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.
The school are very good and every year they celebrate their Founders Day, laying flowers at his grave and remembering to root themselves in Kingsley’s work as a social reformer, natural scientist, and author. But this year, in fact last week, was the bicentenary of his birth, which meant some of the locals had also thought it worth celebrating Kingsley’s gifts, so they put on a ‘thing’ – a mini literary festival if you like.
Yes, I fully expected to attend particularly to support the school, but the little matter of my colleagues over-enthusiastic Pentecost children’s talk last Sunday (which landed him in plaster) meant that I was a busier than I had anticipated. This had downsides; I missed a talk by Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser I really wanted to hear. But also upsides; like the school children I met Charles Kingsley his very self – or more accurately Peter Duncan who I remember as a Blue Peter presenter in my teens! I also got to relive my Greenbelt visits in the Tiny Tea Tent, but that’s another story…
It also meant I had to preach this morning, and link the life of Charles Kingsley with the fact it is Trinity Sunday – giving me a chance to reflect on what I’d seen and heard in the previous couple of days. So here, for what little a fear it’s worth, is my stab at doing that… and no, I didn’t forget it was also Father’s Day – at the end of the service each gentleman attending got both chocolate and a sequoia cone! Read on, to find out why:
Readings: Psalm 8 (NIV rendering) and John 16:12-15
On Friday afternoon I shared in the joy of witnessing Charles Kingsley get very excited about the cones and seeds of a certain conifer, the sequoia. Our sequoia. No, his sequoia. Sorry, God’s sequoia, a tree that I humbly suggest like the moon and the stars, shows the majesty of God.
As he was with Tim (the churchwarden) and I, sharing a quiet cuppa after school ‘out of role’, Peter Duncan (who has been playing Charles Kingsley) read the display about Kingsley on the hall wall. He suddenly became very animated. It appears that a couple of years ago, Peter had visited the very same sequoia forests of western America that Kingsley visited. Like Kingsley, he had brought home a cone to dry. Like Rose Kingsley went on to do, he sowed the seeds, of which some germinated and one survives. Peter now has it growing in his garden. The producer Denise and I now have photos of Peter, or should that be Kingsley, excitedly scavenging for more cones under the sequoia here, so that he could take them home to keep alive the personal connection he’s made with Kingsley.
This weekend has been all about keeping connections alive, and specifically the connection between Charles Kingsley, this village and our school, between Kingsley, social reform and science. I was busy here, but Giles Fraser hopefully made some connection between Kingsley as a man of faith, called by God to serve this place and community and Kingsley as a polemicist, someone not averse to pushing the boundaries of what we as Christians believe, and therefore having to be comfortable with controversy.
Questions and controversies exist within the Christian community, because our faith is a living thing. Just as much as the sequoia outside, our Christian faith is a living thing because God has been revealed to and has a relationship with us in ways so complex that we struggle to find terminology, or a name, that does God full justice. The closest we’ve so far come is the name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the term Trinity. Yet, those in themselves still leave us with age-old controversies over which ‘person’ of the Trinity proceeds from which, and more modern questions over whether we should apply gender-specific identities to any element of our creator, redeemer and sanctifier in whose image each and everyone one of us is made.
Our Gospel today, makes it as clear as it’s ever going to be why such questions and controversies exist. Jesus was never meant to reveal to us during his earthly ministry, everything about God’s character and will for his people, because quite simply, we wouldn’t be able to bear it (John 16v12). They are only revealed to us on a need to know basis, through the power of the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit or sanctifier, that at all times will point us back to Jesus the redeemer, and thence to his creator, and ours. Individuals will only grow in faith, and communities will only grow in service to each other if they share a living faith that constantly turns over different questions and ideas in seeking a way forward that glorifies Jesus and his example.
For the same purpose, Psalm 8 (by far and away my favourite Psalm) reminds us that we have been made by God as creatures capable of awe, wonder, and humility before God. Awe, wonder and humility that is often proclaimed best by our young people, but they are not possible without questions, and children are always full of questions. Questions also by their very nature create controversy, because the answers and explanations are not always simple; and yes, questions and controversy create change, because change is life – if we are not changing and growing, we are not alive.
I have one sadness about this weekend, as I have experienced it. My sadness is that we have not adequately heard the voices of our children and our young people, the very people that Kingsley worked so hard to offer a future to. Yes, our children have been dressed up and paraded across a field to be photographed re-enacting the past. Yes they have created written reflections on elements of Kingsley’s story and ours, that their exhausted teachers have used for wonderful displays which only a few visiting dignitaries and parents will see – unless we can find a way to change that. But have we let the children speak? And have we listened?
The example of Greta Thunburg and Malala Yousafzai are surely showing the world, that as humanity struggles to combat the climate change it has inflicted on God’s creation, and in the area of human rights, God is using the children and young people of the world to silence the selfishness of humanity toward God’s creation, and establish a stronghold of justice, mercy and humility between and within communities. They may or may not be Christians but surely they are a living testimony to the God-given ability of young people to protect us from the enemy within ourselves (as Psalm 8 suggests), and create change; the sort of change that is in keeping with the Spirit of truth that is Jesus. And it’s just possible that we might be harbouring a Greta or Malala in Eversley, if we could build on the education principles Kingsley and others started, and hear our children speak for their future, rather than dwell on our past.
In Kingsley’s era, this community and society at large, needed to know that children of all sectors of society should be educated, that they shouldn’t be enslaved up chimneys, in fields or anywhere else for that matter, and that it is perfectly possible to be both a scientist that believes in evolution, and a Christian who believes God created the world. No, he wasn’t a child, but much of Kingsley’s attention was on children, and since he died at 56 he was younger than me when he did most of that work, indeed younger than many of us when he made his voice heard in the world.
We are reminded today by both our belief in a Trinitarian God, and by Charles Kingsley, that ours is a living faith, precisely because there is stuff we still don’t know and can’t explain about God and about the world around us. Recognising that should help us to be humble before God. But awe and wonder at what we see, isn’t always a positive emotion, it can be one of horror, as we are reminded of the things in society that need changing because of the mess we’ve made of them up to now.
Like a sequoia tree, we need to be allowed to grow, and we need space to grow, however old we are. If we are to understand the purposes and nature of God better, we need to listen to our children, for in them God’s Spirit of Truth is revealed, and they might just have some answers that will change the world.
I preached this on Palm Sunday, a day when many remember the joy and hope that filled the hearts of many pilgrims in Jerusalem at the start of the final week of Jesus life. But, given all that has been going on in the world, I felt called to dwell on a slightly different theme, that of security: our security, others security, Jesus security, and the security of our faith:
In France, we could have been held hostage and shot in our local supermarket this week.
In America, at the very least we’ve possibly had our social media hijacked and our news-feed manipulated for political gain, even if our children have survived their schooling.
Here, at home, there has been poison on our streets, and we’re defining our borders as to whether they are hard, or soft.
Security is important to us.
As an island nation, or a nation of islands, or even as a nation of nations, invaded by sea over millennia and threatened by myriad other means in the last century, what we deem as “ours” is a highly contentious issue, and that’s before we even mention the ‘B’ word.
Security, is often about not risking what we have gained, corporately or individually, financially and materially, in independence or in familial relationships. It means checking that we’re password protected, logging-in, opting out, and possibly even changing our passports!
For some, personal security is about not being bullied, threatened or abused, because of race, religion, gender or because you are differently-abled.
For Christians, personal security in some places is more an issue of life and death. In India, a woman converting to Christianity risks being drugged and raped if she refuses to return to her original faith. In Iraq Christians are torn between the risk of death in their homeland, or life without that homeland. Either that or they worship in a church with its own security guards. In rebel-held areas of Syria, security might mean living underground to avoid the shells, or it might mean not admitting you’re a Christian; that’s a freedom only available in bombarded Damascus and other government-held territory. Security you see is not a simple issue.
For Jesus, as he asked his disciples for a colt to be untied and brought to him, in his name as their Lord, any ideas of protecting his security, or theirs for that matter, were dismissed. He’d tried, somewhat cryptically according to Mark’s Gospel, to explain who he was; and then told those that seemed to understand, not to talk about it (Mark 8:27-30)! He knew the leaders of his faith were out to get him, and the Gentiles to make whatever political capital they could from this perceived in-fighting within the Jewish faith (Mark 10:32-34). But it was now time for the Messianic secret to be so no longer. This time when he visited Jerusalem, he wouldn’t walk among the pilgrims as an ordinary Galilean as he had in the past (John 7:10).
But that didn’t mean he could afford to be diffident in proclaiming exactly who he was, what sort of Messiah he was, and what sort of victory would be his. As the rich man discovered when he sought to follow Jesus (Mark 10), Jesus had radically re-defined what it was to be Israel’s king. The colt that had never been ridden was a humble king’s conveyance, for when the message was peace, not war. But it still singled him out, made him noticeable, drew attention to him, compromised his security.
He had after all developed quite a following; a following who’d seen the healings, heard the teachings, and thought they knew what he was there for; to save them. They weren’t bothered about risking his security, if in doing so it bought them their freedom from oppression and injustice at the hands of Rome. They were more than happy to draw attention to him, by laying their precious pilgrim cloaks in the dusty road for him to ride over as a king. They were just as willing to strip the locality of its vital shady greenery to mark him out as being in the same mould as Judas Maccabaeus who had driven out a Syrian king 140 years before, and re-consecrated the Temple.
Psalm 118 had probably been written in that same era. Read as it would have been said in the Hebrew and Aramaic the phraseology of “Blessed in the name of the Lord, is he who comes” was both a traditional greeting to all fellow pilgrims, and shouted in this moment an announcement of the “One who is Coming”, the Messiah. Their expectation was that this was the renewal of the kingdom of David, and aligned with the shouted phrase Hosanna, which meant “Save us!” more than it praised God, meant that Jesus’ security was compromised still further. It would have been obvious to the authorities, Jewish and Roman that they at least thought of him as their national leader in the fervour of pre-Passover excitement; now was the time for God to bring them salvation from oppression, personal and national security.
Yet, this Kingdom was no more their father David’s, than he was a heroic and victorious leader. The salvation that Jesus was bringing was no more theirs to covert and protect, than it was theirs to proclaim if they didn’t really understand the consequences for both Jesus, and for the kingdom that he was really seeking to bring in. For as the Son of God, his place was God’s place, his kingdom, God’s kingdom, the salvation he brought a surrender of his own right to life, his sacrifice the opportunity to bring the world together in peace. Security for Jesus, as he surprisingly quietly walked the Temple courts, was a security in who he was and what he was there for; the redemption, the buying back, of the whole of humanity from their fixation with their own security.
We are, to some extent rightly, concerned with our security, as people, as families, as communities. It is not unfair to expect to be safe when shopping, secure online, free from the risk of sabotage, even if there are many millions in the world don’t have that security. But just as we need to acknowledge that the world is not a straightforward place where one group of people is right, and another wrong, one nation safe and another a risky place to be, so we must accept that where we live here, we aren’t at significant risk because of our faith in who Jesus is. But does that lack of risk compromise the security of our faith in Jesus, who he is, and what he came for?
The pilgrim crowds that shouted “Hosanna!… Save me!”, were the same crowds that shouted “Crucify him!” a few days later. Uncertain as to whether Jesus was who he purported to be, confused because his behaviour did not confirm to their idealistic picture of Israel’s Messiah, and with minds narrowed by a selfish desire for their own political freedom, they were easily swayed by those that feared an invasion of the traditions of their faith. The need for security expressed by a few, blinded the many to the goodness and mercy of their God (Psalm 118:29) revealed in human form, crucifying what hope he had held for them.
If we aren’t secure in our faith in who Jesus is revealed to be through his death and resurrection, there’s a danger that we too become hypocrites, turning our proclamation of Christ the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22) into a search for prosperity (Psalm 118:25) and the security of a pilgrimage that leaves us tied to an altar of our own making (Psalm 118:27), rather than his teaching and example.
Our task this Holy Week is therefore to refresh and renew the security of our faith, and not to allow ourselves to become distracted by the individualism of our society. It is a week of pilgrimage beside our Lord, that shares on Maundy Thursday in the refreshment of shared relationships without condemnation of those who doubt like Thomas, or could turn rogue like Judas. We may not physically carry Jesus’s cross of sacrifice, but as we encounter the nails that held him there, we can seek again to let go of what is “ours” for the sake of our neighbours who need to encounter the grace of the crucified Christ… our time, our money, our patterned lives, and our prejudices. Only if we can strip away the security of isolating ourselves from the suffering of others, and our Lord who suffered with and for them as well as us, will we be able to rightly encounter the freedom of our risen Lord, and the security of knowing him as our Saviour.
My husband Graham and I have agreed that our Lenten discipline will be to try and both work through the same book ‘Giving It Up’ by Maggi Dawn. Really its to meet the need of the moment – the ‘moment’ being a very busy Lent in which I have multiple study weekends at college and essay to research and write, and the desire to focus on something outside of these in my preparation for ordination, whilst staying ‘connected’ to Graham, his needs and his concerns. To ground that little load in something Biblical and reflective just seemed sensible, even if we both need to be realist that at times his teaching load and my studies (sometimes in an internet challenged’ environment), might make this a bit tricky.
Graham chose the book after his experiences of Maggi’s writing in the on-line Advent book club. Maggi’s written recently on her blog about the idea that Lenten observance should be a community practice; which was encouraging since some friends had missed Graham’s reflections after Advent and have asked to join our journey. So, in some small way this will be a community activity, online.
The introduction to Maggi’s ‘Giving It Up’ book talks about the derivation of Lent coming from the Angli-Saxon ‘lencten’, describing the lengthening of days that accompanies this time of year in the northern hemisphere. What it doesn’t say is the difference this day lengthening might have made to historic observances of Lent. In our contemporary western culture I’m not sure that day length changing makes much differences, though I’m sure that Graham is just beginning to appreciate not always travelling both to and from work in the dark, and at some psychological level that can only be a good thing.
For me, there is a sense in which the days are shortening. The number of days till my ordination that is. The pressure to complete certain tasks is increasing, and the strange mixture of excitement and doubts in my ability to carry out some of the tasks associated with ordained life is also developing rapidly. [And yes, before you say it, I know God will equip and curacy is a period of training, but that logic is yet to defy the emotional responses!] Both our lives will never be the same after my ordination, and there is a sort of yearning within me for what people call the ‘ontological change’ that occurs around ordination. Oddly it is a desire that feels currently like being set back on the path and focus of my discernment process, after the ‘distractions’ (day I say it) of ordination training.
And this is where I hope ‘Giving It Up’ will help. Help me set aside the blurred images and confusion that in some sense seems to surround God in the process of ordination training and see the God I was called to serve as an ordained person, more clearly, in conjunction with seeing a vision of God’s role in our future life as clergy and spouse perhaps a little more clearly.
Graham’s blog will be hosting our #givingitup conversation with me largely using his comment facility, unless timescales don’t really dovetail in which case mine will be here. Please feel free to follow and join in the conversation. The first post is here.
I grew up opening gates, unlocking barriers, and sometimes climbing over fences that had no other means of being navigated.
That was part of life as the daughter of a Head Keeper in the New Forest, at any chance I had to go out to work with him, and even when we just went because we love being out in the natural world.
When we went out looking at wildlife, or some other excitement, I was given ‘the’ key and spent much of our travelling time behind the scenes of that wonderful place, hopping in and out of the land-rover/van unlocking and opening gates and barriers, and then closing them again once Dad had driven the vehicle through. They all (mostly) had the same lock and many were from a limited range of designs. These days, I’m often the one driving if we’re out on the forest with him, so others get to do this.
On holiday in the Yorkshire Dales this summer, I was reminded of this, as I clambered, pushed, wormed and struggled my way over or through the most amazing selection of gates, stiles and other passageways I have ever seen. I became utterly fascinated by their variety and how they spoke to me with regard to my circumstances, faith and journey in ministry. Several weeks on, I find myself returning to the photographs I took, and regarding some of them as prayer stations. In fact as I prepare some ideas for an act of worship based on Psalm 84, I am struck by the fact that a montage of such photo’s as these might prove something people might use as a focus for their reflections:
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favour and honour;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
The image that speaks most clearly of my own circumstances at the moment is one of a narrow gateway, in a rather awkward field corner which was hidden when viewed from any distance, looking across to a village church. I know where the church is in this photo, but in the reality of my developing ministry that isn’t the case. Some of the reason for my sporadic blogging at present is the journey of discerning where I will serve my ‘Title Post’, or ‘Curacy’ as it may be better known. This is done under the guidance of my Diocesan Director of Ordinands, Bishops’ and others, and it isn’t a process that can be shared publicly, but suffice to say I’m waiting on “Plan B” and trying hard to learn something about patience.
In the meantime, I shall keep seeking prayerful inspiration from my photos – and I think I might be able to put together a montage that would fit Psalm 84:3 too, but that would involve nests, rather than gates!
This morning’s sermon was for the occasion of the ‘Friends of All Saints Basingstoke’ annual Eucharist (followed by an excellent bring and share lunch!) (Note: colleagues with whom I might be undertaking preaching practice next weekend probably don’t want to read it – they’ll be hearing something similar!)
Lord, take my words and speak through them,
take our thoughts and think through them,
take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you
through the power of the Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Four years ago, this church took in a foreigner. She wasn’t from these parts. She came from another place, somewhere outside this town, though not so far away that she couldn’t commute quite comfortably for services and the like.
She was warmly welcomed, challenged about the importance of certain Christian traditions, had her calling questioned, was perhaps healed of certain prejudices, though probably not all of them, and once departed, was invited back.
Then, I was a trainee Reader. Now, I am a trainee priest. This place, and you people, have been part of the journey of this ‘foreigner’, one element of God’s grace visible in my life, and it is wonderful to celebrate with you today as a Friend of All Saints.
“Foreigner” is a rather loaded word these days. It possibly conjures up in our minds other words: on the safe side it might infer “tourist” or as some New Forest folk say when sat in a traffic jam, “grockel”! Less helpfully it comes loaded with words like “immigrant”, or “racist”. Sadly, it may therefore no longer be a word that always holds a welcome.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, “foreigner” refers to someone from outside the Promised Land, an occasional visitor who bore no part in the life of Israel. Meanwhile, the centurion of our Gospel reading was a Roman and therefore presumably Gentile, a non-Jew.
And yet because God’s gifts are available to all who call on his name, the expectation in both cases is that God will act: Solomon asks that God will act according to all that the foreigner asks of him (1 Kings 8:43), and the centurion declares: “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7).
Perhaps surprisingly, but in common with all the people of Israel, once in the land of their covenant promise, the foreigner of Solomon’s prayer is only expected to pray towards the house of God’s name, the new Temple in Jerusalem. It is being in the land and honouring the authority of God’s name that is important.
And in this version of the healing of the centurion’s servant, the centurion doesn’t enter Christ’s presence in person, but rather in his humility sends representatives to speak on his behalf. The centurion sends the Jewish elders to seek Jesus’ healing for his servant, because of what “he heard about Jesus”. It is God’s authority heard to be active in Jesus, that is so attractive.
Much as there is a building involved in both these stories, the Temple made by Solomon, and the synagogue funded by the centurion, it is not the buildings that attract the faith of those outside of these places of worship, it is what they have heard of God. It is God’s name, “his mighty hand and outstretched arm”, and God revealed in the person of Jesus, that in words of our Psalm this morning have the authority to “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.” (Psalm 96:3)
Solomon after all, despite, or almost because of his Temple building exploits, was about to prove that unfaithfulness destroys the people of God, rather than attract people to faith. Solomon suggests that the Temple honours the covenant that brought the people of Israel to the Promised Land, and the promises that brought about his kingship. But he’d built it not in partnership with his fellow Israelites, but with Israel’s indentured labour and foreign craftsmanship and materials.
If you read on through 1 Kings, Solomon will also show his lack of understanding regarding his responsibility to the land God has covenanted to Israel, through his sale of twenty cities as a gratuity to the timber suppliers. The intention was that the name of God prayed over the Temple should highlight God’s presence, making it a listening post and sounding board for God. Instead, the list of Solomon’s prayers surrounding this mornings passage, makes it seem that he’s put God in a box, like some performing animal, required to do tricks on cue!
The centurion on the other hand, was a seeker whose synagogue honoured what St. Paul would later describe as his “unknown god” (Acts 17:23), and which celebrated the faith of a conquered people. He had built a relationship with the Jewish community that led him to hear about Jesus. All this had brought him to a point where he could proclaim with humility the healing purposes of God revealed in Christ in a way many Jews couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge. Unlike Solomon’s shopping list to God, the faith of the centurion had integrity.
So, when we build a house of God, it isn’t really the building, however formal or ornate we make it, that proclaims the authority of God to those who may contribute to, or see it from a distance. Rather it is the integrity with which we show ourselves to be “living stones, being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5) that proclaims the authority of Christ “as the chief cornerstone in whom the building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:20-21).
Today, it is probably better to think about the “foreigner” as the “stranger in our midst”. Though it might not fit his spirituality, there is the famous quote of W.B.Yeats that “There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet”, which holds within it a note of God’s mission to the world, in which we are called to collaborate by reaching out to the stranger and the stranger’s need, in a way which names our faith.
Though I don’t subscribe to the doom-merchants of church statistics who proclaim the decline of faith in God, it is very easy to slip into the habit when thinking about mission, of measuring its success by the statistics of bums on seats! Solomon’s prayer, for all its faults, asks the question of our modern context: do we expect too much by wanting the strangers who know the name and acknowledge the authority of God, to enter the churches we’ve constructed to make his name visible in our communities?
Although it is right to celebrate and proclaim his name in worship and fellowship within God’s house, we know God’s authority and commission stretches beyond the walls of our churches. I believe that the success of such projects as Street Pastors is because they are done in God’s name, by his power, and that his name used wisely still has an authority that people trust.
Then again, Luke’s account of the centurion’s humble faith, begs the question: who are the representative voices of our communities, and what are the stories of distress and pain that they are trying to share with us? Our communities are often transient and encountered only briefly in their births, deaths and marriages. At the same time it seems that even if the passing strangers of our car parks and alley ways are daily visitors, there is no means to share their pleasures or understand their pain without translating their graffiti or picking up the broken glass of their lives. Who are their spokespeople, and what are their concerns? Does their individualism isolate us from attending to God’s mission?
When I read this morning’s Gospel, I am left wondering about the Jewish elders who spoke up for the centurion who built their synagogue. They honoured the giver, the stranger in their own land, by leading Jesus toward him. They heard the testimony of his friends who met them on the road, proclaiming the centurion’s faith that God was at work in Jesus Christ. I wonder if, when they returned together with his friends to the centurion’s home, they too believed?
Throughout the week, whilst working through these passages, I’ve been reminded of an old nursery rhyme and cumulative tale, about the house that Jack built. You may recall it from your childhood, as I do from mine. It doesn’t tell the story of Jack’s house, or even of Jack who built the house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to other things and people, and through this method tells the story of “The man all tattered and torn”, and the “Maiden all forlorn”, as well as other smaller events, showing how these are interlinked.
As we worship in and quite rightly celebrate this house of God a gift of promise to the people of Basingstoke, we remember today Solomon and the centurion who each built houses for God, and for his people. But perhaps we too need to remember that unless we engage with people outside of the building in the name of Jesus, then we aren’t really engaged in the mission of God that makes us the living stones of the Kingdom, to which Jesus Christ brought healing:
If, this is the house that God built,
then these are the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.
Here are the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.
Here are stories of God in action,
that name the faith which proclaims and heals,
hid from the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.
Here’s the hope of the people of God,
who only return to restore their strength,
with some of their stories of God in action,
that name the faith that proclaims and heals,
out in the streets among the strangers,
who’d muttered in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t need the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
who are the house that God built.
This week we started a short sermon series at St. Peter’s Yateley on the values of ‘being church’, the first of which focused on being ‘Broken Hearted’. It came at what is a time of hugely mixed emotions among our congregations, with news of an amazing healing and of difficult bereavements among our fellowship this week.
When a broken soldier reached the place where Jesus was, he found Jesus in the guise of a Mothers’ Union Family Holiday team, some of whom are here this morning. One of the most successful snipers in the British Army, Neil looks back at the summer of 2005 and recognises himself (and I use his own words here) as “a murderous, lying, thieving, cheating scum, on the verge of alcohol dependency” and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It was the weight of a stone placed in Neil’s hands, space to think about the words of Matthew 11 “Come ye who are heavily laden and I will give you rest”, and the prayers of at least one person here, that enabled Jesus to break through into the life of that soldier’s hardened heart and emotions. He became ashamed of what he had become, both in action and in attitude, and as he started to believe in Jesus and in God, Neil says he started to change from the inside to the outside. (His full testimony is here – something I’ve also been working on publicising this week, which is probably why it sprang to mind!)
There is a close relationship between repentance and compassion. For Neil to recognise and repent of those things that were wrong with the person he had become, he had to experience of the compassion of Jesus through those that offered his family that holiday experience, the chaplain who gave him that stone, and the prayers of those who though shocked by what he told them, talked and prayed for him and his family.
For Neil to become the person he is now, himself a member of the Family Holiday Team, and training to be a Reader whilst still serving in the Army, the only sacrifice he had to make was that of a broken and contrite heart before God, as we heard in the words of Psalm 51. His joy, and that of his family, has been restored through an awareness of his own faults. His heart-shattered life has been re-made, ready to reach out with Christ’s love for others.
Neil received the love of Christ, enabling him to find repentance, and so turn the wheel of Christ’s compassion for a broken world onwards toward other’s who come broken-hearted to the place where Jesus is.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was in our Gospel reading this morning, she too was broken-hearted. But hers was not the burden of those things that she had done wrong, but the ultimate reality of bereavement that we are all confronted by when a loved one dies. The miracles of healing and life, like that of the blind man whose eyes were opened by Jesus, and those experienced this week by others in our congregation this week, are often overshadowed by the length of suffering we see in the lives of our friends, and the pain of parting that some we of know have also experienced this week.
Like many people since, as Mary fell questioning and crying at Christ’s feet, she was in darkness; wishing not that he would take away the grief she felt, but that he had made it so the pain had never happened at all.
It’s tough to say it, and tougher still to live through it, but Christ is not fully come into his Kingdom, and so death is still a fact of life. Mary’s sister Martha has in the earlier part of this story (that we haven’t read), come to some understanding that Jesus is the Son of God, and the resurrection of the dead is part of the sequence of events that will reveal his coming in glory. Yet neither of the sisters are aware that Jesus’ actions in the next hour and in the coming days in Jerusalem, will inaugurate that time though not bring it to completion.
Yet Mary kneels in the street, covered in her tears and the dirt of daily life, having turned to the one person she feels can make a difference in her grief. Like her sister, she is not content to sit at home, as tradition would have dictated, and wait for the Jesus to come to make his mourning visit.
Christ on the verge of entering into his coming Kingdom, is the only hope that Mary feels able to reach out to, seeking some sort of compassion that will really make a difference to the emotions which fill her to overflowing. That unwitting action on her part, helps to set the stage for hope and healing to be revealed to the broken-hearted of her time, and of our own.
The Jews who followed Mary to the place where Jesus was, had been startled into curiosity by her sudden departure from the house after Martha had spoken quietly of Jesus’ approach.
Their’s was a time and place where emotions and compassion for the broken hearted had perhaps become ritualised. They would have expected the sisters to remain seated at home, receiving visitors who would then wait upon their needs, bringing them food and keeping the house in order during seven days of mourning.
Running out of the house to fall at the feet of this man who was not even family, may fit our stereotyped image of the wailing of mourning in some Eastern cultures, but would not have sat well with Jewish tradition.
Today in what we call the post-Christian western world, it seems we are beginning to leave an era when mourning had become over-ritualised. Though there are certain appropriate formalities, things are becoming a little more relaxed as people take more time to celebrate the reality of the life of a loved one, however short that life is cut. But still, many people have a tendency to suffer the “stiff-upper-lip” approach, trying not to allow grief and their emotions to be visible to others, and seeking to do everything, that they think others expect of them.
Perhaps the Jews are not so far wrong, by giving others the strength and companionship of not having to focus on the basic chores of life, releasing people to focus on their grief and love for someone.
The same is perhaps true for those of us who at times come alongside our friends and neighbours at times of grief, or other times of distress and trouble, some of them quite long-term. I have at times wished I was more prone to the visible emotion of tears, thinking that by showing compassion for anothers’ grief in such a way, they would feel permitted to release the stopper they are keeping on their own emotions, and thus find some measure of healing and peace.
I say this because when Mary reaches him, Jesus has come to a place where the burdens he is carrying for his friends Mary and Martha and for his future, well to the surface. Jesus weeps.
Jesus showed his humanity. The Word made flesh, the creator of the world, wept for his friends, the living and the dead. There is no triumphalism of one who knows that he will shortly raise Lazarus from the dead, in an act that will contribute to his own crucifixion and resurrection. Instead he bears the griefs and carries the sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) of all that he shares and is about to do, to the point of tears.
Yet, Jesus’ tears are also those of a deep anger – at least that is what the language of the original gospel of John suggests. The Word of God, our creator, is exhibiting his utter frustration that the world he brought into being, is so broken that death, and the sin of the world exhibited in our lack of understanding of his love for us and our need to love each other, still has the power to cause suffering, or at the very least ignore our ability to alleviate it. That is what is propelling him to Jerusalem and to the cross. That is the strength of love that was shed in the tears of Christ.
We are called to be a people who have come to the place where Jesus is.We are an Easter people, those who believe in the resurrection of not just Lazarus, but of our Christ, the Word made flesh. If we understand that Christ died to inaugurate the coming of God’s Kingdom, we must know too that we have the responsibility of not simply knowing God’s compassion for a broken world, visible in Christ’s crucifixion, but working to bring about a greater understanding of what he did through exhibiting that compassion ourselves.
We rightly think that many people in St Peter’s have a willing spirit, and often spend their time coming alongside those who suffer in body, mind or spirit. We need to celebrate, and encourage those that dare to enter and come alongside the empty people of the world, people who come to us as a place where Jesus is, the living Word. We are called to be a people who weep with Christ in the broken places of people’s lives.
As we come as those broken by life, or by death, to the place where Jesus is,we need to trust that it is a place where we can be honest about the state of our own lives, our emotions, and our ability (or lack of ability) to carry on as we are. We should not feel constrained by tradition or culture to kneel before our crucified Christ in any other way than that which has integrity with our anger at our own or another’s suffering.
Our compassion should include our frustration at the state of God’s broken world, and if necessary our broken lives. That is where it truly follows the example of the tears that Jesus wept.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, as Christ’s Easter people, everyone can
“Turn to Christ for comfort, hope and healing. In receiving it, we are marked by the cross, which requires us to expend our own lives sacrificially in offering and gift. [In this way] the Church is, in a real sense, a communion; the Body of Christ.”
Advent is a time of preparation. Preparation to understand afresh what it means to us now that Christ came into the world as a tiny helpless baby. Preparation as a minister, to make others welcome at Christ’s Nativity as they respond to their own need and desire to make the story come alive for themselves, or for others.
For me at a personal level this year, Advent will roll through winter into Lent, and it looks like all my ‘preparation’ will last till Easter! It is proving to be a time when I have much to think about for events happening later next year, and when I am feeling more than a little ‘helpless’ myself.
God is in control, of that I am certain. He desires nothing harmful to us, though plenty that is challenging.
Yet very recently as a family we have sensed a spiritual battle that has seen (among other things) me suffering ‘mystery rash’, and our bank account being used fraudulently. I have also struggled to engage with the theme of Advent and preparations (both spiritual and more practical) for celebrating Christmas.
These things have proved a distraction from both the ministry in which I am involved in the parish, and my focus on God’s will. The devil it seems, doesn’t like it when we give God full control of our lives; yet I must remember I am not helpless against his works, as we have God protecting us, that we might serve him faithfully.
At my spiritual directors suggestion, I have re-written parts of Psalm 91 to pray with my family, over us. I actually found the process of re-writing it very helpful, as I journeyed emotionally into a place of shelter carrying with me all that I ‘hold’ that is being entrusted to me by God.
Which is much more in keeping with the Advent image of Mary, who trusted and glorified the Lord, despite all that God required of her, and all the tribulations that were sent in the wake of her obedience. It also brings with it a sense of light, in what could otherwise be emotional and spiritual darkness.
Perhaps I’m not so out of touch with Advent after all!
We dwell in the shelter of the Most High
and rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
We say of the LORD,
“He is our refuge and our fortress,
our God, in whom we trust.
He will save us
from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover us with his feathers,
and under his wings we will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be our shield and rampart…”
We declare that, “The LORD is our refuge,
and we make the Most High our dwelling.”
There no harm will overtake us,
and no disaster will come near our home.
For God will command his angels concerning us
to guard us in all our ways;
we will be lifted in their hands,
so that our feet will not strike against a stone.
Because we love the LORD and acknowledge his name,
we ask him to protect us, and rescue us
from the works of the devil.
We will call on his name, and he will answer us.
He will be with us in trouble,
He will deliver us and honour
that which we seek to do in his name.
It’s great isn’t it. You plan life so that things don’t clash and you can (just about) manage to achieve everything. Then someone changes a date, the goal-posts get moved and your back in “failing to cope” mode – at least almost.
Lent 3 is going to be one of those Sunday’s, with two things I was hoping to enjoy colliding in such a way that we’ll be back to simply trying to survive the day. However, thanks to husband and church friends it looks like the St. Peter’s stand at the wedding fair at Casa Dei Cesari is coming together.
I think I can walk away for the morning with a fairly clear conscience to preach at All Saints, Basingstoke where I served my Reader Training placement last year. I’m actually really looking forward to seeing the friends I made, and also to sharing the way that their more formal, high church, environment makes sharing in the Eucharist much richer in symbolism – there’s more for my mind to grab hold of and use to remember the significance of what we’re doing.
But oh woe, the lectionary gospel: Luke 13:1-9. With the words “where is the good news?” still ringing in my ears from Reader Training, and not wishing to be a total doom merchant when visiting as a guest, this is going to be an interesting balancing act. At least as their vicar has reminded me, this sermon isn’t going to be assessed, but I still want to share a good value helping of God’s good news.
The passage is strongly linked to the current affairs of the time that Jesus was speaking and less noticably the living memories of those to whom Luke was writing, which I guess, gives me some ideas for sermon illustrations. There’s plenty of ‘news’ out there that we’re all to willing to extrapolate the wrong conclusions from. But the passage is very stark, and prophetic – real “this is your last chance” stuff.
There is no mention in the passage of Jesus’ purpose in journeying to Jerusalem – basically, he was going to take the rap for his hearers failing to act on what he was telling them; he lost his life because they didn’t change their ways! And they didn’t really get it, till it was too late. Many of them still didn’t get it – which is why the Temple was destroyed in AD70.
We know Jesus has died and risen because we mess up and take the wrong implications from what is happening in the world around us. If we truly believe that, then we have to seek God, and stay close to him with the hunger and trust of Psalm 63:1-9 if we are to reach the heavenly banquet of Isaiah 55:1-9 (other lectionary readings for Lent 3).
There, that was therapeutic: does that look a bit like a sermon plan to you?
Afterthought; I don’t have the experiences that make this a great sermon; and I don’t know that I want them! But I wouldn’t mind the ability to write the ‘poetry’ of the penultimate paragraph 🙂
I know this is partly bred of being overtired, and partly natural (according to our Warden of Readers who dismissed my mutterings as flippancy) but I’ve been having an acute attack of “What me God? You have to be joking!”
I have been totally convinced consistently that I have a calling to the ministry of preaching and teaching all the way through Reader Training. I have got depressed by the workload and some issues with the course at various points, but have been consistently encouraged by others who have heard me preach, or with whom I have worked (like my placement vicar), as well as marks I’ve received for assignments. I know I have problems in ‘technical recall’ of theological points, but I’ve been encouraged to think it will come with time, and anyway, normal people don’t want to hear technical terms, they want to know God’s love.
So why, when the forms are signed by me and the vicar, licensing is looming, and I’m starting to be more aware of being ‘a minister’, am I suddenly so scared and think that God’s got it wrong. Twice in the last week my thoughts and emotions have brought me to a standstill of questions, doubts and fears.
Even the lectionary has been trying to encourage me over our last residential weekend of training:
Psalm 116 v7-9 “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you… that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
Isaiah 50 v4-5 “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary…[and] opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.”
Psalm 22 v25 “From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfil my vows.”
There’s a thought, not only will I make vows of obedience to God in ministry at my Licensing, but I will fulfil them… he will work through me for others. And yet, how much of this is me and how much is God I ask myself? When I can’t even find the right conversation to excite a couple enquiring about baptism to take a more serious interest in the faith that is so important to me, what do I think I’m playing at?!
And then, falling out my Bible a slip of paper noting the words of Timothy Radcliffe in this years Lent book –
Why are we so reluctant to be sent? Because it means dying to whom we have been. Preaching the Gospel is not a matter of turning other people into Christians just like ourselves. We are sent on mission to discover who we are in and for other people.
I’ve spent three years of training dying to who I was, and I’m totally shattered. I don’t want to turn people into boring Christians like me, but I don’t seem to have enough love of God inside me for it to overflow to them and offer them the vibrant and exciting life with God I see in others.
I won’t duck out now, I’d be too embarrassed and let too many people down (not good reasons I know), and the logical bit of my brain knows this is the bottom of the roller coaster ride we heard preached about yesterday, but please God can I have the love and enthusiasm for you that will enable to me enjoy my Licensing and delight in sharing you with others?
Don’t bother commenting on this rather selfish posting – just pray for me, and for any others entering authorised ministry who might be feeling anything like I am at present. And may God Bless you with a certainty I don’t currently have.