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.

 

 

 

 

 

Opening windows – Mark 1:9-15

 

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At the start of the service we explored what lay behind the windows of this cute picture of an Easter Bunny – my take on a Lent calendar

Last Sunday was the first in Lent, and time for a change of focus towards the Easter story and all that scripture challenges us with as we explore who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Many of us, old and young, still enjoy an advent calendar, opening the windows that tell the Christmas story, creating a sense of anticipation as we move closer to the festivities, perhaps consuming chocolate along the way, or enjoying cute pictures of candles, angels, an ox or a donkey.

Lent is a similar season liturgically.

  • I’m wearing the same purple stole, though with different symbols on it (because it’s reversible).
  • We are preparing for a great Christian festival, which we celebrate with much joy, and more chocolate.
  • But we don’t have Lent calendars in the same way. It would, after all be difficult to fit 40 windows across a picture at a scale sensible enough to be propped on the average mantlepiece (I struggled enough making 5 windows on one for the children).
  • There’s also the idea of fasting, as Jesus was forced to do in the desert, so even if we’re not abstaining completely, chocolate’s out, until we get to Easter.
  • The only animals that feature are wild beasts of the desert like jackals and snakes; no cute animals here, even if there are angels.
  • The story that leads to Easter day isn’t so cheerful either: Jesus, the baby in the manger, God made man, dies.
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Behind the Easter Bunny was the story of Holy Week… I couldn’t create a window for every day of Lent!

The idea of Lent is not to generate the sense of excitement and anticipation of Advent, but to enable Jesus to prize or tear open windows into our hearts that let God in. Through scripture, prayer, study, silence, reflection and repentance, we ask God to open windows into our lives and faith that help us understand the significance of who Jesus is and what he did through the cross and resurrection, so that we can encounter God afresh, and understand that his kingdom has in fact come near.

For Lent, my husband Graham is doing something he’s run for a couple of years now; hosting an online Lent Book Club through his blog, Facebook and Twitter. Anyone can join in if they’re social media inclined. There are some people with whom he interacts who are long-standing personal friends; some we only know through their on-line presence; several who struggle to articulate their Christian faith; some who have been damaged by ill-health or by church communities who have excluded them; some who have been faithful committed Christians all their lives and are now house-bound, struggling to find fellowship; and some with family or work commitments that make them recognise they need to take time out with God. By sharing in the Lent Book Club, all are opening windows for each other that let God in.

This year they, we, are using Janet Morley’s book “The Heart’s Time”, a book that uses poetry – religious, semi-religious and otherwise – to open up our hearts to God’s Kingdom, to scripture, to the work of the Spirit. In her introduction she writes

“Poetry makes us slow down… explore hard subjects head-on… uses irony, doubt, humour and idiosyncratic perspectives [in a way that our church liturgy doesn’t]… [allows readers] to appreciate different layers of meaning…in which each reader finds their own interpretation,… [and] examines the familiar… in a way that becomes newly strange.”

The first poem she uses to introduce the relationship between Lent and poetry is “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas, the famous Welsh priest-poet. It describes the relationship between a brief glimpse of sunshine through clouds on a showery day, and our own faith journeys. If, as is so often the case, we forget our brief glimpses of God’s beauty, the hope, mercy, light and fire of his love, then we are ignoring, even dismissing, the promise of the Kingdom of God.

God, in our fast-paced, news-packed, headline-filled Gospel from Mark this morning, where each story could be packed into the now 280 characters of a Tweet, is tearing open the windows of the Kingdom of God, and letting the brief shafts of light highlight who Jesus is, and what he has come to do for us.

At his baptism, in the form of a dove as well as through the voice of God, the window opens to reveal Jesus as God’s son, whose obedience is deeply please to his adoring Father. Jesus is the Messiah of manger-fame, the anointed one, God on the move. But in that Sonship, in language used by Mark only in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, in the imagery of death and resurrection found in baptism, Jesus is also shown to be our Saviour, the one who will die and rise again, to remake our relationship with God.

In the wilderness to which the Holy Spirit then propels Jesus, the window opens to focus our attention on the paradox that Jesus is both God and man, and therefore subject to the adversaries and adversities of life, signified in scripture though their personification as Satan. Perhaps we know only too well that any period of temptation and the pressure to do other than what God desires feels like a life-time, and the outcome is always uncertain. But for Mark, the outcome for Jesus is so obvious it doesn’t warrant a mention, because other windows, shafts of healing and hope, will show Jesus’ authority over the unclean spirits that oppress this world, and we who inhabit it.

As Jesus moves out into the villages of Galilee, he opens a third window on this new Kingdom by sensing that John-the-Baptist’s ministry is complete so that now his work, and the proclamation of its purpose, has just begun. The time to fulfil all that was promised by his birth and baptism has come; in him and through him, God made man, the Kingdom of God has come near.

  • What new windows of understandings to who God reveals himself to be in Jesus are we hoping to tear open this Lent?
  • Or do we need to stop and be observant long enough for God to break open a new encounter with him?
  • Are there brief glimpses of the promises of his Kingdom that we run the risk of missing if we don’t keep some sort of Lenten obedience, commitment or devotional practice?

Now is a good time to stop, find new windows on what God is wanting us to do in our lives, and not to walk past and promptly forget the light that shines in, but stop and reflect, take them seriously, and be changed by them. Un-shuttered windows may open on an amazing vista of hope that we hadn’t otherwise considered, or let in a fresh breeze that blows away the cobwebs of doubt or despair. The glass of a window-pane may help keep out the wild animals of a life-style or thought-world that is prone to savaging us if we don’t keep alert, or if the angle of light is just right, form a mirror in which we see ourselves as God sees us, flawed, and yet his special, precious adored child.

Because that is what lies at the heart of Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near to you, and me. We, like Jesus, are his beloved children, and with us he will be well pleased, if in Christ-like obedience we commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of tearing open new windows between our lives and God’s and allowing the Holy Spirit to flow through them shining the light of Jesus into the places that only he can reach. We are seeking to know God and his Kingdom better and better each day, so we need to be looking as hard as we would for a hidden treasure or a lost heirloom, and expect to be changed by what we discover.

There are many ways in which we can open the windows of God’s Kingdom into our lives this Lent, and doing a Lenten study, either privately, in a local community like a Life Group, or even in an online context, is one way. It doesn’t have to be via reading poetry either, there are many other study guides. At our Pancake Party at St. Peter’s and at the Ash Wednesday service, Rev’d Lerys gave out different sorts of guides (including #LiveLent daily readings from the Archbishops) to help us engage creatively in opening windows on what God is trying to do with and for us in Jesus.

‘The Bright Field’ by RS Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price,
the one field that had
treasure in. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
and imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

 

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

Introduction with the children before they go out:

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sermon:

The chances are, they knew who he was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Valuing those that come last – Matthew 20:1-17 and Philippians 1:21-end

With the licensing of our new Priest-in-charge things were a bit busy last week and I didn’t quite get to post the sermon. It was a challenge to the parish, that we responded to this week in our Baptism service. (I think I need some more interesting illustrations too… text only I’m afraid.)

What is it that we value most in life?

Is it our health, our wealth, or our family? Perhaps it’s our sight, our hearing, our home or the countryside? The freedom to travel? Our ability to continue a much loved hobby?

What about Jesus? What value do we place on our relationship with him?…

What value has he placed on his relationship with us?…

In today’s Gospel reading, our collective alter ego as disciple, Peter, has got in a grumpy mood. Peter has listened to Jesus encouraging a rich young man to give up everything he owns to follow him, only to watch the same man walk dejectedly away. In doing so, Peter has realised that he and his fellow disciples have done just what was asked of the rich young man, given up everything to follow Jesus. So, he asks Jesus what value has been placed on their obedience, their service, their sacrifice? Effectively he’s asking, what’s in it for them?

The first part of the answer is that in eternity, the disciples will get to sit incredibly close to God’s presence, places of significance. The second part of the answer is that so will everyone else – including those who in human terms are the last to hear, receive and respond to God’s call on their lives. The Gospel this morning is that second part of the answer: the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

When the third group of labourers are brought in from the market place in the last hour of the day, there is no mention of money. For some reason no-one had wanted them. But the importance and urgency of this landlord’s work is such that they are needed, and valued, for what they can offer. Self-esteem is so important to those who feel their skills are un-appreciated, and the anticipated bonus of a small proportion of the day-rate of pay which may just have paid for a meal, would have been an added encouragement to their hour’s hard labour on an empty stomach. To unexpectedly receive the full day-rate for that single hour’s labour, gives them the additional dignity of early payment, and a wage equal to that of those who had sweated through larger parts of the day.

Jesus was teaching the disciples not to be concerned about what human society said about them giving up their material security to place at the centre of their lives someone who operated at odd’s with their traditional faith leaders. Through God’s grace they would receive an appropriate reward, but it would require them to be equally generous in their view of those others who would start to follow Jesus much later in time than they. The value they must place on their relationship with Jesus must be such that it really doesn’t matter who joins their fellowship, or when. What matters is that those others are valued identically by God, because of the economy of his amazing grace. The divine economy of love and grace which doesn’t relate well to our human economies!

Paul is talking about this divine economy in the passage this morning from Philippians. For Paul it is the fruitfulness of his labour, and the fact that it is for Christ, that keeps him from preferring an early journey through death to God’s eternal presence, to his present state, harassed and imprisoned by the Roman authorities. Being valued by Christ so much that he continues to have a role in working for the extension of the Kingdom of Heaven, is in part what keeps Paul alive. Paul, the persecutor of the earliest Christians, now apostle to the Gentiles, was after all he who met Jesus much later than the other disciples; well after the Resurrection of Christ on the road to Damascus! In the economy of God’s grace Paul has already received the remuneration, not for his labour, but unasked for, a revelation of love and forgiveness.

God values each of us so highly that we are all offered the same wage; God’s love and grace paid for in full by Christ through his death and resurrection. His is really the labour, not ours. If in faith and repentance, we in turn value that so highly as to make it of first importance in our lives, then we will respond to that loving relationship with God by reflecting in our lives the values that Jesus set in his Gospel; we will put the last first, and the first last.

As with many things with our faith, it is the putting it into practice that comes hardest, and the point where we are most likely to identify with those who have slaved through the heat of the day, and forget that we ourselves are among those who have come late to work the vineyard. Like me, you may have grown up in the Christian faith, or you may be someone for who has loved Jesus for decades because of your own Damascus road experience. If so, it can be easy to forget that those who are yet to understand themselves in receipt of the grace we’ve encountered, are now God’s priority, and therefore should be ours as well.

It might not feel like it, but we are still serving our one hour’s hard labour in vineyard at the end of the day. We can’t therefore act like those who feel cheated of an extra wage, and demand more. God’s love and grace can’t be more than what he gave on the cross. Instead, we must look at where God’s priorities now lay, and welcome in those being valued by him at this moment. And just as those who come to faith in the last weeks and hours of their life are loved and cherished by God as much as us, so too are those who are younger, those just born, their families and friends, those whom we are asked by God to welcome into the field of fellowship with him.

I’m going to give this as a specific example, because this situation is going to happen next Sunday when we have a baptism service. Those children and their families who come for baptism, may be like those who had stood hungry and unvalued in the market-place of this morning’s parable. Our role, our labour for this hour, is to value them as much as Jesus does, because otherwise they won’t be able to hear his voice calling them to join the workforce, to understand their own value to him, and understand that he has already died and risen for them.

As with all our children and young people whom Jesus told us not to hinder when they turn to him, we need to put these families first. For example, let us make sure that as many of us as possible are here to give them a really warm welcome. Let us give them the best seats in the house, and not hide them behind a pillar as I understand may have happened sometimes before. We can encourage them to give the service their full attention by doing likewise, remembering the significance of being the community of faith that lives and gathers around them. Likewise, let us make sure that we give them our attention first after the service, and not prioritise the new vicar – he could be around for years to come; they may not be if we don’t show them what God’s lived-out grace looks like.

As we go forward to receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion this morning, we can do so remembering what it is like to be the ones brought forward to receive an unexpected payment. In the body and blood of Christ, we receive afresh the un-dreamt-of riches of his Kingdom, and once again know ourselves to be forgiven, loved and valued by God, just as we are. God is utterly and endlessly generous, it is what defines him, and we give thanks for that in our worship of him. So we shouldn’t be too surprised if he is equally generous to the people that come along behind us, and that he expects us to be likewise.

 

Refiners Fire – burning away the ‘slag’ (Zeph 3:14-end, Phil 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18)

DSC_7906w
All Saints, Minstead (viewed from the south near the final resting place of Conan Doyle) – yes, there are 5 bells in that little tower!

Once upon a time I was the youngest campanologist in the county. We had three bells in All Saints Church, Minstead, but there’s not much that you can do with three – the mathematical patterns that make up a peel of bells, are a little on the short side with three. Five is a much more interesting number, and research showed that we could fit five in the bell frame without the tower itself being shaken to pieces. So two new bells were commissioned, the old ones removed to be retuned, then all five re-hung – all done with one expert and parish people power, including a nine year old ‘doing as she was told, and staying out the way for the dangerous bits’!

As part of all this activity I had the opportunity to watch bells being cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It was a hot summer’s day, but I was clothed in good 1970s tweed trousers for protection and stood in the corner of the foundry floor as the metal was heated, and the impurities scrapped off the top so that the hot copper alloy could be poured into a hand-crafted bell mould. It was amazing to watch, and a privilege to ring the precisely tuned finished articles; the bells proclaiming peace and thanksgiving in worship, a community rejoicing in fine craftsmanship and singing out a song of praise to God.

“Rejoice”, in Latin “Gaudete”, the opening word of our reading from Philippians, a connection to this week’s lightening of the Advent mood of preparation, our rose candle and our robes. “Rejoice”, in modern parlance is about a sense of joy welling up inside people, fairly private except for the smile to the face; the sort of blooming look that comes with news of a long awaited pregnancy. In St. Paul’s day, “rejoice” was a word used to describe a public celebration, exuberance tempered with the need to be gentle and gracious toward less extrovert souls – more like change ringing when the pattern of notes moves only on command, rather than with every beat of a full peal.

There is a tension here that sits well with this mid-point in our preparations to celebrate the birth of Christ, sat here as we are, surrounded by scenes of his nativity in our Crib Festival. At the time of John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry that we focus on through today’s Gospel, devout Jews were waiting for a “new word from God”, and eager to place their hope in the presence of a fiery young prophet going about the Galilean villages! Might he be the long awaited Messiah?

But John was only tolling a single bell, proclaiming the steady sound of justice and the need for repentance, a wake-up call for those who would go on to hear the message of his cousin Jesus, the thongs of whose sandals he felt unworthy to untie. John would have grown up with the story of his cousin’s nativity just like we have, but as perfectly-tuned to God’s message for his people as any Old Testament prophet, he was well aware that when the Messiah’s mission on earth was made fully known, it would come with the sound of the axe felling the trees that bore no fruit, burning the resulting timber as waste.

John offered on the banks of the Jordon, the baptism of repentance, God’s power like water washing people clean. Yet, here he is proclaiming the baptism of burning fire that the Messiah would bring, drawing out through the power of the Holy Spirit, the impurities hidden within people’s lives. We may struggle to understand the difference, but if we consider for a moment, we’ll recognise that there is a vast difference between wanting to change the destructive habits of our lives and, dare I say it, make sensible New Year’s resolutions, and actually being changed inside of ourselves, so that it is impossible to return to old habits. It is a painful process.

The image of the bell foundry can help us understand what God wants to do here. As the copper and tin is melted in the furnace to temperatures resembling that to be found in a volcano, the impurities known as ‘slag’ rise to the surface – blackened waste material that is scrapped away, the last remnants of which are held back as the bell is cast. Here is a picture of the process of fire and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives that should be as much a part of the work of Christ in our lives as is the baby in the manger. If we are to ring true to his Gospel in our own lives, there will be ‘slag’ in each of us that needs burning to the surface and scraping away. Our hope of a Saviour for the world must come with the realistic expectation that we ourselves may need to be radically changed into what God wants us to be.

Zephaniah’s prophetic psalm of salvation that is this morning’s Old Testament reading [and I do encourage you to read it], is summoning God’s people to sing, shout and joyfully exult because of God’s presence in the midst of them, rejoicing like the clarion call of bells. It was the sort of prophesy that led to the expectation of a heroic Saviour from oppression and suffering. Yet its’ fulfilment came as the baby we now place in our crib scenes, the saving power of whom would be the refiners fire of judgement and justice, drawing us into a greater awareness of his presence, a sense of the calling to what we call holiness.

Church bells gather God’s people into the holiness of our worship of him, whether that is in the form of a peal of bells, the tempered rejoicing of a slowly changing pattern of life, or a single tolled clarion call to hasten into our place before him. They only do so after the refining process of the furnace has removed the impurities so that their call can be clear and true to the tuned pitch required by the master craftsman. God is our master craftsman. If we are to ring out a tuneful call for others to share in our rejoicing this Christmas and on into the future, we must first come into his presence in humility, seeking to understand what it is in our lives that needs to be burnt away.

Cross-border funerals and bereavement care

DSCN1055cw(Lillies)Our parish churches and their ministers, have certain responsibilities. These include, as I understand it, the requirement to baptise, marry and bury those who request such ‘occasional offices’.

Whilst reflecting recently on my own past practice in taking funerals, I came a broader reflection on the way the Church of England approaches the care they offer at some funerals, which may simply be about the way my local patch has done things in the past, but may have a broader application. I’d welcome your thoughts:

It concerns what happens when a family from outside the parish approach a church requesting a funeral for a loved-one, because of some prior connection, most often previous residence and the fact a relative is already buried in the local churchyard or cemetery.

For other occasional offices, contact is also established in some form with the family’s local church. With baptisms, permission is typically sought from their local parish church, and in some cases baptism preparation may take place there. With weddings, assuming banns are required, formal contact is also required between the couple and the place, or places they live. There is also an encouragement through the wedding project to seek the prayer support of the parish you live in.

I am aware of no such tradition of missional contact with their parish of residence when families return to a community to have a relative buried; but do correct me if I’m wrong!

So, I’m wondering if, with the family’s approval, it would be helpful and good practice, to contact the local parish or minister of grieving relatives, so that further bereavement support could be provided by the wider church, especially since it could prove difficult for your own parish and it’s pastoral team to follow through with such work?

Otherwise, there may be a danger of leaving families isolated from other appropriate sources of Christian pastoral care, and as Christian ministers we may also be guilty of compromising our own missional capacity.

Is this something that the current research project started last year by the Archbishop’s Council could, or should, consider?

Travellers in the community – Gospel opportunity?

Travellers in a local public open space, Yateley, July 2012

Last week we had a small group of travellers take up residence in a field, which happens to be a public open space. As far as I can tell they caused no trouble, (unless you particularly dislike what I think was Elvis being played quite loudly), had no dogs loose that I encountered, and once they left, there remained only tyre tracks (though it is possible the Council may have cleared up, I don’t know).

I have been challenged personally over the last year or so in my pre-conceptions of, and reactions to travellers, gypsies and those of romany origin. I grew up in the 1980’s in Minstead, when my father was involved (through his work in the Forestry Commission) with the ‘Peace Convoy’ on Stoney Cross in 1986. I had also grown up with the stories of his previous work as a policeman in the same area, and the old encampment he used to visit on the edge of the village before I was born. There were other, less law abiding groups he encountered too! I knew these groups to be utterly different, but most had brought with them disruption (of different sorts) to the village, and inadvertently created division in the residential community.

I have not met directly, any of the travellers that pass through Yateley, and I don’t like fairground rides, so don’t visit that either.

I have however met several of our local settled Romany community through my work doing funerals, and baptism preparation at St Peter’s. They have without fail, been welcoming, both to me personally and to talking about their understanding of God. They feel very strongly about having a local Christian minister ‘do the honours’, and a loyalty to their local church that to be honest has surprised me. On each occasion, I sensed a strong link with God in the simple things of life: his creation which they value, and the family ties and traditions they keep so strong.

These points of recent contact and past memories, highlighted for me how easy it is to restrict who it is we regard as belonging to our community, who it is we offer a welcome to, who we are willing to recognise as fellow worshippers of God Almighty, who in fact our neighbour is.

It has also made me enquire into and research how the traveller and Romany communities relate to God, use a lot of Christian symbols in their home, and still are quite particular about returning to a parish church to mark the way-points in life.

As part of the selection process for ordination (Bishops Advisory Panel or BAP) that I have spoken about before, you have to give a short presentation on something that interests you, and which you can relate directly to your experiences of ministry so far. (You then have to lead a discussion about it with your fellow candidates!) I chose to do a presentation “How can the Gospel be ministered effectively and inclusively to our native Romany and traveller communities?” You can download and read it if you wish, but please be aware that I wrote it in a deliberately challenging fashion to provoke discussion: Gospel ministry with Romany and Travellers

In the process of putting that together, I discovered many links and a great book about the life and faith of these people, and I draw them together here in case they are of use to anyone else:

The Pure in Heart: An Epistle from the Romanies by Martin Burrell a truly excellent book (also available in Kindle format).

Pip, a 17 year old Romany boy, writes an Open letter to Channel 4 about Big Fat Gypsy Wedding

Diocese of Ely: Travellers and the Church including a download from Revd Martin Hore “Travellers and the Church – a Christian Response”

Friends, Families and Travellers a website aimed at ending racism and discrimination against the traveller community

Gypsies and Travellers – Why Should Christian’s Care from the Church Network for Gypsies and Travellers

I was, and am, particularly indebted to Simon Martin, Training and Resources Officer at the Arthur Rank Centre (supporting rural communities and churches) and Revd Simon Cutmore (who blogs at Rectory Musings) for their help in pointing me in the direction of these resources as I prepared for BAP.

I think that (probably after ordination training) I will be challenged again in this area, so I would welcome your thoughts, reactions, and experiences.

Encounter Baptism and Thanksgiving – reflections on the first session

At the end of October we had our first ‘Encounter’ session, to which those who had expressed an interest in having children baptised were invited.

I laid out the plan of the day here, and thankfully it pretty much went to plan.

From a practical view-point one of the big successes was the informal lunch with the chance to talk to people – something we can make better use of by using this time to share information about our services and activities for young families, so that can be immediately discussed informally, rather than be drawn into more ‘baptism’ related discussions.

Another good point (other than the popularity of the puppets) was having a couple talk about why they chose to have a Thanksgiving. None of the families actually took up the idea this time, but it was much better having the idea drawn into discussion through the story of real people.

There are various logistical tweeks we need to make, but one of the interesting things about people’s questions was that so many of them revolved around the minutiae of the service, like ‘how many Godparents can there be?’ Perhaps we need to cover more of this information in the preliminary leaflet the families receive when they have enquired and get an invitation to ‘Encounter’, but there is the equal danger that people don’t always read what they’re given anyway!

Encouraging for me though was the response of our (fairly new) vicar to questions about how Baptism (to some extent) and Thanksgiving services (to a greater extent) could be personalised to the ‘story’ of a particular family or birth, whilst still being part of morning worship of some sort. We already make use of songs that are familiar to families who have engaged with our Wayfinder groups and Messy Church, but he has felt able to pick up on a Pentecost healing that enabled one recent birth and later committed to having an infant baptism next Pentecost.

This is the sort of idea that I later found reflected in this excellent reflection on the SPCK blog (where the book that is recommended would be a suitable gift for parents attending ‘Encounter’ if we could afford it). I look forward to seeing how it can be made to work practically, or if this instance will prove something of a minority case. It all depends I suspect on how much people’s experiences of God’s activity in their lives, pre-date their wish to have a child baptised.

The problem I see is that the families that engaged with ‘Encounter’ last month, all had some connection with us as their local church (even if only at an ‘exploring’ stage), and therefore relating the service to their experiences of faith (so far) can be relevant to them. None of the families that had made enquiries about baptism, but weren’t already attending something around our fellowship, accepted our invitation to ‘Encounter’ this time.

Only time will tell whether this pattern is repeated. I hope it isn’t, because for me, encouraging this group of people to engage with the fellowship of the church, as a pre-cursor to engaging with the faith they want their child baptised into, has got to be the key aim of ‘Encounter’.

Encounter – Baptism and Thanksgiving Preparation

OK, so this is the first blog post I’ve ever done ‘by request’! It comes out of a Sunday night conversation on Twitter about Baptisms and Baptism preparation.

Baptism preparation was probably the area of ministry in vacancy that became almost impossible to keep up with by simply visiting individual families one by one. I knew I wasn’t being very effective, and was sure that it wasn’t really engaging people with the church, even though I worked hard to show this CPAS video, talk through their reactions to what baptism is really about, show them the liturgy/promises and encourage families to attend services/Wayfinders/Messy. The supporting Deanery clergy were always great too at visiting the families after me, before they got to the ‘dunking’ stage!

There was a constant backlog of families wanting to be ‘done’, and often people upset that the process is slower than they would like. Some of that can’t be changed, but I was sure some of it could be.

But the new vicar arrived with a plan… or at least something that had worked in his last parish that we could adapt. Now he’s in Malawi doing other useful stuff for a fortnight and I’m trying to make the first shot at “Encounter” happen in St Peter’s for when he gets back! The big encouragement has been so many folk from our congregations want to get involved helping, making this a better example of the active, faith-full fellowship share.

The idea is that a whole group of families enquiring about baptism are invited to “Encounter” – that helps with the visiting load immediately.

They are invited to come to our 11.15am service, where because it’s a nice time of morning most of our baptisms take place. (Even though it’s not necessarily the most family orientated of our congregations they are very welcoming and know how much their ministry is needed).

Then we’re going to offer them a light buffet lunch of kid friendly food… St Peter’s does catering really well, and hopefully it’s a chance for some informal chatter about what goes in at church and people’s reactions to having seen a baptism happen.

Next will be a song by our Peter’s Puppets… to break the ice, show them something different and get them sat in ‘church’ again after lunch.

After a brief intro to what’s going to happen, we’ll show them the CPAS First Steps DVD – hopefully via laptop and data-projector on the big screen (it lasts roughly 10 minutes). Then our lovely new vicar will discuss with them for 15 mins-ish some of their reactions to the baptism service they went to earlier, their expectations of baptism, the symbolism in baptism (cross, water, light). He’s been a vicar 20+ years so I guess he knows how to do so much so quickly, though having seen the DVD will help – I shall watch and learn!

Then one of our church families who have chosen to have a Thanksgiving Services for their children will talk for five minutes about why, and what it includes and doesn’t include.

Next up will be two of our children’s leaders talking about Wayfinders (our Bible-based baby/toddler groups), Messy Church (monthly) and other kids groups. This is because increasingly we find families wanting bulk baptisms with the eldest children sometimes being well into school age.

As we get towards the end there will be another song from Peter’s Puppets, before I explain how they can now book a Baptism or Thanksgiving Service if they want to go ahead with the idea. Booking a baptism will be by 1st/2nd/3rd choice of some dates we offer on a form… we will then confirm by phone. For Thanksgivings, these don’t need to be in a morning service, so will be booked direct with the vicar I think. They won’t be able to book at Encounter (so they have a cooling off period, and we don’t get a ‘rugby scrum’ of bidding for dates), but will need to drop the form back to us after they’ve had a ‘cooling off’ period to discuss all they’ve seen and heard!

The vicar will close the session by about 2.15pm with prayer, and we’ll hand out the response/application forms at the door as they leave!

The leaflet I’ve just finished to send out with the invitations is here, but please remember even the vicar hasn’t seen it yet because he’s in Malawi, so I’m expecting him to edit it before our second session of Encounter: Encounter Baptism-Thanksgiving Leaflet Oct11 I’m hoping the new vicar doesn’t mind me sharing all this – it’s his bright idea after all… I’m just doing what I call “the knitting”!

I’m really encouraged by the number of people who have volunteered to “do stuff”, especially the puppet team, our ‘thanksgiving’ family, and our children’s leaders.

So, that’s the plan for October 30th.  Thanks to Revd Simon Cutmore and Revd James Ogley (among others) for encouraging me to blog about it. Feel free to pray for us that day, and I’ll report back at the end of the month on how it went!