A new commandment – a ‘crafted’ sermon

My creative output has done better than blogging of recent months, not least due to the death of not only my wonderful father-in-law but of some good friends. However, to my great surprise, I keep selling items via the Etsy I started in January, particularly on the seashore theme; indeed I’ve received and completed a couple of commissions. More of the developments on that score soon.

Often life and ministry inter-twine; one speaks to and feeds the other, and my sermon this week is a good case in point. Reading around this week’s passages led me to a ‘weaving’ theme, and thus, unsurprisingly, to Dorset Buttons. The sermon needed a visual aid – not least as it was to be preached outside in St. Mary’s churchyard – and so a new ‘button’ design was created, and first a wall-hanging and then earrings formed themselves.

My ‘Celtic Cross’ wall-hanging. Yarn is gorgeously soft and stunningly coloured Malabrigo Caracol Merino ‘Whales Road’ via Beaker Buttons, the beads were mostly gifted, and the seashells were four Purple Topshells from Weston Shore, Southampton and a larger type of Topshell (I think) from my stash.

I don’t suppose for a moment that the design is a new one, but it was one I worked out myself, without recourse to instructions from Jen Best of Beaker Buttons, or the Henry’s Buttons team, so for me at least it’s a significant step forward. Both scales worked well, and I will try and create some more of each.

Celtic Cross earrings on silver hooks. Yarn is a small hand-died batch from Jen Best at Beaker Buttons, which I bought some months ago.

The sermon itself is below; it is reasonably specific to our context as parishes, and as much for reference for me, as it might be of spiritual or missional use to anyone else – although the wider post-pandemic vision will resonate for many. It does sow another thought in my head (or perhaps that should be ‘sew’ an idea?), but I need to work that through much more and discover whether it’s viable before sharing it widely.

A new commandment – weaving on the framework of our faith.
1 John 5: 1-6 and John 15: 1-17

Some of you will be aware that in the last 6 months or so, I have found & started to develop new creative skills & ideas, based (increasingly loosely) on the heritage of Dorset Button making. 400 years ago making buttons to adorn the fine clothes of the gentry and the work-wear of craftspeople and labourers, was a valuable cottage industry. Today the same skills are being revitalised as artworks in their own right &
feeding the creativity of many, particularly but not exclusively, those with a strong connection to nature.

The process of Dorset Button making sees a ring bound in thread and then spokes created through which an intricate or random pattern can be formed. This is then embellished with whatever you have to hand. For example I have lots of beach-combed seashells to use, and I’ve acquired many beads!

The sermon illustrations propped at the base of our churchyard lectern. (Photo credit: Graham Hartland)

Similarly, the writer of 1 John 5 binds together faith in Jesus, with love of God, love of one another, and obedience to God to create a complex but beautiful picture. Faith in Jesus, and the pattern with which that is threaded into our lives, is the framework onto which the beauty of love and obedience can then be woven. But like all intricately crafted patterns, it can be tricky to see how we might bring something so creative to life ourselves – except at the cost of a lot of time & effort.

If we have chosen to take part in this worship today – in whatever format suits our circumstances – then we are responding to the love we have experienced and understand as being from God. In doing so we are self-identifying as “children of God”. Sharing in worship (weekly or daily) is part of the framework that brings faith to life in our lives. Of
recent times we may have (even if grudgingly) learnt new ways in which that framework can support our lives. We might be a bit wonky and uneven at times, and need the occasional knot tied when threads part, but we know ourselves to be loved by God and respond with faith.

The author of 1 John 5 doesn’t offer details of what the love that should adorn that framework of faith will look like. It seems like he expects us to know God’s commandments. We do, don’t we? But in case we need a bit of help, the lectionary handily offers Jesus’ summary of them in today’s Gospel; that “we love one another as Jesus has loved us”
(John 15:12). Jesus has indeed shown us examples of what this love might look like, through his ministry of healing, feeding, offering forgiveness, and raising the dead.

Jesus was being obedient to the pattern of life that God had sent him as the Messiah to fulfil. As God’s only begotten Son he came into the world by the “water and blood” of human birth, the same as you and I. But having been with God from the moment of creation (Colossians 1:15-18), the pattern of his example would be completed through the pouring out of blood and water of his crucifixion (John 19:34, Colossians 1:18-19). Our life as children of that same God comes into
being through the framework of faith, and the beauty of the love that we exhibit as our lives form their pattern, should be similarly Christ-like, perhaps even cross-shaped.

Jesus’ “new commandment” to love one another, as he loved us, is about creating within ourselves as faith-full Christians an image which is as close as possible to Christ’s pattern, but in our own unique style and colours. But we can only weave it, by listening to God carefully through the power of the Holy Spirit so that we understand the intricacies and difficulties of what it is that we are called to be and do. As with Jesus’ crucifixion, the biggest test of our faithfulness and love of God will be at the most challenging points in our lives and the life of our community. Loving as Jesus loved us will probably court opposition and controversy, but probably not violence and death as it does for some in the world!

So what does all this mean for us today as individuals, and perhaps more particularly as a fellowship of Christians? Jesus was giving his new commandment to his disciples at their last meal together, somewhat unusually hidden away from prying eyes – perhaps as we have been for too long. Here was worship and teaching to sustain them for what lay ahead, for what really mattered. Of course, Jesus normal rule of life saw him perpetually on the move: having individual conversations, occasionally in people’s homes; bringing healing to people on streets and in leisure facilities like the local baths; teaching forgiveness and justice on hillsides as well as in synagogues and temples. This private conversation was all about equipping his disciples as they went out into the world after his resurrection!

Over the last year our worship has been forced out of our church buildings, but been found to speak into people’s lives through video-streams and paper bags, as well as in blustery churchyards. I know many of us want to get back to singing in the warm, but should that be our main aim if we have been given a pattern to follow that involves loving others in our communities, as God has loved us?

Of course we need our church buildings as places to do things that serve our communities, not least the beautiful examples of the Foodbank at St. Barnabas, and even St. Mary’s hosting socially-distanced teacher interviews for CKS on Wednesday this coming week. But the fellowship we share in the buildings we love, that ‘worth-ship’ (giving God worth) that we may be so keen to return to, looks
dangerously like us doing the things we love, rather than focusing on the sort of love Jesus would have us show to others, a love that doesn’t involve making other people conform to ‘our way of doing things’, but is obedient to the pattern that God wants us weaving in the life of our
communities.

I am no more comfortable with what I’m saying than many of you will be; but as Jesus showed us, love isn’t about our own survival, as individuals or indeed as church fellowships. For those of us on our church councils, when the pressure is on us to meet attendance and financial targets, it’s very easy to inadvertently start equating God’s love with getting bums on pews, money in the offertory, and metaphorically (or otherwise) propping the walls up!

The love that 1 John 5 is talking about is world changing, indeed world conquering – and if we look at our world, it jolly well needs to be! For the faith we profess in our worship not to be contradictory, or lacking in integrity, we must remember that it’s God’s love that we are sharing not on our own; it’s no more about what we love about being a
church fellowship than it is about the buildings use! When was the last time we as Christian fellowships changed someone’s world by bringing them to faith, and an understanding that God loves them?

It’s going to be tough, uncomfortable & difficult weaving beautiful acts of love onto the framework of our faith, the faith that has sustained us through the last difficult months. But if we truly believe that we are loved by God as his children, it’s time we started working out what new threads of obedience we need to use to make the cross of Jesus sacrifice for us visible, and find the embellishments that will draw people toward the beauty of his love.

Valuing livestreamed prayers – with resource links.

Probably the greatest spiritual joy to come from lockdown, and we have and we will continue with it into the future, are the prayers that we’ve livestreamed daily at 10am from the Facebook pages of St Barnabas Darby Green and St Mary’s Eversley.

On the days I lead them (currently Mondays and Thursdays, though it can vary a bit) I try and download the recording from Facebook, and then upload it to my YouTube channel. This is because social media can become very excluding to those who don’t engage that way, but do have computer access. In this way I know I’ve extended our praying community to those whose lifestyles don’t mean they’re online at 10am!

Livestreaming prayers from my office

The community that connects and engages in prayerful support of each others , and those we name in our intercessions, is drawn predominantly from those communities, and the town of Yateley which connects them. I am well aware that people sometimes dip in from far further afield, either because of friendship networks, or because of their own need to be nurtured in their faith.

Praying from my garden (or my Dad’s) in the summer was lovely, and once I’d purchased a microphone for my mobile phone (that cut out some traffic noise but not the birdsong) of real value. Sometimes I’ve even managed to lead prayers remotely, from the churchyard or the hill above St Mary’s Eversley one glorious morning in early autumn, from my car, with the phone afixed to the car door, and from the churchyard of All Saints Minstead, (where I grew up) when the need to support our wider family meant we were there during the school holidays.

It can mystify passers-by when you turn your car into a studio, and start ‘talking to yourself’!

This outdoor worship is always appreciated, I think because it gives people a lens into our lives as ministers and is an example of fitting our prayer lives into our ordinary lives. For those with mobility issues, it also takes people who can’t always manage it for themselves out ‘into the countryside’. I hope it creates a more holistic environment for those who are watching, though the opportunities through the wet autumn and winter is more limited, so it is an occasional treat rather than the norm!

On Mondays I tend to use parts of Common Worship Morning Prayer. In the middle of the week I kept with the local tradition of using prayers from the Ffald-y-Brenin Community in Wales that they’ve now also made free (download or paper versions) for the situation in which we are all living. Wednesday and Friday prayers are now led by lay colleagues, sometimes from church, sometimes from home, and sometimes whilst fishing!

Initially I was also leading prayers on a Friday and for that I adapted prayers from the Iona Abbey Worship Book (available as a book or download). I was particularly struck by their prayers for a Friday that places people in a church building, and affirm that even if the walls were to crumble God still dwells within us. This seemed particularly for the context of lockdowns where people can’t pray in church, which some find particularly difficult to accept. So whilst my pattern of online prayer has moved from Friday to Thursday, I’ve kept with that liturgy as both the tradition from which it comes, and the words themselves are appreciated and seem so pertinent to the context of our restricted lives during the pandamic. Perhaps when this is all over, I may offer something else. If you want to experience it for yourself, an example of the livestream recording is here, and the liturgy here:

So, if you want to join us, on Facebook at 10am daily and get a reminder when we go live, do ‘like’ our pages. If you’d prefer to stay off social media, then this is my YouTube feed (also comes with wildlife videos!) Feel free to avial yourself of the liturgies we use via the links above, and join us. It’s always good to know who is with us, so do please use the appropriate comment facilities so we know where you are, and if appropraite, what your prayer needs are, so that we can pray not just with, but for you.
Go well and God bless.

Intercessions for the last Sunday in Trinity 2020

It’s rather nice to have the opportunity to write some intercessions from scratch this week. So, in case they are of use to others, herewith an approximation to what I will share in a pre-recorded part of our worship this week.

A detail from the screen at St Mary’s Eversley where this week’s service will be livestreamed from, recorded intercessions and all!

If you do use them, in this year or any other, please let me know where and why, and I will remember you in prayer as we share in this ministry together.

Based on the Lectionary readings of 1 Thes 2:1-8 and Matthew 22:34-end

In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ,
let us pray to the Father.

We give thanks for those who had the courage to share the Gospel with us, making known the love of Jesus Christ, and helping us to grow in faith and trust in you as our God and King.

We ask you to strengthen those for whom proclaiming the Gospel is dangerous, to the point of having their livelihoods, loved ones and lives threatened, that they might know the courage that comes from seeing others come to faith, prayers answered, and their trust in your justice and mercy fulfilled.

May we, from the safety of comfortable lives, learn to spot the opportunities you give us to share your Gospel, and do so both with boldness and with grace.

God of love
hear our prayer.

We give thanks for those who actions proclaim the Gospel of your love as loud as their words, bringing light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness, nourishment where there is hunger, hope where there is despair and life where death creeps through the shadows of damaged lives.

We ask you to inspire and encourage those who lead this and all nations to do so with a constant check on their own motivations, a willingness to withstand encouragements to deceive those whose lives have been entrusted into their care, and a humility that doesn’t allow praise, flattery or greed to influence their decisions, their words or their actions.

May we know, with them, that you Lord test our hearts in what we think, and say and do and inspire us all to live out your Gospel of justice, mercy and humility.

God of love
hear our prayer.

We give thanks for all those who work or volunteer in the caring professions at this time, whether in hospice or hospital, care home or college, school or street corner, laboratory or lounge.

We ask you Lord to strengthen their healing hands and hearts as they bring comfort to those in distress, inspire them to explore new ways to bring wholeness to broken limbs and lives, and courage when difficult issues are brought to life.

May we know what it is to be patient with those who are given into our care, to nurse tenderly the pain of those who share their frailties with us, and to pray faithfully for those whom we can’t minister to in other ways.

God of love
hear our prayer.

We give thanks for those whose lives touch ours with fun and fellowship, with love and laughter, with kindness and comfort, in this community and beyond.

We ask that despite the barriers, real and imagined, you will enable us to be bound together as a supportive community, listening to and acting on the needs of others, caring for your creation as revealed in the countryside around us, and encouraging those for whom life feels wasted or wasteful.

As we remember in a moment of silence the needs of those known to us who are grieving, suffering in any way, or struggling to fulfil their vocations to your service and the service of others, may you Lord also help us to know what practical or private assistance we can offer to meet their needs…..

God of love
hear our prayer.

Merciful Father,
Accept te prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ the Lord.

Greenbelt ‘Clapping Creed’ (‘We Will Rock You’ rhythm) and Lego Easter Garden

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Lego Easter Garden at St. Barnabas, 2019 (photo credit: Graham Hartland)

During Palm Sunday and Easter Day family services, Graham and I have taught St. Barnabas a form of the Creed that involves clapping to the rhythm of ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen. We also built a Lego Easter Garden to illustrate the Easter story from Luke 24:1-12 for the children, so some photos are here too.

We came across this ‘Affirmation of Faith’ via the livestream/video of the Sunday worship Greenbelt Festival in 2018, which was based around the 70th Anniversary off the Windrush migration and more recent scandals. You can enjoy the whole service at https://youtu.be/JJGxA9S0U6k but to watch specifically what we’ve called the ‘clapping creed’ you need to watch at 38.42 to 40.24.

This morning we’ve woken to a request from one of our young children for the words so they can learn it, as they ‘can’t find them online’. We couldn’t find them either, but at the time I’d written them down – so they are now. If anyone at Greenbelt knows who we can credit for this please let us know! [Edit: It’s great what tweeting a blog post can teach you – apparently Andrew Graystone is the one to be credited with this! Hopefully Andrew is happy that this is written down and shared to enthuse children in their faith.]

Apparently we’re going to be asked to do it at Messy Church soon, and obviously we need to teach it to St. Mary’s Eversley too!

We believe that God Creator (‘We will rock you’ Creed)

Rhythm: Thighs, thighs, clap, get this going first – and then keep the rhythm whilst doing the actions!

We believe that God Creator
Spoke and brought the world to birth.

Christ has died (arms out like a cross),
Christ is risen (raise arms up over heads),
Christ will come again (jazz hands).

We believe that Jesus Saviour,
Lived and died with us on earth.

Christ has died (arms out like a cross),
Christ is risen (raise arms up over heads),
Christ will come again (jazz hands).

We believe the Holy Spirit,
Soaks the world with love and grace.

Christ has died (arms out like a cross),
Christ is risen (raise arms up over heads),
Christ will come again (jazz hands).

This we share with every Christian,
Throughout time in every place.

Christ has died (arms out like a cross),
Christ is risen (raise arms up over heads),
Christ will come again (jazz hands).

 

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Close-up of our Lego Easter Garden, based on Luke 24:1-12 (photo credit Graham Hartland)… those are definitely NOT fairies, they’re angels!!!!

Christmas Intercessions

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The Chapel at St. Mary’s Eversley at Christmas

It amused me this year when one of the churchwardens in one of my current parishes commented that he’d found some intercessions for Christmas Morning on the internet, and that they turned out to be mine! I’d completely forgotten I posted them in 2013, or noticed how popular that post was at Christmas!!

So, to continue the ministry of sharing resources, here’s a set of Christmas Intercessions I wrote and used for Lessons and Carols this year at Darby Green.

Christmas Intercessions – 2018

God, born as a baby,
we pray for children who cry and are not comforted,
for parents who fear for their children’s future,
and for the lonely who are scared to let people into their lives.
Infant Jesus, help us to have compassion on each other,
to overcome our own fears, and to find ways to shine your love
into the lives of those we meet each day.

Loving God, we look to you.
Receive our prayer.

God, for whom there was no room at the inn,
We pray for those denied shelter or asylum,
Those who are trafficked for profit,
And those for whom a safe haven suddenly becomes dangerous.
Jesus, through whom God risked all to reach us,
help us who have a voice to speak wisely,
to encourage justice, and offer hope and hospitality.

Loving God, we look to you.
Receive our prayer.

God, whose coming was announced with words of peace and joy,
We pray for a world where conflict dominates news headlines,
where the indecision of a few leads to hardship for many,
and where the gulf between wealth and poverty widens.
Jesus, in the humility of your birth,
help us to recognise where we risk adding to the world’s strife,
and inspire us to seek ways of bringing people together,
for the benefit of this community and to the glory of your name.

Loving God, we look to you.
Receive our prayer.

God, who came to bring salvation to the world,
we pray for those who do not recognise or know you,
whose hearts have become hardened to your message,
through a loss of trust and the pain of past hurts.
Jesus, who brought forgiveness of sin and the hope of the resurrection,
help us to acknowledge our mistakes,
to make room in our hearts for the apologies that others offer,
and to receive the gift of your Son as a living witness,
to the new life that you bring.

Loving God, we look to you.
Receive our prayer.

Merciful Father, Accept these prayers for the sake your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Songs of salvation #RIPAretha – Ephesians 5:10-20 and John 6:51-58

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

If you get there ‘fore I do
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all my friends, that I comin’ there too
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

The brightest day that ever I saw
Comin’ for to carry me home
When Jesus washed my sins away
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

I’m sometimes up an’ sometimes down
Comin’ for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

(Original words as noted in 1873 as sung by Wallace Willis)

“Be filled with the Spirit,…” writes St. Paul.

“As you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There is something deeply appropriate about the fact that this morning, we have in our Epistle, the words of scripture that gave rise to the term ‘spiritual’ as a musical term. In fact Ephesians is thought to encapsulate within it, poetic language drawn at least in part from early Christian hymns and liturgies. In this case, the writer of Ephesians is pointing out that when we’re fighting evil, when we’re trying to shine light in the darkest places of life, when we know we’ve got an addictive personality and need to shut out the cravings, or when we’ve been taught that indeed you must make the most of every opportunity or you’re going to be deemed a failure (Eph 5:16), then actually what we really need is to rest in the presence of God, and music, will help us overcome those things and bring us to that place of healing and hope. Music, sung, played or even participated in from the comfort of your armchair, can lift our hearts to God, giving us a strength to carry on in the face of adversity, and helping us give thanks to Jesus for the good things he has given us.

Music has the power to deliver a powerful spiritual message. We know for example, that Moses and Miriam his sister led the Israelites in singing as the means of celebrating their freedom immediately after they’d walked through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Purposefully and rightfully they give the credit to God:
“Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy.”
(Exodus 15:6)

When the slaves of the British colonies of the 17th century first received and accepted the Christian faith, seeing the links between their own plight and that of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, it was with simple songs that they too shared those scriptures, and their yearning for freedom, giving birth to what we know as “the spiritual”. There are theories as to other uses for these spiritual songs in that some people think they contained hidden references to the means of escape via the ‘underground railroad’, crossing over their ‘Jordon’ from the wilderness of slavery via the network of safe houses to the free-states and Canada; but nothing is proven. However, the very fact that those theories exist, gives us an idea of the spiritual strength gained from making sense of their own reality through singing of the difficulties which others had suffered.

That is why I would describe music is being ‘alive’, because through the experiences, words and phrases of others, it helps us to make sense of our own reality. But, it also has a life of its own which means that its use can change over time only keeping a tenuous grasp on its original meaning or context. For example, some of us will associate the song ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with the England Rugby Union Side, but it first gained that association via a group of boys from the Benedictine school at Douai Abbey. They sang it in 1988 each time Chris Oti scored, overcoming a two-year England try-drought with a hat-trick against Ireland. In the context of rugby, the song’s use has changed dramatically; the Christian message has been lost; only the idea of overcoming difficulty and hardship to gain victory has remained. Without the message of hope being contained within the context of the salvation that sees God intervening in the lives of his people, the song has perhaps lost some of its power.

Salvation, being saved from a situation of hopelessness, sometimes of our own making, makes no sense without the flesh and blood Son of God having lived and died for us. The Jews would have found the idea abhorrent because of their strict laws about blood, but they would profit from the shedding of his blood because it was the means by which the prophecy of the Messiah bringing hope to the whole world was to be fulfilled. Like yeast being the raising agent that brings bread to life, we gain life by taking Jesus into our very souls and bodies. We can do that in the sacrament of Holy Communion this morning because the words that at the time fell on the stony ground of many hardened hearts, were treasured by those who held them safe in their memory and then understood them in the light of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Jesus’ words about his own flesh and blood did not come to life until they could be sung as the song of eternal salvation.

I’m going to finish this morning with another spiritual song, this time one adopted and adapted into the genre ‘spiritual’ from a very different back ground. This was written in 1855 by a gentleman in Canada called Jospeh Scriven, as a poem to his mother in Ireland, when news reached him that she was critically ill. Published anonymously, and only attributed to its writer after it had been made popular when someone set it to music, the spiritual ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ was also about overcoming adversity, the adversity of illness in this case, by finding refuge in Jesus through prayer and in the promise of eternal rest with Christ. With the help of a darn good tune, the words also hold the spiritual truth that in and of itself is a memorable prayer about the hope we hold in salvation.

It seemed appropriate today to use a recording of a spiritual song sung by Aretha Franklin. If you’ve read or heard anything of Aretha’s life in the few days since her death, you may know that she was well acquainted with abuse, addiction and illness. However, despite these she appears to have continued to retain her faith in God, in the salvation that Jesus brought, and most definitely in the power that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” have in bringing our faith alive. As she enters her eternal rest, let us pray that we can continue to sing “thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What a friend we have in Jesus.

 

I’ve never before sung the opening to opening to a sermon as I did this Sunday, but in the context of the Epistle from Ephesians, and following the very recent death of Aretha Franklin, it seemed appropriate. Despite the less-than-perfect rendition of ‘Swing Low’ feedback was also unexpectedly positive, I think because people were moved to join in, for a variety of reasons. The unexpected testimony for whom ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ is a special song, was a great encouragement…. sometimes music enables God to reach us in the way other people and prayers and can’t. 

If you can bear it, there’s an audio of the whole sermon (with the readings first) here.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Announcement: Associate Priest

20170530_122819wThis morning 11th Feb 2018, it was announced that the Bishop of Winchester has appointed me on a permanent basis as Associate Priest in the Benefice of Eversley and Darby Green. My Licensing Service will take place at St. Mary’s Church, Eversley on Monday 9th April, rather appropriately the Feast of the Annunciation.

My husband Graham and I will remain living in our home in Yateley, my ‘sending’ parish, and the place with which Eversley and Darby Green has strong historic, social and economic ties. On paper it doesn’t look like we’ll be living in the communities I will be serving; but because of the way they relate to each other, and how the congregations are spread among them, I will be. I will also remain a Non-Stipendiary Minister – the accepted terminology in this diocese is Self-Supporting Minister (SSM) but I’m not self-supporting as I don’t anything from anywhere; and my ministry is enabled through the love and generosity of my spouse!

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My ‘popcorn’ sermon at St. Mary’s Eversley

I will be honest, for a long while I didn’t think this was what God wanted. But, it’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, or been very slow on the uptake – my call to ordination being a fine example. Whilst some significant moments in my ministry have included instantaneous recognition of God’s hand on my life, sometimes I have been too busy trying the doors that fit my dreams and/or the recommendations of those around me, or burying my head in the sand, to notice or accept the calling God is trying very hard to make obvious. In this case, as Graham and I sought to discern where God wanted me next, he opened an unexpected new job for Graham in his vocation as a teacher at the same time as the door that logically fitted it for me, closed in my face. Then when we looked at another exciting door for me, and found it very willing to open, with heavy hearts we realised it wasn’t compatible with where Graham’s new job was being affirmed and confirmed, so we had to firmly close the door I liked so much.

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Epiphany at St. Barnabas Darby Green

Cryptic, well it has to be really. If you’re interested and meet me face to face, I can explain a bit more. But it seems appropriate that such painful decisions are acknowledged in the process of discerning a new ministry, role and context. The struggles are important in themselves, but sometimes we can get lost in our struggles, and ignore the calling, the welcome, and the work, that is staring us in the face. Such is the case in this instance.

The warmth of the welcome last year when I was deployed to St. Mary’s Eversley, and the encouragements I have received over the intervening months both there and more recently at St. Barnabas Darby Green, have been a significant in me coming to realise where it was that God has called me to serve these churches. Developing a great working relationship with the new incumbent has helped too!

So, here’s to Lent, the time of preparation and penitence that suitably for me starts this week on Ash Wednesday and will lead through to Holy Week, after which I will take a week’s retreat in the run up to my Licensing for this new work. I’m looking forward to it, and to seeing where God is leading both these communities in the months and years to come.

 

Being a Saint; our part in God’s story ‘Shoebox Sunday’ – Matthew 5:1-12

It’s alright, I’ve not stopped preaching, honest.

A couple of weeks ago I sat in the pews to enjoy the new vicar at work, and then last week I took our All Souls reflective service, which didn’t really have a sermon in the traditional sense – I sort of talked at various points in the service, and not in a way that easily translates to the blog. So that’s why I’ve been a bit quiet. 

This week was back to normal though, and had the chance to preach and celebrate Holy Communion in both the churches in the Benefice; first the BCP at Eversley, and then, so that the new vicar could share in the lay-led contemporary and family services there, at St. Barnabas, Darby Green. We all felt really welcomed there, and felt encouraged by the conversations that came in response to my sermon.

In both churches they were collecting in their ‘shoeboxes’, though for different charities: at Eversley we’ve supported Link to Hope for the first time this year, and at Darby Green they were collecting for Operation Christmas Child. We were also marking All Saints day, and the reading was from the Beatitudes. So here’s all those things, drawn together (and if you want to HEAR me preach, St Barnabas record the sermon so you could click this link if you really wanted to):

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‘Shoeboxes for “Link to Hope” at St. Mary’s Eversley collected from congregation members and the children of Charles Kingsley School. (Rather foolishly I forgot to photograph the ‘sermon illustrations’ in my box before I hurriedly sealed it to go in the pile after I’d preached!)

Today is one of the nine principle feasts of the church, a day of as much importance as Christmas, Easter or Pentecost. All Saints Day is the a celebration of the unity of all God’s people, living and dead, and their share in the work Jesus started in bringing in the Kingdom of God.

We probably know the stories of many who are now formally titled ‘Saints’. One should be well known to us: Barnabas (the encourager who travelled in another saint, Paul), Peter (and the other apostles), Mary… several, notably the BVM and Mary Magdalene (sometimes referred to as the apostle to the apostles). What about more modern saints? Mother Teresa of the Sisters of Calcutta, and Oscar Romero who spoke up for the poor of South America and was martyred whilst celebrating communion in San Salvador (1980), are regarded as saints among both Catholics and Anglicans. In Anglicanism we have this week also commemorated (as we now term it) Martin Luther, particularly in this 500th year since the Reformation.

We know, or can easily find out, the stories of these people and the part they played in God’s story, the revelation of his Kingdom, the care of other people in his name. But I wonder if we would ever consider number ourselves among them? What’s our part in revealing God’s story? For this is a feast of community where we are reminded that no Christian is solitary in their belonging to Christ, or in the endeavours with which we try be God’s blessing to others in the ordinary circumstances and extraordinary crises of human life.

It is therefore fitting that for us, this Feast of All Saints is our Shoebox Sunday, when as a community we bring together in our brightly coloured shoeboxes what we might regard as the ordinary blessing of woolly hats, toothbrushes, cuddly toys and colouring pencils, to reach into the crises of lives lived without any of those things, and other basic needs like food, water, peace, or a loving family.

You see, the key to understanding what it means to be a saint is to understand what it means to be blessed, to be a blessing, to inhabit the multi-coloured cloak of the beatitudes which are our Gospel reading this morning. These opening words to what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, are not badges of holiness that we seek to earn, that create guilt (like when we don’t feel comforted at the death of a loved one), or that cause us to be frustrated (as should we don’t receive justice when we’ve been wronged). They are Jesus’ announcement of a new way of living, the fresh way that God was starting to work in the world, initially through him, and since then through the many named and un-named saints, who have put into action this mosaic of ideas.

A person or a thing is blessed firstly by being part of God’s creation, the story of God started with the living Word (who we come to know as Jesus) and the breath or spirit of God revealed fully at Pentecost, that together brought his creation into being (Genesis 1, John 1) and which he recognised as ‘GOOD’. We are each made in the image of our creator God, and all the material things that we make and are given, come from him, and therefore what we do and use as our contribution to God’s Kingdom work, is God’s work before it is ours.

Our vocation or calling, as the people of God, is to be a community that purposefully reveals God to others in our gifts and actions, as much as in our words. In doing so we should give thanks and praise to God for grace in what we do, we follow the example of love and sacrifice set by his Son Jesus in his life, death and resurrection, and also recognise the cost to ourselves of what we are doing. If those three things are happening in what we are doing, then we are living out our responsibility to love and care for all God’s people, and we become God’s blessing to them.

I’m going to use three of the items in my shoebox to relate this idea of being a blessing to others in just three of the Beatitudes in today’s reading:

Here is a packet of plasters, and we remember the beatitude that says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I’m not suggesting that a sticking plaster makes someone feel better after the death of a loved one; we know that’s not true. But there is a wide variety of suffering and pain experienced in the world today, and whilst bereavement is part of that, it can be experienced in very different ways. The plasters we offer here might stop bleeding in a wound, and prevent infection, bringing comfort and protection, so that death doesn’t become part of the situation, but the comfort we offer might just as well be pot of a flowers, a casserole, or a garden tidied… it’s just those don’t fit well in a shoebox. Each are blessings to those who mourn.

Here’s a ball, brightly coloured and slightly bouncy, and with it I suggest that we remember that “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Those who take delight in teaching a child to catch a ball, or enjoy the simple pleasure of bouncing a ball against a wall, understand the joy that can be found in such a simple activity. Perhaps in this case, the colour of the ball reflects those found in God’s creation, and the bounce form part of a simple explanation of why some materials bounce, and thus bring the joy of understanding how God’s world works to someone’s life. It is in the simplicity and complexity of the world we live in, that we can see God at work if we look hard enough, and the more we do that, the purer the hearts with which we can bless others with that joy.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God, and so I’ve got a very small, soft toy here, trying to create a less slimy reputation for frogs as a species! You laugh, but soft-toys like some animals can be source of calm and peace with which healing and reconciliation can break through. How may of us have used a soft toy to pacify a wailing child, or held on to our own much loved and dilapidated teddy to quell our own feelings of anxiety or loneliness at times of crisis? To be a peacemaker we need to step outside of our own selfish ambitions and vested interests to focus on tis characteristic of God’s love and desire for a world were different communities can live ‘cheek by jowl’ in harmony with each other. I’d love to visit the UN one day and give all the world leaders a plushy, and an hour of silence, to consider one thing their country could do to comfort the greatest need of a country they are at war with or supply arms to! All God’s children yearn for the blessing of peace.

Through the God-given skills of those who made them, we are purposing our gifts to be a blessing to those that receive them. Just as we will acknowledge the purposing of bread and wine to the remembrance of Jesus’ body and blood in the words of blessing over the elements in Holy Communion, so we will pray first for the purpose of these gifts to be a blessing to those that receive them. In this way they become part of God’s story, linking us with those that receive them, revealing his love for them and our understanding of how best to use the riches we have received, and hoping that in these small ways, we are doing the work of God, and therefore can count ourselves blessed to be among his saints.

Let us pray:

Creator God, we acknowledge that all we have comes from you, and therefore of your own do we give. We ask you to bless thee gifts for the purpose of bringing comfort, joy and peace into the lives of those who receive them. May they know your love in other ways too, so that their lives are blessed long-term with better living conditions, the means of caring for and making productive the land they live in, and the just distribution of the world’s resources. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, bless us, with those who will receive these gifts, in the knowledge and example of God’s sacrifice, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.