Balance in bell-ringing and the Christian life – Romans 12:1-11

I had the joy last weekend of leading Basingstoke District Bellringers Service, that partly came about because they were having their annual gathering at St. Mary’s Eversley, and partly because I’ve returned to bell-ringing a bit with the encouragement of the local team, having not rung more than a couple of times since I turned twenty! That story, and my reflections on it in connection with Romans 12:1-11, formed a part of my short talk at the service. I also used Malcolm Guite’s sonnet ‘New Year’s Day: Church Bells’, which many at the service hadn’t heard of. My thanks to Malcolm’s poetic skills, and hopefully he will find new bell-minded fans of his poetry!

 

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My 1970/80s Guild Certificate caused a certain amount of interest, and proved I really had rung as a kid (at All Saints Minstead, New Forest, where my parents were heavily involved in the re-hanging of the bells and extending of the peel)

Returning sporadically to bell-ringing in the few months I’ve been here in Eversley, I have been reminded of two things in particular.

Firstly, yes, bell-ringing really is like riding a bike; you never completely forget how to do it. My first evening last autumn I was astounded to discover (after a little tail and sally work) that I could still ring rounds without a minder. The second evening, towards Christmas I was back change ringing, and to my utter surprise this week, I managed Plain Hunt… the technical limit of my teenage endeavours in the New Forest, over 30 years ago!

Secondly, like riding a bike, one of the significant skills bell-ringing requires is balance. OK, so it’s not quite the same as balancing on two wheels at speed round obstacles with cars coming past, but balance none the less.

There’s the balance of the bell, read through the feel of the rope, something that’s slightly different for each bell because of its weight and the way it’s been hung.

There’s also the balance of the way you stand in relation to the fall of the rope, its position in relation to the rest of the peal, and the way you change your stance depending on whether you hunting down to the back, or up to lead at the front… or at least that’s how it felt on Wednesday!

Then there’s a sense of balance in what happens in the methods that are being rung. Every bell and its ringer has an equal part to play, moving to front and back, sharing the load of leading and following, functioning together as the body of the peal.

And there’s the balance between the activity of the mind, and the activity of the body, and the levels of concentration needed to function in both areas in response to what is required, and going on around you. There is a big commitment of mental and physical energy in ringing – it really is a full workout!

Which, is why I chose the reading from Romans for this afternoon. Hopefully you don’t think this novice is too technically in-accurate or being inappropriate with her analogies.

The Christian life is as much a full work out of body and mind as bell-ringing is. If we only help with a food bank or night shelter, visit the elderly and housebound, teach children, and do our everyday employment with our body and part of our mind, without engaging our understanding to bring that together with our understanding of God and our faith in Jesus, then we’re not being a Christian to the best of our ability.

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St. Mary’s bells feature on the kneeler used at every wedding held at St. Mary’s, Eversley, and it was also used this weekend on our church ‘stall’ at the Warbrook House Hotel Wedding Open Day!

Being a Christian should be a balanced whole life activity, just as bell-ringing is, especially for the many of you who ring in multiple towers each week. Practice is one thing, we need it to become proficient, but if we practice in isolation from ringing for services, including weddings, funerals, Remembrance and other occasions, then we’re not making that spiritual connection between ringing and what God is ministering to others through us: ministries of welcome, of joy and celebration, of mourning, of commemoration and creating history. Bells help people with all those things, ringing the story of our faith and drawing us into community with others, and mustn’t operate in isolation from the worship and mission of the church.

God wants his church to draw people into worship, to understand what it means to know Jesus, and at its best bells and bell-ringing is part of that. If we as bell-ringers are fulfilling our calling to the Christian life effectively, making it part of our spiritual act of worship, then we are enabling the whole body of the church to have more impact, and to be more visible as the body of Christ. If we have such a balanced understanding of and approach to our bell-ringing and to the rest of our lives, then both our faith and our bell-ringing will have integrity, and play their full part in the sincerity with which we love God, love our communities, and love of each other.

 

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What is the culture of this church? Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

20170917_121811I wonder what sort of yogurt you like?

Do you prefer the thin, natural yogurt, that’s dribbly and perhaps a little sharp and acidic in it’s taste?

Or perhaps, the thick, very set Greek or Turkish style yogurt, which almost has a crust to it, that you have to cut through to get to the spoonfuls of jelly-like goodness below?

Or you may be a thick spooning yogurty sort of person, whether that be of the milky kind, or the coconut based, lactose free variety that I discovered recently?

Or is your yogurt of preference, not just thick, but also creamy and full of fruity goodness, giving the tastebuds a treat, as well as possibly the waist-line?!

Now, if you’re not a yogurt eater, or perhaps even you may be a yogurt hater, I beg your indulgence this morning, and ask you to stick with me on this analogy! Think of it as a little bit of culture on a Sunday morning ;-/

Because that’s what I’m asking us to consider: what is the culture of St. Mary’s as a church? Are we a bit thin, sharp and acidic… or growing towards a thick, fruity goodness that will add to the church’s waistline, in the quality of our faith and discipleship as well as in our numbers?

In our Epistle from this morning, we are reaching to the core of the second half of Paul’s message to the Christian community in Rome. He is emphasising that the love that believers must show towards each other should be a response to the love they have received from God, about which he has talked at length in the first half of Romans. For example, “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8-10). The exhortations of Romans 14:1-12 however, suggest that in this community, love is thin because faults are thick.

The passage addresses a conflict in the body of Christ about ceremonial practices that are peripheral to the gospel. Some — whom Paul calls the “weak” — believe that, according to Jewish tradition, certain foods are to be avoided and certain days are holy. Others — normally called the “strong” by way of contrast — believe that all foods and all days are equally fitting for believers to enjoy.

Paul is not addressing the issue of righteousness by works of the law or suggesting that the weak are somehow seeking a “works-righteousness.” Rather, he sees the choice about practice as of a matter of conscience and an expression of faith (Romans 14:5-6). Paul largely directs his words to the “strong” because the issue with which he is concerned is the absence of love and unity in the body of Christ. While the practices regarding food and days are peripheral to the gospel, the way believers in the community treat one another is central to it. In other words, what people were eating and drinking and why, was totally immaterial; what was, and is, important is the love that people have for God, and whether they show it in the way that they treat each other. That isn’t lived out if people in a community are constantly judging one another… something Paul thinks is so important that he mentions it 5 times, across 4 verses, in this one short passage.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus’ theme of unlimited forgiveness isn’t so dissimilar: The unforgiving servant is effectively a chief finance officer, with control over the movement of vast wealth. The astronomical “debt” or “loan” he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid of patronage. In the old Mediterranean economy, the goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid. When the king forgives this persons enormous “loan,” his obligation to the king is not so much wiped clear, but actually intensified.

The mercy, generosity, and forgiveness that God offers out of love for us his people, could and should be endless, but in reality it only stretches as far as we are willing to show that same mercy, generosity and forgiveness to others, as this power-filled finance manager discovers when he tries to pull rank on those who have in effect, greased his way to the top. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of the financial amnesty or jubilee he was given in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonours the king himself. Through his actions, this unforgiving servant binds himself not to the king’s mercy, but to the old system of wealth extraction and violence. He thus binds the king in turn to deal with him once again within the confines of this system. God’s forgiveness is shown to have necessary limits, and they are the ones we set through our own words and actions.

So where do these scriptures this morning leave us with regard to our own personal response to the grace and forgiveness that God has shown us, and in terms of our corporate life as Christians, and therefore our culture as a church?

In Romans 5:2 Paul writes that, “through [Jesus] we have obtained access to [God’s] grace, in which we stand.” We therefore need to remember that it is on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, that God welcomes all believers as those who were weak and sinful (Romans 5:6-10). From this perspective, if we re-read Romans 14:1-12, none of us are strong. The point is that as believers, we are the weak-made-strong who stand in God’s grace now, and who will be made to stand confidently at the final judgement because of God’s gift of redemption in Christ. Since this is the case, who are we to sit in judgement over one another? Who are we that we dare not to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven? We must aim not to be thick with faults, and therefore thin in love, but thin in faults and fault-finding, and therefore thick with love, for God and for each other.

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We don’t want to be have a weak, watery, acidic church! (Photo snuck by Graham, without my knowledge.. he took the one above, as requested!!)

As a church, and as individuals, it is not our place to judge, either privately or publicly, the choices that others make about what suits and feeds them, or their family, in a spiritual sense. Neither is it healthy to hold on to un-forgiveness, particularly within the Christian community, incredibly tough though that can sometimes be; it’s not healthy for us as individuals, and it is certainly not healthy for us as a church, because it stops God fulfilling the grace and forgiveness that is his character. Some of us may be in a pastoral position to gently and privately ask questions and challenge decisions or actions, but if as a community we openly pick holes in each other, tending to hold grumps and grudges, we create a culture of weak, watery-ness that makes us acidic to people’s taste, probably unattractive to outsiders, and generally thin on love. Not a helpful, rich or healthy culture.

Our desire as a community should be that we are a culture that is thick and creamy, attractively full of fruit, because we exhibit the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) as well as forgiveness and a non-judgemental generosity. If we consciously seek to make ourselves, well-filled in these fruit, we’ll naturally become stronger as a Christian community, richer in flavour to those who we pray will come and taste the love of God among us, and so add to this church’s waistline of faith and discipleship.

 

I’m finding the commentaries on Working Preacher really inspirational at present (for which thanks to them), and will freely admit that a couple of significant chunks of this sermon are from here, and here. The metaphor and the focus of my sermon was however all my own work!

Going the ‘long way round’ – Matthew 16:21-28

Going the long way roundMuch at St. Mary’s Eversley is now focused on preparing ourselves for the arrival of the new Priest-in-Charge of Eversley and Darby Green, and the work that will be done with him in the months and years to come, following Jesus, and proclaiming his love for the world. So yes, sermons have a particular bias in that direction over the last couple of weeks:

If we’re going on a journey, perhaps a walking journey, what do we need to have with us? Boots, wet weather gear, bag, food, water…. But how do we know where we’re going? We need a map, compass, or perhaps satnav or some sort of gps system. We need to know where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there, before we start; then we need to have a plan of the route, know what the obstacles are going to be – is there anything we are going to have to go round? And we also need to know the destination we’re aiming at.

I suspect that almost all of us have had cause recently to look at a map, of one form or another. I’m getting used to having a car with built in sat nav, and it amazes me the route variations that it offers, some of which are wildly different to what seems obvious, to me at least. Sometime taking the sat nav’s suggestions seriously can be a good thing, sometimes er… not so good. Trust me, if you can, whatever your sat nav says, avoid the centre of Exeter when heading to the edge of Dartmoor!

Some of us who have been to the West Country over the summer, have had to take a decision: do we drive past Stonehenge very, very slowly, with the queues of other holiday traffic, or get up at crack of dawn in the hope of avoiding the jams, or seek an alternative route, that is much further and apparently a longer way round, but is less stressful, and may get us to our destination much faster?

If we heard or read the Gospel last week, or remember our scriptures well, we know that a few days before our reading this morning, Simon Peter had effectively worked out the destination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He’d sussed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the ultimate ruler that the Jews had been looking forward to for generations, the one who would liberate them.

So when, very soon after, he hears Jesus talking not of an authoritative assault on Roman rule in Jerusalem, but that Jesus expects their own Jewish leaders to torture and kill him, Simon Peter the ever impulsive, tells Jesus that he’s talking dangerous, defeatist, nonsense.

But of course, Jesus isn’t talking nonsense. Simon Peter and the other disciples may not be able to see it, but Jesus understands the map that his Father God has given him, and he doesn’t get to the destination, to fulfilling the role of Messiah by being on the aggressors’ side of a conflict. He has to take a different route.

The journey that Jesus has to take involves… a sarcastically offered purple cloth, a crown of thorns, a heavy cross – the cross that he won’t just have to carry, but he will be nailed to!

The divinely ordained route to Jesus being fully revealed as the Messiah, involves being on the receiving end of mis-understandings, injustice, and pain; it involves being tortured, and being killed, and only then, at the resurrection, will the destination be reached. Jesus is going the long way round; he has to, he doesn’t have a choice.

If we’re faced with something daunting, scary, something that at least part of us doesn’t really want to do but we know we can’t avoid, we are all prone to getting a little short with people who ‘don’t get it’. Jesus it seems was no different, and in a very real way, what Simon Peter was suggesting was the devil’s way out; if Jesus didn’t go to the cross, there wouldn’t be the light that breaks through darkness, the good that overcomes evil, God’s forgiveness of our sins, the resurrection to eternal life, and two millennia of us being able to witness to our risen Lord.

At the heart of the message in our Gospel this morning is not just what Jesus would have to do as the Son of God on earth, but what we are called to do as a result, and Jesus is quite blunt about what it is. We are also called to carry the cross to follow him… we also have to go the long way round, to get to the place where God is revealed to the whole world in the person of Jesus.

Like Simon Peter, we have a human tendency to want to go the quick way, to bowl into situations where we feel we know the ‘right’ thing that should happen, or even the way we’ve ‘always’ done things. Then we expect people to recognise us as Christians, to listen to the message we share, and to automatically recognise Jesus in us and so come and join in with what we’re doing. But life isn’t like that, and this morning is a very good reminder that we have to work out the divine route to showing God’s love for the world, and to remember that it probably requires a lot more tact, patience, hard work and sacrifice than we feel is either necessary, or ideal.

In the other passage for today, from Romans 9:9-21, St. Paul makes this equally clear. We might get to rejoice in the hope that comes from Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but we are also called to be patient, to persevere. When Paul tells us to ‘bless those who persecute us’ and ‘not to be haughty’ it’s pretty obvious that we will need to be humble and forgiving of people who don’t understand that sometimes we need to go the long way round to achieving God’s aims. As Jesus found with Simon Peter, sometimes it will be other followers of Jesus that may be the ones we feel aren’t understanding the route of humility and sacrifice he has prescribed.

As a church, we’re gearing up to start exploring the next bit of the map, and to discern the route, the divinely ordained route, to making Jesus’ Messiahship better known in our local communities. The map and compass, or the sat nav, that must inspire us, are scripture and lots of prayer, inspired by the Holy Spirit. It will require the building of new relationships, changes to some, and perhaps even the hard work of repentance and forgiveness for the healing of others. The one thing I think I can guarantee, is that it will require going the long way round various obstacles in the way, obstacles that we wish weren’t there. It will take longer than we think, or want it to. Like Simon Peter we are more than likely to get some things right, and then make sweeping assumptions and get things wrong.

We will all be required to make sacrifices of some sort or another, perhaps giving up treasured ways of doing things, or picking up burdens of care and commitment to new projects or particular people. These are the sacrifices due to Jesus, tokens or small offerings in gratitude for his greater love and sacrifice for us. The destination we know; it is the return of Jesus in glory.

Let’s load ourselves up, map, compass, gps… patience, forgiveness, prayer and humility…. cloth, crown, nails, cross and all… and follow Jesus route to glory, the long way round.

I believe… we are the church Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20

20170629_150226cAs a nation we’ve just concluded the annual event that is the season of exam results, with the GCSE results being issued last Thursday.  The exams this year have been touted as the hardest for a while, with new curricula in Maths and English. Students preparing for these exams would have had to learn a lot of things by rote to get just the lowest or foundation grades, like tediously doing all the steps in a maths calculation to ensure that even if the final answer is incorrect some marks might be scraped for the “workings”.

But the higher grades would only have been accessible to those who went above and beyond such basics, and learnt to apply these fundamentals to new situations; to be creative, to think outside the box.   It’s all very well learning by rote a bunch of physics equations, but it requires a bit more thinking to use these to calculate the gravitational potential energy of one of my pears, to its kinetic energy as it falls out of the tree!

Such equations have been thought and puzzled over for centuries. Many people look at them, learn them, regurgitate them for the exam and afterwards forget them as being of no understandable use for their future lives.  A few folk take these equations and use them to build satellites to land on asteroids, photograph planets, predict an eclipse and ensure that we can talk to Uncle Bob in New Zealand.

And this is where our readings come in.  In our Gospel this morning, Jesus asked the disciples who other people think he is; and based on what they know through listening to the people that have been gathering around Jesus, and have learnt from scripture in the past, they offer a variety of answers. The local rabbis would have been proud – their scripture classes had born fruit!

But then Jesus asks a more difficult, challenging question, “who do you say that I am?” You can almost hear the shuffled feet, the hesitant scribbling, and then rubbing out, of a pencilled, potential answers; and the despairing cries of ‘we weren’t expecting that question’ and ‘you haven’t taught us that!’

Simon, class swot that he tries to be, offers an answer. It is an answer based partially on what he’s been taught by, and witnessed of, Jesus. It is an answer that shows he is applying what he’s learnt, both from the rabbinic teaching of his community AND his current experiences, to the question. It is an intuitive answer, inspired by the Spirit of God working in and through him: “you are the Messiah, [he says to Jesus], the son of the living God.” Simon has thought for himself, and come up with an answer.

Simon isn’t always right, as we will discover next week. But this time he is, and the fact that he has come up with the answer in the way that he has, is as important as the answer itself. In fact the two are linked: unless there was a living God, Simon could not have been inspired to give the answer he did! Unless he had personally encountered and lived with Jesus, seeing the Messiah’s miracles and teaching for himself, he could not have applied that to the Jewish teaching provided by his upbringing and culture, and given the answer he did.

How we identify Jesus should be based on our personal encounters with God, even though it is informed by our continual reading and re-reading of scripture and by reasoned dialogue with others. Who we say Jesus is, should be grounded in a conversation with God whereby we adjust what we think we know as we experience more and more of him. Our church, our ministers, our Sunday or school teachers and others will have their opinions, but in the end we have to decide for ourselves in conversation with God, what it is in the person of Jesus that inspires us to love him. And then we have to tell him that we do.

God has created, and knows each of us as individuals. He is the potter and we are the clay (Isaiah 64:8). We are the work of his hands, (Jeremiah 1:4-5). He expects us to be able to respond to him in a way that is individual to us, and not simply repeat by rote a stock answer, creed or prayer. We have to step out from those around us, and if necessary look like we want to be the class swot, and say ‘This is what I believe…’ and be prepared for that answer to be temporary, provisional and developed further as we learn more.

Because when we stand up as someone who knows themselves to be loved by God, and declare our faith in Jesus as the living God, the chances are that it’s at that point that the importance of the individual stops, and the importance of community starts. Just as Simon discovered.

Simon. Simon Peter. Peter, the name meaning rock on which the Church was built. We know that, we’ve been taught that. Yet in a play on words hidden in the Hebrew, the word rock is also related to the church – it’s to do with the fact that ‘rock’ and ‘church’ are written in the feminine form. The community of Christians we know as church is also meant to be rock-like, to stand firm for the principles of love, grace, forgiveness and justice that Jesus taught, both spiritually and visibly, in heaven and on earth. It is,… we are… the body of Christ, made up of the many parts and callings outlined in the passage we heard in Romans.

We should be a body that exemplifies the individuality of our grace-filled relationship with Jesus. But we are called to serve, teach, comfort, encourage, give, prophesy, to each other, and to the world, all with single-minded, God-focused, energetic, cheerfulness,… together. Collaboratively and corporately, linked by the joints and tendons of our shared faith and willingness to make sacrifices, Christ-like sacrifices.

The era when we couldn’t tell anyone of our faith in Jesus is long gone. The reason for that was down to the timing of Jesus mission and the politics of the time. It should have stopped at the resurrection, and it certainly stopped at Pentecost. We have a personal and living faith, in a living God, Jesus Christ the Messiah, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit gifts us to be the church, the body of Christ.

So the questions this morning, and in the months to come as you pray, study and work with a new vicar, are tough, challenging ones:

To what extent is St. Mary’s as a church, trying to pass an exam at a foundation level, based on facts you’ve been taught in the past, the standard principles and calculations of how things have always been done?

And, to what extent is St. Mary’s living as a church of grace-filled, individually called and inspired Christians ready to use it’s Spirit-filled intuition, cheerfully and energetically to proclaim our faith in Jesus, to teach and inspire people who’ve not encountered Jesus, to serve the community, to comfort those in pain and grief, and to prophesy hope, forgiveness and resurrection, together as the body of Christ?

I’m going to ask you to do something different now. We are going to say the creed, to proclaim our faith in Jesus, the Messiah, the son of the living God. We are going to do that together as the church, the body of Christ, the sum of many parts. But we are, for the majority of it, going to say “I” and “my” rather than “we” and “our”. So each paragraph will start I, until we get to the line “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”. In doing so I hope it will encourage each of us in our own individual encounters with and faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and remind us that we are called to be one holy catholic and apostolic church, living out our faith together, in the name of Jesus the living God, and for the sake of the life of the world to come.

Please stand:

I believe, in one God,
The Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
The only Son of God,
Eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
Begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father;
Through him all things were made.
For me, and for my salvation he came down from heaven,
Was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
And was made man.

For my sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The Lord, the giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
Who has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in and are, one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the world to come.
Amen.

 

I’m very grateful to my husband Graham (currently raising funds for The Big Issue Foundation by running a slightly surreal online festival called ‘Not Greenbelt 2017’ #notgb2017 on Twitter) for both the exceptional re-writing of the first three paragraphs of my sermon to make them educationally accurate, and for supplying the entertaining image used to illustrate it!

Being like the Elijah of the Canaanites

My deployment in Eversley continues – lovely to have a settled period of ministry, much as I enjoyed the peripatetic ministry of recent months. Today is 10th Sunday after Trinity and I felt the readings from Matthew 15:21-28 and Romans 11:1-2a and 29-32 present us with a challenge:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:..
(Merchant of Venice Act 4 Sc 1)

Merchant of Venice Act IV
The title page to Merchant of Venice Act IV from an ancient folio of Shakespeare in possession – one of those old books that smell wonderful!

One of the set texts I studied at school was the Merchant of Venice, from which that famous quotation is taken. It was the first thing I thought of when I looked at our Gospel for this morning, because both suggest that to act with mercy offers both a blessing to the person receiving the mercy, AND to the one offering that mercy.

In the reading from Matthew 15, in which our encounter with Jesus might well leave us initially uncomfortable, there is a sense in which Jesus himself is blessed by the act of mercy which he, perhaps grudgingly, gives the Canaanite woman and her daughter. As we consider why that is, we can also think of ways in which the acts of mercy, generosity and goodwill that we offer, can bless us – not as a motivator, but in understanding ourselves as contributors to the ‘now and not yet’ of the Kingdom of God today.

I rather admire the Canaanite woman; she knows much more about her relationship with Jesus than immediately seems to spring to his mind, or our understanding, and she is both succinct in explaining her request, and pithy in her response to his apparent rudeness.

The disciples take Jesus’ silent response to the woman’s initial plea as their cue to try and move her on. Jesus affirm this in his comment; “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24, NRSV). His silence, and his apparently racially motivated dismissal of her, jar painfully with the loving, healing God we usually encounter in such circumstances. Yet there may have been good reason for it.

Jesus knew that his relationship with God was signified through his birth as a Jew, a member of the people of Israel, the covenant people, the nation with whom God had developed a special relationship. It was a relationship that had brought the people of Israel considerable hardship and turmoil, and had brought God continual heartache and pain, as they repeatedly lost their faith in him and the long-term plan that would reveal his love for all nations, through them. Jesus was desperate that in the months before his death, the people of Israel should be his priority, for it was in his death that their role in that revelation would find fulfilment. He was silent perhaps largely because in this moment, he didn’t feel quite ready for the bigger picture, his ultimate gift to the world, to be revealed.

The Canaanite woman is not however willing to accept this reasoning, or the rudeness associated with it. She is more than capable of giving as good as she gets, since she is perfectly well aware of who he is. After all in her initial words she had signalled that she understood him to be both her Lord, as in her social superior as a man and as a rabbi, and as the Son of David, the long awaited Messiah of the Israelites. The fact was that her people’s blood ran through Jesus’ veins! If we think back to the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 we are reminded that it includes three women of Jesus’ ancestry; three Canaanite women; Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. By referring to Jesus as Son of David, she is reminding him of their shared ancestors – he is her Messiah, as well as the Jewish Messiah!

That’s the position of strength from which she comes back at Jesus after he calls her a dog! It is what enables her to return Jesus’ rude remarks without rancour and with considerable wit – wish that we could all do that! The woman’s cultural context differs from Jesus’ and she uses it to her advantage; Canaanites allowed their pets to be fed while the children ate. Israel may, quite rightly, be the children which are Jesus’ first priority, but that does not negate her determined plea for help, for herself, and for her troubled daughter. She is quite happy to seek the scraps of God’s mercy, until the time is right for the abundance of Easter blessing to be poured upon the whole world at Pentecost. In this way the Canaanite woman brings into that moment the future nature of God’s Kingdom.

This is part of something that Paul is seeking to explain more fully in our reading from Romans this morning. As a faithful Jew, and passionate follower of Christ, he is reminding us that even at it’s most unfaithful, God graciously always found a remnant of faith in Israel, even if it was the voice of one lone prophet. And, he is only too aware that God does not give his gifts of love for us out of admiration for our achievements – for we are all capable of following false gods, and becoming distracted from the purposes in which God is directing us, just like the people of Israel!

But the remnant, the faithful few, are always important; their voice is the means by which whole nations can return to the rightful relationship with God that is his gift in Jesus. Elijah pleaded with God by reminding him both the failings of Israel and God’s own responsibilities to save his people Israel. The Canaanite woman reminds Jesus that whilst he struggles to get that same nation to recognise and understand their long-awaited Messiah, the fulfilment of his mission on earth will come only when the whole world recognises him as the merciful God she knows he is called to be. She is, if you like, the Elijah of the Canaanites.

It is this level of understanding and faith that seems to impress Jesus, and in an effortless and understated healing, he instantaneously grants her prayer. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” It is in the woman’s clarity of understanding and will that he sees her faith, and it is that which leads to her daughter’s healing. That is the blessing that she came to take.

But in it, as he that gives, Jesus is also blessed, for in the mercy he gives, he finds the fulfilment of his ministry clearly recognised; in mercy, he is revealed as the Messiah of both Jew and Gentile. The woman’s faith brings with it a glimpse, as of a rising sun through clouds, of the Easter promise that brings about God’s new covenant with the whole world, the revelation that the Kingdom of God is not restricted to some distant future, but is incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So what of us. What does this story tell us of our role in the Kingdom of God?

I hope we don’t identify too closely with the disciples, assuming we know what Jesus is thinking and his motivation, and sending people away before they’ve had a chance to approach him with their own story, and their own understanding of who he is. Our task is to draw people to him, whatever their nationality, need or narrative so that they can seek his mercy face to face, and be blessed.

The person we need to identify with most closely, is the Canaanite woman, to know ourselves to have a special place in God’s Kingdom, and thereby have a voice in seeking his mercy for ourselves, and for those who are without a voice, like the woman’s daughter. It may be we can do this in something as simple as the persistence of our prayers for those who need to know God’s healing touch. But the chances are we are called to a more personal and practical call on God’s mercy where we are both the one who calls for it, and offers it in Jesus name. We already work through the Foodbank for those who need the mercy of emergency food provision, but there may be more to it than that. What mercies are required to change the root causes of their hunger, be it marital or mental breakdown, unemployment, debt or lifestyle? Equally there are people who feel themselves to be treated like stray dogs because of the circumstances of their lives, perhaps on the streets, or in hostels, or in refugee camps; where is the mercy with which we seek God’s action in their lives?

There are many mercies, and many healings, for which we may need to work, and all of them should point back at who Jesus is. In seeking and providing God’s mercy for others, we enable the future to break in on the present, the now and not yet of the Kingdom to be fulfilled in Jesus life with us. As we receive, for ourselves and for others, it is Jesus who is blessed because he is revealed for who he is, the merciful Messiah of us all.

 

 

Tuning-in to God – Matthew 13 v1-9 and 18-23 Romans 8 v1-11

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Tuning in can be difficult and once we’ve found the right frequency, what we hear can be difficult to listen to and/or accept! (As true for divine guidance as cricket!!)

 

I have spent much of this last few weeks listening.

In the last week I’ve spent a few concentrated days fulfilling a long-standing commitment to take an annual personal retreat. I have sat in warm, dry surroundings and listened to the sound of rain on a flat roof, and then the creak the next day as the sun warms and dries the wooden construction – listening to the same building respond to the changes in the weather. I’ve also tried to listen to what God is saying in and to my life, and my ministry; why it is I am with you for the next few months, and what that might mean for you, and me; how might it grow us? This sort of spiritual listening is not just something to do one week a year, but something that I try to do all the time, it’s just easier to reflect on the big picture when you take a concentrated run at it!

In the last few weeks, I’ve also been trying to listen to what God has done, and is doing, through you. You as individuals, and you as a church, a community working together to extend his Kingdom on earth. It is helping me to discover who you are, what it is that makes you tick and gives you life and growth, and where there may perhaps be stuff that is making life difficult, and growth limited. It is about listening as a third party observer to what God is doing through the pattern of your lives, and it too is an ongoing process.

Much of all this listening is about tuning in to what God is telling us through the practicalities and problems of our everyday lives, the typical issues that we face. Tuning in to what God is saying can be tough, not least because the noise of the many things that have calls on our time and energy constantly try to crowd him out. We have to remember we’re not using a nice modern DAB radio, giving us crystal clear reception at the press of a button. It’s a bit more like good old analogue which requires much twiddling to get a clear reception, especially if we’re on longwave trying to tune in to the cricket commentary! Sometimes, as with that image, God uses the very ordinary things with which we interact regularly, to speak to us… if only we’re tuned in.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is using ordinary, every day imagery with which his listeners would have been very familiar, to explain to them the part they are called to play in the Kingdom of God. Unlike us, they were used to the imagery of someone walking a field, sowing the seed corn by hand. They’d have known that whilst the field would have been roughly ploughed and prepared, such a distribution method meant that some seed would fall prey to the birds, shrivel among the rocks, or be shaded out by weeds, rather than grow to productivity. But knowing something is true is one thing, but understanding that it might have spiritual significance is another, which is why Jesus said, ‘the one having ears, let them hear’. Were they really listening, had they really tuned in to what Jesus was saying about their specific role in the kingdom of God?

Hearing spiritually is related to the concept of deep listening. Deep listening is the idea that we listen with compassion, hearing not just what is said, but how it is said; recognising what needs to be said, and knowing how it might best be expressed to be heard. We listen to understand and we listen with intention, specifically the intention to act appropriately based on what we have heard. In other words, to open one’s ears is to open one’s heart, to the person speaking and to God, at one and the same time. Jesus the teacher, is ending the parable by telling the crowd to listen not only to understand, but also to act on the teaching, to obey, and in this particular case by obeying, participate in the manifestation of God’s kingdom on the earth.

As Christians, we can do this multi-tasking mode of listening, because we have the power of God working in us, the Holy Spirit. It is this that Paul is referring to in the passage from Romans this morning, when he compares the focus of those who are concerned purely with matters of the ‘flesh’ and ‘sin’ with those whose focus is matters of the ‘spirit’. Through God’s grace, we are gifted this ability to discern and focus on God’s concern for the world and his desire that we might all know life and peace, but it requires continual practice on our part to stay tuned to God’s frequency.

The Holy Spirit runs on a frequency that can be counter cultural and prophetic, to the life of the church, and/or to the way the world hears itself. As Christians we need to listen to each other’s joys and pains, fears, aspirations, and experiences – as individuals and corporately as a church. We need to do so with compassion and honesty, and with ears tuned to what God is saying to us, so that we can know whether, and if so how, we can contribute positively with guidance, healing or hope. It might be a personal contribution to the problems being faced by particular members of the fellowship, or it might be wisdom that helps us work out the direction and focus of mission in this church. It may require us to do something extra. It may actually need us to do less of something. By doing this spiritual listening, our journey with God becomes a life-giving adventure to extend his kingdom, reaching out to others in ways in which they will recognise as inspired by our love of Jesus, and his love of them.

Often when God is trying to speak directly to us about our own lives, he will do so through what we might describe as intuition. We have to respond positively for anything creative to come of what might be called a ‘holy hunch’. Sometimes we may need to create some space, some silence even, to listen prayerfully to our own experiences, or we may need to be patient wait for the pieces of a jigsaw to fit together as we discern the way forward in a complex situation. But I can also give testimony to the fact that it can be a moment’s sudden realisation that something spiritually significant has just been either said or done, and it’s in the moving forward with that promise that our lives are changed by God.

My listening here at St. Mary’s so far has suggested several things, but I’m not going to share all of them with you this morning. There is a need to be ready to listen corporately, and honestly, in the months after the new vicar arrives, to where and how God wants his kingdom extended in Eversley, in Derby Green and further afield – and to how that dynamic is going to work. But another thing that has struck me, is that for some people, consciously making space for some personal holy listening to God could be helpful. I’m no expert, but I’d be happy to use this book that’s been helping me, to facilitate others to do that too, so do chat to me later, or when I’m back off holiday, if that’s the case, and we may be able to create some plans for the autumn.

The law that brings life, is ruled by the compassion and love of God, and the mechanism for making that compassion and love available both to ourselves and to others, is our belief in the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to tune in to what it is saying to us, a process that requires us to be open-minded to this grace-filled gift in the ordinary occurrences of our life, and open-hearted to the needs of others. So, anyone with ears, let them hear.

 

 

 

 

Doing the right thing – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end Romans 7:15-25

Printer issues!
Printer issues! (Right on cue as I post the sermon on the blog, the laptop can’t see the printer – and Graham’s at the cricket!!)

Doing the right thing doesn’t involve un-necessary guilt.

I have a constant and irritating problem, and it involves a computer. Well, to be precise my laptop and our printer. Quite regularly the former will not talk to the latter, in fact frequently my laptop can’t even see the printer. Over the months we’ve had the current equipment configuration, Graham has patiently shown me a whole raft of things that may be the source of the trouble, because it’s never quite the same thing twice. But I’ve a poor memory for tech stuff, and you can bet your bottom dollar that when he’s frantic to meet a marking or report deadline, it will be the moment I simply can’t make them talk to each other whatever I try, with a deadline of my own to meet. I feel guilty interrupting him to get him to fix it, he gets grumpy solving the latest glitch, and I feel more guilty still. Then some time later, problem solved and deadlines met, he gets guilty that he got grumpy. We both feel that we can’t seem to do anything right.

It can be the same with the ordering of church life. Those who have been called to and accepted positions of ministry and authority from those around them can, if they are not careful, live with a constant sense of guilt that they are able neither to fulfil the preferences and desires of every person in every pew, nor bring immediately to fruition every sensible and spirit-filled practice that prayer and prophesy lay on their hearts. We get grumpy, and we feel even more guilty. We think there is no good in us, and we can’t seem to do anything right.

Likewise, when we first hear and read this mornings scriptures, it would be very easy to be left with the feeling that we can’t do anything right.

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he’s dwelling on the fact that however much he, or historically the people of Israel, are aware through the Law (the Ten Commandments) that guides how they should live and what the right things to do are, they fail. The Law has in fact been there to show them just how wrong they are, time, and time and time again. From the Old Testament we know that each time Israel has been rescued by God, from starvation, slavery, and exile, it’s not long before they’ve forgotten the faithfulness of God, and they’ve wandered off to place their faith in idols and other gods, only to call on the name of the Lord once again when things turn sour and difficult. We are rightly challenged that we’re pretty good at doing the same thing, and surprised that St. Paul sees himself as being as guilty as any other Jew of his time, or any other man or woman of our time.

In fact, there’s almost a sense of relief for us, in the slightly tortured, guilt ridden words of St. Paul; relief that we’re not the only ones who may spend quiet hours wandering in our heads around the inside of our lives, our motives, our lack of faith, our inability to give enough of ourselves to others, or do the right thing. He may have been externalising his own thought processes to talk to fellow Jews living in Rome, but he couldn’t have highlighted his own failings and humanity better; or ours.

Our Gospel from Matthew this morning also seems to start by suggesting we can’t do anything right. In a conversation that has come out of John the Baptist enquiring from prison as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah, we find Jesus pointing out that their combined ministries have shown the Jews of their time to once again be a fickle generation. Both have been refused a hearing because they are uncomfortable to listen to, and failed to conform to the stereotypes of the current zeitgeist. Nothing changes. People still have a strong tendency of making a song and dance about their own populist agenda, refusing to consider an alternative focus or reason for their endeavours, and forgetting the love and faithfulness of God. We just can’t do anything right.

Or can we? Are we in fact making our things just way too difficult for ourselves, dwelling on our repeated failings, living with a misplaced guilt that suggests that we’re not achieving the right things, and the fact that we have sinned and constantly fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and all he has called us to be?

It is all very well admitting defeat when we can’t fix the computer, being honest about our failure to be always patient or loving towards our family and our neighbours, or knowing we’ve simply run out of our own ability to give because of our own health issues, but if we forget that under the new covenant we don’t encounter God in a list of rules and regulations but in the grace that revealed his love for us through Jesus Christ our Lord, we’re making our burdens heavier than they need be.

Living with a constant sense of guilt is not a cross that we are called to bear. Yes, we recognise that following the example of Christ can lead us through a narrow gate to a hard road (Matthew 7:14), and that we must take up the cross of whatever ministry we are called to fulfil in Jesus name, because not to makes us unworthy to call ourselves Christians (Matthew 10:38). But that road and cross should not include a load of un-necessary guilt.

Jesus, the gentle, prayerful priest in the second part of our Gospel this morning (Matthew 11:25-30), reminds us that we are called to learn from him, to be his disciples, not just in the things that we focus on doing in his name, but through knowing ourselves loved by God through having Jesus present with us on the journey.

The invitation to discipleship is about more than learning or knowledge, computers or even the ordering of church life; it is the adoption of a way of life that is expressed in terms of doing and being something in relation to Jesus. Jesus grounds the invitation in his own relationship with his Father (Matthew 11:27). The proper ordering of our relationship to Father and Son (we know the one through the other) can be deemed “light” and “easy” because an improper relationship to them surely makes for a much harder and more restless life! We ask ourselves what is our relationship with Jesus showing us, and if we forget the ongoing love, grace and forgiveness of the cross and resurrection, we’re missing something vital.

We do not rest in the presence of an absent master, but in Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). Doing the right thing requires us to remember why it is we gather around the table as the body of Christ, each individual, each called, each receiving the body and blood of Christ not simply in bread and wine, but in the sense of knowing ourselves to be chosen, forgiven and loved as God’s own children. That is what makes our burdens light, and lets us rest. Knowing ourselves, and those around us, as loved and forgiven, all made in God’s image and called as individuals but yet part of this corporate body, can dispel the load of un-necessary guilt. Yes, we are then called to practice that which we know ourselves to have received in Jesus, and that is what makes the road a hard one. Of course we will at times fail to meet his ideals and ours, but Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all, for all people and for all our fallings-short. The right thing to do is to remember that we can always and continually return, lay our failings and our guilt at the foot of his cross, repent, receive and turn with a lighter load, to serve him afresh.

“Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:25)

 

Receiving Jesus, Being Jesus – Matthew 10:40-42 and Romans 6:12-end

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Among the welcoming things at Eversley, is a Sunday morning parking place!

Some words shared with the lovely people of St. Mary’s Eversley on this first morning of my deployment, when the Gospel seemed appropriately themed to ‘welcome’.

Of surprisingly personal interest among the welcoming congregations were a couple we last shared ministry with over 20 years ago, when we were involved in starting and leading the church plant that is All Saints Warfield together!

I have spent much of this week receiving a lovely welcome from various groups and individuals around St. Mary’s and Eversley, and I have to say it has been great to meet, and sometimes pray with, a few of you. I suspect the welcome will last a little longer, as there are many I’ve not yet met, and groups I’ve not yet been to. I look forward to each occasion.

But, I wonder what you are welcoming me as? A priest and curate, yes. The ‘temp’ filling in a ministry gap; true indeed. Anything more than that? A prophet? How many of those have you met recently? Someone helping you prepare the soil that will mean you reap a harvest of holiness as you extend the kingdom of God?! Sounds grand, but soil preparation tends to be hard, muddy, back-breaking work.

But you know that, because you’ve been doing it yourselves, with and for each other, and your community. For years, in many cases. But, has the work that you do for each other meant that you’ve stopped recognising the welcome you receive from each other? Do you receive each other’s gifts with the grace with which they are offered? It’s all very well welcoming me, but how do you receive the gifts of time and talents that you offer each other, Sunday by Sunday, week by week, from parent or fellow parishioner, from a child or a churchwarden? Do you see Jesus in them? Do they see Jesus in you?

Our Gospel passage this morning comes at the end of a tough, hard-hitting series of mission instructions to Jesus’s disciples. They’ve been taught about the mixed-reception they may receive when they arrive in a new place, the promise that at some point there will be rejection and suffering, and the challenge of discipleship, both in what they are called to do, and in its impact on their family life. But this last little passage then highlights those disciples who are just as ‘sent’ as all the obvious ‘twelve-disciple’ leader types, but whose field of opportunity is closer to home, less visible or heroic, and so often undervalued. This passage is for the disciples who simply keep on handing out the life-giving water of ongoing prayer, hospitality, planning, practical and financial support, week by week, and year by year. The almost invisible members of interdependent parts of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12).

The passage that we heard from Romans this morning seems to be dominated by the language of slavery. Not the drudgery of doing the same old tasks all the while, but our obligation to obedience. It’s about obedience not to our own natural, unthinking way of doing things that Paul sweeps up in the word ‘sin’, but to the way that God calls us to do them. There’s the knotty little word “righteousness” in this Romans passage, and in the Gospel, a word that theologians have spent centuries wrestling with. Yes, it’s about each of us being right with God. But there’s something more binding than that emphasised in Paul’s writings, something that keeps us enslaved, indentured if you like, to God. It is the new covenant of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, a covenant justice of love and grace that should be revealed in, and through,… us. The good purposes of our creator God, is putting our world to rights; bringing righteousness.

You might well poo-poo that statement given the gloom of news headlines, but God is working hard to bring the world back to something that more closely resembles his original intentions for love, beauty and peace, and we are part of that work. God’s covenant work of re-creation starts with us being transformed from within, with our thoughts, actions, and faith being changed, little by little. It means that we need to work hard, and perhaps against our natural instincts, to look for the itinerant Jesus, in those of no fixed abode; the prophet Jesus, in the words of a child; the healing Jesus, in the brief companionship of someone we meet on a walk; the broken Jesus in everyone and anyone, because we all carry hidden burdens.

Through the challenges presented in these and many other encounters with Jesus, through the discipline of trying to recognize Jesus in the most difficult of characters, we are changed. We become instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13), but also come to see the welcome we receive from them, in the trust they hopefully offer in response to us. With them, we come to know ourselves in receipt of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life. But the really amazing thing, that which some of us may forget, and which is part of our journey to righteousness, is that we realise others see and meet Jesus in us! For, in the opening words of our Gospel, “he who receives [or welcomes] you, receives [Jesus].”

It’s easy to forget that people should see Jesus in us. What we do, however seemingly insignificant, should make Jesus visible to others. Our obedience, our slavery to speaking and acting in ways that Jesus taught, with his love and grace, perhaps repetitively, hopefully with humility as well as occasionally with a gentle challenge, enables others to encounter Jesus. It can be hard, thankless work, and if we’re honest, we frequently won’t know whether, or how, the image of Jesus in us is recognised or received by those we meet.

In some of our activities we can perhaps make a direct connection between ourselves and Jesus and think that it’s just possible that others can see it too; things like the funerals ministers take, the time we spend sorting or serving at the food bank or in leading children’s work, the spiritual and physical nourishment we offer each other in Life Groups, all speak loudly of Jesus. But it’s perhaps more difficult to see God doing anything as we buy and prep the food for lunch club, boil the kettle for the coffee we serve, arrange the flowers or ring the bells at church, sing the slightly tedious alto line, or hand out a hymn book? Can people see Jesus in those actions? I hope so, because they too are contributing to the welcome we give people, people in whom we try to see Jesus, who are changing us towards righteousness, and making us more like Jesus ourselves. It is in relationship that we find Jesus, and grow towards righteousness.

The evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that yes, Jesus is alive and visible in Eversley. But it’s important to recognise and celebrate the fact. There’s something about being acknowledged for what we contribute, that helps us to feel valued, and to strive just a little harder to be a bit more Jesus-like in what we do and give.

So, thank you for the welcome you’re giving me, in all sorts of little ways, because in those things you do, I am seeing the patience, the sacrifice, the love, of Jesus. But please remember to thank each other too, and then practice the gifts you give each other on the stranger, your neighbour, the man driving the tractor down the lane who needs the space to pass, the woman struggling with screaming child in the supermarket, and a hundred other little encounters during a week, so that just perhaps, they too will discover that they have received Jesus.

 

Leaving the family – Romans 6:1-11 and Matthew 10:24-39

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My final blessing at St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit – every priest gives God’s blessing clutching a pink sparkly balloon, don’t they?!

Last Sunday it was time to leave St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit for pastures sort of new in Eversley. I’ve been so busy since picking up the threads and meeting new people that I’ve not stopped to say thank you ‘in print’ to my Old Basing family for their generosity, patience, love and companionship during the three important first years of my ordained ministry. It has been something to treasure, together with the physical gifts I was given.

So here, for the sense of completeness is my leaving sermon: 

There are times in our lives when we have to explain some tough truths to people we love, and they aren’t always easy to live out. We might not all be parents, but we are all someone’s child, and whether it is as a parent or child, an employer or employee, a trainer or trainee, there will have been times when we’ve felt we needed to explain to people we love, that the cost of that love is that the nature of the relationship needs to change; or alternatively that something specific needs to be done by one party, which will of necessity change the dynamic of close relationships. It isn’t easy, but it is healthy. It’s about love, but it’s also about sacrifice.

Our Gospel this morning, is both an explanation and an example of this sort of ‘tough love’. After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is taking time out with his disciples to teach them about the expectations that will be made of them as they do God’s work with him, and then are left with the responsibility of taking it forward as his relationship with them changes after his death and resurrection. If our lives are going to reflect his, then the cost of that mission will be tough at times, require changes to our relationships, and involve sacrifice to bring about something new in God’s mission on earth.

If we’ve chosen to place ourselves here this morning in what we might term our “father’s house”, gathered to share in bread and wine at his Son’s table, then we’re telling each other, and the world, that we are a disciple of Jesus. Other people know we’re here, so it’s not like our faith is something we wish to keep hidden. Indeed, we might find ourselves challenged by some people, as to why we bother?! Hopefully we can respond by talking about what we understand Jesus to have done for us in his death and resurrection, and the new life we understand ourselves to live in as a result of our relationship with him (Romans 6:4).

That’s great, as far as it goes. The challenge then becomes what that relationship requires of us. The life of discipleship has to have an intensity that is parallel to that of the bond we have with Jesus. This is what makes whatever small bits of work God wants us to do, as vital as our time spent with God in prayer, worship and in receiving the sacraments. To become an apostolic witness, according to Jesus, is to experience the intensity of a relationship in which the teacher is in a sense reproduced in the student. Taking Jesus as the teacher, and ourselves as the student, C. S. Lewis put it like this: “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw people into Christ, to make them little Christs.” To do that, requires making sacrifices that at times take us out of our comfort zone, and/or away from our family a bit, and possibly into places in which we confront unexpected challenges. By making those sacrifices, we learn afresh what is means to trust the God who knows and loves every sparrow in the air, and every hair on our head (Matthew 10:29-31) – however many, or few, we may have!

This morning, I can’t help but make this personal. I was called here to St. Mary’s for my curacy because I am a disciple of Jesus. The church, an organisation which tries, at least at times, to follow the teachings of Jesus, wouldn’t allow me to play it safe and stay at home if I was to live up to my calling to ordination. I also knew that if I was called to serve the huge variety that exists among God’s people, staying in the lower church traditions in which I had grown up, wasn’t going to be helpful. As a consequence, the last three years have at times been challenging. Some of that challenge has been God making ME think about what I believe and do. I have to say you’ve made the pain very easy to bear, because you’re a lovely, welcoming, positive bunch who have seen a few curates come and go in your time, and you’re open to some of their wilder ideas… and shirts! But I’m also aware that some of the challenges have been for others, like… Fr Alec… and all of you too, and I really appreciate that too.

I’m not sure I’ll always have it quite so easy elsewhere, but to move forward with God there has to be this turning away from you; a loving, supportive Christian family who I will miss. It’s not easy, but it is the cost of discipleship for my family and I, as it is for you. It is part of the cost of being a training parish, and indeed of breeding ministers from among your own too; they depart all too soon. The other part of the cost you bear for setting your fledglings free, is to pick up on those parts of God’s mission that we have discerned together are important, which may mean more stepping out of comfort zones in different ways.

If we were to take an example, a fairly obvious one would be Messy Church. It may well not be your thing. You may not see wrapping wool around a bunch of nails tapped into a bit of wood in the shape of a cross, or getting kids to spell out ‘Hosanna’ in painty hand-prints as particularly worshipful, sacramental or part of being a disciple of Jesus. But for people who may not understand what worship or sacrament means, or for children who with perfectly valid reason, struggle to focus or sit still, there may be no other way in which they can hear about and meet Jesus. The personal cost of discipleship, in this example, isn’t just about helping make a Messy Church happen with offers of practical help to the team committed to taking it forward. It might be about inviting our neighbours and friends to come to Messy Church, and then coming with them – even if it’s not really your thing. If you are used to going round and cooking a meal, or giving a lift, when a family is in crisis, or you’ve recently volunteered to hand-out Who Care’s leaflets in the shops or at the carnival, bringing a family to Messy is just another way of being a disciple of Jesus. And it will change your relationships with our neighbours because you have to keep on doing it; once is unlikely to be enough for them to start wanting to learn about Jesus without continued encouragement!

Doing things we don’t necessarily want to do, or feel comfortable doing, is part of the sacrifice that is required of those who follow Jesus. Just as we have to leave the parent-child relationship of a training parish with a curate, so we need to build new relationships with people who don’t yet understand the love and grace poured out through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Just as the people who make up our personal family units change over time, with additions and subtractions, so does our church family. Those changes, alter the relationships and the dynamic of how our families work, quite often in a lasting way, and, at least in part, this is what Jesus was saying to the disciples in our Gospel this morning. My hope and prayer, is that just as you have nurtured and changed me and my ministry over the last three years, and as we share in the pain of parting, so you too will know yourselves and your ministry to have been changed by the experience, just a little, so that together as the body of Christ we will continue to share in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

Be heroes of hope – Matthew 9:35-10:8 and Romans 5:1-8

Today has been the last time for the foreseeable future in which I will support the North Hampshire Downs Benefice before my deployment to Eversley. All ‘lasts’ are tough, but after a week visiting the battlefields of Flanders to a backdrop of news coverage from the UK of the horrors at Grenfell Tower, it has felt especially difficult to find words appropriate to the moment.

My thanks to the congregations of All Saints Odiham, and All Saints Tunworth for their usual warm welcome. I will miss my itinerant ministry as I go forward to a new phase of ministry. 

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Poppies of Remembrance in The Upper Room of Talbot House, Poperinge, Flanders, Belgium

The poppies are flowering among the fields of Flanders. No longer do they inhabit the acres of muddy ground strewn with the debris of battles only recently silenced, but instead they have been pushed to the field margins, replaced by neat rows of potatoes, flowering profusely in the summer sun like the pristine white tombstones of the Commonwealth War Graves they surround. Just as the debris of battle is now largely pushed beneath the soil only to be unearthed by deliberate excavation, the poppies have been sidelined – the now traditional image of blood and sacrifice more profuse in museums and merchandise than they are in the fields where initially they covered the death and detritus of war.

I have spent the majority of this week in Flanders, staying at Talbot House, better known as TocH, the chaplaincy and “Every Man’s Club” that lay in Poperinge, behind the ‘allied’ trenches in World War I. Designed as a study tour focusing on ‘peace and reconciliation’, it became for me a pilgrimage as I retraced in part, the steps my great-uncle trod with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment over the Messines Ridge in 1917 and again, this time in retreat, in 1918. Yet, standing on Thursday, watching the dragonflies dance over the pristine white lilies in the Pool of Peace that now fills one of the 19 mine craters whose explosion was the opening salvo of the 1917 offensive, I was only too well aware that the scene 100 years before would have been in as stark a contrast as, say, a burning tower block against a night sky.

The Rev’d ‘Tubby’ Clayton, the resident chaplain of TocH, was a man whose response to the horrors and suffering of trench warfare was at least two-fold. Firstly, he highlighted and celebrated the equality that lies between all people before God and between each other, for as the sign still reads over his door, “all rank abandon, ye who enter here”. Christ, the kingdom of God come near, died for all, no less for the Private, than for the Major or the General, and called as disciples Matthew the tax-collector to work alongside Peter, James and John the fishermen, who came together in proclaiming the kingdom.

‘Tubby’, also travelled among the “harassed and helpless” men in front line units, bringing with compassion the strength that comes through making visible the grace of God, and with it hope that in enduring their suffering they would come to a better place, in this life or the next. In the front-line confirmation classes and the prayers, this shepherd reminded the sheep that not only was Jesus standing with them in their suffering, but was present in their daily acts of heroism and survival among the horror they endured.

Today, rather than staggering through the mud and gunfire of Flanders, the “sombre national mood” (to quote HM The Queen) reels from the horrors of another seemingly random terrorist atrocity, followed all too closely by the even greater devastation of a towering inferno of sub-standard housing. Where I wonder are the poppies? Have they been sidelined to the field-edges of our consciousness, our yearning for the cost-effective productivity of ordered lives pushing aside our awareness of the inequalities that lead to unnecessary deaths? Where I wonder is the peace that grows like lilies on a pool, only when the violence stops?

The world needs more men and women like ‘Tubby’ Clayton, who with gentle good humour and the warmest of welcomes, can highlight the need for equality and the call to share equally in God’s kingdom building. His work continued through the foundation of the TocH communities around the world, and their focus on fairness, friendship, service to others and to the Kingdom of God, as well as the rebuilding of a church and community at All Hallows’ by the Tower after the horrors of a Second World War.

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‘Pool of Peace’, Spanbroekmolen Crater, Messines Ridge, Flanders, Belgium

When the debris of the initial horrors of the Manchester Arena, London Bridge, and Grenfell Tower have been sanitised and tidied away, we need to make sure our memories of the issues that caused each are not sidelined like so many poppies in the edge of a Flanders field. We are called as disciples of Jesus to remember that whilst we may first share the grace of God close at hand among our own communities, we are sent through the power of the Holy Spirit, to support, or even be, the heroes who offer hope, who speak and stand for equality among all people, equality of life, not simply in death.

Let us not wait for the enquiries and recriminations to cease before looking at the gaping holes created by the mine-field of social deprivation and the self-serving isolation, before realising that we are called be Christ on the front-line of our communities, so that through faith and endurance where we find it hardest to face what we encounter, we contribute to a pool of peace that will be the harvest of hope restored, not just to our land, but to the world.