Jesus, battling on our behalf – Revelation 12v1-6 and Mark 1v21-28

So I started our service at St. Mary’s Eversley this week by holding a line-out with the kids, to introduce the idea of conflict and that we’re in a spiritual battle. Here’s the sermon that went with that idea… there may be a slight theme to my reflections at present 😉

 

Sadly I don’t think it is simply the reference to a red dragon in this morning’s passage from Revelation that reminded me of the Welsh flag… and yes I realise that the red dragon of the Welsh flag doesn’t have seven heads! I fear it is more a rather fanatical devotion to watching the 6 Nations rugby tournament that starts next week, and the knowledge that Wales come to ‘Fortress Twickenham’ in a fortnight’s time.

In our passage from Revelation this morning, we have in prophetic vision, the titanic battle between Jesus (the baby) and the forces that seek to overpower God’s plan for the world (the seven-headed red dragon), with the faithful of a new Israel as a shocked and traumatised participant (the woman in need of God’s protection because of what she’s been involved in).

The babe is born into the world with the intention on God’s part of bringing the nations into line, to rule them with a rod of iron (a reference to Psalm 2:7-9)… like a good referee and his whistle in a rugby match; think Nigel Owens if you have half a clue what I’m talking about 😉 It’s a long match – it’s been going for a couple of millennia and it’s not over yet, for Revelation is a vision of Jesus’ second coming into the world, when he will finally complete the work of God’s new kingdom when heaven and earth are drawn together as one.

In echoes of Herod’s attempt to kill the infant King of the Jews in Matthew 2 which are thwarted by God’s intervention into the journey’s of both the Magi and the Holy Family, here the danger posed by the forces opposing God personified in the dragon are circumvented by the salvation story being compressed into a single moment, birth, death and resurrection, happening in the same instant as the babe’s ascension to God’s throne.

The woman is not a re-incarnation of Mary; the visions of Revelation are way more multi-layered than that simple analogy. More; she is both Eve, the original mother of all human life who’s “seed would one day crush the serpents head, according to Genesis 3:15, and she is daughter Israel, the bride of YHWH, the personification of both the faithful Israel who struggled to remain a holy nation, and ultimately the redefined Israel, Jew and Gentile alike brought together in the church, the bride of Christ, the fellowship of those who have responded with hope to Jesus authority in his first encounter with God’s creation. It is she, us indeed, that have been left to go through the painful birth-pangs and battle of bringing about the completion of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus, in his lifetime, right from the first days of his ministry, understood the nature of the conflict that all those who battle on his behalf have to deal with. He witnessed it himself, and he acted with authority on our behalf, and he still does, breaking down the forces that wreak havoc in individuals, communities, and continents through mental illness, addiction, abuse of various kinds, and racial and religious hatred. Sometimes it is those locked into those frightening situations who are most aware of when it is Jesus who is taking the strain, pushing back the powers of darkness, and helping them break free; those of us on the outside are perhaps blind to the significance of what is said and done.

Which was oh so true in Capernaum’s synagogue in our Gospel this morning. Yes, the language is medically outdated, but the imbalance of power between any illness and our human weakness, between one spiritual realm and another, is not. Those who witnessed this young man take an unusual tone of authority all of his own, without direct reference to scripture or the wisdom of his elders as the scribes did, did not understand from where that authority came. That is why they did not recognise the incongruity that lay in this Jesus from Nazareth being hailed as the Holy One of God by the very powers that Jesus, fresh from wilderness, already knew were ranged against him.

It is good that in this typically brief account from Mark’s Gospel, we see the importance of those with what we would now describe as mental health issues being welcomed into the worship, prayer, and teaching of a community of faith, because it is there, or should I say here, where the possibility of encounter with Jesus is hopefully heightened, through which they might find healing and freedom.

The church should be a safe place for those who need Jesus’ help. Whether gathered in one place like this morning, or flung out like stars around our communities, battered by the tail of the dragon that is heartbreak, illness and despair, we too need to know we have God’s power and protection by the very fact of being the church. As the people of God we have one another to turn to for encouragement, strength and wisdom. More importantly we have the person of Jesus quietly sat there with us in every situation, listening to the powers of darkness speak.  With his gentle authority as the Messiah, he offers us the understanding that can challenge those who use the name of Jesus inappropriately, who try to manipulate situations to undermine his credibility, and can help counteract with modern medicine, the force that ill-health of any sort has to over-power us.

The vision of Revelation is yet to be fulfilled. In the now-and-not-yet of God’s work of re-creation, Jesus has not yet returned to complete God’s task. The woman that represents us, God’s faithful worshippers, is still in child-birth, and thus we still have a very intense battle on our hands, faced as we are with powers who in all their multi-headed awfulness, don’t want the authority of Jesus to be revealed in it’s fullness. This is no rugby match, no game, but we do have a referee with God’s full authority; Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, who was,… and is,… and is to come. Amen.

With thanks to the Tom Wright and his Revelation for Everyone, as well as other commentaries, which helped me to unpack the Epistle enough in this sermon for several people to comment that they actually understood it as a result!

For the liturgically interested, we’ve delayed Candlemas to next week, so we can celebrate it in our All Age service.

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Balance in bell-ringing and the Christian life – Romans 12:1-11

I had the joy last weekend of leading Basingstoke District Bellringers Service, that partly came about because they were having their annual gathering at St. Mary’s Eversley, and partly because I’ve returned to bell-ringing a bit with the encouragement of the local team, having not rung more than a couple of times since I turned twenty! That story, and my reflections on it in connection with Romans 12:1-11, formed a part of my short talk at the service. I also used Malcolm Guite’s sonnet ‘New Year’s Day: Church Bells’, which many at the service hadn’t heard of. My thanks to Malcolm’s poetic skills, and hopefully he will find new bell-minded fans of his poetry!

 

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My 1970/80s Guild Certificate caused a certain amount of interest, and proved I really had rung as a kid (at All Saints Minstead, New Forest, where my parents were heavily involved in the re-hanging of the bells and extending of the peel)

Returning sporadically to bell-ringing in the few months I’ve been here in Eversley, I have been reminded of two things in particular.

Firstly, yes, bell-ringing really is like riding a bike; you never completely forget how to do it. My first evening last autumn I was astounded to discover (after a little tail and sally work) that I could still ring rounds without a minder. The second evening, towards Christmas I was back change ringing, and to my utter surprise this week, I managed Plain Hunt… the technical limit of my teenage endeavours in the New Forest, over 30 years ago!

Secondly, like riding a bike, one of the significant skills bell-ringing requires is balance. OK, so it’s not quite the same as balancing on two wheels at speed round obstacles with cars coming past, but balance none the less.

There’s the balance of the bell, read through the feel of the rope, something that’s slightly different for each bell because of its weight and the way it’s been hung.

There’s also the balance of the way you stand in relation to the fall of the rope, its position in relation to the rest of the peal, and the way you change your stance depending on whether you hunting down to the back, or up to lead at the front… or at least that’s how it felt on Wednesday!

Then there’s a sense of balance in what happens in the methods that are being rung. Every bell and its ringer has an equal part to play, moving to front and back, sharing the load of leading and following, functioning together as the body of the peal.

And there’s the balance between the activity of the mind, and the activity of the body, and the levels of concentration needed to function in both areas in response to what is required, and going on around you. There is a big commitment of mental and physical energy in ringing – it really is a full workout!

Which, is why I chose the reading from Romans for this afternoon. Hopefully you don’t think this novice is too technically in-accurate or being inappropriate with her analogies.

The Christian life is as much a full work out of body and mind as bell-ringing is. If we only help with a food bank or night shelter, visit the elderly and housebound, teach children, and do our everyday employment with our body and part of our mind, without engaging our understanding to bring that together with our understanding of God and our faith in Jesus, then we’re not being a Christian to the best of our ability.

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St. Mary’s bells feature on the kneeler used at every wedding held at St. Mary’s, Eversley, and it was also used this weekend on our church ‘stall’ at the Warbrook House Hotel Wedding Open Day!

Being a Christian should be a balanced whole life activity, just as bell-ringing is, especially for the many of you who ring in multiple towers each week. Practice is one thing, we need it to become proficient, but if we practice in isolation from ringing for services, including weddings, funerals, Remembrance and other occasions, then we’re not making that spiritual connection between ringing and what God is ministering to others through us: ministries of welcome, of joy and celebration, of mourning, of commemoration and creating history. Bells help people with all those things, ringing the story of our faith and drawing us into community with others, and mustn’t operate in isolation from the worship and mission of the church.

God wants his church to draw people into worship, to understand what it means to know Jesus, and at its best bells and bell-ringing is part of that. If we as bell-ringers are fulfilling our calling to the Christian life effectively, making it part of our spiritual act of worship, then we are enabling the whole body of the church to have more impact, and to be more visible as the body of Christ. If we have such a balanced understanding of and approach to our bell-ringing and to the rest of our lives, then both our faith and our bell-ringing will have integrity, and play their full part in the sincerity with which we love God, love our communities, and love of each other.

 

Getting out from under the fig tree – John 1:43-51 and Rev 5:1-10

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I was grateful when after several attempts I located some figs late Saturday afternoon – else my introduction was going to have to be changed!

 

Service intro:

I’ve got a puzzle… I’m going to describe something to you, and I want you to tell me if you think you know what it might be.

It’s a bit bigger than a ping-pong ball, but a shape that is something of a cross between a football and a rugby ball, so one end is round-ish, and one end is oval-ish. The oval-ish end has a small stick in it. The round-ish end possibly has a slight hole in the middle, like a miniature cave disappearing inside. The whole thing is a green-ish, purple-ish, brown-ish colour.

Any ideas? (Hopefully blank looks.) Even vague ideas?

Get out a fig. Shhhhh, if you know what it is! Go through the description again.

Do the words make any more sense when you can see what I’m talking about? Yes, great. No, take the blame for poor description.

Any ideas now what it is? Hopefully someone, child or adult, might know it’s a fig.

There’s a big difference between just hearing something said, and actually seeing it. There’s a bigger difference still when we can eat and taste the thing… but that will have to wait until after the service. [Pray for us all to both hear and see Jesus this morning.]

Sermon:

Nathaniel had been watched.

It was perfectly sensible to sit in the shade of a spreading fig tree. You might sit there on your own, making the most of the peace and quiet for meditation and prayer. You might sit there with friends or a teacher, for a quiet discussion. It was perfectly normal in the climate and culture of the time, and would have excited no comment at all.

Yet, Nathaniel, under a fig tree, was being watched.

The story of the law and the prophets that he had heard read from the scroll in the Temple or Synagogue, might well have been explained to Nathaniel under a fig tree by the rabbi of his community. It was also quite possibly a place where he’d have learnt the prejudices of his elders, listening to their stories of the rivalry that existed between villages. Nathaniel had heard, and learnt, many things, about God, about his religion, and about his community, whilst sat under a fig tree.

But whilst he was sat under a fig tree listening to others, he was being watched… By Jesus.

Of course, Nathaniel didn’t know that. All he knew was that today his friend Philip was full to bursting with a bit of news. Philip and his friends thought they’d found the person who would fulfil the prophesies of Isaiah, the promised ruler for King David’s throne, the Messiah (Is 9:6-7 and Is 11:1-5) But it was just that, news. Something else to listen to.  And the fact that Philip said this person came from Nazareth fed all the prejudices that Nathaniel had learnt; Philip’s excitement was just words, easily dismissed,… until Philip said “Come and see”.

Sitting under a fig tree listening to others was no help. Getting up and discovering that the man Philip spoke of had been watching and listening to him without him being aware, made a significant difference.

It was only when Nathaniel had been drawn away from his place of safety under the fig tree, the place where his hearing senses dominated, that he is able to actually see the truth of Philip’s words, and use his natural abilities as a down-to-earth Israelite to recognise Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah. There was no point just using words with Nathaniel, he had to see for himself.

In some senses Jesus was just like him, a down-to-earth, blunt-talking Israelite who knew his scriptures. But Israel’s purpose as God’s people had been to provide the means of bridging the gap between heaven and earth, repairing God’s broken creation, initiating God’s rescue plan among people’s who were intent on destroying God’s handiwork. Unfortunately Israel was a little too hung-up in it’s old prejudices, rather more intent on reciting scripture than getting out and looking to be it’s fulfilment. Until he got out from under the fig-tree, Nathaniel was a good representation of an Israel too fractured and hidebound by tradition to be able to break the seals on God’s rescue plan.

Jesus was the image of what Israel should have been, had indeed been created for. What Nathaniel saw in Jesus in those first moments of personal engagement, and the realisation that Jesus had been watching over and listening to him for a significant period, was the power of Israel’s royalty, combined with a gentle vulnerability that enabled people to encounter him on their own terms. Jesus: the lion and the lamb, something to be spoken about, and something to be seen for yourself; a true Israelite of the house of David and the ‘lion-cub’ tribe of Judah (Gen 29:9), and the slaughtered sacrificial lamb of Passover, through whom Israel was saved, and by whom all the people’s of the world would now be bought the opportunity of new life. Jesus was a piece of news worth getting out of the shade of a fig tree for.

  • Only Jesus could show Nathaniel that he was visible and listened to by God.
  • Only Jesus could be both the lion and the lamb of Israel’s people.
  • Only Jesus could provide from Israel the fulfilment of God’s original creative intention to heal the world and it’s people of the broken-ness which had become endemic.
  • Only Jesus could bring about a new covenant and a new kingdom that would start to bring earth and heaven together.
  • Only Jesus could enable us to sing a new song to God as the priesthood of all believers.

We are being watched.

It’s perfectly appropriate to have places of meditation and prayer where we feel at peace. It’s perfectly reasonable to sit in the shade of a metaphorical fig-tree, listening to and discussing what it is that scripture says about the future. It’s indeed not uncommon for those discussions to wander off and feed our own prejudices about different elements of the community we live in.

But it’s worth remembering that we are being watched, and listened to, by Jesus.

If we haven’t already, soon we’re going to have to leave listening and talking behind, get out from under our fig-tree, and go and meet the Jesus who has been watching and listening to us, and knows us through and through, prejudices and all. Are we ready to see more? Are we ready to encounter the power of the lion and the sacrifice of the lamb?

Some of us have got out from under the fig tree before. We’ve recognised that through those that come and talk to us, we hear news about what God is doing that is worth going out and seeing for ourselves. But when the fig tree provides plenty of shade from the heat of the sun, and life wears us to a frazzle, a little comfort and company can do wonders for our energy levels. However, then we have to remember it’s not necessarily where we’re going to encounter Jesus. We have to get up and go meet the next piece of good news.

I can’t necessarily tell you where we must go to find Jesus, but it means knowing we are being listened to and seen by Jesus as we work out where we go, and will involve listening to and seeing others. Part of that starts over the next ten days as our two PCCs coming together to listen to each other and God as to the direction we go in making sure Jesus is seen in our communities, our mission and our worship. A small group of us are also going to listen and help Jesus and this church be seen at the wedding fair at Warbrook House next Sunday.

There will be other things. It might be sitting and listening to children read in school, seeing whether the school want people to return to gardening for them, or joining the Open The Book team so that the children meet Jesus. It may be that we have to spend time finding a non-threatening way to tell the people who come and sit under the local trees about Jesus, like the horse-riders who frequent Church Green, or the families who use the play area. It could be that in encouraging the community to recycle things the council won’t accept, and finding a site and a mechanism for doing so, we might be more like Jesus himself, bringing healing to God’s creation. Whatever the things are that we do, they will be a new song, a song that lives and celebrates the power and the sacrifice of Jesus, if we not only listen to what people say, but also go out and meet Jesus, the lion and the lamb.

Using God’s jigsaw pieces for a new beginning – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-end and John 1:6-8,19-28

Introduction with the children before they go out:

Who like’s doing puzzles?
What sort of puzzles?

Jigsaw puzzles, 3D puzzles, I’m guessing we might have some Sudoku and crossword fans in the congregation.

Our readings this morning in this part of church give us a bit of a puzzle, a puzzle about who we are. Not our names, but what our purpose is, the sort of people we are called to be. God has put us in a place or a time of confusion, and we have to puzzle out what it is that we need to do in his name.

So I want you to give out some puzzle pieces in a moment when we’ve prayed for each other, and then at the end of the service, you’re going to collect them in again, and help me put the pieces together…

 

Puzzle pieces:   (Holy) Spirit    –     Bind Up (Heal)      –      Renew    –      Good News    –      Freedom    –    Build Up   –    Justice Comfort    –    Beauty Praise/Joy   –    Baptise    –   Serve Jesus

Sermon:

The chances are, they knew who he was.

John, the son of Zechariah, the priest descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson (Luke 1:5); the priest who in his later years had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel who visited him whilst on duty at the Temple (Luke 1:11-20).

John, the son of Elizabeth, who was well past child-bearing age, and that same elderly priest Zechariah whose lips, unsealed by John’s birth, then prophesied that he would be the prophet who would prepare the way for God’s mercy and love to be revealed to the world.

John, who could by line and lineage have been a priest himself and worn the fine linens of the Temple, offering the sacrifices of others, and who chose instead to wander around in the desert in rough clothing, eating locusts and honey, and saying that the Jewish people needed to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, by literally being converted back in to the Jewish faith in which they were rooted.

Oh yes, the Levites and priests who came from Jerusalem, would have known very well what his name was, whose son he was, and what the stories were that surrounded him. But that didn’t answer their question: “Who are you?”

They wanted to fit him into their ordered way of defining their history and way of life through the prophets of their past. By pigeon-holing John into what they thought they understood of Elijah and Moses, they thought they could understand him, make him fit into their traditions.

But asking the question from that blinkered point of view, was completely missing the significance of where John was, what he was saying, and what he was doing. John might have looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet, but he was very much doing a new thing, heralding the new way that God was going to be active not just among the Jewish community, but in the whole world.

John was in the wilderness because God’s people had lost their way – a fact amply demonstrated by the Levites and priests needing to ask their question in the first place. They had all the tools, the jigsaw pieces if you like, with which to recognise and take part in this new thing that God was doing, but they’d got so lost, especially around the Temple worship of Jerusalem, that they couldn’t recognise it. They couldn’t even see that other prophets of the past had prepared them for this when Israel had previously found itself with the opportunity to start a new era, a new way of living, a new relationship with God.

The words of Isaiah 61 would have been familiar to the priests and their assistants the Levites, but perhaps they had forgotten its’ context, and failed to recognise as so often happens, that history was sort of repeating itself, but with an extra twist of significance. Isaiah 61 falls in the last part of the prophesies grouped together in that name, a series of visions that spoke into two periods of Israel’s history. The first was the point where the first Israelites returned from Exile in Babylon but had few resources to rebuild the Temple, and limited self-rule to make new beginnings as a nation in the ‘between-times’ before the rest of this scattered people returned. The second point to which Isaiah 61 prophesies is another ‘between-time’, this one standing at the cusp of the old covenant and a new one, a time again when Israel was under restricted self-rule, this time anticipating the arrival of the long-promised Messiah.

John, was doing something that was normally only offered to those outside the Jewish faith and who wished to accept that Israel’s God was the one true God of all people; he was baptising people. But he was baptising his fellow Jews, something that should not have been needed. Yet, as the priests and Levites were amply demonstrating, they had lost their purpose and the vision of Isaiah’s prophesies, and therefore their understanding of what was going on around them had become lost in a wilderness of their own creation. The sins from which John was demonstrating people needed to be washed clean, were the ones that obliterated their view of what God was doing in their immediate vicinity, stopped them from setting the right example not just to their communities, but to those gentiles among whom they lived. The people who would be among the first to recognise the Messiah who already stood among them, would be those who understood that God’s anointed Messiah would bring with him those things prophesied in Isaiah. It was the people who were already gathered around John, who saw the opportunities of a life more fully focused on what God wants to reveal in the world, rather than the wilderness that bewildered their leaders, that would become the first disciples of the Messiah.

There is a very strong sense in which we too live in a period which we might be forgiven for thinking is a wilderness, where our leaders are bewildered by what it is they see, and seem unable to recognise it as an opportunity for a new beginning, or understand what it is they should be doing with that opportunity.  What we as Christians need to do, is to show them the tools at their disposal, the jig-saw pieces that mean that we can live as God intended us to. In the scriptures of the old covenant, as in Isaiah 61, and in the example and teaching of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as well as John the Baptist, we hold those tools, those jigsaw pieces. Quite literally.

Please can all those who were given a jigsaw piece by the children hold them up please? That’s quite a lot of pieces, and there are plenty more! (Please put them down.) These few are all words or ideas within our scriptures this morning, and we can go through them briefly – please hold up the relevant jigsaw piece as I mention it:

(Holy) Spirit – The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me (Is 61:1). That’s the suffering servant, the Messiah himself speaking. That spirit would dwell in Jesus, and be offered to us through faith in him, as at Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit of God that we must have dwelling within us if we are to find a way out from the wilderness that the nations find themselves in.

Good News ­
– The Messiah came to bring good news to the poor (Is 61:1), the poor of spirit, the financially poor, those made homeless (physically or spiritually) by the systems of the world; as those who believe in him that we are called to do likewise.

With the ideas of Binding Up (Healing) and Freedom (Is 61:1)­ we remember the healings that Jesus undertook, those he freed from physically or spiritually dark places, and we remember that this world needs us to seek the hidden darknesses of people’s lives where the light of the Messiah needs to be shone.

Vengeance/Justice (Is 61:2,8) The Messiah for whom John prepared Israel was he who challenged the corruption and structures of the time, turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, released people from debt through forgiveness not extortion; if we do or enable likewise, we offer new beginnings and new opportunities for those living in the wilderness of social injustice and exclusion, the hope of Christ.

We know we need to Comfort those who mourn not just the death of a loved one, but the loss of mobility and companionship, providing practical support as well as a hug or a kind word (Is 61:2-3).

We also seek Beauty (Is 61:3) not only in God’s creation but among the ashes of people’s broken lives when they’ve become the shell of the person they once were because of the wilderness of their lives and yet are loved, as they are, by God.

God calls us to find opportunities for Praise and Joy (Is 61:3) among the ashes of our lives as well as that of others; the things for which we are thankful, friends, family, our faith in Jesus.

These are jigsaw pieces of living out our faith with which we are called to Build Up and Renew (Is 61:4) not just our church and local community, but the nations of the world. If we do not speak for freedom, justice and healing in the name of Jesus, to those in authority, how can God’s love be seen and heard?

John came and Baptised with water (John 1:26), but now through faith in Jesus, the forgiveness he offered, and the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled both the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah, we baptise people into the body of Christ, the church, the means by which we seek to Serve Jesus, in all these ways even though we are not worthy so much as untie even his laces (John 1:27).      (Thank you).

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The jigsaw pieces that take us on a journey towards Jesus.

After we have remembered, recognised and received Christ the Servant-Messiah who stands among us in our Holy Communion this morning, we will use our jigsaw pieces with the children to make a straight path. It will serve to remind us that though we may feel we live in a spiritual wilderness, we have the jigsaw pieces of our faith, ready at our disposal to create a clear path out. The key is to remember where those pieces come from, the God from whom they come, the Messiah toward whom they point, and to seek the opportunities for new beginnings, that will show the world who we are as Christians.

During the notices, before the final hymn: I got the children to collect in the jig-saw pieces and work out how to lay them, making a straight path, pointing to the Joseph and Mary journeying to Bethlehem (in the Lord’s Table).

On being candle wax – Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-end #Advent2017

Sunday marked the Christian ‘new year’, or Advent as we prefer to call it. It was also my second trip to preach and celebrate Holy Communion at St. Barnabas Darby Green. I may have used candles in my illustrations; including tapers there were technically four of them (Two Ronnies sketch here, if you really must). The opening of the audio version of the sermon refers to the incumbent, Rev’d Lerys Campbell, who has a snazzy, home made, Advent stole with four candles, to which he can add a flame each week of Advent… I’m not jealous, honest!

It’s strange how God speaks through us; personally, on reflection, I thought this illustration poor, and the sermon disjointed, but still it appeared to speak to people. Always humbling.

 

Hopefully at some point in our lives, we’ve all held a candle. I mean the real deal (picking up one, and lighting it), not a flame of unrequited love 😉

If we’ve held a Christingle candle, taken part in a candlelit Carol or Candlemas Service, or become a Godparent and held a child’s baptism candle, the chances are we’ve watched the wax melt, and discovered that as it trickles down the candle, it can trickle through the slits of the candle holder onto the back of our hands. Very often the nature of the service means we can do little about it, except perhaps blow the candle out prematurely if it becomes too painful. We’ll also know that as the wax cools, it mounds itself to the shape of our hands, so that when we flex afterwards, it cracks and peels off.

Many of us are well used to the symbolism of a candle flame representing Jesus, ‘the light who is coming into the world’; the season of Advent at the start of the new Christian year brings that symbolism sharply into focus.

A candle flame comes from a burning wick, something that is capable of burning with little or no wax, as we find with our church tapers (light taper, let it flame); the light burns large & faster almost that wick is consumed (blow it out).

Of course at home, we quite possibly use fat pillar candles to create a romantic or relaxing effect (light a pillar candle, leave it to burn), and with them the quantity of wax and the time it takes to melt, slows the rate of burn, helping the candle to last longer. Indeed there is often spare wax that isn’t burnt away, and the flame sinks to be hidden in a tunnel, until we come along with a sharp knife to carve it away, a job done most easily when the candle has just been extinguished and the wax is soft.

We focus so much on the light, and give little thought to the wax, it’s role or purpose, the symbolism we can usefully assign to it. So this morning I want to suggest that WE are the wax that is being melted by the candle flame of Christ ‘the light of the world’, when we let the Holy Spirit burn through us, melting us, moulding and changing us.

This first Sunday in Advent we are focusing on hope, the light of hope that exists in the darkness of our lives, the things we do wrong, the mistakes we make, the ‘hopeless’ scenarios of our existence that pertain to the terminal illness of a loved one, or uncertainty over a job, or welfare payments. What we are looking for is hope in a God of new beginnings, who is faithful to his promise that he will be with us in such darkness, and in his ultimate desire to create a new heaven and a new earth, in which are right with him, or as we might say, righteous.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning, are full of reminders of the mistakes the world, and often we God’s people, have made or are in danger of making.

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    “Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?”
  • In Is 64:6, Israel, was recognised by God’s prophets as being like a soiled and dirty cloth that has hardened dry, and which can no longer be used. And it is likened to a faded autumn leaf that is easily blown away. Both the cloth and the leaf have become brittle, hard and useless, like the dribbles of wax we pick off a candle, or our hand, when they’ve gone cold (pick some off a ‘pre-dribbled’ candle). Are we so soiled by the world we’ve become brittle and useless?
  • In Mark 13:35-36, Jesus’ hearers are reminded that as servants of God, they need to stay awake, to recognise when it is that their master is coming. In both passages there is a sense of distance between God’s people and his eternal presence, a hidden-ness that Israel saw as God turning his face from them. If we keep the wax base of a candle away from the taper’s flame, it remains hard, and cannot be melted to mold itself to a candle holder (demonstrate – see above). Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?
  • Even when Jesus quotes from Daniel 7 in reference to himself as the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’, it is a reference not so much to the hoped-for Second Coming when God will draw heaven and earth together as one in his presence, but to Jesus’s own ‘coming’ to God after his suffering, in his resurrection and ascension. It is also about God’s judgement on the spiritual system that had corrupted Israel’s worship both in the Temple and the voices of it’s religious leaders. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, is in large part the consequence of these things that Jesus is anticipating in Mark 13. Like the extraneous wax in a pillar candle too large for the wick around which it is built, have we or the organisations of our world, built a pride and arrogance into our lifestyles, businesses and political structures such that they hide the Christ-light of the Christians within them, and thus need tearing down? (Carve a lump out the pillar candle.)

These illustrations are a reminder instead that God’s people down the ages have had an uncanny habit of making themselves blind to God’s presence, to God’s will for their lives, to God’s purposes in the world. It was not God that turned away, despite his judgement on Israel’s sins, but their sin, and the sin of their leaders that created a barrier between them and God. If we’re honest, we do it too; hopelessness is not an absence of God, but an absence of our ability to see God. That’s why we need the light; it’s why the world needed, and still needs, Jesus.

As Isaiah explains, the hope we crave is in God’s faithfulness despite we continue to do to make him feel distant, and blame him for the wrongs we encounter in the world. The prophet’s petition is ‘Do not be exceedingly angry with us Lord, do not remember our sins, our iniquities” (Is 64:9).

  • Instead we are to remember, that the God of Israel did awesome deeds throughout their history that they didn’t expect (Is 42:3), not least in their Exodus out of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, their coming to the promised land. It is important to recount what God has already done in our lives too, for there in his faithfulness is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember that our creator God who brought Jesus into the world to release us from our sins, is the same creator God who brings new life to the fig (Mark 13:28) and other trees each spring. It is important to see the new beginnings of God in creation and in our lives and treasure them, for there is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember, that God meets with each of us who seeks to do right, and who remembers that God’s ways (Is 64:5) are frequently not the ways of the world. It is important that we are obedient to God’s teachings, his healing touch, his justice, which we recognise in Jesus; for in them is the light of hope.

As we go though Advent, perhaps with a candle burning at home each day (show and light our Advent candle from home), as well as on our wreath here each Sunday (point to the church Advent candle), let us consider that if we are the wax of a candle, we need to be in the right proximity to the light of Christ, so that we are heated, molded, melted and changed in such a positive way that in his name, we become clear beacons of light and hope in the world.

Thanks to Grahart who’s blogging his way through Advent with the AdventBookClub2017 and Magdalen Smith’s ‘Unearthly Beauty’ for the photos, and to Liz our lovely prayerful local florist who is selling up to retire at Christmas, and from whom I got the instant prop-table!

 

Light of the World – Creator God helping us shine our lights

I’ve got a new, warm, long, black coat, and today, much to our local headteacher’s amusement, I hid a set of Christmas lights wrapped round myself under it! Why? Because at school the long run in to Christmas is starting. Gently you understand, not too Christmas, just a little creation orientated ‘light of the world’ stuff.

I also thought I was going to end up teaching the kids a song, but they already knew the chorus, and we had great fun singing it acapella, lustily, and with much clapping, and without a tape or an instrument in sight!

In case this might help anyone else, here’s what I did:

NB: I checked first with the head for epileptic students who are flashing light sensitive, and set the light sequence on my lights accordingly under my coat.

 

Ask the children to use their imaginations (eyes closed) to think about what they feel like when it’s very dark? Have they ever experienced a power cut? Have they ever woken up in the night and felt frightened of the dark?

When God made the world, the Bible says that the very first thing that God did was to create light:

Genesis 1:1-5

So when we think of light, we can think of our creator God, and all the good things that he created, starting with light. God switched the lights on!

Why is that light so important? e.g. we can see more clearly, so it keeps us safe, guides us, plants to grow etc.

God came to the world as Jesus, human like you and me, and Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world”, and suggested people who follow him always have the light of life with them, and are never in darkness. (John 8:12)

Jesus was God’s Son, so, God is both the creator of light and light itself!

We’ll think more about Jesus as the light of the world as we move close to Christmas.

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Practising ‘dress-up’ the night before – I wore my loudest flame-coloured clerical shirt for the actual Act of Worship!

Is there anything slightly different about the way I look this morning? (Have my big black coat on done up tight, over battery powered Christmas lights.)

I’m dressed in black, and still got my coat on. BUT I’m meant to be a follower of Jesus, I’m meant to be living in the light, in fact Jesus says to all of us:

Matthew 5:14-16

That means I’m meant to have Jesus light with me, to be lit up, a light to shine before you! A light that reflects God’s light out into the world. What could I do?
I think I need to take my coat off! (Reveal Christmas lights.)

But it can’t be just me who shine’s God’s light. (Ask teachers for a volunteer to be lit up.  Ask their name. Wrap them in a set of lights, and switch on.)

Now, do you think we can walk round like this all the time? No?!

In which case what sort of things can all of us do that will help shine God’s light in this school, in our families and in our community? How can we shine with God’s light?

Listen to the children’s answers, and value them.

Unwrap volunteer, and invite them to sit down.

We’re now going to ask God to help us be light’s in the world, that shine good things out that other people can see. If you want to agree with what I’m praying you can say ‘Amen.’

Thank you God that the first thing you created was light.
Thank you God that the light you made helps plants to grow, and animals to live, and us to feel safe.
Thank you God that you came to us as light in Jesus, the light of the world.
Jesus, help us to follow you, so that we can shine as God’s light to the people around us.
Amen.

 

Song: This little light of mine – inspired by this YouTube version but without the instrumental back-up

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. (x2)

The light that shines is the light of love,
Hides the darkness from above,
Shines on me, and it shines on you,
Shows you what the power of love can do.
Shine my light both bright and clear,
Shine my light both far and near,
In every dark corner that I find,
Gonna let my little light shine.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. (x2)

Let it shine…
Let it shine…
Let it shine.

Additional verse that I didn’t teach this time:

Monday, he gave me the gift of love;
Tuesday, peace came from above.
Wednesday, he told me to have more faith;
Thursday, he gave me a little more grace.
Friday, he told me to watch and pray;
Saturday, he told me just what to say,
Sunday, he gave me the power divine,
To let my little light shine.

Investing in the Kingdom of God – Matthew 25:14-30

It’s not easy talking about money, especially in a church, but the parable of the talents is first and foremost about money. I also wanted to talk specifically about the way the Church of England and the Diocese of Winchester is using it’s money, so all pretty ‘hard’ stuff.

So I also wanted something that brought the ideas alive creatively… so I stole my own Pentecost children’s talk, and got the popcorn maker out! The children loved the first bit (and the fact they got to make more after the service), and even some of the adults left church thoughtfully munching handfuls!

CHILDREN’S ACTIVITY BEFORE FIRST HYMN

Get children to identify popcorn.
What’s is it?
Is it edible as it is?
What do we need to do with it to make it edible?

Run the pop-corn maker.

Get the children to look at, and describe the popcorn (before they eat it!)

How has the popcorn changed?
How much bigger is it than it was?
Is there any that is still hard and horrid because it hasn’t popped?

This is an illustration that I sometimes use at Pentecost, when we remember the work of the Holy Spirit, so you might just see it again at school. What I want you to remember today is that God changes us, makes us spiritually bigger, perhaps a little softer in our character, and definitely grows us through what we learn about Jesus, and through what Jesus teaches us in his life and stories.

So, as the children go to their group in the hall, let us pray that all of us this morning will be changed by what we learn from and experience of Jesus, so that we can play our part in the Kingdom of God. Amen.

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The popcorn sermon: as Graham sneakily photographs me preaching I’m realising I pull some ghastly faces when I do so… but I can’t use the photos of the kids he took, so you’ll have to make do! The church and flowers look great.

SERMON:

At the beginning of the service I made popcorn with the children and we looked at how most of the kernels get hot and expand to become much softer and delicious, but a few stay hard.

Cast your mind back to my little popcorn illustration with the children, and then think about the Parable of the talents that we heard in our Gospel this morning. What do you think the tenuous connection, or connections, could be?

Take answers.  Don’t offer an answer.

Listen to this, and see if the point I’m making, if not the tenuous connection itself, helps you grow, puff up and be spiritually a bit softer and tastier this morning? Hopefully you’ll be able to play your part in God’s Kingdom more fully as a result.

When Jesus originally told the Parable of the Talents, he was speaking to the people who concerned him most at that particular point in time. It is just before the Feast of the Passover, in what we now know as Holy Week. Jesus is only too well aware of the fact that he is about to be killed by the religious powers of his day. Why? Because they are refusing to accept that the wonderful promises that God had made to the people of Israel – regarding it being a light to the whole world through the gift of a Messiah – are being fulfilled in Jesus. The wealth of wisdom and insight handed down through the faithful patriarchs, prophets and kings and interpreted in the laws, rules, theology and teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, was being wasted because in relation to Jesus, they were burying that wealth in the ground, rather than investing it in understanding and acting on this new thing that God was doing for and through the people of Israel. Hardened as they were to their living God (hard un-popped corn), it was they who Jesus knew would be thrown into the outer darkness of abandonment by God.

As well as considering its purpose when Jesus first told it, this Kingdom parable can be interpreted appropriately with the rest of scripture to talk about the God-given talents that we have and how we use them, and to consider God bringing judgement on us when Jesus returns, among other themes. All perfectly appropriate and useful.

Yet, at its heart, this parable talks about money, and how it is used. It’s all very well knowing that we get our English word talent from this parable, but we mustn’t forget that a ‘talent’ in Jesus’s day was money, and a lot of money at that. One talent was roughly equivalent to 15 years of wages for a labourer! That’s how much the last servant in the parable buried in the ground for a long period of time. No wonder when the master came back he was incredibly cross; even at the rates of interest that we’re used to these days, a deposit account would have netted a few quid profit!

Of course what the more creative servants did with their five and two talent allocations was not to deposit it with the bank, but to trade, or we might say today, invest it. Jesus’ language suggests a trade in goods or services, not a one off action to bury or even deposit the money, but an ongoing process that continually took decisions about what the best use of the money was, spent it on those things, received money back through the sale of those goods or services, and then started that process all over again. If we do that today with units of stocks and shares, or actual goods that we buy or make and sell on, it’s regarded as an investment and involves a certain degree of risk – risk that we’re making the right decisions, or that others are behaving appropriately with our money. Investing money can reap significantly better rewards than a deposit account, even in today’s economy, though we’re unlikely to make the return of 100% that Jesus signifies in his parable!

The word ‘investment’ comes from the same root as words like vestment (what I’m wearing, something I put on to share in the meal that Jesus offers us), and investiture, which we associate with giving people an extra layer of honour for some good work they have done. If we think about another Kingdom parable a few weeks ago, people are meant to put on new, fine clothes for the wedding banquet of God’s Son. There is a new layer of bright, clean goodness with which we are called to meet God, just as in this parable we are being asked to act in such a way that there is a new, fresh accrual of wealth with which to greet him.

Rev’d Lerys and I were hearing this week that the Church of England has stopped the old system of holding its long-term wealth, which limited its spending to the basic interest that it could earn in that way. It has decided instead that as well as being more careful where that wealth is held, the best way of resourcing the church to grow future generations of Christians is to invest carefully selected chunks of the original assets for specific projects they consider worth spending them on. Each diocese is effectively now bidding for a share of not simply the profits but the original investment, which it then has to invest wisely, not for financial return necessarily but to grow the number of people who know about and engage faithfully in a journey of discipleship with God.

As churches, as individuals, we are asked to invest similarly. The Common Mission Fund, what used to be known as the Parish Share, is designed to do exactly what it says on the tin: fund our common, shared mission as Christians across the diocese. So, the necessarily increasing amounts that each church is asked to pay from our own pockets, is invested in things like paying the wages of stipendiary clergy from Lerys to our Bishops, and funds training for not just clergy but LLMs (like Jane) and others called to a range of authorised ministries. It also goes from this diocese to those whose poverty and population are greater; Winchester offers ongoing support to the Diocese of Newcastle and our many links with the Anglican Church worldwide, not least those in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, places where we’re all aware God’s love and grace needs to be urgently heard and felt.

In our Life Groups here in St. Mary’s, we’ve spent this term questioning ourselves as to how generous we are with what God has given us, financially and other ways. I’m getting some interesting feedback that will go to PCC this week as to how our answers could change what we might term our investment lifestyle as both individuals and a church, so that we witness more effectively to the generosity of God, and work more efficiently to extend and grow his Kingdom here. Lerys too will have something to say next week about the shortfall that currently exists between what our combined financial offerings are, and the financial commitments they need to fulfil.

This is all serious stuff, a long way from a pile of popcorn (bowl of pre-popped fresh popcorn). So what’s the connection? To make the corn pop, there has to be heat (if not in this instance a flame) and a rushing wind. As the corn is turned this way and that in the heat, so it is changed, at least doubling its size, become soft, almost fluffy, and delicious. Now you know why I use this illustration for Pentecost! The heat, is the investment, the risk, the cost of turning something hard into something useful, like we are changed by God through our discipleship and the power of the Holy Spirit into something that tastes more of God’s Kingdom.

As you take home or eat some popcorn at the end of the service, please consider this week, how it is that God wants to change the way we use the money he has given us. Allow the Holy Spirit to turn our thoughts this way and that in the heat of our commitment to respond to Jesus teaching; have we looked at the amount of money we are trading and investing for God recently, or has become a static deposit we rarely consider changing, or simply been buried in other considerations and concerns?

Let us pray that as individuals, families and a community of Christians, we can wholeheartedly investing our money, as well as our time and skills, in the Kingdom of God and how that Kingdom can be extended in this place.

 

Being a Saint; our part in God’s story ‘Shoebox Sunday’ – Matthew 5:1-12

It’s alright, I’ve not stopped preaching, honest.

A couple of weeks ago I sat in the pews to enjoy the new vicar at work, and then last week I took our All Souls reflective service, which didn’t really have a sermon in the traditional sense – I sort of talked at various points in the service, and not in a way that easily translates to the blog. So that’s why I’ve been a bit quiet. 

This week was back to normal though, and had the chance to preach and celebrate Holy Communion in both the churches in the Benefice; first the BCP at Eversley, and then, so that the new vicar could share in the lay-led contemporary and family services there, at St. Barnabas, Darby Green. We all felt really welcomed there, and felt encouraged by the conversations that came in response to my sermon.

In both churches they were collecting in their ‘shoeboxes’, though for different charities: at Eversley we’ve supported Link to Hope for the first time this year, and at Darby Green they were collecting for Operation Christmas Child. We were also marking All Saints day, and the reading was from the Beatitudes. So here’s all those things, drawn together (and if you want to HEAR me preach, St Barnabas record the sermon so you could click this link if you really wanted to):

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‘Shoeboxes for “Link to Hope” at St. Mary’s Eversley collected from congregation members and the children of Charles Kingsley School. (Rather foolishly I forgot to photograph the ‘sermon illustrations’ in my box before I hurriedly sealed it to go in the pile after I’d preached!)

Today is one of the nine principle feasts of the church, a day of as much importance as Christmas, Easter or Pentecost. All Saints Day is the a celebration of the unity of all God’s people, living and dead, and their share in the work Jesus started in bringing in the Kingdom of God.

We probably know the stories of many who are now formally titled ‘Saints’. One should be well known to us: Barnabas (the encourager who travelled in another saint, Paul), Peter (and the other apostles), Mary… several, notably the BVM and Mary Magdalene (sometimes referred to as the apostle to the apostles). What about more modern saints? Mother Teresa of the Sisters of Calcutta, and Oscar Romero who spoke up for the poor of South America and was martyred whilst celebrating communion in San Salvador (1980), are regarded as saints among both Catholics and Anglicans. In Anglicanism we have this week also commemorated (as we now term it) Martin Luther, particularly in this 500th year since the Reformation.

We know, or can easily find out, the stories of these people and the part they played in God’s story, the revelation of his Kingdom, the care of other people in his name. But I wonder if we would ever consider number ourselves among them? What’s our part in revealing God’s story? For this is a feast of community where we are reminded that no Christian is solitary in their belonging to Christ, or in the endeavours with which we try be God’s blessing to others in the ordinary circumstances and extraordinary crises of human life.

It is therefore fitting that for us, this Feast of All Saints is our Shoebox Sunday, when as a community we bring together in our brightly coloured shoeboxes what we might regard as the ordinary blessing of woolly hats, toothbrushes, cuddly toys and colouring pencils, to reach into the crises of lives lived without any of those things, and other basic needs like food, water, peace, or a loving family.

You see, the key to understanding what it means to be a saint is to understand what it means to be blessed, to be a blessing, to inhabit the multi-coloured cloak of the beatitudes which are our Gospel reading this morning. These opening words to what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, are not badges of holiness that we seek to earn, that create guilt (like when we don’t feel comforted at the death of a loved one), or that cause us to be frustrated (as should we don’t receive justice when we’ve been wronged). They are Jesus’ announcement of a new way of living, the fresh way that God was starting to work in the world, initially through him, and since then through the many named and un-named saints, who have put into action this mosaic of ideas.

A person or a thing is blessed firstly by being part of God’s creation, the story of God started with the living Word (who we come to know as Jesus) and the breath or spirit of God revealed fully at Pentecost, that together brought his creation into being (Genesis 1, John 1) and which he recognised as ‘GOOD’. We are each made in the image of our creator God, and all the material things that we make and are given, come from him, and therefore what we do and use as our contribution to God’s Kingdom work, is God’s work before it is ours.

Our vocation or calling, as the people of God, is to be a community that purposefully reveals God to others in our gifts and actions, as much as in our words. In doing so we should give thanks and praise to God for grace in what we do, we follow the example of love and sacrifice set by his Son Jesus in his life, death and resurrection, and also recognise the cost to ourselves of what we are doing. If those three things are happening in what we are doing, then we are living out our responsibility to love and care for all God’s people, and we become God’s blessing to them.

I’m going to use three of the items in my shoebox to relate this idea of being a blessing to others in just three of the Beatitudes in today’s reading:

Here is a packet of plasters, and we remember the beatitude that says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I’m not suggesting that a sticking plaster makes someone feel better after the death of a loved one; we know that’s not true. But there is a wide variety of suffering and pain experienced in the world today, and whilst bereavement is part of that, it can be experienced in very different ways. The plasters we offer here might stop bleeding in a wound, and prevent infection, bringing comfort and protection, so that death doesn’t become part of the situation, but the comfort we offer might just as well be pot of a flowers, a casserole, or a garden tidied… it’s just those don’t fit well in a shoebox. Each are blessings to those who mourn.

Here’s a ball, brightly coloured and slightly bouncy, and with it I suggest that we remember that “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Those who take delight in teaching a child to catch a ball, or enjoy the simple pleasure of bouncing a ball against a wall, understand the joy that can be found in such a simple activity. Perhaps in this case, the colour of the ball reflects those found in God’s creation, and the bounce form part of a simple explanation of why some materials bounce, and thus bring the joy of understanding how God’s world works to someone’s life. It is in the simplicity and complexity of the world we live in, that we can see God at work if we look hard enough, and the more we do that, the purer the hearts with which we can bless others with that joy.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God, and so I’ve got a very small, soft toy here, trying to create a less slimy reputation for frogs as a species! You laugh, but soft-toys like some animals can be source of calm and peace with which healing and reconciliation can break through. How may of us have used a soft toy to pacify a wailing child, or held on to our own much loved and dilapidated teddy to quell our own feelings of anxiety or loneliness at times of crisis? To be a peacemaker we need to step outside of our own selfish ambitions and vested interests to focus on tis characteristic of God’s love and desire for a world were different communities can live ‘cheek by jowl’ in harmony with each other. I’d love to visit the UN one day and give all the world leaders a plushy, and an hour of silence, to consider one thing their country could do to comfort the greatest need of a country they are at war with or supply arms to! All God’s children yearn for the blessing of peace.

Through the God-given skills of those who made them, we are purposing our gifts to be a blessing to those that receive them. Just as we will acknowledge the purposing of bread and wine to the remembrance of Jesus’ body and blood in the words of blessing over the elements in Holy Communion, so we will pray first for the purpose of these gifts to be a blessing to those that receive them. In this way they become part of God’s story, linking us with those that receive them, revealing his love for them and our understanding of how best to use the riches we have received, and hoping that in these small ways, we are doing the work of God, and therefore can count ourselves blessed to be among his saints.

Let us pray:

Creator God, we acknowledge that all we have comes from you, and therefore of your own do we give. We ask you to bless thee gifts for the purpose of bringing comfort, joy and peace into the lives of those who receive them. May they know your love in other ways too, so that their lives are blessed long-term with better living conditions, the means of caring for and making productive the land they live in, and the just distribution of the world’s resources. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, bless us, with those who will receive these gifts, in the knowledge and example of God’s sacrifice, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bramshill Mission Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The harvest loaf, Bramshill Mission Chapel 2017

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

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