The Jailor’s wife – Acts 16:16-34

I had been really looking forward to leading and preaching at All Saints Church, Minstead last Sunday, on a weekend when my Dad was celebrating his 90th Birthday, and another friend their 80th Birthday. However, it wasn’t to be as we ended up being Covid-bound at home; whilst I remained negative, my husband had brought it home from school and we didn’t want to risk the health of older relatives and friends. However, I am deeply grateful that not only did Dad step in to lead the Service of the Word, with musical support from our son, our future daughter-in-law, and the local vicar (to whom particular thanks), but his friend Karen was able to inhabit the character of the Jailor’s wife. This is my most recent monologue, and a pair for last week’s monologue on Lydia.

All Saints Church, Minstead

I’d never thought of us as being enslaved to Rome, but that night would transport us from being captive within a violent system, to being free to risk all in service to a risen King.

My husband took his job as the chief jailer here in Philippi very seriously; not least because it was the role he’d been awarded for his long service and good conduct in the military. Here, in this outpost of Roman power, we benefited from the gift of a settled family life in the heart of a city. Yes, we had to live ‘over the office’ is it were; yes, my husband’s authority was defined by the dutiful rigour with which he enforced the whim of the city’s officials; and yes, at times the stench from the prison cells could be deeply inhibiting; but we enjoyed the freedom that came with our social status. With the prison and thus our home so close to the public forum at the centre of Philippi, here was little that happened without us knowing.

We knew that there was a small group of a new Jewish sect in town – the Jesus-men I called them. They’d taken up residence with Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth. That seemed to jeopardise the status on which she relied for her wealthy trade, but she’d always been a rather independently-minded woman and it was hardly our concern. I did of course know that she regularly joined the Jews at worship in their prayer-station on the river bank outside town (Acts 16:13), but that wasn’t somewhere we ever went.

We were also more than familiar with the fortune-telling of the young Delphic-woman and her over-zealous, greedy minders. There was often more than a grain of truth in what she revealed, but her fascination with the Jesus-men who travelled out to pray by the river daily, seemed unusual. For days she was like an annoying stray dog, always yapping at their heels about some most High God, and something about a way of being saved. Well, I thought, we’d all like to be saved from a way of life that exerted authority through greed and violence, but something has to pay the bills. And, I doubted whether even the greatest god in the pantheon, be it Zeus or ‘the One’ the Jews believed in, was capable of paying the price to set her free.

How wrong was I?! Wrong about the One, wrong about the price of freedom, wrong to think it wasn’t possible to live with different priorities, wrong to think that it was only others who were oppressed by the violence that surrounded us.

I watched as these Jesus-men were dragged into the public forum. Apparently, they had uttered that name “Jesus” over the Delphic-woman. Now she was silent, free from the fortune-telling spirit whose power had spoken through her, and the grasp of those who had manipulated her for their own gain. But, there’s no-one so hard-done-by as a salesman whose gimmick has been busted, nor so canny; so these Jesus-men weren’t charged with property damage, but with disturbing the peace. Which was ironic, as doing so brought anything but peace. People love a band-wagon to climb on, even if it’s based on trumped-up charges, blatant discrimination, or a desire to exert power – and this was all three. There was a riot.

And the Jesus-men were beaten.

The senior civil-servants dealing out this so-called justice, may have been inured to inflicting pain, perhaps because they only briefly saw the consequences. However we did. The bloodied and bruised Jesus-men, Paul and Silas, were brought into the prison for our safe-keeping. We knew what the unsanitary depths into which they were shackled would do to open wounds. But mercy was not a word that the authorities understood, so we weren’t allowed to show it. Having done what was required of us, we slept; but not for long, because the earth moved.

We were used to the earthquakes, they’re relatively common here, but this was more terrifying. As we fled outside to safety, over the rumbling of the earth we could hear the cell doors falling from their hinges, the rattle of prisoners chains falling free, and the sound of something else, something like… songs of joy coming from deep inside the prison?! I was frightened of what my husband would do to himself as he ran, sword in hand, toward what should have been crumbling walls. I followed at his call, and there, in the lamplight, found him trembling on his knees at the feet of the prisoners within. Time stood still.

[Pause]

All the prisoners were free, but no-one had escaped. My husband seemed captive to the fear that even so, his life would be forfeit. I was simply flooded with relief, that he, that we, were all still alive. When he brought Paul and Silas out into the open, I could see the confusion on his face, and I heard it in the question that came stumbling from his lips: “What must I do to be saved?”

And then they spoke the name that had given freedom to the Delphic-girl, the name that had brought them to this place, the name they had been singing as my husband ran towards them… Jesus. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. You and your household.”

There in the prison yard that night, those men spoke words that healed my husband, and I, from the painful scars inflicted on us by our blind acceptance of others expectations. As we carefully washed their wounds clean, they spoke words of healing which showed us that being bound to the One, true God, was a far greater service to the world he has created, than we could ever offer to a society which demanded hardened hearts and minds. We opened our home to these men who had travelled to us in response to a vision given them by the Spirit of the living God, and then been imprisoned at our hands. In return, they offered us the hospitality of Jesus in whose name they proclaimed these freedoms, breaking our bread to speak of a redemption that brought us to sit at table in unity and harmony.

There are some forms of light that shine more brightly than a candle in the darkness, or the sun at dawn. There are some forms of cleansing that can heal wounds that are far deeper than the eye can see. Yes, some insist on the freedom to bear arms, to carry keys that imprison, to manipulate the innocent; but there is also the freedom to understand that we need not be shackled to those behaviours, that we can be healed of our selfish adherence to power-politics and our bondage to that which destroys our humanity.

As our lives are being transformed by the message of freedom to be found in Jesus Christ, as we rise washed by the waters of baptism to a new life that will imprison no-one, least of all ourselves, the only duty which now carries any weight for us is that of learning more of the One who sent him because he loves us. As we work to release others from whatever evils control and manipulate them, we too can sing of freedom in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

All Saints Church, Minstead has a wonderful ‘three decker’ pulpit, a very ancient font that spent hundreds of years buried in the old Rectory garden, and is the final resting place of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is well worth a visit!

Lydia – woman of the living God Acts16:9-15

This monologue formed part of our Morning Worship at St. Barnabas, Darby Green today. If you would rather watch than read it, it’s available on YouTube here, the sermon starting at 26:40. As background, I used various sources, including Elaine Storkey’s ‘Women in a Patriarchal World’, an article in Reuter’s about how the Tyrian purple dye that contributed to the fine cloth that Lydia sold was made. In worship we sang Rev’d Ally Barrett’s hymn ‘For all with heavy loads to bear’ which seemed to resonate, linking our lives with that of Lydia’s.

The spiney whelk shell that I used as a visual aid, as it was the nearest in shape that we have to the muricidae from which Tyrian purple is made. Photo credit: my husband Graham Hartland.

For a long time, I had been convinced that there was more to life than the prosperity granted me by THIS mollusc shell. The know-how that turns the shell and glands of this little creature into something as stunning as THIS purple material may not be purely mine, but having the nouse to turn a local handicraft into a niche business supplying only the finest cloth was definitely down to my own hard work, good connections, international travel and the decisiveness that drives a hard bargain.

In earthly terms, I am a woman of independent means and mindset; someone who in my business dealings has extended the boundaries of our patriarchal society in every deal I’ve brokered. I might ‘only’ be a woman, but no man had yet found that they could make me an offer which I couldn’t refuse if I sensed a better deal was round the corner. Perhaps that was why no-one has yet proved to have the emotional intelligence to become my partner in business, or in bed. Yes, I knew something was missing in my life, some focus or purpose, but not that!

You can put it down to my innate business acumen if you like, but my search for something more meaningful than molluscs and money also relied on knowing which boundaries to break, where and when. That was why I, a Gentile, took the Jewish sabbath as my own, and spent it outside the city walls with women who could match me in their intellect and curiosity to know “the truth”. Here we were safe, outside the city gates that proclaimed a divisive prohibition against freedom of thought where faith was concerned; away from the pagan hustle and bustle of Philippi life, and the machismo of men who make endless sacrifices to polished gods that do nothing more than adorn mantelpieces.

We shared a lot, these women and I. Whatever their status in society or in marriage, their household or their business responsibilities, as we studied and we prayed together, we laughed and we cried, and we cared for each other. Those of the Jewish tradition introduced us to the One who created and directed all things; the One who brought this shell to our shores, and inspired those who had discovered and utilised it’s properties; the One who remained faithful to them even here on the edge of the Roman Empire, some distance from the centre of their faith in Jerusalem. This redeemer God wasn’t a distant, dusty ornament, but as close as THIS cloth and shell; the first, the last, the one true God (Isaiah 44:6) who seemed to be alive, and who I yearned to know better.

We were understandably surprised to see a visiting group of men approach us that Sabbath-day. Apparently, these men know we would be here, not least because the city didn’t have a synagogue to welcome them. They were only too happy to meet us, daring not only to be seen with us, but eager to explain that they had been compelled to come to Philippi by a vision, gifted them by the living Spirit of this One God.

I listened eagerly to what their leader Paul told us of Jesus, his death and resurrection and the power with which the Holy Spirit directed and enabled them to proclaim him as their Saviour and healer, a servant King who taught by example that to serve others was to serve Him. Paul’s friend Silas was also from Jerusalem, and brought assurances to my Jewish sisters, my Gentile friends and I, that Jesus had really come not only to reveal this new covenant to the people of Israel, but to everyone, without fear or favour, whatever our social status, gender, creed, nationality or occupation (Galatians 3:28). Young Timothy, showing a pastoral sensitivity beyond his years, urged us to understand that by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, by loving him with a pure heart and a good conscience, we would be advancing the work of the One, the living God (1 Timothy 1:4-5). I remember one other of the party well; Luke, a doctor and a scribe, as keen to capture and share our stories as he was to bring healing to those ailments that restricted our work and ability to live full lives. Most significant of all, like me he was a Gentile, and yet unwavering in his faith in Jesus, and his desire to serve and proclaim the hope that comes from welcoming the Lord’s living presence into our being.

Listening to them all was unquestionably the most important experience of my life. All that I had yearned for, the aching void in my heart, was suddenly filled with a deep-seated, bubbling joy as I became aware that Jesus had been gracious enough to visit me with this living Spirit, through these four men. I knew life would never be the same again, that all THESE God-given things (shell and fabric) and more, I would now use to serve Jesus Christ, whatever the cost to my previous plans and personal status.

So eager was I to share this news with those who were closest to me, that I hurried home, returning to the now gathering crowd at the water’s edge with my household, keen that those I trusted with my very life should also have revealed to them the loving, living presence of the One who deserves THESE royal robes of Tyrian purple more than I. There on the river bank that day, a holy of holies, Jesus came and dwelt with us all, tearing apart the curtain of unknowing that had isolated and divided us from each other, and binding us together as a fellowship of equals. As the waters of baptism closed over me, I was set free from the selfish desires that my wealth had been dangerously close to overwhelming me with, and rose to the surface, assured that I was now equipped to serve my living Lord through the hospitality and generosity of the God-given gifts he had long-since graced me with.

I knew now that the stakes were far higher than the simple risks of market trading. As I persuaded Paul, Luke and the others to return into town with me, and make themselves at home among my fine furnishings instead of their tents, I knew that my behaviour now jeopardised everything I had worked for; my personal and professional reputation. But those transient gifts of a society I know recognised as being built on greed, were as nothing to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord (Philippians 3:8) and learning more of Him, risen and alive in every fibre of my being.

It wouldn’t be long before the price that would be required of me was made apparent. Within days Paul and Silas would find themselves severely flogged and imprisoned, having freed a local fortune-teller from the slavery of her ungodly gift (Acts 16:18). Yet even the earth trembled in witness to the resilience of their faith, and as they added the jailer and his family to the numbers in Philippi who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, like me. The self-serving duplicity of leaders was likewise made clear when they discovered that in seeking to appease one abusive trader and his friends, they had made themselves vulnerable to more significant charges of injustice against citizens of Rome (Acts 16:37-39).

Paul, Luke and the others went on their way, sharing their news widely, but kept faithfully writing to us here in Philippi to encourage and at times correct us in our new-found faith. On the face of it, not much changed for me, as I still trade between this little corner of the Roman Empire and my homeland in Asia. But now God’s living truth and love dwells HERE within my heart, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The blazing fire of the Holy Spirit has humbled me, burning away the pride I took in being set apart from others by the harassing hospitality I showed the wealthy with whom I haggled for every last penny. Now I practice a less demanding and divisive hospitality, creatively using my property and investments, as well as the art I sell, to welcome and affirm people of every and any walk of life. My insight and decisiveness now proclaims the love of God, as I quietly persevere in works of loving service to others (Revelation 2:18-19), here in Philippi and in back in Thyatira. For me, that is what it means to be in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit; to be a woman devoted solely to the one, true and living God.

Anna steps out of the shadows – Luke 2:22-40

God moves in mysterious ways, and so often uses us at our weakest, because that’s when we don’t get in the way of what he wants to say or do. This morning felt like one of those morning’s in St. Barnabas, and I sense from what people said that God’s message through this ‘inhabitation’ of Anna, may benefit from a wider hearing. The text is below, but if you want to watch it’s on the St. Barnabas feed here, starting at 20 minutes into the the service.

‘Anna’ speaking at St. Barnabas Darby Green

I have got used to waiting in the shadows.
Watching and waiting, fasting and praying.
Listening too, eager to hear what God is saying.

The shadows are my home now, here in the Temple, or at least in that part of it in which I am allowed to stay. I wait here, watching and listening for a sign of hope, for a truer, more steadfast light in the darkness than the braziers that warm the nights.

My former life in the north seems a lifetime away, probably because it is – it’s a long while since I left. As a childless widow I no longer had a place in my community, no value to a society that sets such store by what your status within family life. Odd really when so many of our scriptures tell us that God prioritises the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 146:9) and expects the same from us (Exodus 22:22).

But then, so many of those who jostle for position in society or even within these Temple walls, seem to forget, ignore or neglect the teachings of scripture. I retreated here many years ago, expecting to encounter justice, mercy and love in God’s holy place, but was disappointed to find there was an even greater poverty of integrity in the faith of most who frequent these courts. I was shocked by the number of people who deemed it necessary to be seen to be here every day, or at least every Sabbath and Holy Day. Yes, it’s a big place that usually holds them all quite comfortably, but they have synagogues in their own communities, their own priests and spiritual leaders to whom they can turn for teaching and advice; yet they seem to need to be noticed as worshipping members of the Temple community, rather than supporting fellowships nearer to home. Their presence seems to add to the shadows rather, or at least emphasise that so many lives are so far from seeking God’s presence to be revealed in their neighbourhoods and lives.

Because I’ve watched and listened, studied scripture and even astronomy, I know that shadows are created by light. Even on the brightest day, one creates the other as the sun pushes past the pillars around me. But the biggest shadows in the Temple are those caste by the theological debates that swirl past me, as the leaders of our faith insulate themselves from reality by fabricating the rules and regulations that define who can do what; who can’t do anything; and why we should believe everything they say. So many of our leaders seem to forget that it’s not them that we should be believing in; the light of faith comes from another source entirely – the Spirit of God.

Of course there are regulars here, who seem to have a far more authentic faith, like Simeon for example. He is the seeker and the guide, always looking outwards from his own needs towards those of others. That’s how we got to know each other a bit, as he almost always asks after my health and well-being when he visits. God speaks to the quiet of his soul, and has promised him he’ll see the salvation of all God’s people before he departs this world.

Instead of getting embroiled in heated debates, Simeon prefers to watch quietly, seeking out those who travel-in occasionally from the countryside, the hesitant, and those whose pain and turmoil is written all over their expressions. As he befriends them – engaging them in gentle, perceptive conversation – there’s plenty that I can learn from people’s body language, and indeed hear in the acoustics of this place, even with my dulled hearing and rheumy eyes. So I stand a little distance apart, praying them through their conversation, seeking God’s light in their darkness. At a later time, I’ll try to catch the people concerned and share any wisdom I’ve discerned, or pass it on to them through Simeon. I guess that because I’m willing to speak to people of what God has shown my quietened mind, some have come to tell of me as a prophetess – though that’s to God’s honour not mine.

Today was much the same; Simeon spotted the couple with the child in their arms. Given they’d patently bought two young pigeons in the outer courts, I thought he must their first-born, whom they needed to offer to and redeem from God, as required by those rules and regulations the priests are so fond of. That being the case, the little scrap can only have been a few weeks old, but already he had a presence that seemed to grab your attention. I did wonder why they too had chosen to come here, rather than their local synagogue? They didn’t look or behave like they fitted the mould of those who wanted their neighbours to know their son had been redeemed at the Temple. As with most new parents, they looked tired, and worn, and not a little dishevelled from their journey into town; but they also seemed to carry with them a presence, The Presence, that suggested that for them this was no symbolic act, but had deep significance.

Simeon had spotted that too, and as I watched he received the child into his arms from the parents, with a reverence and a joy that radiated from him. I knew at once that he too sensed this child was different, important, a gift from God. So I listened and prayed even more intently as he proclaimed to the child’s parents that he saw not only his own salvation but the salvation of the world in the life of their son! This was no ordinary child, and I watched his mother’s face as Simeon’s words of blessing spoke of the challenge that their babe would offer to those who currently held their so-called authority in this place so preciously, and the pain that would cause her. She and her husband didn’t seem particularly shocked by the nature of the prophesy. Rather, they looked amazed and grateful that someone shared their understanding of the child’s importance. They already knew, what the Holy Spirit had just revealed to Simeon; the child in their care was the Messiah.

The presence of this child in the Temple changed everything. Here was God, come suddenly to his Temple, just as the prophet Malachi had promised (Malachi 3:1). As Simeon received the gift of God’s grace and peace in the salvation that was being offered by the tiny child in his arms, I saw the redemption of all humanity: this child would grow to fulfil Isaiah’s prophesy that the one who would come to heal the our collective failure to understand and live by our scriptures, would be pierced for all our faults (Isaiah 53). Indeed, he would be the one that would fulfil Israel’s calling to bring God’s light to all the world (Isaiah 60:1-3) if only Abraham’s descendants could recognise that fact and proclaim it to the world.

I knew then that my last days would not be spent in the shadows, but in the light of that knowledge. I stepped out into the courtyard and started to praise God for what I had seen and heard. I interrupted every group of debating theologians I could find. I explained to them that what they were looking for, I had seen; and they could see it too if only they would stop straining the gnats and swallowing the camels (Matthew 23:24) of the rules they said we have to follow to earn God’s favour. Yes, I insisted, God was offering us his mercy, grace and hope, if we would only share in the love of this small child who was the fulfilment of all that had gone before in the history of God’s people. I knew with all of my being that in this babe, God’s Spirit would make possible the end of legalism and redeem us from the cultural sin of ignoring and ostracising the widow, the orphan, and anyone else who doesn’t seek power or make a hollow show of humility. I wanted everyone to know that God’s Spirit was living and active in the life of the little child who had been promised us (Isaiah 11:6), the one who would bring peace and reconciliation to all God’s creation. Those who hear me may not want to listen, but I know what I have seen, and I will end my days, praising God for what he showed me this day in the Temple.

A new commandment – a ‘crafted’ sermon

My creative output has done better than blogging of recent months, not least due to the death of not only my wonderful father-in-law but of some good friends. However, to my great surprise, I keep selling items via the Etsy I started in January, particularly on the seashore theme; indeed I’ve received and completed a couple of commissions. More of the developments on that score soon.

Often life and ministry inter-twine; one speaks to and feeds the other, and my sermon this week is a good case in point. Reading around this week’s passages led me to a ‘weaving’ theme, and thus, unsurprisingly, to Dorset Buttons. The sermon needed a visual aid – not least as it was to be preached outside in St. Mary’s churchyard – and so a new ‘button’ design was created, and first a wall-hanging and then earrings formed themselves.

My ‘Celtic Cross’ wall-hanging. Yarn is gorgeously soft and stunningly coloured Malabrigo Caracol Merino ‘Whales Road’ via Beaker Buttons, the beads were mostly gifted, and the seashells were four Purple Topshells from Weston Shore, Southampton and a larger type of Topshell (I think) from my stash.

I don’t suppose for a moment that the design is a new one, but it was one I worked out myself, without recourse to instructions from Jen Best of Beaker Buttons, or the Henry’s Buttons team, so for me at least it’s a significant step forward. Both scales worked well, and I will try and create some more of each.

Celtic Cross earrings on silver hooks. Yarn is a small hand-died batch from Jen Best at Beaker Buttons, which I bought some months ago.

The sermon itself is below; it is reasonably specific to our context as parishes, and as much for reference for me, as it might be of spiritual or missional use to anyone else – although the wider post-pandemic vision will resonate for many. It does sow another thought in my head (or perhaps that should be ‘sew’ an idea?), but I need to work that through much more and discover whether it’s viable before sharing it widely.

A new commandment – weaving on the framework of our faith.
1 John 5: 1-6 and John 15: 1-17

Some of you will be aware that in the last 6 months or so, I have found & started to develop new creative skills & ideas, based (increasingly loosely) on the heritage of Dorset Button making. 400 years ago making buttons to adorn the fine clothes of the gentry and the work-wear of craftspeople and labourers, was a valuable cottage industry. Today the same skills are being revitalised as artworks in their own right &
feeding the creativity of many, particularly but not exclusively, those with a strong connection to nature.

The process of Dorset Button making sees a ring bound in thread and then spokes created through which an intricate or random pattern can be formed. This is then embellished with whatever you have to hand. For example I have lots of beach-combed seashells to use, and I’ve acquired many beads!

The sermon illustrations propped at the base of our churchyard lectern. (Photo credit: Graham Hartland)

Similarly, the writer of 1 John 5 binds together faith in Jesus, with love of God, love of one another, and obedience to God to create a complex but beautiful picture. Faith in Jesus, and the pattern with which that is threaded into our lives, is the framework onto which the beauty of love and obedience can then be woven. But like all intricately crafted patterns, it can be tricky to see how we might bring something so creative to life ourselves – except at the cost of a lot of time & effort.

If we have chosen to take part in this worship today – in whatever format suits our circumstances – then we are responding to the love we have experienced and understand as being from God. In doing so we are self-identifying as “children of God”. Sharing in worship (weekly or daily) is part of the framework that brings faith to life in our lives. Of
recent times we may have (even if grudgingly) learnt new ways in which that framework can support our lives. We might be a bit wonky and uneven at times, and need the occasional knot tied when threads part, but we know ourselves to be loved by God and respond with faith.

The author of 1 John 5 doesn’t offer details of what the love that should adorn that framework of faith will look like. It seems like he expects us to know God’s commandments. We do, don’t we? But in case we need a bit of help, the lectionary handily offers Jesus’ summary of them in today’s Gospel; that “we love one another as Jesus has loved us”
(John 15:12). Jesus has indeed shown us examples of what this love might look like, through his ministry of healing, feeding, offering forgiveness, and raising the dead.

Jesus was being obedient to the pattern of life that God had sent him as the Messiah to fulfil. As God’s only begotten Son he came into the world by the “water and blood” of human birth, the same as you and I. But having been with God from the moment of creation (Colossians 1:15-18), the pattern of his example would be completed through the pouring out of blood and water of his crucifixion (John 19:34, Colossians 1:18-19). Our life as children of that same God comes into
being through the framework of faith, and the beauty of the love that we exhibit as our lives form their pattern, should be similarly Christ-like, perhaps even cross-shaped.

Jesus’ “new commandment” to love one another, as he loved us, is about creating within ourselves as faith-full Christians an image which is as close as possible to Christ’s pattern, but in our own unique style and colours. But we can only weave it, by listening to God carefully through the power of the Holy Spirit so that we understand the intricacies and difficulties of what it is that we are called to be and do. As with Jesus’ crucifixion, the biggest test of our faithfulness and love of God will be at the most challenging points in our lives and the life of our community. Loving as Jesus loved us will probably court opposition and controversy, but probably not violence and death as it does for some in the world!

So what does all this mean for us today as individuals, and perhaps more particularly as a fellowship of Christians? Jesus was giving his new commandment to his disciples at their last meal together, somewhat unusually hidden away from prying eyes – perhaps as we have been for too long. Here was worship and teaching to sustain them for what lay ahead, for what really mattered. Of course, Jesus normal rule of life saw him perpetually on the move: having individual conversations, occasionally in people’s homes; bringing healing to people on streets and in leisure facilities like the local baths; teaching forgiveness and justice on hillsides as well as in synagogues and temples. This private conversation was all about equipping his disciples as they went out into the world after his resurrection!

Over the last year our worship has been forced out of our church buildings, but been found to speak into people’s lives through video-streams and paper bags, as well as in blustery churchyards. I know many of us want to get back to singing in the warm, but should that be our main aim if we have been given a pattern to follow that involves loving others in our communities, as God has loved us?

Of course we need our church buildings as places to do things that serve our communities, not least the beautiful examples of the Foodbank at St. Barnabas, and even St. Mary’s hosting socially-distanced teacher interviews for CKS on Wednesday this coming week. But the fellowship we share in the buildings we love, that ‘worth-ship’ (giving God worth) that we may be so keen to return to, looks
dangerously like us doing the things we love, rather than focusing on the sort of love Jesus would have us show to others, a love that doesn’t involve making other people conform to ‘our way of doing things’, but is obedient to the pattern that God wants us weaving in the life of our
communities.

I am no more comfortable with what I’m saying than many of you will be; but as Jesus showed us, love isn’t about our own survival, as individuals or indeed as church fellowships. For those of us on our church councils, when the pressure is on us to meet attendance and financial targets, it’s very easy to inadvertently start equating God’s love with getting bums on pews, money in the offertory, and metaphorically (or otherwise) propping the walls up!

The love that 1 John 5 is talking about is world changing, indeed world conquering – and if we look at our world, it jolly well needs to be! For the faith we profess in our worship not to be contradictory, or lacking in integrity, we must remember that it’s God’s love that we are sharing not on our own; it’s no more about what we love about being a
church fellowship than it is about the buildings use! When was the last time we as Christian fellowships changed someone’s world by bringing them to faith, and an understanding that God loves them?

It’s going to be tough, uncomfortable & difficult weaving beautiful acts of love onto the framework of our faith, the faith that has sustained us through the last difficult months. But if we truly believe that we are loved by God as his children, it’s time we started working out what new threads of obedience we need to use to make the cross of Jesus sacrifice for us visible, and find the embellishments that will draw people toward the beauty of his love.

Reflections on dew drops and Psalm 19

Psalm 19 (Matthew 21:33-end) 17th after Trinity at St. Mary’s Eversley

It’s been a while since I posted a sermon, but I promised the photographer whose image inspired this weeks 8am reflection that I’d make it available to her, and (for a variety of reasons) this is the simplest way to do so. So…

As the psalmist puts it:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

This week, Paula Southern (someone who in better times visits our bell tower regularly from Crondall to ring), shared a photo on Facebook of dewdrops hanging from a slender spider web, itself suspended across the loop of an iron bird-feeder. Against the morning light the ephemeral jewels of the dew glinted, to be gone again as the sun ran on across the heavens. It captured a moment in someone’s early morning routine that through social media brought joy and beauty to those who couldn’t get up that early, or don’t have those things close at hand in their gardens, or perhaps can’t even get out at all.

Psalm 19 is up there in the list of my favourite Psalms, along with Psalm 8 and Psalm 148 – little jewels in themselves. They celebrate and reflect on the beauty and wonders of God’s creation, the heavens not just in the stars at night but in glorious sunrises and sunsets, and the formation of clouds scudding across the sky. Beauty is something that is not simply ‘in the eye of the beholder’ but often beyond the words of the beholder too, try as we and other poets might. Paradoxically the psalmist points out that the beauty of the heavens and the world around us pours out its own song, sound and words unto the ends of the world itself, and I don’t think the psalmist is referring to the Buzzard’s cry or the Robin’s song that we are so used to when we come to worship here.

Philosophically speaking, this captures the fact that in our humanity we are actually created by God to experience beauty instinctively, and reminds us of the qualities that make something beautiful. As Bishop Christopher Herbert has described it, beauty is “profoundly good in and of itself… points beyond itself to something which is greater… reminds us of our place in the order of things… and reminds us of our relatedness to the world and to other people.”

If we go back to this image of water droplets on a spider’s web… for me at least, those jewelled droplets that Paula photographed were a reminder of the wonders of God’s creation; they brought joy, in and of themselves. But they also pointed toward something greater; to the fact that something so small is created by one of the basic elements of that creation – water – held in tension; and that like them, we need to allow the glory of God to shine on our ephemeral lives. These, our lives, often exist like water held by the tension of the many issues going on around us, and as we are enabled to let the Son of God shines through us, so people can see the beauty, perhaps even a glimpse of the glory of God.

The psalmist goes on to talk about the law, the commandments, and the statues of the Lord, as being pure, bringing joy and renewal to those who in keeping them serve God. Of course in the New Testament, we see that those statutes have been devalued, and a more perfect and better hope is made available to us, by which we draw near to God in Jesus Christ (to paraphrase Hebrews 7:18-19) the true light of the world.

This morning I believe God is reminding us of own ephemeral nature in the context of his creation, but at the same time of the value and purpose of our lives within that. God holds our individual transient humanity, and loves us as we are through Christ who we receive by faith in Holy Eucharist – and that can be the hardest of all things to remember in times of difficulty and hardship, isolation or overwork. But then we’re also linked by that thread of faith, like a sticky cobweb, to the people and places where he wants the love of Jesus to shine, not just on us but through us, to create beauty for others to behold.

We should not presume, as the psalmist strongly hints, to think of ourselves as either unworthy of the place God has made for us in his creation, or as in control of it as to abuse the position we have been entrusted with, at will. We need to hold the right tension between our lifestyles and the decisions we take in the way we govern our lives, and the light of Jesus’ commandment to love him first, and our neighbour, as ourselves.

As we make our confession in a moment, declaring before God our ‘secret faults’ as the psalmist puts it, may we desire more than anything else to make ourselves right with God, so that by whatever thread we are currently hanging, and however transient our lives from this moment, we may be seen as those who shine the beauty of God’s glory into those who encounter us.

Kingsley, Questions, Controversies and Children – a reflection for Trinity Sunday in Eversley

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The grave of Charles Kingsley, with flowers laid by the students of the school he founded, Eversley, June 2019

One of the two churches I serve, St. Mary’s Eversley, has the author of the ‘Water Babies’ buried in it’s churchyard; hardly surprising given Charles Kingsley was the Rector in this quiet corner of Hampshire for over 30 years! He also founded the local school that bears his name, and of which I happen to be a governor. 

The school are very good and every year they celebrate their Founders Day, laying flowers at his grave and remembering to root themselves in Kingsley’s work as a social reformer, natural scientist, and author. But this year, in fact last week, was the bicentenary of his birth, which meant some of the locals had also thought it worth celebrating Kingsley’s gifts, so they put on a ‘thing’ – a mini literary festival if you like.

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Clergy present and ‘past’… with Peter Duncan in the role of Charles Kingsley, outside St. Mary’s Eversley, June 2019 (Photo courtesy of the producer of a short play ‘resurrecting’ Kingsley, Denise Silvey)

Yes, I fully expected to attend particularly to support the school, but the little matter of my colleagues over-enthusiastic Pentecost children’s talk last Sunday (which landed him in plaster) meant that I was a busier than I had anticipated. This had downsides; I missed a talk by Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser I really wanted to hear. But also upsides; like the school children I met Charles Kingsley his very self – or more accurately Peter Duncan who I remember as a Blue Peter presenter in my teens! I also got to relive my Greenbelt visits in the Tiny Tea Tent, but that’s another story…

It also meant I had to preach this morning, and link the life of Charles Kingsley with the fact it is Trinity Sunday – giving me a chance to reflect on what I’d seen and heard in the previous couple of days. So here, for what little a fear it’s worth, is my stab at doing that… and no, I didn’t forget it was also Father’s Day – at the end of the service each gentleman attending got both chocolate and a sequoia cone! Read on, to find out why:

Readings: Psalm 8 (NIV rendering) and John 16:12-15

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The sequoia in the churchyard at St. Mary’s Everlsey, planted by Rose Kingsley from seed collected by Charles Kingsley. It has a ‘twin’ on The Mount adjacent where the Kingsley 200 Festival took place.

 

On Friday afternoon I shared in the joy of witnessing Charles Kingsley get very excited about the cones and seeds of a certain conifer, the sequoia. Our sequoia. No, his sequoia. Sorry, God’s sequoia, a tree that I humbly suggest like the moon and the stars, shows the majesty of God.

As he was with Tim (the churchwarden) and I, sharing a quiet cuppa after school ‘out of role’, Peter Duncan (who has been playing Charles Kingsley) read the display about Kingsley on the hall wall. He suddenly became very animated. It appears that a couple of years ago, Peter had visited the very same sequoia forests of western America that Kingsley visited. Like Kingsley, he had brought home a cone to dry. Like Rose Kingsley went on to do, he sowed the seeds, of which some germinated and one survives. Peter now has it growing in his garden. The producer Denise and I now have photos of Peter, or should that be Kingsley, excitedly scavenging for more cones under the sequoia here, so that he could take them home to keep alive the personal connection he’s made with Kingsley.

This weekend has been all about keeping connections alive, and specifically the connection between Charles Kingsley, this village and our school, between Kingsley, social reform and science. I was busy here, but Giles Fraser hopefully made some connection between Kingsley as a man of faith, called by God to serve this place and community and Kingsley as a polemicist, someone not averse to pushing the boundaries of what we as Christians believe, and therefore having to be comfortable with controversy.

Questions and controversies exist within the Christian community, because our faith is a living thing. Just as much as the sequoia outside, our Christian faith is a living thing because God has been revealed to and has a relationship with us in ways so complex that we struggle to find terminology, or a name, that does God full justice. The closest we’ve so far come is the name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the term Trinity. Yet, those in themselves still leave us with age-old controversies over which ‘person’ of the Trinity proceeds from which, and more modern questions over whether we should apply gender-specific identities to any element of our creator, redeemer and sanctifier in whose image each and everyone one of us is made.

Our Gospel today, makes it as clear as it’s ever going to be why such questions and controversies exist. Jesus was never meant to reveal to us during his earthly ministry, everything about God’s character and will for his people, because quite simply, we wouldn’t be able to bear it (John 16v12). They are only revealed to us on a need to know basis, through the power of the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit or sanctifier, that at all times will point us back to Jesus the redeemer, and thence to his creator, and ours. Individuals will only grow in faith, and communities will only grow in service to each other if they share a living faith that constantly turns over different questions and ideas in seeking a way forward that glorifies Jesus and his example.

For the same purpose, Psalm 8 (by far and away my favourite Psalm) reminds us that we have been made by God as creatures capable of awe, wonder, and humility before God. Awe, wonder and humility that is often proclaimed best by our young people, but they are not possible without questions, and children are always full of questions. Questions also by their very nature create controversy, because the answers and explanations are not always simple; and yes, questions and controversy create change, because change is life – if we are not changing and growing, we are not alive.

I have one sadness about this weekend, as I have experienced it. My sadness is that we have not adequately heard the voices of our children and our young people, the very people that Kingsley worked so hard to offer a future to. Yes, our children have been dressed up and paraded across a field to be photographed re-enacting the past. Yes they have created written reflections on elements of Kingsley’s story and ours, that their exhausted teachers have used for wonderful displays which only a few visiting dignitaries and parents will see – unless we can find a way to change that. But have we let the children speak? And have we listened?

The example of Greta Thunburg and Malala Yousafzai are surely showing the world, that as humanity struggles to combat the climate change it has inflicted on God’s creation, and in the area of human rights, God is using the children and young people of the world to silence the selfishness of humanity toward God’s creation, and establish a stronghold of justice, mercy and humility between and within communities. They may or may not be Christians but surely they are a living testimony to the God-given ability of young people to protect us from the enemy within ourselves (as Psalm 8 suggests), and create change; the sort of change that is in keeping with the Spirit of truth that is Jesus. And it’s just possible that we might be harbouring a Greta or Malala in Eversley, if we could build on the education principles Kingsley and others started, and hear our children speak for their future, rather than dwell on our past.

In Kingsley’s era, this community and society at large, needed to know that children of all sectors of society should be educated, that they shouldn’t be enslaved up chimneys, in fields or anywhere else for that matter, and that it is perfectly possible to be both a scientist that believes in evolution, and a Christian who believes God created the world. No, he wasn’t a child, but much of Kingsley’s attention was on children, and since he died at 56 he was younger than me when he did most of that work, indeed younger than many of us when he made his voice heard in the world.

We are reminded today by both our belief in a Trinitarian God, and by Charles Kingsley, that ours is a living faith, precisely because there is stuff we still don’t know and can’t explain about God and about the world around us. Recognising that should help us to be humble before God.  But awe and wonder at what we see, isn’t always a positive emotion, it can be one of horror, as we are reminded of the things in society that need changing because of the mess we’ve made of them up to now.

Like a sequoia tree, we need to be allowed to grow, and we need space to grow, however old we are. If we are to understand the purposes and nature of God better, we need to listen to our children, for in them God’s Spirit of Truth is revealed, and they might just have some answers that will change the world.

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A wonder of ‘festival season’ – and a great example of sustainable living!

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

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

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

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

Activity:

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

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

Sanctuary Wood, Flanders (photographed in 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The makings of pipe-cleaner barbed wire.

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

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

Hebrews 9:24-28 (Contemporary English Translation)

Talk:…

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

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

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

Barbed wire and pipe-cleaner crowns of thorns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Swing low, sweet chariot…

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

Swing low, sweet chariot…

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

Swing low, sweet chariot…

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

Swing low, sweet chariot…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a friend we have in Jesus.

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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