, and ‘why?’, so they can be first with the relevant ‘scoop’, grab reflections from the most note-worthy analysts, and massage our minds with ‘breaking news’.

The little group of Greeks who plagued the most approachable of Jesus’ followers for an interview with the wandering rabbi who’d just been greeted in Jerusalem like a conquering hero, could well have been the early equivalent of today’s political editors. One might imagine that the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a political leader on a donkey would make good copy!

However, despite the tendency of those who saw their world in ruins and yearned for freedom from the tyranny of occupation to wish it otherwise, Jesus was no conquering hero, or political leader. He was however someone who sensed the change in the tide, as the welcoming Jews who were fascinated by the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection fell away at the sound of Pharisaical sarcasm, and were replaced by these curious Greeks. Jesus, the Son of Man, knew that what lay next for him was as much of consequence for these gentiles as for his fellow Jews; so they might as well get their click-bait sound-bite, then they could go away and analyse it as the events that revealed its truth unfolded in the week to come. It obviously worked, otherwise we wouldn’t still be reading it today!

“The hour has come…” sounds like political rhetoric worthy of Winston Churchill; less so a discourse on the germination of a grain of wheat. Yet it is that image that holds the kernel of the message that Christ’s impending death and resurrection represented. The pun is intended, for the kernel of a seed is packed with energy and the building blocks like starch, protein and fat, which allow it to grow through the soil until it reaches the sunlight to make its own food and reproduce. Christ would die to bear much fruit; the fruit of the Kingdom of God that would form from a single, sacrificed grain of hope.

For the exiled people of Israel, reading in Babylon the words prophesied by Isaiah decades earlier, the seeds of their hope lay in the traditions of their faith. Their complaint is that God is ignoring the right of his people to see in their generation the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. They dimly remember that they were called to be a great nation, as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen 12:2-3), and a blessing to all peoples (Gen 28:13-15). Yet defeat and deportation have left them too numb to grasp the truth that the power of their creator God extends from their past, through this present suffering, well into the future, in which lies the fulfilment of those promises.  Like the writer of Psalm 25, they are asked to wait for the Lord, not in the insidious doubt that breeds despair, but in the sort of confident expectation that breeds hope.

The exiles in Babylon would eventually find that hope in the restoration of their lands and temple. But their future leaders would again become so hidebound to an understanding of God which they created in their own flawed image, that they would fail to recognise the means by which they would indeed become a blessing to all peoples, and so they crucified their flawless Saviour. It was to this sacrifice that Jesus refers in his response to the eager plea of the Greeks for an interview. It would in fact be they who, at Pentecost and because of his resurrection, would be among the peoples to whom God’s new covenant with all people would be inaugurated.

How much are we like the Pharisees, forming our image of God on the basis of our own flaws? How much are we like the exiles in Babylon, prey to insidious doubts that God perhaps has forgotten us? If it is not us for whom we are concerned, perhaps it is the defeated souls who wash up on the shores of the wealthy west, almost as devoid of hope as they are of the money that bought them a dangerous passage, powerless to battle the bureaucracy of borders? Or perhaps it is the young for whom we are concerned; especially those faint and weary from the constant expectation that everyone can be above average, who fall exhausted into an epidemic of depression?

Have we not known? Have we not heard? That our faith is in the everlastingly faithful creator who has revealed himself to us in Jesus? That it is we who are called to be the grains of wheat who by sacrificing ourselves, our time, our effort, our money, even our political differences, on behalf of others, will be serving Jesus?

The chances are we do know, and we have heard, but making a life of sacrifice and service a reality is much harder than perhaps we would wish. We yearn to change a world that at times seems in ruins, and free it from the tyranny of injustice, yet the work can seem fruitless. Subsuming our own needs and desires into the sometimes unpopular, awkward, perhaps even isolating work of serving others, is tough. Which is why we too need to catch hold of more than the sound-bites of Jesus’ ministry, and pick up again the seed of hope he holds for each of us.

Christ’s death and resurrection, in obedience to his Father’s will, gives everyone the opportunity for a relationship with God that guarantees his presence with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. However much of a struggle it is, if we have faith in Jesus and follow his example, we will find that he is with us. If we wait in confident expectation of his presence among the tasks we do at his command, then we will find our strength renewed for the work we do to serve others, and our lives bearing much fruit in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Let us pray:

We give thanks to you our risen Lord, that in your death and resurrection you offer all people the seed of hope. Help us to be this seed, and growing through acts of love, sacrifice and service, bear the fruit of your Kingdom.

Faithful creator, incarnate through the power of the Holy Spirit, inspire in us the courage to act responsibly towards your creation, that we might not remove the seeds of hope for future generations through our careless abuse of the world’s resources.

Remembering that in your flawless humility you suffered for us, Jesus, work in the words, actions and policies of our leaders and media to offer a fresh vision of truth, justice and the renewal of hope for all people.

We remember from our Diocesan cycle of prayer those who are refugees and asylum seekers, and all who find themselves struggling for hope in the face of bureaucracy, injustice and exploitation. Loving Jesus, give us the courage to work for the right of all people to safety, security and freedom, as we serve others in your name.

Lord Jesus, we know ourselves to be fragile, and many for whom we care to be faint and weary from the cares the world places on them. We remember in a moment of silence those known to us who need to know your comfort, healing, presence and peace…………… and strengthen those who share their own journey to wholeness in support of others.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.

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Living by the rules, or ruled by the Spirit? John 3:1-17

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St. Mary’s in Lent Array

Back preaching in my curacy parish this week, and it’s Lent, a time to take stock of how we live by holding the mirror of Jesus’ teaching to our lives, and seeing whether we meet his expectations. The Gospel this week is the story of Nicodemus’ deliberate encounter with Jesus in John 3:1-17 but I’ve drawn from both the other lectionary readings too: Genesis 12:1-4a, and Romans 4:1-5 with 13-17.

I wonder how many of us, when we were younger, were taken on ‘duty’ visits to see relatives? You know the type of visit, the one where the parent say, “we know we struggle to find anything in common with Great Aunty Flo who will expect you to sit nicely at table, and Uncle Sam will spend the whole time talking about how to grow giant onions, but it’s Christmas and they do like to see the children.” Perhaps, we’ve even done that to our own children!

This sort of thing has a lot to do with family, and rules, spoken and unspoken; those invisible laws about how we should behave with and relate to our ‘elders’. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with love, or grace, or spontaneous gifts, Christmas, birthdays… or whatever.

Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was quite good on rules; how people’s relationship with God worked should, in his eyes, have been based on abiding by them. He wasn’t so blind that he couldn’t see that God was at work somehow in the miracles that Jesus was doing, but when Jesus started to relate his abilities to people – not just him – “being born from above” Nicodemus is utterly flummoxed. He doesn’t seem to know a rule that allows people to be born twice, and when Jesus explains the difference between physical and spiritual birth to him, he’s still mystified. The Pharisees had got so wrapped up in their rule book that they’d forgotten where the Jewish people actually came from, and how!

God called Abram (Genesis 12:1-4). There were no ‘people of God’ before Abram, and importantly, there were no Ten Commandments until well after him. There’s a lot else that happens in the story of the people of Israel between Abram and Moses; for starters they multiply from a family to a much bigger family – a nation of people. The Law, as those commandments and the man-made sub-clauses created around them, was not the defining symbol of the people of Israel. Nor was circumcision, which was something that Abram was instructed to do (Genesis 17) as a sign of this covenant relationship whereby he believed himself and his family to be called by God (Romans 4:3), something we call faith. That little iceberg word ‘faith’ is the crux of the issue; the nation of Israel were a people of faith whom God called, and not defined by circumcision, or the Ten Commandments and the Law. Their covenant was born of the Spirit of God (John 3:8), the same breath or wind that had moved over the waters of creation (Genesis 1:2).

As a Pharisee and student of Jewish scripture in which the law was contained, Nicodemus should have known and remembered this, and it is this that Jesus rather sternly reminds him of. The Pharisees’ focus on the Law had straight-jacketed them, and the people of Israel, into forgetting that they were a people of faith, and that faith is a living, breathing thing, a relationship built on love, and grace, and spontaneous gifts as the wind of the Spirit blows. Judaism had become a religion of rules, where what family you were born into defined who you would be, and what you would be able to do in life.

Whilst Jesus had been born of the royal line and lineage of David, who and what he was called to be and do was defined by his relationship with God his Father, his calling as God made man, the Messiah, God with us. God’s relationship with us the people of the world, was never designed to be limited to the people of Israel in the long-term, as Abram’s original calling and his covenant with God testified: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:3), and “I have made you the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5).

Ordinary birth into the extended family of the people of Israel, or even a specific family within that, wasn’t enough to convey membership of the new covenant and Kingdom of God that Jesus was initiating. It is God’s loving initiative in sending Jesus, and people’s belief, their faith, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,…”, conveyed through baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, that initiates our inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

So what of the Ten Commandments which we in Lent are prone to recite, and the other rules in which Nicodemus was well schooled? The function of the Law at it’s original and best, could perhaps be described as a mirror, which the people of Israel could hold up in front of themselves, and in which they should see every spot and pimple in their own lives. The Ten Commandments didn’t define the people of Israel, but highlighted where they fell short of the ideal of a faith-filled relationship with God. They were a means to the end game of a covenant relationship, not the end in and of itself. The Commandments, distilled into the two that Jesus taught – love God, and love thy neighbour as thyself – are a mirror by which we explore the extent to which we are managing to live out our faith in God, our relationship with Jesus; the extent to which our baptism in water and the Holy Spirit are bearing fruit.

But the additional rules that had accreted around them weren’t even achieving that! When the people, the family of God, start making the rules their god instead, the family becomes closed to its expansion to and inclusion of others in the world, the very purpose for which God breathed and called them into existence. It’s as true now, as it was then.

Jesus is helping Nicodemus to understand that what Jesus is doing actually comes through his relationship with God, helping Nicodemus return to a properly Abrahamic belief in God. We don’t see it in our Gospel today, but these words must have struck home, because later Nicodemus will speak up for Jesus’ right to a fair hearing under the Law (John 7:51) using it as a tool, not an end or judgement in itself. Later still when we come to Good Friday, we will see Nicodemus respond to the Jesus whom his compatriots have crucified, by accompanying Joseph of Aramathea in the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-42). The Law now forgotten, the relationship with Jesus is all important, exemplified in loving care and compassion even at the time of his death.

But Jesus is speaking to our time too. Where in the world, and in what context in this country, are we seeing rules becoming the thing to be lived by, rather than the love, care and compassion that those of us who are baptised Christians are called to live by? We can’t just stand idly by when this happens, we are called to speak out just as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Are we living by a set of rules, or ruled by the Spirit of God? In recent weeks our own family, the dear old Church of England, has given us some glaring examples of what happens when relationships are confined or defined by a set of human rules through which the Holy Spirit has not necessarily been allowed to blow. Have we remembered that as co-inheritors of the promises made to Abram for the whole world, we are called to live as a faith-filled mirror of God’s inclusive love for all?

Perhaps Jesus is saying to us today that if we’re not careful Great Aunt Flo and Uncle Sam will recognise that our duty visit is only paying lip-service to a loving relationship, and they may well make the fact that we’ve been rumbled abundantly clear, to the discomfort of all concerned! Relationships that work only by a set of rules are prone to cracks, and pain, and family breakdown; and there needs to be honesty, repentance and then forgiveness when that is the case, so that duty is set aside, and relationships of love are rekindled as a testament to our love for God in Jesus, and our baptism by water and the Spirit.

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Focus on today Romans 8:18-25 and Matthew 6:25-end

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The ‘lilies of the field’ at St. Mary’s Mapledurwell… there’s an even better show up this path. In fact many local churchyards have stunning displays of snowdrops at present. Try Tunworth and St. Mary’s Old Basing if you’re interested.

I thought this sermon, preached this morning in Odiham and Mapledurwell an a rather peripatetic Sunday, was a bit weak and as much for me as for others. Yet, I was stopped at the door of both churches for people who felt it ‘spoke’ into a situation in their lives, and for one I’ve just emailed a copy for a third party. It is such a huge encouragement for preachers when people do this, so my thanks to them for being brave enough to tell me their stories afterwards. Prayers too for the situations concerned, and in grateful thanks to the friend whose story I share anonymously (but with permission) – I hope I got it roughly right; God seems to made good use of it!

I wonder how many of us would admit to being more anxious and worried about the state of the world, and the quality of life that our children and grandchildren will inherit, than we were a year ago? I certainly am.

We are reminded by today’s Gospel from Matthew, that Jesus lived very much in the present, the today. He knew his ultimate task was the salvation of all people through the cross and resurrection, but by focussing his attention on the situation presented to him, his words and actions celebrated the goodness of God in the here and now, whether it be by bringing healing where there was suffering, or harnessing the beauty of creation to make a well worked point. He recognised and worked towards the future through his focus on the present.

It is very easy just now, to relate to the spiritual leaders of Jesus time who were largely gloom and doom merchants. All was shadows and vanity; perceived in others, like their Roman rulers, and then proclaimed in their own blinkered view of how to be religious. Philosophers were at it too; focusing on taking people outside of their own troubles into another place; what we might now call the cult of escapism. They were so worried about jockeying for their own future positions, that they forgot to stop and look at the beauty and importance of what God was revealing in the present, through Jesus.

Our reading from Romans this morning, explains to us what that present reality was, and is; it is a journey to the perfection that God intended for creation, and an understanding of our role in that. The biblical narrative is full of the broken-ness of the people Israel, and their relationship with God. Likewise God uses the creation he gave humanity dominion over, to make possible their freedom, their healing, and their understanding of God’s promises to them: think of the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the seas, the stilling of the lions’ mouths to save Daniel (Daniel 6:22), the promise of the river of the water of life (Rev 22:1). With us, creation is yearning and eager with hope for the time when we are fully and finally redeemed in the new creation of God’s Kingdom, when the lion shall lie with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). But Jesus is telling us in Matthew that unless we stop and focus on the present, we will not be aware enough of what God is doing around, in and through us. Therefore, we will not be right with God (i.e. live in righteousness), and not have taken our part in the ‘now and not yet’ of the revelation of his glory.

We progress towards the full revelation of his Kingdom one day at a time. This is why Jesus wants the people that follow him to live predominantly in the present, for the benefit of the future. By making God the creator, God the healer, God brimming with good things, the focus of our attention today, it fills today with beauty, and energy, and excitement. This helps us and others, to love him, and express our faith in him. Looking for God in the here and now, breeds positivity, and means we don’t worry as much about tomorrow. Celebrating what God is doing today and seeking to share that with others, is building the Kingdom of God: “Put the world first, and it gets moth-eaten in your hands. Put God first, and you’ll get the world thrown in.” (Tom Wright)

Yet living without worrying about the future seems an impossible task today, and for some living with constant anxiety is a significant health concern. The anxiety that is most dangerous, is a constant that infects everything someone sees themselves as, and everything they do. It is unrelated to the obvious causes of anxiety like work strains and family life. I spoke to someone this week who described from personal experience how difficult the journey is for a chronically anxious person to accept Jesus’ second commandment to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”; in other words that they are called to love themselves, and therefore be kind to both themselves and others. For them it meant they gave themselves a window in the day when they were “allowed to worry” and outside of that they had to constantly tell themselves that they could worry in that time window, but just now they needed to set their anxiety aside, remember God loved them, and focus on the beauty and tasks in the present moment. Some days, they admitted, they were better at this than others, but over years of patience and practice, it helped.

Given the news stories that we are bombarded with, it is very easy to want to change the world ourselves, or simply become depressed and frozen into inactivity because we know we can’t. But we can change ourselves, a little bit at a time, a day at a time. Today, and each day, Jesus is asking us to live in the present. Let us pay attention to what it is that God has given us to focus on, today. That might be sharing the beauty of spring bulbs in our garden, or the countryside and its wildlife, with friends or family members. It might be writing letters of gratitude to people who have helped us through recent life-changing circumstances. It could be the busy-ness of bringing others to church so they too can worship and pray. It might be showing our vulnerability by admitting to another person that we are overly anxious and perhaps in need of external help; or listening to someone else in similar circumstances who needs our support. These, and many others, are Kingdom building actions. Yet it may be that by simply resting in and enjoying the now, and being assured that God will restore our strength, we will be equipped with the energy and enthusiasm to recognise and achieve what God is asking us to contribute to his Kingdom now, for the future.

 

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Does God want to change your mind? Matthew 1:18-end and Isaiah 7:10-16

 

Here’s my sermon for the BCP services I led or contributed to at All Saints, Odiham on Sunday. The voice just about held out, and hopefully the 8am congregation weren’t too upset that I stopped the service briefly to check out the source of the noise of running water that some of us could hear… it turned out to be a radiator behind the high altar gurgling air, but then they have just have just had their heating overhauled massively!

Have you ever changed your mind?

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Stop and think. Is God trying to get you to stop and think about something?  Does he want you to change your mind?  (This is one of the wonderful range of Christmas Trees on display in All Saints Church, Odiham last weekend. Thanks to Graham for the photograph, and acting as chauffeur to help me through the day.)

Or had it changed for you?

That ‘still small voice’ might sometimes be of calm, but God has a habit changing our plans, and whilst it might be accompanied by a sense of peace that he’s in control, it won’t necessarily make life easier.

Believe me, I know what I’m talking about: 10 years ago, Peter (the LLM taking the Matins service I preached at) was my Old Testament tutor and I was in my first year studying to be a Reader! God you see had other ideas [point to clerical collar]… it just took me another five years to listen properly, give in to them and do as God wanted!!

Mary’s fiancé Joseph, bless him, didn’t have five years. God had to make the message clear and change Joseph’s mind; overnight.

Ahaz? Well God tried to make him listen through the prophet Isaiah, but with less success. The importance of Ahaz’s story is the battle between faith and unbelief, and whilst there would be a faithful remnant in Israel with whom God would dwell and become incarnate in Jesus, it would be no thanks to Ahaz.

As Christians, we would like to think, or perhaps we would like others to think, that we are aware enough of God being with us, that we can hear his promptings, and respond to them. We’d possibly prefer it if God hadn’t got some unforeseen and imminent parenting role in mind, though for some it would be a welcome miracle. But it’s not always easy either to listen, or believe that God is talking to us, especially when the circumstances or instructions seem impossibly bizarre or difficult.

Ahaz is threatened and afraid of an invading Assyrian army when we meet him in Isaiah 7. If he remains neutral he protects God’s people, if he doesn’t, he won’t. Indecision is worse still. After the failure of one encounter between the prophet Isaiah and Ahaz, God is now metaphorically jumping up and down, waving his arms around and shouting, “pick me, pick me… ask me, I’ll show you what to do!”. But in the feigned piety of his unwillingness to test the Lord, Ahaz puts the lie to any sense of faith-filled readiness to be guided out of the situation by God. He’d rather seek mortals who will make his problem their own.

Joseph is likewise a troubled man, and has given much thought to how he should respond to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. She has obviously explained to him the story of Gabriel’s visit, for Joseph sees no question of any unfaithfulness. Instead he sees this work of the Holy Spirit as none of his concern, and has resolved out of kindness not to open Mary to inaccurate ridicule and disgrace but leave her quietly to her own and God’s, devices.

Yet, Jesus was to be Joseph’s concern, to be welcomed into Joseph’s lineage, life and home. This was not someone else’s problem, a buck to be passed, but it takes a direct message from God to get the point across to Joseph. God is making himself present in humanity in a similar way to that which he has throughout Israel’s history; by acting unexpectedly to make tangible his powerful love and grace. The name Emmanuel, does not denote a quiet and unassuming presence, and thus, just for starters, God requires both Mary AND Joseph to have their lives turned upside down!

We are not Ahaz, or Joseph. But we do have battles of our own, or encounter unexpected situations among our families and friends. We do have to make difficult decisions about what we should do, whether that be to respond to a call to ministry [smile], or about the ongoing care of a loved one, or anything else. We do look at the decisions made by organisations in which we have an interest, and sometimes think we know better. We do forget to listen for God, not realising that he is leaping up and down trying to attract our attention, or speaking to us in our dreams, trying to show us the way forward.

In Joseph’s dream the angel says the child that Joseph will have joint responsibility for raising is to have a further, more common name than the overtly explanatory Emmanuel ‘God with us’. Jesus is a shortened form of the Hebrew name Joshua, common in that era because the Jews were hoping for a national liberator. But this Jesus was not being born to liberate Israel from the oppression of others, but from their own unfaithfulness to God, their ability to limit his power in their own lives. “You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” Joseph is told. For as we will be reminded in the coming days from Isaiah 53:5 he will be pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. Theirs, and ours.

If we want to find our way out of a tricky situation, or find our thoughts invaded by an unwelcome army of concerns, how often do we seek other people who we can persuade to agree with us, buy us time, or get us out of trouble? Or how much do we rely on our own judgement of what we are capable of coping with, and leave others to go it alone with the difficult situations they find themselves in? Perhaps it’s not about changing other people’s minds… but about changing ours?

Our sins, those that Jesus came to save us from, are often not the obvious crimes which we might well associate with the Ten Commandments and think ourselves well distanced from, but perhaps more closely linked to an inability to listen to God, who in Jesus the sin bearer is also the guide actively seeking to show us our way forward. Ours, not anyone else’s.

If we believe in the divinity as well as the humanity of Christ, we have to believe in his sovereign power to speak to us. If we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Emmanuel is still with us seeking to liberate us from our sin, it may be necessary to change OUR minds, OUR thoughts on the best way forward, OUR plans, so that they are in line with GOD’s mind, GOD’s way forward, and GOD’s plans.

 

 

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