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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Christ is risen; share the news – Mark 16:1-8

HAPPY EASTER! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

This morning was a great chance to consider the Resurrection through the eyes of St. Mark with the children of our congregation taking part. So the following is something like what I said… with some of the props!

Who has already had some Easter Egg this morning?! Anyone willing to ‘fess up?!

So, I’ve 3 eggs, decorated or foil wrapped eggs, 3 Easter Eggs here for us to explore… and I’m sorry if those further away can’t see the action here, but eggs is eggs and don’t come (much) bigger! You are welcome to come closer if you wish.

We’ve got 3 eggs, all looking very pretty here, and we’re going to see if we can crack them into a glass bowl.

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Putting the Russian icon egg covers on the eggs on Holy Saturday.


Egg 1:
Russian icon egg, pretty, Jesus on it, HARD BOILED.

Egg 2: Foil wrapped, chocolate coated, (crack it…. dribble….) RAW.

Egg 3: Creme egg wrapped, wooden egg, open it…. nothing.

How do those eggs make you feel? Confused, disappointed, shocked… (hungry?!)
What day is it today? Easter Day!
What do you think should be in those eggs? Chocolate!
What’s the date today? April 1st, April Fool’s Day…. Check my watch; still before noon.
Do you think all this is just a joke?

Yes?
No?!
Good.
Why not? …..     Hopefully get an answer that involves the empty tomb.

Why don’t the children sit down here at the front (or with parents) for a few minutes…

There are four different accounts of the Easter story, Matthew’s, Luke’s, John’s and the one we heard this morning is…? Mark’s.

In Mark’s Gospel, that we heard just now, what surprises us?   No-one meets Jesus… there’s only one angel… there’s three women… the story is quite short… it ends without the women having done what the angel asked of them.

Mark’s story focuses on the confusion, shock and disappointment that three women experience at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.

The Friday night that Jesus died, two ladies called Mary, friends of Jesus, had watched as a man called Joseph of Arimathea, who secretly wondered if Jesus heralded a new part of God’s relationship with the Jews, had buried Jesus in a stone tomb. He’d rolled a big stone over the opening to stop people stealing the body.

36 hours later, and they’ve brought their friend Salome to help them anoint Jesus’ body with precious oils. They’re expecting to encounter the problem of moving the huge stone from the tomb entrance, but instead they’re confused by the fact it’s been rolled away.

Were the eggs that I brought with me this morning anything like you might have expected? No!
Were they confusing? Yes.

We all know that when we discover that things aren’t quite what we’re expecting, we become uncomfortable. We cast about for something that’s what we think of as normal, or expected. If we don’t find what we’re looking for, we’re suddenly hyper-sensitive to what’s different, or new. This is a good thing – it makes us curious. It’s how we gain new experiences and is how we learn.

So, the women are shocked and uncomfortable, but they are also curious, so they go inside the tomb. What are they looking for inside the tomb? Jesus’ body.

What do they find? Angel… man dressed in white.
Where’s Jesus? Risen… (going to meet the disciples in Galilee).

The Angel says “Jesus isn’t here. He’s been raised from the dead. The women are to go and tell his other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.”

That’s the important bit… like the nice yellow, yolk in hard-boiled egg. It’s the important bit at the centre of the story. This isn’t a completely empty place, like my little wooden egg. Yes, they’re horribly disappointed, confused and shocked, but they’ve just been given a really important piece of information; they’ve learnt something so knew it’s never happened before in the history of the world. Someone has died, their friend Jesus has died, and risen to life again… resurrection!

So, what’s that important news again? Jesus is risen.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

What’s the other bit of news the angel gave them?… Get the adults to help… they were to go and tell the other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.

It’s easy to get distracted isn’t it? We get all excited about one particular bit of a new discovery, and something else about it gets forgotten until later. That’s like the chocolate covered egg I brought, isn’t it. We got all excited and distracted by the chocolate coating, that what might have been important about it, that message in the middle, all dribbled out and felt disappointing when we tried to crack it!

In a similar way, it’s very easy to remember the very exciting bit of Easter, that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, and then get distracted by the chocolate so we forget the other bit about the angel’s Easter message. What were the women meant to do? Go and tell other people about Jesus being risen, and where they can meet him.

The women in Mark’s Gospel do run off, amazed, but also afraid. They’ve found everything that’s happened in the last few minutes, confusing, shocking and disappointing. They are just so overwhelmed by everything, that they are actually silent, they don’t tell anyone anything!

Is that what was meant to happen? No!

Did they never tell anyone anything about what they’d seen and heard? Hmmmmm….. Yes? Well, the resurrection story in Mark’s Gospel certainly stops there!

If yes…. So how do we know? How come it’s written down in Mark’s Gospel if they don’t tell anyone?

Here’s something that might surprise you: in the very earliest manuscripts (papers) that have been found of Mark’s Gospel, his whole Gospel stops there. Some people think that was all he wrote. Some people think that the last bit of his resurrection story, got lost… like the contents of that uncooked egg. Other people have actually tried to tell another last bit of the resurrection story for Mark, because they’ve added to the end of his Gospel.

The way that Mark’s Easter story ends, as we hear it this morning, is with the women running off and saying nothing to anyone. That’s really important because it makes us think. It makes us think about what’s important at the heart of the Jesus’ resurrection, and what we’re meant to do with that news. What are we meant to do with the news of Jesus’ resurrection? Share it!

The women must have shared the news eventually, because if they hadn’t, their story couldn’t have been told to Mark and written into his Gospel. We know the disciples did meet the risen Jesus, in Jerusalem and Galilee, because we are told that through the other Gospels. So this Easter, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded that we need to share that news. We need to tell people who don’t know, and remind people who do know, but have perhaps forgotten that’s important. And we need to tell them where they can meet Jesus; here in church, perhaps when we pray, even when we’re confused, scared and disappointed.

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Our Easter Garden, set into the altar.

So, from my three eggs, have we got anything to share? Not a lot!
The wooden egg isn’t edible by anyone.
The chocolate was wrapped around a raw egg, and that’s now all a bit messy and yukky, so we can’t share that either.
The pretty hard-boiled egg is edible…. but it’s not going to go very far is it.

Have you all seen the beautiful Easter Garden at the front? Take the children to the altar…

There are the crosses on the hill, where Jesus was crucified on Good Friday.
Can you see the tomb?
Did you notice that at the very beginning of the service after we lit the candles and I put the big Easter candle in it’s stand, I went and rolled the stone away on the tomb?
Take a close look. What’s nearby?

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What was left of the contents of the golden egg after it had been shared.

They will find a large golden egg.
Get them to bring it to the front very carefully, and open it into a fresh glass bowl.
They will probably be excited, but ask them…

What they are meant to do with what’s inside, before we get too distracted?

SHARE IT! With the whole congregation….

Thanks to the ever-present strength and camera of Graham who keeps this clergy going. The pics are his.

As I was reminded at the end of the service, this was the last sermon of my curacy. On 9th April I will be Licensed as Associate Priest to the parishes of St. Mary’s Eversley and St. Barnabas Darby Green. My thanks to all those who have contributed to the journey thus far, and here’s to the next adventure…

 

 

Sound-bites… or sacrifice? A sermon for ‘Pip and Jim’ at Winchester Cathedral – Isaiah 40:27-end John 12:20-26

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In the vestments of Winchester Cathedral (photo courtesy Graham Hartland)

The Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral offer the curates of Winchester Diocese the wonderful opportunity of preaching at Cathedral Evensong towards the end of the curacy. It’s a daunting thing, but a huge privilege, and today it was my turn. Normally, this would be undertaken in ‘choir dress’, but since tonight was the first Evensong of the Feast of St. Philip and St. James tomorrow, they got some of their gorgeous robes out and of course, I had to fit in.

There was also a serious message to share as well, and one I felt was timely in this ‘election’ season:

It is all too common in the media frenzied world we live in, that when some key moment in history is being played out, like the announcement of a General Election, those who live by a well-poised microphone, seek an interview with the key players. Sound-bites are demanded to enable us who feed on the all-consuming media-machine, to discern the so-called truth. The media wants to know ‘who?’, and ‘what?’, and ‘why?’, so they can be first with the relevant ‘scoop’, grab reflections from the most note-worthy analysts, and massage our minds with ‘breaking news’.

The little group of Greeks who plagued the most approachable of Jesus’ followers for an interview with the wandering rabbi who’d just been greeted in Jerusalem like a conquering hero, could well have been the early equivalent of today’s political editors. One might imagine that the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a political leader on a donkey would make good copy!

However, despite the tendency of those who saw their world in ruins and yearned for freedom from the tyranny of occupation to wish it otherwise, Jesus was no conquering hero, or political leader. He was however someone who sensed the change in the tide, as the welcoming Jews who were fascinated by the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection fell away at the sound of Pharisaical sarcasm, and were replaced by these curious Greeks. Jesus, the Son of Man, knew that what lay next for him was as much of consequence for these gentiles as for his fellow Jews; so they might as well get their click-bait sound-bite, then they could go away and analyse it as the events that revealed its truth unfolded in the week to come. It obviously worked, otherwise we wouldn’t still be reading it today!

“The hour has come…” sounds like political rhetoric worthy of Winston Churchill; less so a discourse on the germination of a grain of wheat. Yet it is that image that holds the kernel of the message that Christ’s impending death and resurrection represented. The pun is intended, for the kernel of a seed is packed with energy and the building blocks like starch, protein and fat, which allow it to grow through the soil until it reaches the sunlight to make its own food and reproduce. Christ would die to bear much fruit; the fruit of the Kingdom of God that would form from a single, sacrificed grain of hope.

For the exiled people of Israel, reading in Babylon the words prophesied by Isaiah decades earlier, the seeds of their hope lay in the traditions of their faith. Their complaint is that God is ignoring the right of his people to see in their generation the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. They dimly remember that they were called to be a great nation, as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen 12:2-3), and a blessing to all peoples (Gen 28:13-15). Yet defeat and deportation have left them too numb to grasp the truth that the power of their creator God extends from their past, through this present suffering, well into the future, in which lies the fulfilment of those promises.  Like the writer of Psalm 25, they are asked to wait for the Lord, not in the insidious doubt that breeds despair, but in the sort of confident expectation that breeds hope.

The exiles in Babylon would eventually find that hope in the restoration of their lands and temple. But their future leaders would again become so hidebound to an understanding of God which they created in their own flawed image, that they would fail to recognise the means by which they would indeed become a blessing to all peoples, and so they crucified their flawless Saviour. It was to this sacrifice that Jesus refers in his response to the eager plea of the Greeks for an interview. It would in fact be they who, at Pentecost and because of his resurrection, would be among the peoples to whom God’s new covenant with all people would be inaugurated.

How much are we like the Pharisees, forming our image of God on the basis of our own flaws? How much are we like the exiles in Babylon, prey to insidious doubts that God perhaps has forgotten us? If it is not us for whom we are concerned, perhaps it is the defeated souls who wash up on the shores of the wealthy west, almost as devoid of hope as they are of the money that bought them a dangerous passage, powerless to battle the bureaucracy of borders? Or perhaps it is the young for whom we are concerned; especially those faint and weary from the constant expectation that everyone can be above average, who fall exhausted into an epidemic of depression?

Have we not known? Have we not heard? That our faith is in the everlastingly faithful creator who has revealed himself to us in Jesus? That it is we who are called to be the grains of wheat who by sacrificing ourselves, our time, our effort, our money, even our political differences, on behalf of others, will be serving Jesus?

The chances are we do know, and we have heard, but making a life of sacrifice and service a reality is much harder than perhaps we would wish. We yearn to change a world that at times seems in ruins, and free it from the tyranny of injustice, yet the work can seem fruitless. Subsuming our own needs and desires into the sometimes unpopular, awkward, perhaps even isolating work of serving others, is tough. Which is why we too need to catch hold of more than the sound-bites of Jesus’ ministry, and pick up again the seed of hope he holds for each of us.

Christ’s death and resurrection, in obedience to his Father’s will, gives everyone the opportunity for a relationship with God that guarantees his presence with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. However much of a struggle it is, if we have faith in Jesus and follow his example, we will find that he is with us. If we wait in confident expectation of his presence among the tasks we do at his command, then we will find our strength renewed for the work we do to serve others, and our lives bearing much fruit in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Let us pray:

We give thanks to you our risen Lord, that in your death and resurrection you offer all people the seed of hope. Help us to be this seed, and growing through acts of love, sacrifice and service, bear the fruit of your Kingdom.

Faithful creator, incarnate through the power of the Holy Spirit, inspire in us the courage to act responsibly towards your creation, that we might not remove the seeds of hope for future generations through our careless abuse of the world’s resources.

Remembering that in your flawless humility you suffered for us, Jesus, work in the words, actions and policies of our leaders and media to offer a fresh vision of truth, justice and the renewal of hope for all people.

We remember from our Diocesan cycle of prayer those who are refugees and asylum seekers, and all who find themselves struggling for hope in the face of bureaucracy, injustice and exploitation. Loving Jesus, give us the courage to work for the right of all people to safety, security and freedom, as we serve others in your name.

Lord Jesus, we know ourselves to be fragile, and many for whom we care to be faint and weary from the cares the world places on them. We remember in a moment of silence those known to us who need to know your comfort, healing, presence and peace…………… and strengthen those who share their own journey to wholeness in support of others.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.

The Sepulchre Experience – The women’s tale

Will you light a candle for the women at the sepulchre? (Minstead Church, November 2012)

For the open day celebrating ‘Life and Lives Lived’ at All Saints’ Minstead, my father was asked to select a reflection on the sepulchre to leave out for people to read. He didn’t. Instead he was inspired to write this retelling of the Gospel which seems to echo something of what Rt Revd Steven Croft has said, and which concludes with what I pray may be a prophesy:

We had no rights. Our laws were strict. As girls we were under the control of our fathers. When we married, which was expected of us, control passed to our husband and we became his property.

As an eldest child we did not inherit our father’s estate; that would pass to our oldest brother. Single women, or those widowed, rarely got the respect they deserved. Women took no part in our religious ceremonies. The rite of membership, that of circumcision, was inscribed in one of our early scrolls, and so as women we were excluded. (Genesis 17:10)

This exclusion was accentuated at the Temple where we were confined to the Court of Women which was nineteen steps higher than the Court of Gentiles, but fifteen steps lower than the Court of Israel. We were still further excluded by Temple rules which viewed the rhythm of our feminine biological clocks as something unclean.

Some few of us made successful lives of our own and because we had not married, were sometimes classed together with the street women who plied their trade. We moved on era by era until we heard of a new prophet who was travelling around Galilee. He had healed several of us and also cured Simon’s mother of fever.

He told how he had been sent by his Father, our God, to fulfil the ancient scriptures. We believed, and so were given a new beginning to our lives as women. We came out from the shadow of the Temple and the old restrictive laws and became empowered to serve fully in the new freedom of his Church.

Our friend Luke recorded many of these wonderful times in his account of the life of this Jesus who had grown up in Nazareth, and you read them as Luke 8:

After this Jesus travelled from one town and village to another proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. They included Mary (called Magdalene), Joanna the wife of Cuza who was Herod’s steward, Susanna, Salome the wife of Zebedee, and many other women. These women helped support the men out of their own means.

This Jesus was both remote and yet intimately close; a presence like no other man. He spread the news that the Kingdom of God was among us, all were welcome and that we as women were fully part of it.

So many folk came to hear him and took to his new Way of living that the priests felt threatened and fabricated charges against him. We were at his ‘trial’, a mockery of justice.

They were afraid that the freedom, justice and equality Jesus preached as a fulfilment of Scripture would diminish their power base. The Roman governor Pilate could find no fault in him. He did not listen to his wife Claudia when she recounted her dream, but bowed to pressure from the priests and allowed our friend Jesus to be crucified.

A group of us stood there by his cross, totally bereft. With us were Mary his mother and her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Salome, and Mary Magdalene. The soldiers realised he had died and so we were spared the final agony of seeing his bones broken.

‘Jesus is taken down from the cross’ Station XIII from All Saints’ Basingstoke

As the Day of Preparation drew to a close, Joseph from Arimathea gained Pilate’s permission to take Jesus’ body to the tomb he had bought for himself. Nicodemus had brought embalming spices and together they completed the rituals and sealed the tomb with a large rock.

We had lost him and were leaderless. We all feared were were being spied on, so observed the Passover; but before dawn the next day one of us went to the tomb and in amazement found the stone had been rolled away and that the tomb was empty. She ran and told the others. Several of the men went back with her, looked and went away in great sadness not knowing what to believe. But she was drawn in her own grief to stay in the garden and find a closeness to him in that place where his body had rested.

Through her tears she saw a man she thought was the gardener who asked the reason for her grief. She could only reply, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know what they’ve done with him.” In a voice she never expected to hear again he spoke her name, “Mary,… tell the others I will meet them in Galilee.”

He had chosen one of us, his women companions, to carry to the world the message of his Resurrection. In that brief moment he confirmed that his Church was one without discrimination between the sexes. Years later his apostle Paul put it like this when he wrote to the Galatians:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

But those fruitful years were short and generations of women were once more marginalised, until in your time a degree of enlightenment dawned and our sex can again live the Resurrection Day experience of being called by name to serve in his Church.

By the time you read this, the last barrier may have been removed, and we will have received his final blessing of complete equality with our fellow male believers.

Michael Clarke, 20th October 2012

He and I are supporting the Yes 2 Women Bishops Campaign. Can you?

DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit – John 15:26-27 16:4-15 and Acts 2:1-13

All Saints Church, Minstead

Here is the DARE that I gave the people of All Saints, Minstead on Pentecost Sunday.

More information about the service, the liturgy and the local pub are in my previous post here. You will note that I make reference to several people by name, all of whom I know personally and some of whom contributed greatly to my spiritual journey when I was a teenager living in the village.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ve always felt Minstead was a place where people are comfortable with the idea of being a bit different in the way they do things, a bit daring and willing to take a risk to make a point.

A scented flame coloured Azalea at Furzey Gardens

This week I reckon Minstead has excelled itself – or more accurately the Chelsea RHS Show Garden team from Furzey Gardens and the Minstead Training Project have excelled themselves at daring to be different! There, next to Simon’s thatched lantern house were the (currently unfashionable) flame coloured flowers of the scented azalea’s that filled my childhood as I played hide and seek with my friends among their stems – even when the garden was open to the public!

This morning as we think about some other flames, and receive some real flames later in the service, I want to suggest that we all need to DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit.

In fact I’m going to use that word DARE to unpack some of the details of the Pentecost story, and give us a mnemonic with which to remember how we are to live out our faith with the flames of Pentecost visible in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is part of God; the way that God works in the world to achieve his purposes, and quite specifically how he works in the life of each of us that believes in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. That was why we remembered the Easter story in our opening acclamation as we lit our Pascal Candle at the beginning of the service.

In the Pentecost Gospel reading that H read, Jesus knew that he was soon to die, but rise again. He also knew that try as he might, the disciples at this point just didn’t have the understanding that would enable them to make sense of all that was going to happen – especially all mixed up with their very human emotions.

So Jesus explains how the Holy Spirit would be God’s means of delivering to Jesus followers, an understanding of what God was doing through the experiences they were about to encounter. The Message version of the Bible has Jesus saying it this way:

Everything the Father has is also mine. That is why I’ve said, ‘He takes from me and delivers to you.’ (John 16:15 MSG)

So the D of our DARE to hold the flame of the Holy Spirit, is all about DELIVERY. (Hang the first word up! – I had large Comic Sans words to hang on a string for those with learning difficulties to see.)

Think of it as being like the Olympic Torch Relay, which I think comes to Lyndhurst in July (14th). The flame is very cleverly, and usually without going out, being passed from one torch bearer to the next, all the way round the country, until it arrives at the Olympic Stadia in London to deliver it’s flame to the centrepiece of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

If you like, the tongues of flame at Pentecost, a visible form of the Holy Spirit, were the opening ceremony of God working in the lives of the disciples in this profoundly different way to what they had experienced when Jesus was alive. With the wind that accompanied them, the flames showed God delivering something quite special to those who believe in Jesus!

As the Olympic flame burns in London, people will have gathered to do things that might be utterly beyond our abilities, and in some cases probably seem beyond anything the competitors expect themselves to achieve. There will be personal bests, Olympic records, and world records in the weeks that follow.

The story of Pentecost that G read us, describes what happens when the flames alighted on each person gathered that day in Jersualem.

“They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4 NRSV)

And there’s the A of our DAREABILITY (Hang second word up.)

The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do things that we could never imagine possible!
“Ah but…” we have a tendency to say when we’re asked to do something we’ve never tried before, or step out of our comfort zone. “I can’t possibly….” “I don’t do things like that…”

What can’t we do?

  • Don’t we have the ability to talk about Jesus in the ordinary goings on of our lives?!
  • Don’t we have the ability God needs to make a difference here?!
  • Couldn’t we let the Holy Spirit have control of our lives and (with a little hard work on our part) give us abilities we’ve never dreamt of?

Well, if all that were true, I for one wouldn’t be standing here this morning!

The ‘tree house’ at Furzey Garden’s in Minstead (2005)

I’m pretty sure from what I’ve seen on the TV this week, that Chris Beardshaw for one, doubted that the Furzey team had the ability to pull that Chelsea Garden project together to a standard that would win an RHS Gold. The tears in his eyes were ones that showed humility, the relief of having been proved wrong, and the delight with which he knew the news would be received by the rest of the team whose abilities that Gold would celebrate!

So the Holy Spirit is the delivery system by which God works in our lives, but also gives us the ability to do things, big and small, that we might not otherwise do. But those two things might feed, strengthen and enhance who we are as Christians, but if we are to DARE to carry the flame of the Spirit, then we need to make a conscious effort to make connections that take that flame on a journey in us.

Tom Wright’s version of John’s Gospel puts Chapter 16 v4 this way:

“I have told you this, so that when the time comes… to do these things, you will remember what I told you.”

There’s the trick you see, we need to remember to make the connections between what happens in our lives and what those simple, or larger occurrences, say about God, as creator Father, risen Son, and holy Spirit.

To remember, is the R of our DAREing! (Hang third word up)

I tend to describe the Bible as a collection of stories about God in action. In both the Old Testament, the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, we know that the stories now written down were originally those remembered and told as people made connections with how they saw God acting in the world, and later what they remembered of Jesus’ teachings and actions. Writing them down was a mechanism for helping people remember and understand.

But God didn’t stop revealing himself in our world after Jesus ascended into heaven, or even after people decided that there would only be a certain number of books in the Bible. Through the Holy Spirit God remained living and visibly active on a far larger scale, and in a far more personal way.

When we look at our own lives, and that of the world around us, we can see God at work. Perhaps we’ve been praying for someone and they experience something that we recognise can only be explained by God’s action in their lives. We will need to remember the life and teaching of Jesus, or perhaps a passage of scripture like a psalm, to be able to recognise that; and if they are not aware of it already, we then need to make those connections known to the person concerned.

Another flaming Azalea at Furzey Gardens

If we can see the beauty of God’s creation in a flower, a collection of sticks, and a particular fragrance, or a combination of all three, then that may make us a flower arranger, a gardener, a woodsman or a designer. But unless we remember to praise God for the raw materials, and ascribe our abilities to the way he has made and developed us, inspired and strengthened us through the Holy Spirit, then we still aren’t being DAREing enough! I’m sure that’s why Revd Tim Selwood is calling the Furzey Chelsea Garden quite specifically God’s Gold Garden!

We have to explain the connections we make between our lives what we see in the world around us, or the lives of others, and the revelation of God that we remember through the Bible and the life and example of Jesus.

It’s the explaining that completes the DARE (hang fourth word up) There is no point carrying the flame of the Holy Spirit, if it’s not going to explain how important to us our connection is with Jesus.

Those disciples gathered together in Jerusalem had been hiding and waiting. They hadn’t been able to make proper sense of all that had happened. Christ had died, then in the midst of their grief he was once again among them. Then, just before he vanished for good, he had told them to wait, wait where they were until some powerful force came and worked among them to help them understand it all, just as he had said to them it would before he died.

“You will speak about me.” Jesus had said in the opening words of our Gospel reading. (John 15:27).

The force that enabled them to do that was the Holy Spirit. It delivered the ability to remember what Jesus had said and done among them, to make the connections that gave them understanding. But the real value in the Holy Spirit coming upon them was that it enabled them to explain to others all that had happened, and how that related to people’s own existence now that Jesus had gone from this world.

I spent Thursday at Alton Abbey with the Benedictine monks there, part of what has become a regular pattern in my life. One of them Dom Anselm, is an iconographer, and was teaching iconography to a group staying there for the week. He was explaining to them the techniques that create an image that tells a story related to Christ. They were down to the detail whilst I watched, how to mix a particular colour, how to make the fine brush strokes that created the detail or wrote the Biblical text.

The crucifix in the grounds at Furzey

One of the other monks, Fr Andrew, spent some time with me in their chapel, using a large icon that Dom Anselm has painted, to explain to me one way in which he prays and intercedes for the people and places that are on his heart. He explained how he uses the image to mentally lay his concerns in a specific place at Jesus’ feet as he hangs on the cross at Golgotha.

Iconography is to me a foreign language, one I don’t speak, and had never tried to apply in detail as part of my faith life. For the monks to bring aspects of their faith, and mine, to life with new understanding, there was an awful lot of explaining going on! Part of that explaining was related to what they were painting (perhaps the detail on the hand of Christ raised in blessing), or in how that icon could be used as a prompt to prayer.

The monks weren’t born knowing how to paint icons, nor how to use them in their prayer life, but through the power of the Holy Spirit they have taken delivery of the ability to do so, and by remembering it relation to the Gospel story, and relating it to how their faith works itself out in daily life, they were explaining it to me in a way which brought something new into my life.

When we declare our belief in God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, (as we will in a moment) we are accepting responsibility for being part of God’s relay race. We will be accepting that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are taking delivery of the abilities God has given us, remembering as we do where they come from, and how their use in our lives is connected to the story of Jesus Christ. It’s now up to us to deliver onwards (in many different ways, according to those abilities that God is giving us) the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, by explaining to others how it works in our lives, and how God wants it to work in their lives.

This morning later in the service, we will DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that Delivers to us the Ability to Remember and Explain, the love of God shown us through the death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ.

And so, let us stand to affirm that faith!

Service for the Celebration of Pentecost

Pentecost candle and holders

On Pentecost Sunday I had the privilege of leading and preaching at the church of All Saints, Minstead (at the invitation of the incumbent Revd Dr James Bruce). This was the church in which I was baptised, confirmed and married. It is also the church that my Dad has attended for the last 60 years, and the occasion also marked his 80th birthday.

In the next post is my sermon, which built on my long association with and knowledge of the community and it’s people and in particular with Furzey Gardens which lies at the top of the village, and last week won Gold at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for their garden created by members of the Minstead Training Project for people with learning disabilities. (BBC South news coverage here.)

The liturgy for the service I adapted from that in Common Worship especially the Times and Seasons section for Pentecost, to create something that was simple but meaningful. I used the word DARE that appears repeatedly in the “commissioning” that forms the conclusion of that service as the mnemonic that I also hinged the sermon on, producing a over-arching theme that started from the light from the Pascal Candle and the Easter story, and hopefully took them into the future daring to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit. You are welcome to see, use and comment on the form the final liturgy took by downloading this: A Pentecost Celebration

Liturgical Notes:

  • I deliberately asked for the Gospel to be read immediately before the Pentecost Reading, so that the flow of the readings was chronologically correct and drawn together into the one story;
  • I created candle holders that used four of the DAREs in the closing liturgy, and a variety of flame coloured card, so that people had something symbolic to receive and take home (see photo). The master copy for the candle holder is here: CandleHoldersForPentecostDARE
  • The ‘commissioning of people of the Spirit’ at the end of the service was adapted from the original to take account of the fact that we didn’t in fact want people to go outside the church, and I no longer live in the community. They also used the liturgical and historic spaces within the church to guide where I asked local individuals to read the individual DAREs from. These could be adapted to use in any other church and community.

Footnote: I can thoroughly recommend The Trusty Servant pub in Minstead where my family continued Dad’s celebrations at lunch!

Four gifts of the resurrection – Luke 24:36-48 (and a testimony from discernment)

In the sermon that follows, you will find my personal testimony of Christ’s presence and peace, as I experienced it in Ely in the hours immediately before my recent Bishop’s Advisory Panel, the final stage in the process of selection for ordination to the priesthood.

Our mid-week services usually use the principle lectionary readings of the previous Sunday. This week I found myself focusing on Luke’s account of the Christ’s resurrection appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem as they gathered after the ‘Road to Emmaus’ incident, where Jesus’ presence and peace are two of what I see as four gifts of the resurrection.

I wonder how many of us can say that we have a total and joyful understanding of Christ’s resurrection, without having ever experienced a single doubt or uncertainty?

The disciples in our Gospel reading were experiencing the emotional turmoil of daring to believe something that seemed impossible. Three among their number were saying that they had encountered Jesus, fully alive. Yet they were carrying with them the guilt of knowing they had kept their distance from his personal anguish in Gethsemene, protected themselves by hiding from his trial or lying about their friendship, and watched helplessly, if at all, at his execution.

Yet suddenly, here Jesus was among them, offering not the condemnation of the betrayed, but the peace of God. He had returned to give them faith, and a joyful understanding that would finally equip them to carry out the central task that Jesus had made complete: to preach repentance and proclaim the forgiveness of sins.

This passage offers us four key gifts that Christ gave those that gathered in Jerusalem after the crucifixion, which through the power from on high that they would receive a few weeks later at Pentecost, are now available to us all.

Firstly, Jesus came and stood among them. They were in the presence of their risen Lord, able to see the marks of crucifixion that testified to his suffering, but also to hear his voice, the voice of their King raised in glory. Jesus’ presence was the first of his resurrection gifts to those that follow him.

Very recently I had a most unexpected experience. The final stage of the selection process for ordination takes place over 48 hours, through a series of written, verbal and pastoral tests. I had the good fortune to be undertaking this on the most glorious week of early spring, in the historic city of Ely under the shadow of it’s Cathedral.

Christ in Glory by Peter Ball in Ely Cathedral (it's well worth looking at his website for other examples of his work)

Having arrived deliberately, but excessively, early, I took the opportunity to visit this historic place of worship, and as I sat at the crossing below its central octagonal tower I was struck forcibly by two images of the risen Christ. (If you’ve ever visited Ely you will probably know them.)

One is a modern image of Christ in glory, made of driftwood covered in beaten metals. It hangs behind the pulpit and shows not only Christ’s arm raised in benediction but the wounds of crucifixion.

The other appears small, a painting central to images of apostles, saints and angels, that fill the octagonal tower space above the nave altar. Christ in Majesty, holds the spear wound in his side from which poured the blood and water of his humanity after his death. His other arm is raised again in blessing, as he looks down at those that receive the sacrament beneath him.

Never before have I been so aware of Christ’s presence. Not simply a crucified Jesus, nor a risen Lord evidenced by an empty cross; but a risen and glorified Messiah, in whose presence I was able to rest. If you are ever in Ely I can thoroughly recommend it.

The second gift Jesus gave the disciples in this room of tumultuous emotion, was the gift of peace. It was the peace of God that actually proclaimed their salvation – they were saved, released, forgiven for all the misunderstandings, disloyalty and doubts that filled them with tension and uncertainty.

If you read through the Gospel of Luke, you will see that Christ’s Messianic purpose is repeatedly revealed with peace:

  • Zechariah exults at John the Baptists’s birth and purpose with the knowledge that through it, the Lord will “guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79);
  • When angels proclaim the birth of Jesus it is to the “Glory of God” and for “peace on earth.” (Luke 2:14)
  •  Jesus also taught that the salvation that comes through his resurrection is also to be proclaimed with peace, for as Jesus sent out the seventy-two, their first act on entering a persons’ home was to to proclaim “Peace on this house.” (Luke 10:5-6)
Christ in Majesty - the Octagon Boss at Ely Cathedral

Christ’s grace-full blessing on us all is the offer of a peace which passes all understanding.

I don’t think I had ever truly understood what that meant until that day in Ely, shortly before Easter. As I became and odd mixture of tourist and pilgrim, moving around the Cathedral, I became profoundly aware that although I was hours from what should have been the most gruelling and nerve-wracking experience of my ministry, all I was aware of was a sense of utter calm; a knowledge that many people were holding me through prayer in God’s presence; a sense of joy and certainty that whatever the outcome of the selection process, God’s will was being done.

My prayer will always be that each person who places even a shaky trust in the resurrection of Christ, will experience themselves this gift of peace.

The third thing that Christ did in the presence of those gathered that Easter week in Jerusalem, was to ask for, and receive, what they had to hand, which was a simple meal of boiled fish. This shared meal, as with his breaking of bread with those he had journeyed with to Emmaus, is a way of affirming the physicality of his resurrection. Jesus eats as one fully flesh and blood yet is also able to appear and disappear, moving between heavenly and earthly realms at will – Christ’s humanity and divinity revealed in a fellowship meal.

Christ can only ask us for something, if we remain in his presence and hold on to our experiences of his peace. If we cannot acknowledge those, we will not be able to hear what it is that he asks us, and give freely and willingly in response.

What strikes me forcibly here is that when the disciples give Jesus what he asks for, the reality of his resurrection is reinforced. I wonder how often we make that the case in our lives? It’s relatively easy to pray for a friend, cook for a neighbour struggling with illness or a young family, or even set aside one God given task for another. But is our expectation that through our fulfilling God’s request, we will see for ourselves and reveal to others, Jesus Christ, risen and glorified?

To be asked by Christ to do something for him, is as much a gift of grace as his presence and his peace. We need to raise our expectations not just of how we experience the gifts of the risen Christ in our lives, but how our actions in the presence of a glorified Messiah, and as his representatives, can reveal the purposes of God to others.

Yet this passage also says we are not fully equipped to respond to Christ’s requests of us, with full faith and a joyful understanding of who Jesus was, unless and until we understand the scriptures. The fourth gift of the resurrection is therefore to understand it’s very fact in the light of scripture, particularly those that prophesied Jesus suffering, death and resurrection, such as that we read in Isaiah 53:13-15:

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; … for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Our willingness to respond to Jesus with actions that proclaim his resurrection, whist being in his presence and peace, should reflect what scripture has already said about the nature and purposes of Jesus activity in both heaven and earth. It is this combination of gifts that builds up our faith and authenticates who Christ was. In a world where nothing is true unless it is written down, and everything that is written must be true, the reality of our crucified Messiah risen in glory, can only be truly seen by others if we witness to the physical, written and spiritual reality of our faith in the integrity with which we live out lives.

An authentic Lent – a reflection from discernment

St Mary's Eversley

With less than 5 weeks to go before my Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP), I came to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. This year I had no real need to ask myself what I could do to make the next 40+ days special, for Lent was to form an almost exact parenthesis around my final preparations for for this national selection conference for those seeking ordination.

This year I decided to use ‘Reflections for Lent’ (Church House Publishing) as my Bible reading notes (on my Kindle), to keep me grounded in the lectionary in conjunction with the pattern of Common Worship Morning Prayer (via a wonderful little android app called Pocket Common Worship Prayer also available as a googlechrome app).

The Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday was Daniel 9:3-6 and 17-19 and seemed to start almost where my reflections on the Transfiguration had left off a couple of days earlier:

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands,… we do not make requests of you because we are righteous.” (Daniel 9:5 and 18)

Martin Percy‘s notes said this:

“We all stand before God and will be judged. Not on what we have amazzed, but on the content, quality and character of our lives… [I know I] will be weighed – and found wanting.”

Various thoughts flowed from this in relation to me offering myself for ordination:

The selectors will be looking at the content, quality and character of my life – that is why the two day selection conference is so daunting because they don’t want to know whether or not you look smart, or can real off good quotations from some books about the priesthood, but what you are like inside. They call it ‘quality of mind’, and much as my friends might make a joke of that phrase in my regard, its about integrity, whether what appears on the surface of my personality and in my application and supporting paperwork, is backed up by what I think and believe in the very core of my being – about my relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

I know before I even go to this selection conference that I will be found wanting. Who, when standing in the present of our glorious Lord, wont be! Yes, the selectors are real humans (lay and ordained) but I expect that the sense of ‘standing in God’s presence’ to be strong. But this idea of being ‘found wanting’ may not (and since I’ve published this, hasn’t) stopped them selecting me for training.

One of the many things I have come to understand better during the process of discernment, is that God calls us to whatever task he has for us, despite “our manifold sins and wickedness” (to quote what I guess is a remembered bit of 1662 liturgy). Being called towards ordination doesn’t make me any better a person than I was, or than anyone else!

I also come to this called ‘unformed’ for this role called “priesthood”, or perhaps as one of my advisor’s suggested ‘slightly formed’ by my experiences of the last couple of years! This is why so much of training for the priesthood is called “formation” because I will undergo a process of change and transformation from my current understandings and perceptions of ministry, to those I will have as a priest. A formation that I guess will last a lifetime.

That evening our evening Holy Communion for Ash Wednesday (shared this year at St Mary’s Eversley) the Old Testament reading was Isaiah 58:1-12, and two things struck me:

1) That I am called to a ministry that sees the things that fill people’s lives with darkness and a poverty of spirit, and seeks to shine Christ’s light into those places so that they can live transformed lives – what I describe as my desire to “come alongside people on God’s behalf.”

2) The vicar called us to live an authentic Lent; one that doesn’t cast aside our normal practices of work and worship with some hollow façade of repentance, but which builds on them so that we are enabled to bring light and transformation to people’s lives. We should be prepared by our Lent actions to live as an Easter people!

For me, this Lent feels like it will be the most “authentic” in this sense that I have ever experienced. It is full of reflections on who I am in the light of both the life of our glorious Saviour, and of my understanding of God’s calling on my life. I will rightly be measured and found wanting, and will need to repent of my sins. But this is part of the preparation I have committed to by following the process of discernment through – and sometime around Easter it will have reached some sort of conclusion as to the way I am called to live out that penitent life.

[Yes, looking back now, a week after having heard on Maundy Thursday that I am indeed recommended for training for ordination, I can say that the match up between Lent and my studies and reflections prior to BAP was a helpful one, but also very special. I know it will never be repeated, but that each Lent will have it’s own distinct flavour as I move through different stages in my ministry among different people.]

An Hour at the Cross – some of ‘The Things He Carried’

In order to understand the cross you need to stand under it… with the imagination as well as the mind. With the heart as well as the head. (Right Revd Stephen Cottrell)

The dais as we closed our 'Hour at the Cross' (the tomb was actually left from the 'All Age' service in the morning)

I have been hugely encouraged by the quantity and type of feedback that I got about the ‘Hour at the Cross’ that I put together and led on Good Friday. I’ve had several phonecalls and comments through Easter Week, been stopped in Waitrose, and had a text message which described it as “a powerful service and most definitely divinely inspired.”

It was not a service that I’d ever attended here at St. Peter’s Yateley – we’ve tended to go ‘All Age’ in the morning up till now. But it was a challenge I actually asked for, as I particularly like putting together liturgy that takes people on a challenging journey – and you can’t really get a more challenging journey that being at the foot of the cross on Good Friday.

Crown of Thorns - made by my Father from bramble and Burberis

I focussed on John 19 and used all sorts of resources including: selected bits of Common Worship ‘Times and Seasons’ Liturgy for Good Friday, other prayers adapted from Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community, and two unaccompanied Taize songs. But the most important resources was a book I’d bought earlier in Lent: ‘The Things He Carried’ by Right Revd Stephen Cottrell.

I found Bishop Stephen’s form of reflective writing very moving, and inspirational. His ideas for group work (the book can be used as a Lent Group or Home Group resource as well as for personal devotion) included having something to hold, and I was able to adapt and create similar ideas – Gorse for the Crown of Thorns and blood soaked (inked) bandages for people to take up as they knelt at the cross at the close of the service. I didn’t have a formal sermon – the whole thing was more of a thought journey: which is one of the things that people seem to have really appreciated.

"Blood" soaked bandages (permanent red ink, flicked from a cartridge)

I’m a great believer in sharing worship ideas that have really worked, and this (contrary to some people’s expectation) was not off-the-peg, but as my friend texted, divinely inspired. Creating, and delivering it (helped by a number of people reading, and my husband doing the prayers), were spiritual experiences in themselves for me – and also contributed to answering some doubts I’d had about my own journey of faith and ministry.

Hold a Gorse twig and ask yourself "What do you do that causes Jesus to suffer?"

If you’re interested in what it might look like and want to use this service, please feel free to download it but please also tell me honestly what you think: Hour at the Cross – Good Friday 2011 (The document is full of hyperlinks for you to access the resources or order books and the service lasted an hour exactly – though a significant number of people stayed at the cross for some while after.)

The service concludes with the following prayer, which is the one that Bishop Stephen concludes his book with. It has been suggested to me that this might be useful in some pastoral situations.

Loving God
your Son Jesus Christ carried us to the cross,
shed his blood for us
and brought us into a new community with you:

help us to follow in his way,
deny ourselves and take up the cross he give us,
that the world may learn his way of peace;

may his life and his purposes be alive in us this day,
and may we be alive in him;

and when our hearts are broken,
and when the burdens of this life feel too great to bear,
take us to the cross,
and enable us to see there
the great weight that Jesus carried;
for here we receive the affirmation of your love,
the assurance of your promise,
and the strength to persevere.

For we ask it in his name.
Amen.

I am indebted to Bishop Stephen for his permission to use his work in this way, and to blog about it. The photo’s in this post were taken by my husband.

God’s worth in a Royal Wedding! Matt 28:16-20

Matthew 28:16-20 (this morning’s lectionary reading) got me thinking about worship – giving God worth. I’ve also been thinking about weddings again – I booked one in last night, and there’s this big wedding in London at the end of the week 🙂 So I wondered, how will God’s worth be shared through the Royal Wedding – and can we part of that?

Here’s my (short) sermon for this morning:

“When the disciples saw Jesus, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” (Matt 28:17)

I always remember to think about worship, the worship of God through the person of the resurrected of Jesus, as ‘giving God worth’. That way I’m reminded that worship is not just something that we do in church, in prayer or in song. As Christians we should be giving God worth with the whole of our lives, and recognising and proclaiming God’s worth where-ever we see it.

And we do that, despite or at least with, whatever doubts we may have, just as these remaining eleven disciples did. In this passage the worship of Jesus is mentioned before the doubts of the disciples. On that mountaintop, meeting with Jesus in obedience to his request, the disciples were in the presence of their one true God. God is fully revealed to them in, and as, Jesus himself. Jesus is the ruler of the world, as the result of the resurrection, completing the meaning of his birth as the Messiah. (with thanks to Tom Wright’s ‘Matthew for Everyone’ for the theology!)

We may struggle to get our heads round the idea of God as the three persons of the Trinity; the disciples as Jews were struggling at this stage with the revelation of a twofold divinity of God.

We may doubt sometimes that we are really seeing, or experiencing Jesus in our lives; the disciples, had watched, or run-away from, his crucifixion and knew for a certainty that he’d died and been buried in a tomb.

We may certainly doubt our ability or worthiness to stand in the presence of Jesus, but…Jesus is our risen Lord – and he has invited us to be in his presence, to recognise him wherever he might be revealed, and then to baptise, to teach and to be obedient whilst remembering that he is always with us.

There is something important about putting ourselves mentally and physically, in a place where we can recognise Jesus and see the worth and worship that others offer him, whatever the situation; high place, or low. It requires us to be obedient, not to the whims and fancies of the world, but to look carefully at that world so that we can see Jesus revealed as our Lord and God, quite often through the lives of others.

It is sometimes difficult for us to recognise God’s worth close up to ourselves, in what we do, or in what our church does. It’s easier when it’s set at a little distance from us, but in such a way that we can’t avoid it – like the risen Lord on a mountaintop!

You’ve probably noticed there’s a wedding at the end of the week – a rather big one. There is plenty of hype: media outlets clamouring for the first or best interview for their programme. Even the Christian media and comment systems on the internet, have been questioning this, that and the other detail of the wedding. This has included the motivation for Kate’s recent Confirmation. Rather than doubting her sincerity or motivation (without knowing what it really was), shouldn’t we celebrate that she wished to re-affirm for herself the baptismal vows others had taken, and that it formed part of their preparation to get married?! If a couple are taking God’s place in their personal lives and marriage that seriously, surely that’s a good thing?

Wouldn’t it be good to acknowledge the precedence being given to God by William and Katherine at their wedding? It’s not like God is the uninvited guest – they are getting married in his presence, so it’s his mountaintop they’re climbing to – he’s the host! In this single event, God, through Jesus, will surely be proclaimed and worshipped as the creator of the world, full of grace and truth. As well as the setting at Westminster Abbey, Jesus will be revealed in the liturgy and music, the symbolism and the vows that William and Kate will make. Among the pomp and circumstance, the two billion people who watch the wedding will also be in a position to recognise Jesus.

As Christians it is our responsibility, on the mountain top of razzmatazz that will be the Royal Wedding, to emphasise God’s role, and Jesus’ worth in it. I’m sure that since he’s preaching at the wedding Bishop Richard Chartres (Bishop of London) will make a significant nod in God’s direction. But as Jesus’ disciples shouldn’t we should also be ready to make the most of the opportunity to do the same. What we say in conversation with our friends and neighbours, could (though I hesitate to suggest it) make more difference to the faith of a nation (and the world) than what a bishop says – because our words won’t get manipulated by the media!

We might have doubts about the fuss being made about a wedding, and we don’t really know about the degree of Will and Kate’s faith and trust in God – it is not our business to. We might even have doubts about the security of our own faith or ability to witness to it. But, whatever we think of the rest of the hype, which many of us will wish to ignore, if we watch the ceremony closely, shouldn’t we look out for the positive things it says about the person of Jesus – and then talk about these, rather than simply moaning about whatever disastrous coverage the media give us, or passing comment on a dress?

In this Easter Week, let us not dumb-down the resurrection of Jesus, by editing his presence out of the Royal Wedding, or ignore him by ignoring the opportunities to share the gospel that the wedding presents us with. We have been commissioned by Jesus to make real in the world the authority he already has, to make disciples of all nations, so let’s recognise it when we have the chance and give it worth wherever we see it.