Christmas Intercessions

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The Chapel at St. Mary’s Eversley at Christmas

It amused me this year when one of the churchwardens in one of my current parishes commented that he’d found some intercessions for Christmas Morning on the internet, and that they turned out to be mine! I’d completely forgotten I posted them in 2013, or noticed how popular that post was at Christmas!!

So, to continue the ministry of sharing resources, here’s a set of Christmas Intercessions I wrote and used for Lessons and Carols this year at Darby Green.

Christmas Intercessions – 2018

God, born as a baby,
we pray for children who cry and are not comforted,
for parents who fear for their children’s future,
and for the lonely who are scared to let people into their lives.
Infant Jesus, help us to have compassion on each other,
to overcome our own fears, and to find ways to shine your love
into the lives of those we meet each day.

Loving God, we look to you.
Receive our prayer.

God, for whom there was no room at the inn,
We pray for those denied shelter or asylum,
Those who are trafficked for profit,
And those for whom a safe haven suddenly becomes dangerous.
Jesus, through whom God risked all to reach us,
help us who have a voice to speak wisely,
to encourage justice, and offer hope and hospitality.

Loving God, we look to you.
Receive our prayer.

God, whose coming was announced with words of peace and joy,
We pray for a world where conflict dominates news headlines,
where the indecision of a few leads to hardship for many,
and where the gulf between wealth and poverty widens.
Jesus, in the humility of your birth,
help us to recognise where we risk adding to the world’s strife,
and inspire us to seek ways of bringing people together,
for the benefit of this community and to the glory of your name.

Loving God, we look to you.
Receive our prayer.

God, who came to bring salvation to the world,
we pray for those who do not recognise or know you,
whose hearts have become hardened to your message,
through a loss of trust and the pain of past hurts.
Jesus, who brought forgiveness of sin and the hope of the resurrection,
help us to acknowledge our mistakes,
to make room in our hearts for the apologies that others offer,
and to receive the gift of your Son as a living witness,
to the new life that you bring.

Loving God, we look to you.
Receive our prayer.

Merciful Father, Accept these prayers for the sake your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Sanctuary to Sacrifice – Reflection on barbed wire for Remembrance #ThankYou100 #RemembranceDay100

The opening moments of our Service of Remembrance, St. Barnabas Darby Green 2018 (Photograph courtesy Graham Hartland)

It is always tough to try and convey the Gospel message, alongside paying appropriate respect to those who have fallen during WWI and in conflicts since. Today in this centenary of Armistice was no exception. However, it was an immense privilege to lead people in Darby Green in their Service of Remembrance, which thanks to the creativity of church members and local Guides, Brownies and Rainbows was focused around two falls of poppies, one inside, and one outside.

Below is a transcript of roughly what I said, alongside images of the barbed wire used in two forms; some made for me to use safely as a visual aid, and some of those made by the congregation from pipe-cleaners. 

Activity:

Can anyone tell me what ‘sanctuary’ means?    Refuge, place of safety, hideout, hiding place, shelter…

What sort of things might you look for if you were creating your own sanctuary?  Hidden, covering over you, protection…. (the children talked a lot about tree houses and hiding under the bed, to which I referred later informally.)

Sanctuary Wood, Flanders (photographed in 2017)

Does this look like a place of Sanctuary? Video of birdsong in Sanctuary Wood, Flanders (2017)

Now, if I play it again, imagine there are no trees, noisy bombs going off around you rather than birdsong, and lots of mud being thrown up into the air as the bombs hit the ground.

Does it still look like a place of sanctuary? No…. not if you’ve used your imagination as I suggested!

I wonder if anyone can tell me what this looks like? Piece of barbed-wire

The British Army used it around places of sanctuary called trenches which were created for soldiers to hide in.  Barbed wire was also used in rolls and piles higher than you or me, making it impossible for people to get through.

An informal war memorial in Sanctuary Wood made from the bombed stump of a tree, and barbed wire. (Photographed in 2017)

In WW1, around all of the trenches in Sanctuary Wood in Belgium where the video was filmed, there would have been a lot of barbed wire. The only barbed wire there now, is wrapped round tree trunks snapped off where they were bombed in WW1. Today they are used as a war memorial, a place to remember those who died there.

You each now have the opportunity to make a piece of barbed wire – and before the adults get all worried, we’re using pipe-cleaners, not real wire! In each of the paper bags you’re going to be given, there are 7 pieces of pipecleaner, 1 long one, and 6 short ones. You can twist the short ones, round the long ones, to create a very simple piece of barbed wire. Hand out, demonstrate, create.

The makings of pipe-cleaner barbed wire.

As you look at your piece of barbed wire, think about the things that keep you safe, the places you might think of as a sanctuary, the people whom you feel safe with, or somewhere you hide if you play hide-and-seek. It might be your home, or your bed, a favourite place on a walk; a parent, an animal or something entirely different.

Would barbed wire (show real thing) really help you create any of those feelings and emotions?  No!

Hebrews 9:24-28 (Contemporary English Translation)

Talk:…

… Often the places which we might describe as a sanctuary are not as simple and straightforward as we might wish. There are times when we feel vulnerable once again because something within them changes or disappears. Barbed wire around a trench was as much a danger to the soldiers that it was meant to protect, as it is to those whom they were being protected from. In the First World War, many thousands of people died because they got caught up on the very barbed wire that they had been using for protection in their place of sanctuary.

The sanctuary that is being talked about in our Bible passage is God’s presence. In the time before Jesus, people had tried to make a special place which they called a sanctuary, which they called ‘holy’ and carried around with them. But it became dangerous to them because it became more important to them than God himself, and they got hung up on it.

Jesus was was also in effect, a soldier; in his case, he was God’s Son following God’s orders. Jesus died, because he got caught up on the barbed wire of the people who he was actually trying to help misunderstanding who he was. People killed Jesus because they couldn’t understand that God’s love for them, and God’s wish that they would have a permanent place of real sanctuary and safety with him. That is why we describe Jesus as having made the ultimate sacrifice.

Barbed wire and pipe-cleaner crowns of thorns

I took my length of barbed wire, twisted and looped it around itself, and asked what does it look like? A crown of thorns.

If we loop our sections of pipe-cleaner barbed wire around on themselves the same way and twist the ends, we also have something that also looks like a crown of thorns.

In this way, we can be helped to remember that Jesus sacrificed his life to help others come into God’s presence, and that the motivation for that was his love for us. When Jesus lived two thousand years ago, we were not alive then, but he still knew that we needed to live in a perfect place of sanctuary at peace with one another, and that is only possible in God’s presence.

Remembrance Day can in some ways become a sanctuary; a place of safety in which are able to come together to remember those who in the past have sacrificed their lives. Some died because they loved and sought to protect their country and a way of life. Some died because they were following orders. Some died through no fault of their own. Some died to save the lives of friends, or to protect people because they realised that you do not have to know someone to love their right to life. It is good that we are a community which believes their sacrifice should not be forgotten.

The danger is that, like barbed wire, Remembrance Day can become a difficult obstacle in itself. For those who have experienced the explosions and dangers of warfare themselves, it is dangerous because it brings back those memories and it can be difficult to live with the pain and emotions that causes. For many of us, the danger is that we only remember on this one day of the year, the sacrifices that other people have made in the past.

Barbed wire crown of thorns on Cross of Remembrance, Darby Green 2018 (Photograph courtesy Graham Hartland)

Barbed wire, especially when it is twisted into a crown of thorns, is a helpful reminder that we must never forget all those whose lives have been sacrificed to enable us to have the freedom to love one another and to live in relative peace. As a reminder that Jesus died with a similar crown around his head, we are encouraged to remember that this safety also gives us the freedom to discover what it is to live in the sanctuary of God’s presence. We will only live at peace with each other if we are willing to offer people a place of safety and sanctuary with us, and as Jesus understood only too well, we made need to make some sacrifices ourselves, to make that possible.

The barbed wire ‘crown of thorns’ was placed on the simple wooden cross that stands in church, adorned also today with poppies.

 

 

Songs of salvation #RIPAretha – Ephesians 5:10-20 and John 6:51-58

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

If you get there ‘fore I do
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all my friends, that I comin’ there too
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

The brightest day that ever I saw
Comin’ for to carry me home
When Jesus washed my sins away
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

I’m sometimes up an’ sometimes down
Comin’ for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

(Original words as noted in 1873 as sung by Wallace Willis)

“Be filled with the Spirit,…” writes St. Paul.

“As you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There is something deeply appropriate about the fact that this morning, we have in our Epistle, the words of scripture that gave rise to the term ‘spiritual’ as a musical term. In fact Ephesians is thought to encapsulate within it, poetic language drawn at least in part from early Christian hymns and liturgies. In this case, the writer of Ephesians is pointing out that when we’re fighting evil, when we’re trying to shine light in the darkest places of life, when we know we’ve got an addictive personality and need to shut out the cravings, or when we’ve been taught that indeed you must make the most of every opportunity or you’re going to be deemed a failure (Eph 5:16), then actually what we really need is to rest in the presence of God, and music, will help us overcome those things and bring us to that place of healing and hope. Music, sung, played or even participated in from the comfort of your armchair, can lift our hearts to God, giving us a strength to carry on in the face of adversity, and helping us give thanks to Jesus for the good things he has given us.

Music has the power to deliver a powerful spiritual message. We know for example, that Moses and Miriam his sister led the Israelites in singing as the means of celebrating their freedom immediately after they’d walked through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Purposefully and rightfully they give the credit to God:
“Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy.”
(Exodus 15:6)

When the slaves of the British colonies of the 17th century first received and accepted the Christian faith, seeing the links between their own plight and that of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, it was with simple songs that they too shared those scriptures, and their yearning for freedom, giving birth to what we know as “the spiritual”. There are theories as to other uses for these spiritual songs in that some people think they contained hidden references to the means of escape via the ‘underground railroad’, crossing over their ‘Jordon’ from the wilderness of slavery via the network of safe houses to the free-states and Canada; but nothing is proven. However, the very fact that those theories exist, gives us an idea of the spiritual strength gained from making sense of their own reality through singing of the difficulties which others had suffered.

That is why I would describe music is being ‘alive’, because through the experiences, words and phrases of others, it helps us to make sense of our own reality. But, it also has a life of its own which means that its use can change over time only keeping a tenuous grasp on its original meaning or context. For example, some of us will associate the song ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with the England Rugby Union Side, but it first gained that association via a group of boys from the Benedictine school at Douai Abbey. They sang it in 1988 each time Chris Oti scored, overcoming a two-year England try-drought with a hat-trick against Ireland. In the context of rugby, the song’s use has changed dramatically; the Christian message has been lost; only the idea of overcoming difficulty and hardship to gain victory has remained. Without the message of hope being contained within the context of the salvation that sees God intervening in the lives of his people, the song has perhaps lost some of its power.

Salvation, being saved from a situation of hopelessness, sometimes of our own making, makes no sense without the flesh and blood Son of God having lived and died for us. The Jews would have found the idea abhorrent because of their strict laws about blood, but they would profit from the shedding of his blood because it was the means by which the prophecy of the Messiah bringing hope to the whole world was to be fulfilled. Like yeast being the raising agent that brings bread to life, we gain life by taking Jesus into our very souls and bodies. We can do that in the sacrament of Holy Communion this morning because the words that at the time fell on the stony ground of many hardened hearts, were treasured by those who held them safe in their memory and then understood them in the light of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Jesus’ words about his own flesh and blood did not come to life until they could be sung as the song of eternal salvation.

I’m going to finish this morning with another spiritual song, this time one adopted and adapted into the genre ‘spiritual’ from a very different back ground. This was written in 1855 by a gentleman in Canada called Jospeh Scriven, as a poem to his mother in Ireland, when news reached him that she was critically ill. Published anonymously, and only attributed to its writer after it had been made popular when someone set it to music, the spiritual ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ was also about overcoming adversity, the adversity of illness in this case, by finding refuge in Jesus through prayer and in the promise of eternal rest with Christ. With the help of a darn good tune, the words also hold the spiritual truth that in and of itself is a memorable prayer about the hope we hold in salvation.

It seemed appropriate today to use a recording of a spiritual song sung by Aretha Franklin. If you’ve read or heard anything of Aretha’s life in the few days since her death, you may know that she was well acquainted with abuse, addiction and illness. However, despite these she appears to have continued to retain her faith in God, in the salvation that Jesus brought, and most definitely in the power that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” have in bringing our faith alive. As she enters her eternal rest, let us pray that we can continue to sing “thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What a friend we have in Jesus.

 

I’ve never before sung the opening to opening to a sermon as I did this Sunday, but in the context of the Epistle from Ephesians, and following the very recent death of Aretha Franklin, it seemed appropriate. Despite the less-than-perfect rendition of ‘Swing Low’ feedback was also unexpectedly positive, I think because people were moved to join in, for a variety of reasons. The unexpected testimony for whom ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ is a special song, was a great encouragement…. sometimes music enables God to reach us in the way other people and prayers and can’t. 

If you can bear it, there’s an audio of the whole sermon (with the readings first) here.

 

 

 

 

“Gluten-free” Jesus – John 6:35,41-51 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

To see the broad smile our resident celiac’s face, when she received the same communion bread as everyone else this morning, made preaching a slightly ‘alternative’ sermon worth while. The gluten-free pitta bread was also popular with several others, and some suggested it should be a regular thing.

At the start of service I got the children up and talked about the selection of bread I’d got laid out on a tray:

Many of us are used to the way that Jesus describes himself in this morning’s Gospel – the “bread of life”.

It’s a lovely image isn’t it; Jesus being one of the most simple and ubiquitous sources of nourishment and therefore health and well-being that the world has. Bread. We could live on bread and water if there was nothing else. Might help to have a few vegetables to keep us in perfect working order, but we would survive.

When Jesus shared a meal with 5000+ hungry folk, he used 5 loaves of bread (as well as 2 fish). That’s all. 5000 people, 5 loaves, oh, and God’s power at work through him. The people’s physical hunger was fed, so they were able to stay near Jesus, and have their spiritual hunger nourished. It was the miracle that sparked off this conversation Jesus was having about bread – with that many witnesses, word had got around as to what he had done; Jesus knew that.

The Jews knew their history, and they knew that someone else had provided miraculous bread for their ancestors in the past. When wandering in a desert for 40 years, the Israelites had called that miraculous bread, manna. In that case, through Moses, God told the people what to do with it, and gave them just the right amount to feed them each day (in that case with quail not fish). It gave them the energy they needed to continue their physical journey, whilst they learnt the patience and obedience required for them to enter the Promised Land.

In the bit of the Bible we heard this morning, Jesus is talking about himself being a bread that helps us on our journey’s, that helps us be patient and do as he tells us, that nourishes us spiritually by being a point of contact between ourselves and God. Jesus is the sort of bread that ‘teaches’ (v45), encourages, and builds us up so that we can be more like the people God really wants us to be (Eph 4:29).

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This was my tray of breads, after one of the children had eaten one communion wafer and most of a slice of gluten free bread!

I then asked the children to come and look at the bread again, and why they though I might have laid out two different versions of each sort of bread, and got round to one lot being ‘gluten free’. Then we talked about gluten making some people ill, but that without it, bread has a habit of falling apart, so to cook it, people often use something called Xanthem Gum. I also let the children eat some of the bread if they wanted it.

If I gave ordinary bread to people who I know are made ill by the gluten found in wheat and barley grains, would that be a good thing? No! It would be unkind, hurtful and upsetting for them. It could make them very ill indeed. Equally, it would also be wrong if I didn’t give them anything at all. In both cases, it excludes them from sharing in a meal we could otherwise share together. Often, if we know someone who can’t eat gluten we give them their own special bread, or they may bring their own. However, the ideal would be to all share the same sort of bread, the gluten free sort, so that everyone receives the same, that way everyone feels included in the meal.

Jesus was “Gluten-free”. There was nothing in him, or that he did, that exuded them, turned them away, or made them ill. When people came to him, they all received the same love, the same understanding, of what was deep inside them. Whatever the people who approached him were like, sad, angry, hurt, obstructive, ill, confused, hopeless, they received the same love from Jesus, even if it was served in different ways…. the angry and obstructive would be challenged to change so that they could live more like God wanted them to, the ill and the confused would be comforted and healed. We might describe the love of God that he shared as being the Xanthan Gum that held our Gluten-free Jesus together.

We are used to hearing the church described as the body of Christ (a phrase that comes out of various teachings of St. Paul in 1 Cor 12), and by coming to share in hearing the bible, in prayer and worship, and in the wine and bread, we are doing just that, we are trying to be the body of Jesus in the world today. Being the body of Christ or all members of one body (Eph 4:25) as this mornings passage in Ephesians puts it, is also about how we live our lives, how we relate to other people, whether we’re being a good example of who Jesus was and what he came to do.

In our Gospel, Jesus is challenging those who are deliberately picking holes in what he is saying, and not looking at and listening to who he is saying he is and what he is doing to prove it. The Jews were past masters at arguing with each other, sharing what they thought, rather than listening to what others might be telling or showing them of what God was doing. That’s what had landed the Israelites in wilderness needing manna from heaven, and little had changed.

By the time St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians the problem had transferred into the Christian community. We can all think of situations where those difficulties are visible in our own families, friendships, and even dare I say it here in our church community. Why? Because being fond of our own views, getting angry, bitter or resentful when others offer alternative views or ways of approaching things, are the bits of being human that are not part of the way God made us. Local or familial disagreements are small, but they are not that far removed to many of the situations that we are so often eager to decry around the world today.

If we’ve got things in us that are simply unpalatable to others, make them physically, mentally or spiritually ill, and if we aren’t looking and listening to what God is doing, then we’re not showing people grace (Eph 4:29), or living in love (Eph 5:1). Therefore we’re not showing ourselves to be God’s beloved children. If there are things about the way that we behave that mean people can’t ‘stomach us’, we’re not holding together as good bread should, and we need more of the Xanthan Gum of grace and love.

This morning I’ve set aside enough gluten free pitta-bread on the altar for us to all share in one bread; gluten-free Jesus-bread. When we share in bread and wine, it is meant to be a unifying symbol that binds us together, because we are all sharing in the body of Christ, to enable us to be the body of Christ. As we take and eat it, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing in it that can make us ill, we will also be reminded of the fact that it’s held together because it contains Xanthan Gum, and that we too need to act in all our relationships with the gum of grace and love that binds us together as the body of Christ, to him who is the bread of life.

 

 

 

 

Exam subject: LOVE  Pass/Fail? John 15.9-17 and Acts 10.44-end

 

20180506_112148cBack at St. Barnabas this week, with the sun streaming in through the window, and God’s presence very much present, quietly at work among those who need to feel his touch. One or two commented afterwards they wanted to ‘listen again’ so the link is here. For those who prefer to read things back, here’s the text of my sermon:

It’s May now, and there’s a sense in which we may be feeling that we’ve left Easter far behind us. The world has moved on from chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks. Many children and young people have entered the season of revision and exams, or in our case, the delights of dissertation writing, due consideration of future employment and the need for a place to live. We might encourage, suggest and hopefully even have modelled how to do these things well, and we can tell them how they might approach what they’re facing, but each has to understand and apply for themselves the skills and knowledge they’ve been taught by us or others. Whether we are parents, friends, teachers, or even if we feel like by-standers, the only examination we have to pass is whether we are willing to continue to love them, unconditionally, whatever fruit their efforts produce in the way of results, careers and jobs.

Yet, as Christians, the context of that unconditional love is very much still set within the Easter Season, especially as we prepare to remember Jesus’ Ascension to his Father, and the work his disciples were commissioned for through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. When Jesus was using the allegory of the vine, with himself as the rootstock of God’s love, he very clearly had his own journey to Jerusalem and the Cross in mind. He too had taught his followers by word and example all he could about the love of God for all people, and that was propelling him toward the Cross so that he, not they, took most difficult examination of them all.

That is why there is a real sense of urgency in our Gospel this morning: just like any parent or teacher who finds themselves repeating the same instructions and encouragements time (and time, and time), again. Jesus didn’t have much more time left before that final exam in which to get the message across: “Love one another”; as God has loved you in my existence, for goodness sake go out and “love one another”; to find the real joy that is the fruit of what I am about to do, he says, take down all the barriers that exist between yourselves, your Father God, and each other, and “love one another”. That, is why he calls them friends.

Peter, bless him, is only just putting the message into practice when we reach the point of our Epistle this morning. Peter has been called to the home of Cornelius, by a vision that tore down the barriers that had been created between the so-called ‘clean and the unclean’, Jew and Gentile, one group of humans and another. There he proclaims the revelation of God’s story, God’s love, revealed in Jesus in the preceding weeks; Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and all. Before this reading, Peter’s account of all that has apparently been brief, and notably Cornelius has not even had the chance to respond with words of faith and belief in the forgiveness Jesus offers, before the Holy Spirit steps in again, enabling him to praise God for what he has done in Jesus. That outpouring of the Spirit was as much for Peter’s benefit as for Cornelius and his family, confirming for Peter that these uncircumcised people were regarded by God as fit vessels for his love, his presence and his voice.

Looked at together these two readings emphasise the unconditional love that Peter, and we as his fellow disciples, are called to put into action as a response to God’s love in Jesus, dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit. They also underline that to make that love visible, to enable the joy of that love to infect the whole world, the barriers that exist between those who serve and those who lead, and between one social or faith grouping and another, must come down. Nothing must stand in the way of the waters of baptism being poured out.

We might like to think that the concept of servants and masters is dead and buried in the western world, and yet we have probably heard whispers of the woes of those trafficked into servitude and then illegally hidden, or abandoned to the iniquities of our immigration system. Elections too, however local, also highlight the muddy waters of who serves who in a democracy: we who elect people to serve our local interests have a habit of receiving commands or consequences from higher up the food-chain of politics that are not apparently motivated by the love and equality that might have been the ideals with which politicians were voted into their positions.

We’re probably not so blinkered as to think that there are no barriers between the social and faith groupings of both our country and the world, even within a single faith or between its denominations or sects. Yet, does the love we have for others make us hungry enough to be open to seeing and acting upon a vision of a different world, where at the very least the testimony of God’s love can be seen and heard, so that his Holy Spirit can be given space to work? In the light of today’s readings, we might like to consider whether we might be culturally or theologically prone to excluding others from the love of God, the waters of baptism, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the call to shared ministry in Jesus’ name.

Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church in London spoke at a conference of Anglican clergy in Oxford Diocese – I wasn’t there but friends were, and YouTube has its uses! Among the important truths he shared about Christians in the Middle East was the fact that they present a reconciling picture. Talking of the fear that Christianity will disappear in some places (but not in his view completely from the region), he said that “in places where Christians do disappear there will be greater disruption and conflict because the Christians are a buffer, and reconcilers, and they present a loving example” of how to live at peace with their neighbours. That is a huge challenge to those of us who live in safer political climates. If we turn what he said into a question, how much do we live as a buffer to disruption and conflict, as reconcilers and at peace with our neighbours?

What lies at the heart of Jesus’ command to abide, dwell, and be rooted in his love, is the desire that we unconditionally love one another. The complete joy of which we are invited to partake, comes from sharing in God’s mission of love. Jesus kept his Father’s commandment to love all the way through his self-sacrifice on the Cross to the Resurrection. If the forgiveness and pruning of our sinful desires that we experience because of his actions means anything to us at all (as we probably considered last week with the first part of this image of the vine), we also have to accept that the Cross and Resurrection are proof of God’s love for all of humanity. Indeed we cannot experience the fullness of our own humanity and God’s authority in our lives, unless we do so in relationship with others, all others, not just people who we might deem as being ‘like us’.

There is in effect an examination that as Christians we all have to pass, and it is an examination of the quality of our love. Each of us has to understand and apply for ourselves the skills and knowledge we’ve been taught by our Father God, and his Son our teacher Jesus, and provide living examples of our willingness to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in applying it in the most difficult, and/or unexpected of circumstances. Words are not enough, for “the sound of our faith has more power if it is heard through works of righteousness” (Maximus the Confessor, quoted by Archbishop Angaelos) and those works must be works of love.

 

 

 

 

 

Whose voice are we listening to? John 10:11-18

My sermon this week, reflects the nature of our calling as Christians to listen to Jesus, and those who live, love and speak truth in his name, even, perhaps especially, when it’s counter to what is peddled by political leaders and news-mongers. 

This afternoon at the St. George’s Day Parade service, I’m going to (and did) briefly touch on the fact that St. George – the real one, no dragons here – had a Greek father, and a mother who was a Christian from the large Roman province of Syria Palestine. He lived out his soldiering career as a Christian, possibly protecting and releasing those who were falsely imprisoned, neither of which would have made him popular. He was martyred for his unwillingness to denounce his Christian faith. The thought-provoking irony of having a Christian Syrian Palestinian soldier as our Patron Saint should not be lost on us in the next few days.

There is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, called Ghassan Ward.

“[His] bishop was kidnapped in April 2013, [his] church was destroyed, and [his] house was bombed. [His] two sons left the country, [his] wife died of cancer and [he] lost two… close family members because of the bombings.” But despite all this, Ghassan chose to stay in Syria, and care for his hurting community. “Many of my parish were rich before, now they are poor. They have no work, no income and all the savings are spent during the years of war,” he says. “The role of the church is not only having the services – we welcome the people and we try to help solve their problems. God gave us the love. It’s not easy to do this… The needs of the people are very big; we’re trying to meet their needs… We also help non-Christians. They are our neighbours, we live with them, and we cannot neglect a person who is hungry. When we give them a loaf of bread, the love of Christ is written on it.”

This story was told this week by the Open Doors charity, that serves and supports persecuted Christians. I have had it verified directly via one of the clergy and peers travelling in Syria this week, as typical of the work churches in the region are undertaking.

So what have these two people, St. George and a contemporary Syrian clergyman, got to do with this morning’s very famous, and deceptively simple parable?

Jesus is making some important points about who he is, but also about us. They are based round a claim that he fulfills the Old Testament prophesy of Ezekiel 34, where the Lord says he will rescue sheep “from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness” (Ezek 34:12) and that he will “place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”

Why it is that Jesus is in the position to be both the Lord God and King David, and thus the Good Shepherd of all God’s sheep, is one of those things that this parable seeks to explain, and leads up to at the end of John 10. There Jesus declares “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Everything Jesus says and does, is based on, and returns to, his relationship with his Father; that is the means by which he has the willingness, love and authority to both lay down his life, and take it up again.

Jesus is also reminding his listeners, Jews like himself, children of God’s covenant with Moses, that God has always been interested in bringing more than just them into a relationship with him. This is being fulfilled in him, because it is through his death and resurrection that God reaches beyond the old covenant to the rest of the sheep in the world, a world that 3-4 centuries later would boast a Christian martyred soldier of Greek and Syrian heritage, and today includes a beleaguered Syrian priest with nothing left but his faith, funding from Open Doors, a team of like-minded survivors, and his desire to love all those in his community. Jesus came to create one single universal flock of people who know and love God, and have the freedom to do so.

The bond between the sheep and the shepherd, as well as the Father and the Son, is one of trust and love. When he styles himself as the “Good” Shepherd, there’s a lot more depth to the meaning than the bland little English word “good” suggests. It is more emphasising that the trust and love that Jesus offers people is attractive – it is what motivates people like Ghassan to be risking their lives in places like Aleppo. We, and more importantly those who’ve not encountered Jesus before, should see something beautiful, inspiring and ultimately counter-cultural in who he is revealed to be, and through what he calls us to do. When Jesus says, ‘My own know me… [and] listen to my voice’ (John 10:14 and 16), he is demanding our willingness to trust and love him, as he did his Father, and at the very least, to be willing to be obedient to the example that he sets us, through the inspiration of his voice, in this parable as among many others he told.

This was completely revolutionary and counter cultural to Jesus’ world, filled as it was with hatred and suspicion, violence and counter-violence… a world that perhaps sounds all too similar to our own?! In the context of his conversation with and in front of the Pharisees, Jesus is saying, stop listening only to your traditions, your senior religious figures, whether what they are saying sounds good or not. Instead, Jesus is saying, start listening direct to God, to a vision of a world that is different, where people share what they have with their neighbour without worrying about where they fit in any particular religious or political picture or ideal.

Do we want to be ‘good’? Do we want to be beautiful? Do we want to be shepherds, shepherds who welcome all-comers to the fold? Do we want to listen to the voice of Jesus, the voice of truth, the voice of love?

There are two levels, two areas of the world stage, on which we are invited today to respond to those questions; there’s the macro level, and rather closer to home, the micro.

On the macro-level, where is the beautiful love of Jesus for all God’s people, most visible? One place it would seem, is Aleppo where Ghassan Ward works bravely and painstakingly with other churches of many denominations to feed Jesus’ sheep. That, I hope you agree, is beautiful. The same could be said for the work of the Open Doors organization which supports him, supports vulnerable Christians in Egypt, India, Iran, and nearly 50 other countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. If that work and those places are where the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for Jesus is most visible, perhaps theirs are the voices we need to take most care to listen to.

Still on a macro-level, perhaps we need to start questioning more carefully what we’re told by our political and dare I say it, our religious leaders, and certainly by today’s mainstream press. Where are we reading the counter-cultural voices, the stories of love, the hidden truths – even if they’re unpalatable or unpopular and don’t fit the current zeitgeist? Jesus says false shepherds flee the sheep in their care, and so we see those with authority playing fast and loose with the security and welfare of our neighbours, because their paperwork isn’t complete or they can’t contribute financially to society because of their disabilities. Sometimes even not knowing who to believe about the reality of whether a chemical attack happened or not, is better than believing the stories of either side without question. What would Jesus have us listen to and believe?

Which brings things rather closer to home, closer to the micro-level of our own parish and benefice, perhaps pertinently on this the day of our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, with St. Barnabas’s to follow on Wednesday. I’m sure you will want to listen later to Rev’d Lerys, as our Priest-in-Charge, but collectively we need to listen to how Jesus wants us to care for his flock, to look at the neighbouring ‘folds’ or parishes, to see where they need help to do the same, or where they might be able to help us.

And what about the other sheep, those that walk past the church in the sunshine, ride down the lane into the forest, stand at the school gate, sit at home and knit, sew or garden, and use the village shop and pubs? They need to know that Jesus is attractive, beautiful and good too, and that can only be done through what we say, and do.

Jesus had a two-fold vocation: to save the sheep currently in his care, and to enlarge the flock considerably by bringing in a whole lot of very different sheep (John10:16). That vocation is ours, because we already know Jesus. Our responsibility now, is to listen to his voice, so that we know where and how to seek the other sheep that he wants brought into his fold.

 

 

 

 

Announcement: Associate Priest

20170530_122819wThis morning 11th Feb 2018, it was announced that the Bishop of Winchester has appointed me on a permanent basis as Associate Priest in the Benefice of Eversley and Darby Green. My Licensing Service will take place at St. Mary’s Church, Eversley on Monday 9th April, rather appropriately the Feast of the Annunciation.

My husband Graham and I will remain living in our home in Yateley, my ‘sending’ parish, and the place with which Eversley and Darby Green has strong historic, social and economic ties. On paper it doesn’t look like we’ll be living in the communities I will be serving; but because of the way they relate to each other, and how the congregations are spread among them, I will be. I will also remain a Non-Stipendiary Minister – the accepted terminology in this diocese is Self-Supporting Minister (SSM) but I’m not self-supporting as I don’t anything from anywhere; and my ministry is enabled through the love and generosity of my spouse!

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My ‘popcorn’ sermon at St. Mary’s Eversley

I will be honest, for a long while I didn’t think this was what God wanted. But, it’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, or been very slow on the uptake – my call to ordination being a fine example. Whilst some significant moments in my ministry have included instantaneous recognition of God’s hand on my life, sometimes I have been too busy trying the doors that fit my dreams and/or the recommendations of those around me, or burying my head in the sand, to notice or accept the calling God is trying very hard to make obvious. In this case, as Graham and I sought to discern where God wanted me next, he opened an unexpected new job for Graham in his vocation as a teacher at the same time as the door that logically fitted it for me, closed in my face. Then when we looked at another exciting door for me, and found it very willing to open, with heavy hearts we realised it wasn’t compatible with where Graham’s new job was being affirmed and confirmed, so we had to firmly close the door I liked so much.

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Epiphany at St. Barnabas Darby Green

Cryptic, well it has to be really. If you’re interested and meet me face to face, I can explain a bit more. But it seems appropriate that such painful decisions are acknowledged in the process of discerning a new ministry, role and context. The struggles are important in themselves, but sometimes we can get lost in our struggles, and ignore the calling, the welcome, and the work, that is staring us in the face. Such is the case in this instance.

The warmth of the welcome last year when I was deployed to St. Mary’s Eversley, and the encouragements I have received over the intervening months both there and more recently at St. Barnabas Darby Green, have been a significant in me coming to realise where it was that God has called me to serve these churches. Developing a great working relationship with the new incumbent has helped too!

So, here’s to Lent, the time of preparation and penitence that suitably for me starts this week on Ash Wednesday and will lead through to Holy Week, after which I will take a week’s retreat in the run up to my Licensing for this new work. I’m looking forward to it, and to seeing where God is leading both these communities in the months and years to come.