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’.

Harvest prayers #VisitorChaplain #WinchesterCathedral

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Harvest at the Nave Altar of Winchester Cathedral, October 2017

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

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

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

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

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Harvest Flower – Winchester Cathedral 2017

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

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Fine needlework on the lecturn of Winchester Cathedral – Harvest 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing in new ground: deployed curacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praying in Advent through five festivals

5-candlesRegular readers will be aware that I’m currently on placement in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice. One of the mini-projects that I’ve been focusing on is leading the prayer element of a couple of Prayer Suppers in the Parish of Odiham.

Alongside the re-ordering of the physical church, the people of All Saints Odiham have also been focusing on prayer as part of their own re-ordering as a community of Christians. The ‘bring-and-share’ style suppers (an hour for fellowship and food, followed by an hour for prayer) are a part of this process, and the vicar and I will be reflecting on how they have gone before I complete my placement.

This particular hour of prayer was inspired by the Service of Five Candles celebrated each Advent Sunday in All Saints Church, Minstead in the New Forest (where I grew up). That service involves children processing five large ‘pascal’ sized candles with appropriate motifs, readings and collects, one for each of the five main Christian festivals. It was brought to the parish in the 1960s by the then Rector, Rev’d Clifford Rham.

This pattern of prayer involves ordinary-sized candles, shorter but appropriate readings and collects, and uses them as an inspiration for prayer, which need not be restricted to the bullet point suggestions provided.

The attached document forms a folded A4 sheet that anyone could use for a an Advent reflective service or similar. The illustration above shows how the five candles can be used and decorated.  advent-hour-of-prayer-through-five-festivals