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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Investing in the Kingdom of God – Matthew 25:14-30

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.

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The popcorn sermon: as Graham sneakily photographs me preaching I’m realising I pull some ghastly faces when I do so… but I can’t use the photos of the kids he took, so you’ll have to make do! The church and flowers look great.

SERMON:

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.

 

Praying in Advent through five festivals

5-candlesRegular readers will be aware that I’m currently on placement in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice. One of the mini-projects that I’ve been focusing on is leading the prayer element of a couple of Prayer Suppers in the Parish of Odiham.

Alongside the re-ordering of the physical church, the people of All Saints Odiham have also been focusing on prayer as part of their own re-ordering as a community of Christians. The ‘bring-and-share’ style suppers (an hour for fellowship and food, followed by an hour for prayer) are a part of this process, and the vicar and I will be reflecting on how they have gone before I complete my placement.

This particular hour of prayer was inspired by the Service of Five Candles celebrated each Advent Sunday in All Saints Church, Minstead in the New Forest (where I grew up). That service involves children processing five large ‘pascal’ sized candles with appropriate motifs, readings and collects, one for each of the five main Christian festivals. It was brought to the parish in the 1960s by the then Rector, Rev’d Clifford Rham.

This pattern of prayer involves ordinary-sized candles, shorter but appropriate readings and collects, and uses them as an inspiration for prayer, which need not be restricted to the bullet point suggestions provided.

The attached document forms a folded A4 sheet that anyone could use for a an Advent reflective service or similar. The illustration above shows how the five candles can be used and decorated.  advent-hour-of-prayer-through-five-festivals

More stoles and stories: red Ordination stole – and purple too!

My red, ordination, stole.
My red, ordination, stole.

Some while back I took delivery of what I thought would be my ordination (white – Christmas/Easter/Weddings) stole and the green (‘ordinary time’) stole, and now my stole maker has completed the red (Pentecost and Saints Days) and Purple (Advent and Lent) ones. During the intervening time the red one has in fact become my ordination stole after the new Precentor and our Bishop came up with the change of plan in the middle of our Deacon’s Day!

Once again I am totally thrilled with the way that Deborah Ireland has turned my scribbled notes and photographs, along with snippets of significant material including more bits of my wedding dress, into the most amazing creations which will mean I carry the stories of my faith journey and some special people into my ordained ministry.

P1080475cwThe red stole is all about the Holy Spirit – Pentecost being a deeply significant time for me, and if it wasn’t for the prompting of the Holy Spirit (both in my life, and in the lives of others who nudged me into getting my head round the possibility of a calling to ordination) I wouldn’t be just over two weeks from ordination  – interview with my Bishop next week permitting! Hidden in the stitchwork is the music for a favourite chorus that will make some cringe, but is one that can move me to tears and remind me of my baptism in the Spirit at St. Mike’s in Aberystwyth (Pentecost 1988) as well as many years of leading or singing in worship bands. I’ll let you guess what it might be!

P1080474cwPentecost was also about the people of God being enabled to do more than they could possibly imagine through the power of the Spirit at work in them – so there’s people there too, and though I didn’t design it with this in mind, everytime I look at one of the characters I think of my mother. The dove of peace is a bit of wedding dress, with one of the beads off the same to make it’s eye!

P1080468cwMy purple stole is double sided and it’s probably easy to spot the bits of wedding dress; losely speaking Advent and Lent. From an early age flower arranging was part of life (or at least sweep up after my Mothers’ church flower arrangements was), so as well as the symbolism of anticipating the light of Christ coming into the world, there’s a slight nod in that direction on the Advent side. There are also stars – something are both a significant interest of my husband and some very long-standing friends as well as being a reminder of the need to follow Christ faithfully even when we can’t really see where he’s leading us!

P1080464cwThe Lenten side used as its inspiration not only the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head at the crucifixion but also the nails themselves – designed from a photo of some hand-made ‘crucifixion’ nails my Dad had made by a New Forest blacksmith a couple of years ago. Those familiar with the “Water Bugs and Dragonflies” book for explaining death to young people will understand why I wanted one on a stole I might well wear to take funerals – over and above the fact that they’re a big photographic passion of my husband and I. We are really impressed at the lifelike markings Deborah has created on this Common Darter that we photographed together with my Dad in a favourite place in the New Forest a couple of years ago (see below). The dragonfly’s wings are made of net from the petticoat of my wedding dress, and some of the material is taken from a gift received many years ago from a Nigerian Catholic nun aquaintance… I hope she appreciates the use I’ve put it too.

 

That’s me all set up with vestments then. I look forward to wearing them as reminders of so much of the past, but also the importance of making best use of past experiences and interests in my future ministry, such that God is glorified.

Bittersweet Pentecost – Thank you St. Peter’s Yateley

The conclusion of the open air Pentecost Service with Baptisms at St. Peter's Yateley this morning.
The conclusion of the open air Pentecost Service with Baptisms at St. Peter’s Yateley this morning.

Ever since Pentecost 1988 when I first acknowledged an encounter with God as being through the power of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost has been special. A time to celebrate that God’s power is so much more than we can imagine, and that he can do things in, with and through our lives that we would never in our wildest dreams anticipate.

So it was a very concious decision to bid farewell to 16 years of worshipping with the lovely folk of St. Peter’s Yateley at Pentecost. I specifically wanted to be sent out towards ordained ministry from the place that has nurtured and helped to grow it so much, on the day that celebrates how God can use and equip people for the next step in his mission.

There are two words that I wanted to share with all those I know and love at St. Peter’s, some who have moved on to new ministries, and some who watch as saints in glory. These are two things that they have provided in bucket loads in the last 16 years and for which I am incredibly grateful:

The first is TRUST. They have trusted me. I have done so many “firsts” in ministry at St. Peter’s, sometimes planned, frequently less so. Often they were firsts in the living memory of the church too; everything from starting all-age services back in 1999, through safeguarding administration to a military funeral, with plenty in between! In every instance clergy and laity alike, have trusted that I knew (roughly) what I was doing, and supported what the ministry was with time, energy, skill and patience, recognising that each was something we shared as we journeyed forward with God in service of him in our local community and beyond.

The other word I wanted to share and highlight is related to this and is ENCOURAGEMENT. St. Peter’s is full of people who have encouraged me in aspects of my ministry, faith and even my flower arranging! Even better, every week they do the same for each other – encouraging each other and thus providing the strength and inspiration to serve the Lord in a myriad of ways. Of recent weeks I have so appreciated the encouragement of their prayers for myself and my family as we’ve struggled with various matters that have created additional stresses among the preparations for ordination. But it’s also been 16 years of hugs, affirmation, guidance, an openness to what God is saying through his Holy Spirit, and the occasional metaphorical slap with a sensible stick, that has made up this environment of encouragement that brings me to this point of needing to leave for the next step of my adventure with God.

So for me, it is trust and encouragement that is encapsulated in the wind and flames of Pentecost this year – God’s trust and encouragement to do his will equipped in with words and actions we never knew we had, just like the disciples. It is trust and encouragement I will both treasure and take with me from St. Peter’s, and which I wish to leave behind, especially at a time when as a church it too is experiencing a time of change and transition in the facilities and ministries it provides. May St. Peter’s Yateley know God’s trust and encouragement in all you do, as you have made it known to me through the love of Christ.

Today is of course not just about me. My husband and son leave St. Peter’s with me; their own decision but one for which I’m grateful as it makes the break a little easier by being shared. Our son has grown up in St. Peter’s from the toddler encouraged to dance in the aisle by the (then) vicar, to a strapping lad whose musical gifts he’s been happy to share regularly in our worship bands. Hubby Graham, is my rock and encourager-in-chief, one of the first to be convinced of my calling to ordination, and without whom  the next steps in ministry would seem even more daunting than they do now. Though many commented today that they will miss his music and his ‘think-spots’, he probably does less now in the life of the church than he’s done in the previous twenty-five years, but whilst that’s partly because if his invisible support of what I’m doing, and to keep the domestic show on the road, I suspect the Secretary of State for Education needs to take a share of the blame!

The beautiful jug and bowl with which I was sent from St. Peter's Yateley to serve others will be a constant reminder of Jesus example of washing his disciples feet, as the Bishop will my own at the ordination service on 29th June.
The beautiful jug and bowl with which I was sent from St. Peter’s Yateley to serve others, will be a constant reminder of Jesus example of washing his disciples feet, as the Bishop will my own at the ordination service at Winchester Cathedral on 29th June.

Ours will now be a strange existence as for the next few years, I/we minister in a community we don’t live in, and live in a community we no longer worship in. There are Yateley people we love and we will try and see in our free time, and others we wish we could see and don’t manage to as often as we’d like. There will of course be social media through which to keep in touch and share the highs and lows of life a little, and I guess occasions when the dog-collared me will be seen dashing through a shop going to or from Old Basing or footling around Yateley on my day off (Friday).

Thank you St. Peter’s. Your gift to God is everything you have equipped me for.

Stones into bread #givingitup 10th March #Lent2014 Matthew 4v1-4

Now, NOT my ordination stole, simply my festal stole! No less significant for all that :-)
Now, NOT my ordination stole, simply my festal stole! No less significant for all that 🙂

If anyone tells you that the Church of England, or the Diocese of Winchester in particular, don’t do change… DON’T believe them!

Today was Deacon’s Day in the Diocese of Winchester, and despite what I’d been led to expect it was a really good day. I got to see friends, existing and yet to be, as we sat together as a cohort of 12 for the first time. Important information was made as fun as possible, and our Bishop didn’t pull any punches in a seriously inspirational talk making quite plain what we were letting ourselves in for as far as being and ordained minister in the Diocese of Winchester is concerned. He was willing to make himself vulnerable to our sometimes searching questions, and very honest when the answer was ‘we haven’t got there yet’ whilst giving us as much of the ‘game plan’ as he probably could. It was obvious, that if we’re not up for ‘living the mission of Jesus’ now is definitely the time to say so, and take a step back. I remember being part of the Vacancy in See consultation a few years back and the whole of my group told the relevant folk that basically we wanted someone who would bring fresh ideas and a fresh way of doing things. We got exactly what we asked for, and now I get to help be part of the change, part of proving that the Church of England “aint’n’t dead yet”!

We also got to meet the lovely Precentor Sue, newly installed last week at Winchester Cathedral. She and the Bishop hadn’t had a chance to meet about this yet, so it was slightly like a game of tag. This was the point where we managed to get the Bishop’s head in his hands, poor man. I almost felt sorry for him as conversations about robes and stoles got very silly in a variety of ways; apparently patent pink DMs aren’t appropriate because pink is not a liturgical colour, and the laces would take too long to sort at the point in the service where the Bishop/s washes our feet!

Then I felt sorry for myself. I really must learn that if I’m going to be organised and efficient and get things done well in advance, I can expect to get my nicely laid plans well and truly shot out the water. Winchester has always (as far as I’m aware) have always ordained in white stoles, and as regular readers will be aware I’ve got my deeply significant ordination stole all finished and tucked away ready. Or at least I thought I had.

After they’d left us to the finer details of tat grants, the Bishop and Precentor had a little conversation, and the Bishop popped back in: were we up for being ordained in red stoles (signifying the Holy Spirit at Pentecost)?! Much excitement ensued from most, and in the end, I and two fellow early pre-planners, sort of gave a lopsided grin recognising that we’d be in danger of inhibiting change that signified the movement of the Holy Spirit if we didn’t go with the idea. It wasn’t like I’m not getting a red stole, and have a particular personal connection with Pentecost, and it IS a red letter day on 29th June (Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul), so… I told the Bishop I’d be ‘fine about it in the morning’ 🙂

So, after that snapshot of having to accept change when you’ve asked for it, Maggi Dawn gets me turning to Matthew 4:1-4 for tonight’s Lent reflection: the devil tempting Jesus, who is fasting in the wilderness, to turn stones into bread.

My immediate thought is that it’s not a rock that needs softening to feed our bodies, but our hearts that need softening to feed our souls, and the souls of others; we mustn’t get ourselves set on there being only one way of doing things!!!

Maggi talks about a period of 40-somethings (days, years, whatever) signifying a concentrated period of preparation and transformation in Bible-speak (as per the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the desert). How long it was in reality might not involve the number 40, and that isn’t actually a concern – the point of there being concentrated preparation and transformation is much more important. So like ordination training and formation then 😉

Maggi notes that the temptation with food whilst fasting emphasised Jesus was as human as you and I, and in turn emphasises our physical existence. I would add that this in turn emphasises that all that we are called to do can ONLY be done through the power of the Holy Spirit but that we need to know when it is appropriate to invoke God’s power in this way.

And what better time to do that, than at an ordination service! Red stole it is then!!!

PS: Graham’s blog for tonight is here.

PPS: Now very excited that I’ve realised that Canon Missioner to Exeter Cathedral and Diocese, Anna Norman-Walker is conducting our ordination retreat! At least I think that’s what the Bishop said… (note to self, must listen better!)

Here endeth my Reader Ministry

Today, Pentecost 2013 marks the end of my Reader Ministry.

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Ramtopsrac: Church of England Reader – 3rd Oct 2009 – 19th May 2013

The different diocese of the Anglican church are not known for their consistency in approach to patterns of, or peoples development through, different ministries. But in the Diocese of Winchester the rule is normally that if you are a Reader selected for ordination training, then you are asked to surrender your license as you start college.

The idea is that this change of status marks and somehow enables the change in that slightly nebulous, unexplainable, but very important element of ordination training that goes by the name ‘formation’. I have to say that this has seem a rather odd idea which I really haven’t understood.

The observant or regular follower of this blog will note that I’ve completed nearly a year of my two-year ordination training, and yet I am only surrendering my Reader License today. The intention was that, agreed by my vicar and Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), by keeping my license I could continue to take funerals and therefore support that element of ministry within my parish; funerals were the only thing I couldn’t do as an ordinand that the Reader License enabled me to do. Except, I haven’t in fact taken a funeral since about last July – it’s just the way things worked out.

However, being asked to surrender my Reader License today, suddenly feels very significant.

Partly, it’s because I know how important my Reader ministry, and funerals in particular, were to my discerning my calling to the priesthood. I may have said before, but I had to be a Reader to understand my calling to the priesthood.

However, despite retaining my license till today, I have (at the request of my DDO) undertaken so little ‘ministerial’ practice in the parish (I’ve not preached since August last year) that when I led our Ash Wednesday service at St. Peter’s, some people were surprised because they thought I’d already left the parish!

And I’ve hated that. I’ve hated not being able to, or allowed to, do those things that were so important to me as minister, and so important to my discernment process. Not having the chance to preach has been like having a limb cut off – I’ve not engaged in-depth with individual chunks of Bible for months!

Equally I know that the advice was probably sound; I have struggled so much academically this year that the additional load of active parish ministry would probably have been the straw that broke the camels back. (I’ll try and explain that better in another blog post soon.)

What I’m wondering now is that, since this comes at the end of a week of sorting out with my tutors some academic niggles, and actually falls just a fortnight before I do at last preach again but as an ordinand, finally surrendering my Reader License will after all mark a significant turning point in my emotional engagement and the confidence I exhibit in myself, within in my ordination training.

When I wrote about my licensing in 2009 I talked about things feeling ‘right’, and in God’s timing, and about starting out on a fresh new journey, again. Possibly surrendering my Reader License is something I should have done months ago, but actually it’s something that feels ‘right’ for now, for a point where I’m finally getting some grip on what it is that I can realistically achieve academically in ordination training, and at last feel some sense of excitement as to what God has in store for me within that, and within the active ministry that will follow ordination next year.

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

All Saints Church, Minstead

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

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

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

A scented flame coloured Azalea at Furzey Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can’t we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another flaming Azalea at Furzey Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crucifix in the grounds at Furzey

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

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

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

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

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

And so, let us stand to affirm that faith!

Service for the Celebration of Pentecost

Pentecost candle and holders

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

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

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

Liturgical Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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