It’s rather nice to have the opportunity to write some intercessions from scratch this week. So, in case they are of use to others, herewith an approximation to what I will share in a pre-recorded part of our worship this week.
If you do use them, in this year or any other, please let me know where and why, and I will remember you in prayer as we share in this ministry together.
Based on the Lectionary readings of1 Thes 2:1-8 and Matthew 22:34-end
In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father.
We give thanks for those who had the courage to share the Gospel with us, making known the love of Jesus Christ, and helping us to grow in faith and trust in you as our God and King.
We ask you to strengthen those for whom proclaiming the Gospel is dangerous, to the point of having their livelihoods, loved ones and lives threatened, that they might know the courage that comes from seeing others come to faith, prayers answered, and their trust in your justice and mercy fulfilled.
May we, from the safety of comfortable lives, learn to spot the opportunities you give us to share your Gospel, and do so both with boldness and with grace.
God of love hear our prayer.
We give thanks for those who actions proclaim the Gospel of your love as loud as their words, bringing light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness, nourishment where there is hunger, hope where there is despair and life where death creeps through the shadows of damaged lives.
We ask you to inspire and encourage those who lead this and all nations to do so with a constant check on their own motivations, a willingness to withstand encouragements to deceive those whose lives have been entrusted into their care, and a humility that doesn’t allow praise, flattery or greed to influence their decisions, their words or their actions.
May we know, with them, that you Lord test our hearts in what we think, and say and do and inspire us all to live out your Gospel of justice, mercy and humility.
God of love hear our prayer.
We give thanks for all those who work or volunteer in the caring professions at this time, whether in hospice or hospital, care home or college, school or street corner, laboratory or lounge.
We ask you Lord to strengthen their healing hands and hearts as they bring comfort to those in distress, inspire them to explore new ways to bring wholeness to broken limbs and lives, and courage when difficult issues are brought to life.
May we know what it is to be patient with those who are given into our care, to nurse tenderly the pain of those who share their frailties with us, and to pray faithfully for those whom we can’t minister to in other ways.
God of love hear our prayer.
We give thanks for those whose lives touch ours with fun and fellowship, with love and laughter, with kindness and comfort, in this community and beyond.
We ask that despite the barriers, real and imagined, you will enable us to be bound together as a supportive community, listening to and acting on the needs of others, caring for your creation as revealed in the countryside around us, and encouraging those for whom life feels wasted or wasteful.
As we remember in a moment of silence the needs of those known to us who are grieving, suffering in any way, or struggling to fulfil their vocations to your service and the service of others, may you Lord also help us to know what practical or private assistance we can offer to meet their needs…..
God of love hear our prayer.
Merciful Father, Accept te prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ the Lord.
Psalm 19 (Matthew 21:33-end) 17th after Trinity at St. Mary’s Eversley
It’s been a while since I posted a sermon, but I promised the photographer whose image inspired this weeks 8am reflection that I’d make it available to her, and (for a variety of reasons) this is the simplest way to do so. So…
As the psalmist puts it: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
This week, Paula Southern (someone who in better times visits our bell tower regularly from Crondall to ring), shared a photo on Facebook of dewdrops hanging from a slender spider web, itself suspended across the loop of an iron bird-feeder. Against the morning light the ephemeral jewels of the dew glinted, to be gone again as the sun ran on across the heavens. It captured a moment in someone’s early morning routine that through social media brought joy and beauty to those who couldn’t get up that early, or don’t have those things close at hand in their gardens, or perhaps can’t even get out at all.
Psalm 19 is up there in the list of my favourite Psalms, along with Psalm 8 and Psalm 148 – little jewels in themselves. They celebrate and reflect on the beauty and wonders of God’s creation, the heavens not just in the stars at night but in glorious sunrises and sunsets, and the formation of clouds scudding across the sky. Beauty is something that is not simply ‘in the eye of the beholder’ but often beyond the words of the beholder too, try as we and other poets might. Paradoxically the psalmist points out that the beauty of the heavens and the world around us pours out its own song, sound and words unto the ends of the world itself, and I don’t think the psalmist is referring to the Buzzard’s cry or the Robin’s song that we are so used to when we come to worship here.
Philosophically speaking, this captures the fact that in our humanity we are actually created by God to experience beauty instinctively, and reminds us of the qualities that make something beautiful. As Bishop Christopher Herbert has described it, beauty is “profoundly good in and of itself… points beyond itself to something which is greater… reminds us of our place in the order of things… and reminds us of our relatedness to the world and to other people.”
If we go back to this image of water droplets on a spider’s web… for me at least, those jewelled droplets that Paula photographed were a reminder of the wonders of God’s creation; they brought joy, in and of themselves. But they also pointed toward something greater; to the fact that something so small is created by one of the basic elements of that creation – water – held in tension; and that like them, we need to allow the glory of God to shine on our ephemeral lives. These, our lives, often exist like water held by the tension of the many issues going on around us, and as we are enabled to let the Son of God shines through us, so people can see the beauty, perhaps even a glimpse of the glory of God.
The psalmist goes on to talk about the law, the commandments, and the statues of the Lord, as being pure, bringing joy and renewal to those who in keeping them serve God. Of course in the New Testament, we see that those statutes have been devalued, and a more perfect and better hope is made available to us, by which we draw near to God in Jesus Christ (to paraphrase Hebrews 7:18-19) the true light of the world.
This morning I believe God is reminding us of own ephemeral nature in the context of his creation, but at the same time of the value and purpose of our lives within that. God holds our individual transient humanity, and loves us as we are through Christ who we receive by faith in Holy Eucharist – and that can be the hardest of all things to remember in times of difficulty and hardship, isolation or overwork. But then we’re also linked by that thread of faith, like a sticky cobweb, to the people and places where he wants the love of Jesus to shine, not just on us but through us, to create beauty for others to behold.
We should not presume, as the psalmist strongly hints, to think of ourselves as either unworthy of the place God has made for us in his creation, or as in control of it as to abuse the position we have been entrusted with, at will. We need to hold the right tension between our lifestyles and the decisions we take in the way we govern our lives, and the light of Jesus’ commandment to love him first, and our neighbour, as ourselves.
As we make our confession in a moment, declaring before God our ‘secret faults’ as the psalmist puts it, may we desire more than anything else to make ourselves right with God, so that by whatever thread we are currently hanging, and however transient our lives from this moment, we may be seen as those who shine the beauty of God’s glory into those who encounter us.
This year’s Lenten creativity was prepared for a local Mothers’ Union gathering in which we focused on being companions rather than simply followers of Christ. It included the following, which in response to Matthew 21:1-9 is barely original, but instead inspired, loosely and without honour, on a reflection I found referred to as being of Francis de Sales for Palm Sunday 1622, the more recent poem ‘The Donkey’ by G.K.Chesterton, and Janet Morley’s reflection upon the latter in her 2011 book of poetry for Lent and Easter ‘The Heart’s Time’.
I am a slow ungainly animal, a simple beast of burden,
hardly the appropriate mount for the King,
the one those crowds proclaimed their Saviour.
And yet, he knew this Balaam’s ass
would recognise and carry willingly
the one who came destroying pride,
in his great love and humility.
My girth may travel close by the ground,
and yes, some call me lowly,
but I was not beneath the dignity of
he who came as by his very nature, slave.
The Father’s equal in all things,
his wisdom and his witness ignored
for being as worthless as my braying,
because the mob knew better what his purpose was,
the burden of their expectations being
other than what either of us could offer.
So, we shared together
the inappropriate adulation,
refused to bite, or kick, or shy away
and trod the welcoming path
that parodied the purpose of our shared sacrifice.
It was not me who really bore the weight of obedience
without murmur or excuse,
but he on whose shoulders lay not
the rough-wove cloaks of those who half-understood,
but the guilt of those who
in weakness, pride and anger
would carve for him a fashionable death.
Yet, whilst claiming an equality of shared submission
with he who held the reins of creation,
I ask only that with them I might be forgiven
the ubiquitous sin of stubbornness.
I’ve got a new, warm, long, black coat, and today, much to our local headteacher’s amusement, I hid a set of Christmas lights wrapped round myself under it! Why? Because at school the long run in to Christmas is starting. Gently you understand, not too Christmas, just a little creation orientated ‘light of the world’ stuff.
I also thought I was going to end up teaching the kids a song, but they already knew the chorus, and we had great fun singing it acapella, lustily, and with much clapping, and without a tape or an instrument in sight!
In case this might help anyone else, here’s what I did:
NB: I checked first with the head for epileptic students who are flashing light sensitive, and set the light sequence on my lights accordingly under my coat.
Ask the children to use their imaginations (eyes closed) to think about what they feel like when it’s very dark? Have they ever experienced a power cut? Have they ever woken up in the night and felt frightened of the dark?
When God made the world, the Bible says that the very first thing that God did was to create light:
So when we think of light, we can think of our creator God, and all the good things that he created, starting with light. God switched the lights on!
Why is that light so important? e.g. we can see more clearly, so it keeps us safe, guides us, plants to grow etc.
God came to the world as Jesus, human like you and me, and Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world”, and suggested people who follow him always have the light of life with them, and are never in darkness. (John 8:12)
Jesus was God’s Son, so, God is both the creator of light and light itself!
We’ll think more about Jesus as the light of the world as we move close to Christmas.
Is there anything slightly different about the way I look this morning?(Have my big black coat on done up tight, over battery powered Christmas lights.)
I’m dressed in black, and still got my coat on. BUT I’m meant to be a follower of Jesus, I’m meant to be living in the light, in fact Jesus says to all of us:
That means I’m meant to have Jesus light with me, to be lit up, a light to shine before you! A light that reflects God’s light out into the world. What could I do?
I think I need to take my coat off! (Reveal Christmas lights.)
But it can’t be just me who shine’s God’s light. (Ask teachers for a volunteer to be lit up. Ask their name. Wrap them in a set of lights, and switch on.)
Now, do you think we can walk round like this all the time? No?!
In which case what sort of things can all of us do that will help shine God’s light in this school, in our families and in our community? How can we shine with God’s light?
Listen to the children’s answers, and value them.
Unwrap volunteer, and invite them to sit down.
We’re now going to ask God to help us be light’s in the world, that shine good things out that other people can see. If you want to agree with what I’m praying you can say ‘Amen.’
Thank you God that the first thing you created was light.
Thank you God that the light you made helps plants to grow, and animals to live, and us to feel safe.
Thank you God that you came to us as light in Jesus, the light of the world.
Jesus, help us to follow you, so that we can shine as God’s light to the people around us.
Song: This little light of mine – inspired by this YouTube version but without the instrumental back-up
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. (x2)
The light that shines is the light of love,
Hides the darkness from above,
Shines on me, and it shines on you,
Shows you what the power of love can do.
Shine my light both bright and clear,
Shine my light both far and near,
In every dark corner that I find,
Gonna let my little light shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. (x2)
Let it shine…
Let it shine…
Let it shine.
Additional verse that I didn’t teach this time:
Monday, he gave me the gift of love;
Tuesday, peace came from above.
Wednesday, he told me to have more faith;
Thursday, he gave me a little more grace.
Friday, he told me to watch and pray;
Saturday, he told me just what to say,
Sunday, he gave me the power divine,
To let my little light shine.
It’s not easy talking about money, especially in a church, but the parable of the talents is first and foremost about money. I also wanted to talk specifically about the way the Church of England and the Diocese of Winchester is using it’s money, so all pretty ‘hard’ stuff.
So I also wanted something that brought the ideas alive creatively… so I stole my own Pentecost children’s talk, and got the popcorn maker out! The children loved the first bit (and the fact they got to make more after the service), and even some of the adults left church thoughtfully munching handfuls!
CHILDREN’S ACTIVITY BEFORE FIRST HYMN
Get children to identify popcorn.
What’s is it?
Is it edible as it is?
What do we need to do with it to make it edible?
Run the pop-corn maker.
Get the children to look at, and describe the popcorn (before they eat it!)
How has the popcorn changed?
How much bigger is it than it was?
Is there any that is still hard and horrid because it hasn’t popped?
This is an illustration that I sometimes use at Pentecost, when we remember the work of the Holy Spirit, so you might just see it again at school. What I want you to remember today is that God changes us, makes us spiritually bigger, perhaps a little softer in our character, and definitely grows us through what we learn about Jesus, and through what Jesus teaches us in his life and stories.
So, as the children go to their group in the hall, let us pray that all of us this morning will be changed by what we learn from and experience of Jesus, so that we can play our part in the Kingdom of God. Amen.
At the beginning of the service I made popcorn with the children and we looked at how most of the kernels get hot and expand to become much softer and delicious, but a few stay hard.
Cast your mind back to my little popcorn illustration with the children, and then think about the Parable of the talents that we heard in our Gospel this morning. What do you think the tenuous connection, or connections, could be?
Take answers. Don’t offer an answer.
Listen to this, and see if the point I’m making, if not the tenuous connection itself, helps you grow, puff up and be spiritually a bit softer and tastier this morning? Hopefully you’ll be able to play your part in God’s Kingdom more fully as a result.
When Jesus originally told the Parable of the Talents, he was speaking to the people who concerned him most at that particular point in time. It is just before the Feast of the Passover, in what we now know as Holy Week. Jesus is only too well aware of the fact that he is about to be killed by the religious powers of his day. Why? Because they are refusing to accept that the wonderful promises that God had made to the people of Israel – regarding it being a light to the whole world through the gift of a Messiah – are being fulfilled in Jesus. The wealth of wisdom and insight handed down through the faithful patriarchs, prophets and kings and interpreted in the laws, rules, theology and teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, was being wasted because in relation to Jesus, they were burying that wealth in the ground, rather than investing it in understanding and acting on this new thing that God was doing for and through the people of Israel. Hardened as they were to their living God (hard un-popped corn), it was they who Jesus knew would be thrown into the outer darkness of abandonment by God.
As well as considering its purpose when Jesus first told it, this Kingdom parable can be interpreted appropriately with the rest of scripture to talk about the God-given talents that we have and how we use them, and to consider God bringing judgement on us when Jesus returns, among other themes. All perfectly appropriate and useful.
Yet, at its heart, this parable talks about money, and how it is used. It’s all very well knowing that we get our English word talent from this parable, but we mustn’t forget that a ‘talent’ in Jesus’s day was money, and a lot of money at that. One talent was roughly equivalent to 15 years of wages for a labourer! That’s how much the last servant in the parable buried in the ground for a long period of time. No wonder when the master came back he was incredibly cross; even at the rates of interest that we’re used to these days, a deposit account would have netted a few quid profit!
Of course what the more creative servants did with their five and two talent allocations was not to deposit it with the bank, but to trade, or we might say today, invest it. Jesus’ language suggests a trade in goods or services, not a one off action to bury or even deposit the money, but an ongoing process that continually took decisions about what the best use of the money was, spent it on those things, received money back through the sale of those goods or services, and then started that process all over again. If we do that today with units of stocks and shares, or actual goods that we buy or make and sell on, it’s regarded as an investment and involves a certain degree of risk – risk that we’re making the right decisions, or that others are behaving appropriately with our money. Investing money can reap significantly better rewards than a deposit account, even in today’s economy, though we’re unlikely to make the return of 100% that Jesus signifies in his parable!
The word ‘investment’ comes from the same root as words like vestment (what I’m wearing, something I put on to share in the meal that Jesus offers us), and investiture, which we associate with giving people an extra layer of honour for some good work they have done. If we think about another Kingdom parable a few weeks ago, people are meant to put on new, fine clothes for the wedding banquet of God’s Son. There is a new layer of bright, clean goodness with which we are called to meet God, just as in this parable we are being asked to act in such a way that there is a new, fresh accrual of wealth with which to greet him.
Rev’d Lerys and I were hearing this week that the Church of England has stopped the old system of holding its long-term wealth, which limited its spending to the basic interest that it could earn in that way. It has decided instead that as well as being more careful where that wealth is held, the best way of resourcing the church to grow future generations of Christians is to invest carefully selected chunks of the original assets for specific projects they consider worth spending them on. Each diocese is effectively now bidding for a share of not simply the profits but the original investment, which it then has to invest wisely, not for financial return necessarily but to grow the number of people who know about and engage faithfully in a journey of discipleship with God.
As churches, as individuals, we are asked to invest similarly. The Common Mission Fund, what used to be known as the Parish Share, is designed to do exactly what it says on the tin: fund our common, shared mission as Christians across the diocese. So, the necessarily increasing amounts that each church is asked to pay from our own pockets, is invested in things like paying the wages of stipendiary clergy from Lerys to our Bishops, and funds training for not just clergy but LLMs (like Jane) and others called to a range of authorised ministries. It also goes from this diocese to those whose poverty and population are greater; Winchester offers ongoing support to the Diocese of Newcastle and our many links with the Anglican Church worldwide, not least those in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, places where we’re all aware God’s love and grace needs to be urgently heard and felt.
In our Life Groups here in St. Mary’s, we’ve spent this term questioning ourselves as to how generous we are with what God has given us, financially and other ways. I’m getting some interesting feedback that will go to PCC this week as to how our answers could change what we might term our investment lifestyle as both individuals and a church, so that we witness more effectively to the generosity of God, and work more efficiently to extend and grow his Kingdom here. Lerys too will have something to say next week about the shortfall that currently exists between what our combined financial offerings are, and the financial commitments they need to fulfil.
This is all serious stuff, a long way from a pile of popcorn (bowl of pre-popped fresh popcorn). So what’s the connection? To make the corn pop, there has to be heat (if not in this instance a flame) and a rushing wind. As the corn is turned this way and that in the heat, so it is changed, at least doubling its size, become soft, almost fluffy, and delicious. Now you know why I use this illustration for Pentecost! The heat, is the investment, the risk, the cost of turning something hard into something useful, like we are changed by God through our discipleship and the power of the Holy Spirit into something that tastes more of God’s Kingdom.
As you take home or eat some popcorn at the end of the service, please consider this week, how it is that God wants to change the way we use the money he has given us. Allow the Holy Spirit to turn our thoughts this way and that in the heat of our commitment to respond to Jesus teaching; have we looked at the amount of money we are trading and investing for God recently, or has become a static deposit we rarely consider changing, or simply been buried in other considerations and concerns?
Let us pray that as individuals, families and a community of Christians, we can wholeheartedly investing our money, as well as our time and skills, in the Kingdom of God and how that Kingdom can be extended in this place.
A couple of weeks ago I sat in the pews to enjoy the new vicar at work, and then last week I took our All Souls reflective service, which didn’t really have a sermon in the traditional sense – I sort of talked at various points in the service, and not in a way that easily translates to the blog. So that’s why I’ve been a bit quiet.
This week was back to normal though, and had the chance to preach and celebrate Holy Communion in both the churches in the Benefice; first the BCP at Eversley, and then, so that the new vicar could share in the lay-led contemporary and family services there, at St. Barnabas, Darby Green. We all felt really welcomed there, and felt encouraged by the conversations that came in response to my sermon.
In both churches they were collecting in their ‘shoeboxes’, though for different charities: at Eversley we’ve supported Link to Hope for the first time this year, and at Darby Green they were collecting for Operation Christmas Child. We were also marking All Saints day, and the reading was from the Beatitudes. So here’s all those things, drawn together (and if you want to HEAR me preach, St Barnabas record the sermon so you could click this link if you really wanted to):
Today is one of the nine principle feasts of the church, a day of as much importance as Christmas, Easter or Pentecost. All Saints Day is the a celebration of the unity of all God’s people, living and dead, and their share in the work Jesus started in bringing in the Kingdom of God.
We probably know the stories of many who are now formally titled ‘Saints’. One should be well known to us: Barnabas (the encourager who travelled in another saint, Paul), Peter (and the other apostles), Mary… several, notably the BVM and Mary Magdalene (sometimes referred to as the apostle to the apostles). What about more modern saints? Mother Teresa of the Sisters of Calcutta, and Oscar Romero who spoke up for the poor of South America and was martyred whilst celebrating communion in San Salvador (1980), are regarded as saints among both Catholics and Anglicans. In Anglicanism we have this week also commemorated (as we now term it) Martin Luther, particularly in this 500th year since the Reformation.
We know, or can easily find out, the stories of these people and the part they played in God’s story, the revelation of his Kingdom, the care of other people in his name. But I wonder if we would ever consider number ourselves among them? What’s our part in revealing God’s story? For this is a feast of community where we are reminded that no Christian is solitary in their belonging to Christ, or in the endeavours with which we try be God’s blessing to others in the ordinary circumstances and extraordinary crises of human life.
It is therefore fitting that for us, this Feast of All Saints is our Shoebox Sunday, when as a community we bring together in our brightly coloured shoeboxes what we might regard as the ordinary blessing of woolly hats, toothbrushes, cuddly toys and colouring pencils, to reach into the crises of lives lived without any of those things, and other basic needs like food, water, peace, or a loving family.
You see, the key to understanding what it means to be a saint is to understand what it means to be blessed, to be a blessing, to inhabit the multi-coloured cloak of the beatitudes which are our Gospel reading this morning. These opening words to what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, are not badges of holiness that we seek to earn, that create guilt (like when we don’t feel comforted at the death of a loved one), or that cause us to be frustrated (as should we don’t receive justice when we’ve been wronged). They are Jesus’ announcement of a new way of living, the fresh way that God was starting to work in the world, initially through him, and since then through the many named and un-named saints, who have put into action this mosaic of ideas.
A person or a thing is blessed firstly by being part of God’s creation, the story of God started with the living Word (who we come to know as Jesus) and the breath or spirit of God revealed fully at Pentecost, that together brought his creation into being (Genesis 1, John 1) and which he recognised as ‘GOOD’. We are each made in the image of our creator God, and all the material things that we make and are given, come from him, and therefore what we do and use as our contribution to God’s Kingdom work, is God’s work before it is ours.
Our vocation or calling, as the people of God, is to be a community that purposefully reveals God to others in our gifts and actions, as much as in our words. In doing so we should give thanks and praise to God for grace in what we do, we follow the example of love and sacrifice set by his Son Jesus in his life, death and resurrection, and also recognise the cost to ourselves of what we are doing. If those three things are happening in what we are doing, then we are living out our responsibility to love and care for all God’s people, and we become God’s blessing to them.
I’m going to use three of the items in my shoebox to relate this idea of being a blessing to others in just three of the Beatitudes in today’s reading:
Here is a packet of plasters, and we remember the beatitude that says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I’m not suggesting that a sticking plaster makes someone feel better after the death of a loved one; we know that’s not true. But there is a wide variety of suffering and pain experienced in the world today, and whilst bereavement is part of that, it can be experienced in very different ways. The plasters we offer here might stop bleeding in a wound, and prevent infection, bringing comfort and protection, so that death doesn’t become part of the situation, but the comfort we offer might just as well be pot of a flowers, a casserole, or a garden tidied… it’s just those don’t fit well in a shoebox. Each are blessings to those who mourn.
Here’sa ball, brightly coloured and slightly bouncy, and with it I suggest that we remember that “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Those who take delight in teaching a child to catch a ball, or enjoy the simple pleasure of bouncing a ball against a wall, understand the joy that can be found in such a simple activity. Perhaps in this case, the colour of the ball reflects those found in God’s creation, and the bounce form part of a simple explanation of why some materials bounce, and thus bring the joy of understanding how God’s world works to someone’s life. It is in the simplicity and complexity of the world we live in, that we can see God at work if we look hard enough, and the more we do that, the purer the hearts with which we can bless others with that joy.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God, and so I’ve got a very small, soft toy here, trying to create a less slimy reputation for frogs as a species! You laugh, but soft-toys like some animals can be source of calm and peace with which healing and reconciliation can break through. How may of us have used a soft toy to pacify a wailing child, or held on to our own much loved and dilapidated teddy to quell our own feelings of anxiety or loneliness at times of crisis? To be a peacemaker we need to step outside of our own selfish ambitions and vested interests to focus on tis characteristic of God’s love and desire for a world were different communities can live ‘cheek by jowl’ in harmony with each other. I’d love to visit the UN one day and give all the world leaders a plushy, and an hour of silence, to consider one thing their country could do to comfort the greatest need of a country they are at war with or supply arms to! All God’s children yearn for the blessing of peace.
Through the God-given skills of those who made them, we are purposing our gifts to be a blessing to those that receive them. Just as we will acknowledge the purposing of bread and wine to the remembrance of Jesus’ body and blood in the words of blessing over the elements in Holy Communion, so we will pray first for the purpose of these gifts to be a blessing to those that receive them. In this way they become part of God’s story, linking us with those that receive them, revealing his love for them and our understanding of how best to use the riches we have received, and hoping that in these small ways, we are doing the work of God, and therefore can count ourselves blessed to be among his saints.
Let us pray:
Creator God, we acknowledge that all we have comes from you, and therefore of your own do we give. We ask you to bless thee gifts for the purpose of bringing comfort, joy and peace into the lives of those who receive them. May they know your love in other ways too, so that their lives are blessed long-term with better living conditions, the means of caring for and making productive the land they live in, and the just distribution of the world’s resources. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, bless us, with those who will receive these gifts, in the knowledge and example of God’s sacrifice, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It could be quite fun to be able to say that I know what it feels like to be thrown out of a party, but sadly I don’t.
At college in the 80s I’d make all the effort, put my make-up on to the sound of Bonnie Tyler, don the leather skirt, and try and join in the parties. But the leathers were olive green not black, the music was rarely ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, and by mid evening I’d be sat in the corner, stone cold sober, being hailed as everyone’s sister, and no-one’s girlfriend. Drugs weren’t even an option – those friends who did them, quite consciously wouldn’t even offer me any and told me so. I’d frequently leave early, or be the one who made sure the drunks got home safe, or else I’d pick up the pieces when they didn’t. Probably because of all this, I never did get thrown out of a party; instead I left uni without an overdraft, with friends that have lasted a lifetime, and with the man of my dreams who was, and is, my hero. But even as a ‘goody two-shoes’, I may yet get thrown out of the party God’s holding, if I’ve not changed my clothes.
Now I’m pretty hopeful that there’s rock music in the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as Allegri’s Miserere, but it’s interesting to consider this morning, based on our scriptures, why we might be in danger of being the biggest party-poopers at God’s mega-gig, and actually be the one’s thrown out because we’re not wearing the right gear.
Let’s get one thing straight, what we wear to God’s party is down to us. The old idea that the King in Jesus’ parable gave the guests he’d had dragged off the street a new suit of wedding clothes, is a myth. Scripture doesn’t tell us that, and whilst it might have seemed a nice idea to St. Augustine that the wealthy of Jesus’ era were that generous, apparently the idea doesn’t hold up against the historic record.
This is a parable, and parables aren’t factual, straightforward or easy to understand. Neither do they have straight-forward linear timelines, which is how come the food doesn’t go off whilst the King is waging war on those favoured few who got his initial invitations, ignored them and murdered the messengers. So it’s OK if we’re the ones dragged off the street as he widens the field of his generosity, we’ve got plenty of time to put on our glad-rags once we’ve realised where we’re going.
The thing is, have we realised? Have we sussed the significance of the party? Have we spotted that Jesus is the bridegroom who won’t meet his bride, the church, until after he’s joined the murdered messengers via the cross? We are after all guests on the bride’s side… so what are we going to wear?
Surely, it’s our “Sunday best”? If the bride’s the church, and we’re the people who make up the church, then putting on the trousers with a bit of give in them so we can kneel, the sensible flat shoes that mean my feet don’t ache after two or three services, and the warm jumper that can be slipped off if the heating is working, all seems like the best get-up.
But that’s hardly party-wear. We’re not meant to be in our “Sunday best” but in our wedding robes, an outfit suitable for Jesus’ wedding. It would be nice to think they’re the ones we don’t wear very often, the back of the wardrobe suits and ties, the dresses we can spend a fortune on just to squeeze into once. But no, it’s not them either.
If we’re not wearing the robes of purity, truth and justice that St. Paul talks about the Philippians community needing for their survival, then whether we like it or not, we’re going to be the party-poopers that get thrown out of God’s banquet, whether we reckon ourselves among the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ whom he brought in off the street in the first place.
We can only wear purity if we know what it is to be forgiven, and have sought God’s strength to change our ways accordingly. I don’t think purity is a pristine white – that’s simply what’s left when all the colour of our lives has been taken out. What God wants to see is our natural God-given selves revealed in all their glory. So, we have to look what lies beneath our well-worn oft-repeated stories to make us look good, the short-cuts to generosity offered through charity donations, or dare I say it, the lengthy prayers that show we’ve read the news. They may make us feel good about ourselves, but purity means we guard our hearts against the pride that can accompany our ‘good works’, all without showing off through our grumbles about how much hard work it all is.
We can only wear truth, if we search for it and then tell it. Finding the truth is hard enough; but the search for truth is what inspires people to actually go to the problem areas of the world and see what it’s like on the bombed out streets of Aleppo, or in a home where the nearest disease ridden water supply is an hour’s walk away. Unless we’re wearing their shoes to the party, we’re in the wrong footwear. The truth says people need the foodbank because of financial difficulties, and the source of those could be legalistic government penny-pinching, family breakdown, or it could be that some people spend too much on unimportant things. Telling those truths isn’t guaranteed to help us build easy relationships, or changing the facts, so we have to learn to tell the truth with gentleness, patience and self-control, and keep telling it until someone other than God listens, and helps us change things for him.
Which is why we can only wear justice if we know both sides of the story. Justice doesn’t dress in a crisp black and white suit, it’s more of a dirty brown, mixed from myriad colours of ancient history, vested interests, inadequate learning, societal breakdown, and conflict. If we don’t understand, or choose to ignore these, we’ll never wear anything more than a black dustbin liner, tied with white plastic.
Some of us might know ourselves to have been the bad people that God invited to his party. Through faith and sheer hard work we have changed our lives and that of others, and so put on the clothes God is delighted to see us in. But complacency is dangerous, clothes can become too tight, uncomfortable, and be taken off.
Others of us will reckon ourselves the good folk that God has drawn from the streets, and it’s tempting to think we don’t need to change. But that means we’re most likely to be the ones thrown out this party of righteousness, because we’ve not bothered to look for the Christ-like clothes of purity, truth and justice.
If we’re going to be excellent and worthy of Jesus’ praise, to party and rejoice in the Lord, then we’re the ones that have to check what we’re wearing.
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.
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.
Do you prefer the thin, natural yogurt, that’s dribbly and perhaps a little sharp and acidic in it’s taste?
Or perhaps, the thick, very set Greek or Turkish style yogurt, which almost has a crust to it, that you have to cut through to get to the spoonfuls of jelly-like goodness below?
Or you may be a thick spooning yogurty sort of person, whether that be of the milky kind, or the coconut based, lactose free variety that I discovered recently?
Or is your yogurt of preference, not just thick, but also creamy and full of fruity goodness, giving the tastebuds a treat, as well as possibly the waist-line?!
Now, if you’re not a yogurt eater, or perhaps even you may be a yogurt hater, I beg your indulgence this morning, and ask you to stick with me on this analogy! Think of it as a little bit of culture on a Sunday morning ;-/
Because that’s what I’m asking us to consider: what is the culture of St. Mary’s as a church? Are we a bit thin, sharp and acidic… or growing towards a thick, fruity goodness that will add to the church’s waistline, in the quality of our faith and discipleship as well as in our numbers?
In our Epistle from this morning, we are reaching to the core of the second half of Paul’s message to the Christian community in Rome. He is emphasising that the love that believers must show towards each other should be a response to the love they have received from God, about which he has talked at length in the first half of Romans. For example, “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8-10). The exhortations of Romans 14:1-12 however, suggest that in this community, love is thin because faults are thick.
The passage addresses a conflict in the body of Christ about ceremonial practices that are peripheral to the gospel. Some — whom Paul calls the “weak” — believe that, according to Jewish tradition, certain foods are to be avoided and certain days are holy. Others — normally called the “strong” by way of contrast — believe that all foods and all days are equally fitting for believers to enjoy.
Paul is not addressing the issue of righteousness by works of the law or suggesting that the weak are somehow seeking a “works-righteousness.” Rather, he sees the choice about practice as of a matter of conscience and an expression of faith (Romans 14:5-6). Paul largely directs his words to the “strong” because the issue with which he is concerned is the absence of love and unity in the body of Christ. While the practices regarding food and days are peripheral to the gospel, the way believers in the community treat one another is central to it. In other words, what people were eating and drinking and why, was totally immaterial; what was, and is, important is the love that people have for God, and whether they show it in the way that they treat each other. That isn’t lived out if people in a community are constantly judging one another… something Paul thinks is so important that he mentions it 5 times, across 4 verses, in this one short passage.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus’ theme of unlimited forgiveness isn’t so dissimilar: The unforgiving servant is effectively a chief finance officer, with control over the movement of vast wealth. The astronomical “debt” or “loan” he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid of patronage. In the old Mediterranean economy, the goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid. When the king forgives this persons enormous “loan,” his obligation to the king is not so much wiped clear, but actually intensified.
The mercy, generosity, and forgiveness that God offers out of love for us his people, could and should be endless, but in reality it only stretches as far as we are willing to show that same mercy, generosity and forgiveness to others, as this power-filled finance manager discovers when he tries to pull rank on those who have in effect, greased his way to the top. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of the financial amnesty or jubilee he was given in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonours the king himself. Through his actions, this unforgiving servant binds himself not to the king’s mercy, but to the old system of wealth extraction and violence. He thus binds the king in turn to deal with him once again within the confines of this system. God’s forgiveness is shown to have necessary limits, and they are the ones we set through our own words and actions.
So where do these scriptures this morning leave us with regard to our own personal response to the grace and forgiveness that God has shown us, and in terms of our corporate life as Christians, and therefore our culture as a church?
In Romans 5:2 Paul writes that, “through [Jesus] we have obtained access to [God’s] grace, in which we stand.” We therefore need to remember that it is on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, that God welcomes all believers as those who were weak and sinful (Romans 5:6-10). From this perspective, if we re-read Romans 14:1-12, none of us are strong. The point is that as believers, we are the weak-made-strong who stand in God’s grace now, and who will be made to stand confidently at the final judgement because of God’s gift of redemption in Christ. Since this is the case, who are we to sit in judgement over one another? Who are we that we dare not to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven? We must aim not to be thick with faults, and therefore thin in love, but thin in faults and fault-finding, and therefore thick with love, for God and for each other.
As a church, and as individuals, it is not our place to judge, either privately or publicly, the choices that others make about what suits and feeds them, or their family, in a spiritual sense. Neither is it healthy to hold on to un-forgiveness, particularly within the Christian community, incredibly tough though that can sometimes be; it’s not healthy for us as individuals, and it is certainly not healthy for us as a church, because it stops God fulfilling the grace and forgiveness that is his character. Some of us may be in a pastoral position to gently and privately ask questions and challenge decisions or actions, but if as a community we openly pick holes in each other, tending to hold grumps and grudges, we create a culture of weak, watery-ness that makes us acidic to people’s taste, probably unattractive to outsiders, and generally thin on love. Not a helpful, rich or healthy culture.
Our desire as a community should be that we are a culture that is thick and creamy, attractively full of fruit, because we exhibit the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) as well as forgiveness and a non-judgemental generosity. If we consciously seek to make ourselves, well-filled in these fruit, we’ll naturally become stronger as a Christian community, richer in flavour to those who we pray will come and taste the love of God among us, and so add to this church’s waistline of faith and discipleship.
I’m finding the commentaries on Working Preacher really inspirational at present (for which thanks to them), and will freely admit that a couple of significant chunks of this sermon are from here, and here. The metaphor and the focus of my sermon was however all my own work!