Security – Psalm 118:19-end Mark 11:1-11

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Security of faith – a cross of hope: on Holy Monday 200+ local children (plus teachers, pupils and parents) walked across the fields from Charles Kingsley School, were safely crossed over the main road by the local police, left their boots outside and came to worship in St. Mary’s Church Eversley together.

I preached this on Palm Sunday, a day when many remember the joy and hope that filled the hearts of many pilgrims in Jerusalem at the start of the final week of Jesus life. But, given all that has been going on in the world, I felt called to dwell on a slightly different theme, that of security: our security, others security, Jesus security, and the security of our faith:
In France, we could have been held hostage and shot in our local supermarket this week.

In America, at the very least we’ve possibly had our social media hijacked and our news-feed manipulated for political gain, even if our children have survived their schooling.

Here, at home, there has been poison on our streets, and we’re defining our borders as to whether they are hard, or soft.

Security is important to us.

As an island nation, or a nation of islands, or even as a nation of nations, invaded by sea over millennia and threatened by myriad other means in the last century, what we deem as “ours” is a highly contentious issue, and that’s before we even mention the ‘B’ word.

Security, is often about not risking what we have gained, corporately or individually, financially and materially, in independence or in familial relationships. It means checking that we’re password protected, logging-in, opting out, and possibly even changing our passports!

For some, personal security is about not being bullied, threatened or abused, because of race, religion, gender or because you are differently-abled.

For Christians, personal security in some places is more an issue of life and death. In India, a woman converting to Christianity risks being drugged and raped if she refuses to return to her original faith. In Iraq Christians are torn between the risk of death in their homeland, or life without that homeland. Either that or they worship in a church with its own security guards. In rebel-held areas of Syria, security might mean living underground to avoid the shells, or it might mean not admitting you’re a Christian; that’s a freedom only available in bombarded Damascus and other government-held territory. Security you see is not a simple issue.

For Jesus, as he asked his disciples for a colt to be untied and brought to him, in his name as their Lord, any ideas of protecting his security, or theirs for that matter, were dismissed. He’d tried, somewhat cryptically according to Mark’s Gospel, to explain who he was; and then told those that seemed to understand, not to talk about it (Mark 8:27-30)! He knew the leaders of his faith were out to get him, and the Gentiles to make whatever political capital they could from this perceived in-fighting within the Jewish faith (Mark 10:32-34). But it was now time for the Messianic secret to be so no longer. This time when he visited Jerusalem, he wouldn’t walk among the pilgrims as an ordinary Galilean as he had in the past (John 7:10).

But that didn’t mean he could afford to be diffident in proclaiming exactly who he was, what sort of Messiah he was, and what sort of victory would be his. As the rich man discovered when he sought to follow Jesus (Mark 10), Jesus had radically re-defined what it was to be Israel’s king. The colt that had never been ridden was a humble king’s conveyance, for when the message was peace, not war. But it still singled him out, made him noticeable, drew attention to him, compromised his security.

He had after all developed quite a following; a following who’d seen the healings, heard the teachings, and thought they knew what he was there for; to save them. They weren’t bothered about risking his security, if in doing so it bought them their freedom from oppression and injustice at the hands of Rome. They were more than happy to draw attention to him, by laying their precious pilgrim cloaks in the dusty road for him to ride over as a king. They were just as willing to strip the locality of its vital shady greenery to mark him out as being in the same mould as Judas Maccabaeus who had driven out a Syrian king 140 years before, and re-consecrated the Temple.

Psalm 118 had probably been written in that same era. Read as it would have been said in the Hebrew and Aramaic the phraseology of “Blessed in the name of the Lord, is he who comes” was both a traditional greeting to all fellow pilgrims, and shouted in this moment an announcement of the “One who is Coming”, the Messiah. Their expectation was that this was the renewal of the kingdom of David, and aligned with the shouted phrase Hosanna, which meant “Save us!” more than it praised God, meant that Jesus’ security was compromised still further. It would have been obvious to the authorities, Jewish and Roman that they at least thought of him as their national leader in the fervour of pre-Passover excitement; now was the time for God to bring them salvation from oppression, personal and national security.

Yet, this Kingdom was no more their father David’s, than he was a heroic and victorious leader. The salvation that Jesus was bringing was no more theirs to covert and protect, than it was theirs to proclaim if they didn’t really understand the consequences for both Jesus, and for the kingdom that he was really seeking to bring in. For as the Son of God, his place was God’s place, his kingdom, God’s kingdom, the salvation he brought a surrender of his own right to life, his sacrifice the opportunity to bring the world together in peace. Security for Jesus, as he surprisingly quietly walked the Temple courts, was a security in who he was and what he was there for; the redemption, the buying back, of the whole of humanity from their fixation with their own security.

We are, to some extent rightly, concerned with our security, as people, as families, as communities. It is not unfair to expect to be safe when shopping, secure online, free from the risk of sabotage, even if there are many millions in the world don’t have that security. But just as we need to acknowledge that the world is not a straightforward place where one group of people is right, and another wrong, one nation safe and another a risky place to be, so we must accept that where we live here, we aren’t at significant risk because of our faith in who Jesus is. But does that lack of risk compromise the security of our faith in Jesus, who he is, and what he came for?

The pilgrim crowds that shouted “Hosanna!… Save me!”, were the same crowds that shouted “Crucify him!” a few days later. Uncertain as to whether Jesus was who he purported to be, confused because his behaviour did not confirm to their idealistic picture of Israel’s Messiah, and with minds narrowed by a selfish desire for their own political freedom, they were easily swayed by those that feared an invasion of the traditions of their faith. The need for security expressed by a few, blinded the many to the goodness and mercy of their God (Psalm 118:29) revealed in human form, crucifying what hope he had held for them.

If we aren’t secure in our faith in who Jesus is revealed to be through his death and resurrection, there’s a danger that we too become hypocrites, turning our proclamation of Christ the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22) into a search for prosperity (Psalm 118:25) and the security of a pilgrimage that leaves us tied to an altar of our own making (Psalm 118:27), rather than his teaching and example.

Our task this Holy Week is therefore to refresh and renew the security of our faith, and not to allow ourselves to become distracted by the individualism of our society. It is a week of pilgrimage beside our Lord, that shares on Maundy Thursday in the refreshment of shared relationships without condemnation of those who doubt like Thomas, or could turn rogue like Judas. We may not physically carry Jesus’s cross of sacrifice, but as we encounter the nails that held him there, we can seek again to let go of what is “ours” for the sake of our neighbours who need to encounter the grace of the crucified Christ… our time, our money, our patterned lives, and our prejudices. Only if we can strip away the security of isolating ourselves from the suffering of others, and our Lord who suffered with and for them as well as us, will we be able to rightly encounter the freedom of our risen Lord, and the security of knowing him as our Saviour.

Opening windows – Mark 1:9-15

 

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At the start of the service we explored what lay behind the windows of this cute picture of an Easter Bunny – my take on a Lent calendar

Last Sunday was the first in Lent, and time for a change of focus towards the Easter story and all that scripture challenges us with as we explore who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Many of us, old and young, still enjoy an advent calendar, opening the windows that tell the Christmas story, creating a sense of anticipation as we move closer to the festivities, perhaps consuming chocolate along the way, or enjoying cute pictures of candles, angels, an ox or a donkey.

Lent is a similar season liturgically.

  • I’m wearing the same purple stole, though with different symbols on it (because it’s reversible).
  • We are preparing for a great Christian festival, which we celebrate with much joy, and more chocolate.
  • But we don’t have Lent calendars in the same way. It would, after all be difficult to fit 40 windows across a picture at a scale sensible enough to be propped on the average mantlepiece (I struggled enough making 5 windows on one for the children).
  • There’s also the idea of fasting, as Jesus was forced to do in the desert, so even if we’re not abstaining completely, chocolate’s out, until we get to Easter.
  • The only animals that feature are wild beasts of the desert like jackals and snakes; no cute animals here, even if there are angels.
  • The story that leads to Easter day isn’t so cheerful either: Jesus, the baby in the manger, God made man, dies.
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Behind the Easter Bunny was the story of Holy Week… I couldn’t create a window for every day of Lent!

The idea of Lent is not to generate the sense of excitement and anticipation of Advent, but to enable Jesus to prize or tear open windows into our hearts that let God in. Through scripture, prayer, study, silence, reflection and repentance, we ask God to open windows into our lives and faith that help us understand the significance of who Jesus is and what he did through the cross and resurrection, so that we can encounter God afresh, and understand that his kingdom has in fact come near.

For Lent, my husband Graham is doing something he’s run for a couple of years now; hosting an online Lent Book Club through his blog, Facebook and Twitter. Anyone can join in if they’re social media inclined. There are some people with whom he interacts who are long-standing personal friends; some we only know through their on-line presence; several who struggle to articulate their Christian faith; some who have been damaged by ill-health or by church communities who have excluded them; some who have been faithful committed Christians all their lives and are now house-bound, struggling to find fellowship; and some with family or work commitments that make them recognise they need to take time out with God. By sharing in the Lent Book Club, all are opening windows for each other that let God in.

This year they, we, are using Janet Morley’s book “The Heart’s Time”, a book that uses poetry – religious, semi-religious and otherwise – to open up our hearts to God’s Kingdom, to scripture, to the work of the Spirit. In her introduction she writes

“Poetry makes us slow down… explore hard subjects head-on… uses irony, doubt, humour and idiosyncratic perspectives [in a way that our church liturgy doesn’t]… [allows readers] to appreciate different layers of meaning…in which each reader finds their own interpretation,… [and] examines the familiar… in a way that becomes newly strange.”

The first poem she uses to introduce the relationship between Lent and poetry is “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas, the famous Welsh priest-poet. It describes the relationship between a brief glimpse of sunshine through clouds on a showery day, and our own faith journeys. If, as is so often the case, we forget our brief glimpses of God’s beauty, the hope, mercy, light and fire of his love, then we are ignoring, even dismissing, the promise of the Kingdom of God.

God, in our fast-paced, news-packed, headline-filled Gospel from Mark this morning, where each story could be packed into the now 280 characters of a Tweet, is tearing open the windows of the Kingdom of God, and letting the brief shafts of light highlight who Jesus is, and what he has come to do for us.

At his baptism, in the form of a dove as well as through the voice of God, the window opens to reveal Jesus as God’s son, whose obedience is deeply please to his adoring Father. Jesus is the Messiah of manger-fame, the anointed one, God on the move. But in that Sonship, in language used by Mark only in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, in the imagery of death and resurrection found in baptism, Jesus is also shown to be our Saviour, the one who will die and rise again, to remake our relationship with God.

In the wilderness to which the Holy Spirit then propels Jesus, the window opens to focus our attention on the paradox that Jesus is both God and man, and therefore subject to the adversaries and adversities of life, signified in scripture though their personification as Satan. Perhaps we know only too well that any period of temptation and the pressure to do other than what God desires feels like a life-time, and the outcome is always uncertain. But for Mark, the outcome for Jesus is so obvious it doesn’t warrant a mention, because other windows, shafts of healing and hope, will show Jesus’ authority over the unclean spirits that oppress this world, and we who inhabit it.

As Jesus moves out into the villages of Galilee, he opens a third window on this new Kingdom by sensing that John-the-Baptist’s ministry is complete so that now his work, and the proclamation of its purpose, has just begun. The time to fulfil all that was promised by his birth and baptism has come; in him and through him, God made man, the Kingdom of God has come near.

  • What new windows of understandings to who God reveals himself to be in Jesus are we hoping to tear open this Lent?
  • Or do we need to stop and be observant long enough for God to break open a new encounter with him?
  • Are there brief glimpses of the promises of his Kingdom that we run the risk of missing if we don’t keep some sort of Lenten obedience, commitment or devotional practice?

Now is a good time to stop, find new windows on what God is wanting us to do in our lives, and not to walk past and promptly forget the light that shines in, but stop and reflect, take them seriously, and be changed by them. Un-shuttered windows may open on an amazing vista of hope that we hadn’t otherwise considered, or let in a fresh breeze that blows away the cobwebs of doubt or despair. The glass of a window-pane may help keep out the wild animals of a life-style or thought-world that is prone to savaging us if we don’t keep alert, or if the angle of light is just right, form a mirror in which we see ourselves as God sees us, flawed, and yet his special, precious adored child.

Because that is what lies at the heart of Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near to you, and me. We, like Jesus, are his beloved children, and with us he will be well pleased, if in Christ-like obedience we commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of tearing open new windows between our lives and God’s and allowing the Holy Spirit to flow through them shining the light of Jesus into the places that only he can reach. We are seeking to know God and his Kingdom better and better each day, so we need to be looking as hard as we would for a hidden treasure or a lost heirloom, and expect to be changed by what we discover.

There are many ways in which we can open the windows of God’s Kingdom into our lives this Lent, and doing a Lenten study, either privately, in a local community like a Life Group, or even in an online context, is one way. It doesn’t have to be via reading poetry either, there are many other study guides. At our Pancake Party at St. Peter’s and at the Ash Wednesday service, Rev’d Lerys gave out different sorts of guides (including #LiveLent daily readings from the Archbishops) to help us engage creatively in opening windows on what God is trying to do with and for us in Jesus.

‘The Bright Field’ by RS Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price,
the one field that had
treasure in. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
and imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

 

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.

 

Jesus, battling on our behalf – Revelation 12v1-6 and Mark 1v21-28

So I started our service at St. Mary’s Eversley this week by holding a line-out with the kids, to introduce the idea of conflict and that we’re in a spiritual battle. Here’s the sermon that went with that idea… there may be a slight theme to my reflections at present 😉

 

Sadly I don’t think it is simply the reference to a red dragon in this morning’s passage from Revelation that reminded me of the Welsh flag… and yes I realise that the red dragon of the Welsh flag doesn’t have seven heads! I fear it is more a rather fanatical devotion to watching the 6 Nations rugby tournament that starts next week, and the knowledge that Wales come to ‘Fortress Twickenham’ in a fortnight’s time.

In our passage from Revelation this morning, we have in prophetic vision, the titanic battle between Jesus (the baby) and the forces that seek to overpower God’s plan for the world (the seven-headed red dragon), with the faithful of a new Israel as a shocked and traumatised participant (the woman in need of God’s protection because of what she’s been involved in).

The babe is born into the world with the intention on God’s part of bringing the nations into line, to rule them with a rod of iron (a reference to Psalm 2:7-9)… like a good referee and his whistle in a rugby match; think Nigel Owens if you have half a clue what I’m talking about 😉 It’s a long match – it’s been going for a couple of millennia and it’s not over yet, for Revelation is a vision of Jesus’ second coming into the world, when he will finally complete the work of God’s new kingdom when heaven and earth are drawn together as one.

In echoes of Herod’s attempt to kill the infant King of the Jews in Matthew 2 which are thwarted by God’s intervention into the journey’s of both the Magi and the Holy Family, here the danger posed by the forces opposing God personified in the dragon are circumvented by the salvation story being compressed into a single moment, birth, death and resurrection, happening in the same instant as the babe’s ascension to God’s throne.

The woman is not a re-incarnation of Mary; the visions of Revelation are way more multi-layered than that simple analogy. More; she is both Eve, the original mother of all human life who’s “seed would one day crush the serpents head, according to Genesis 3:15, and she is daughter Israel, the bride of YHWH, the personification of both the faithful Israel who struggled to remain a holy nation, and ultimately the redefined Israel, Jew and Gentile alike brought together in the church, the bride of Christ, the fellowship of those who have responded with hope to Jesus authority in his first encounter with God’s creation. It is she, us indeed, that have been left to go through the painful birth-pangs and battle of bringing about the completion of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus, in his lifetime, right from the first days of his ministry, understood the nature of the conflict that all those who battle on his behalf have to deal with. He witnessed it himself, and he acted with authority on our behalf, and he still does, breaking down the forces that wreak havoc in individuals, communities, and continents through mental illness, addiction, abuse of various kinds, and racial and religious hatred. Sometimes it is those locked into those frightening situations who are most aware of when it is Jesus who is taking the strain, pushing back the powers of darkness, and helping them break free; those of us on the outside are perhaps blind to the significance of what is said and done.

Which was oh so true in Capernaum’s synagogue in our Gospel this morning. Yes, the language is medically outdated, but the imbalance of power between any illness and our human weakness, between one spiritual realm and another, is not. Those who witnessed this young man take an unusual tone of authority all of his own, without direct reference to scripture or the wisdom of his elders as the scribes did, did not understand from where that authority came. That is why they did not recognise the incongruity that lay in this Jesus from Nazareth being hailed as the Holy One of God by the very powers that Jesus, fresh from wilderness, already knew were ranged against him.

It is good that in this typically brief account from Mark’s Gospel, we see the importance of those with what we would now describe as mental health issues being welcomed into the worship, prayer, and teaching of a community of faith, because it is there, or should I say here, where the possibility of encounter with Jesus is hopefully heightened, through which they might find healing and freedom.

The church should be a safe place for those who need Jesus’ help. Whether gathered in one place like this morning, or flung out like stars around our communities, battered by the tail of the dragon that is heartbreak, illness and despair, we too need to know we have God’s power and protection by the very fact of being the church. As the people of God we have one another to turn to for encouragement, strength and wisdom. More importantly we have the person of Jesus quietly sat there with us in every situation, listening to the powers of darkness speak.  With his gentle authority as the Messiah, he offers us the understanding that can challenge those who use the name of Jesus inappropriately, who try to manipulate situations to undermine his credibility, and can help counteract with modern medicine, the force that ill-health of any sort has to over-power us.

The vision of Revelation is yet to be fulfilled. In the now-and-not-yet of God’s work of re-creation, Jesus has not yet returned to complete God’s task. The woman that represents us, God’s faithful worshippers, is still in child-birth, and thus we still have a very intense battle on our hands, faced as we are with powers who in all their multi-headed awfulness, don’t want the authority of Jesus to be revealed in it’s fullness. This is no rugby match, no game, but we do have a referee with God’s full authority; Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, who was,… and is,… and is to come. Amen.

With thanks to the Tom Wright and his Revelation for Everyone, as well as other commentaries, which helped me to unpack the Epistle enough in this sermon for several people to comment that they actually understood it as a result!

For the liturgically interested, we’ve delayed Candlemas to next week, so we can celebrate it in our All Age service.

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.

 

Getting out from under the fig tree – John 1:43-51 and Rev 5:1-10

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I was grateful when after several attempts I located some figs late Saturday afternoon – else my introduction was going to have to be changed!

 

Service intro:

I’ve got a puzzle… I’m going to describe something to you, and I want you to tell me if you think you know what it might be.

It’s a bit bigger than a ping-pong ball, but a shape that is something of a cross between a football and a rugby ball, so one end is round-ish, and one end is oval-ish. The oval-ish end has a small stick in it. The round-ish end possibly has a slight hole in the middle, like a miniature cave disappearing inside. The whole thing is a green-ish, purple-ish, brown-ish colour.

Any ideas? (Hopefully blank looks.) Even vague ideas?

Get out a fig. Shhhhh, if you know what it is! Go through the description again.

Do the words make any more sense when you can see what I’m talking about? Yes, great. No, take the blame for poor description.

Any ideas now what it is? Hopefully someone, child or adult, might know it’s a fig.

There’s a big difference between just hearing something said, and actually seeing it. There’s a bigger difference still when we can eat and taste the thing… but that will have to wait until after the service. [Pray for us all to both hear and see Jesus this morning.]

Sermon:

Nathaniel had been watched.

It was perfectly sensible to sit in the shade of a spreading fig tree. You might sit there on your own, making the most of the peace and quiet for meditation and prayer. You might sit there with friends or a teacher, for a quiet discussion. It was perfectly normal in the climate and culture of the time, and would have excited no comment at all.

Yet, Nathaniel, under a fig tree, was being watched.

The story of the law and the prophets that he had heard read from the scroll in the Temple or Synagogue, might well have been explained to Nathaniel under a fig tree by the rabbi of his community. It was also quite possibly a place where he’d have learnt the prejudices of his elders, listening to their stories of the rivalry that existed between villages. Nathaniel had heard, and learnt, many things, about God, about his religion, and about his community, whilst sat under a fig tree.

But whilst he was sat under a fig tree listening to others, he was being watched… By Jesus.

Of course, Nathaniel didn’t know that. All he knew was that today his friend Philip was full to bursting with a bit of news. Philip and his friends thought they’d found the person who would fulfil the prophesies of Isaiah, the promised ruler for King David’s throne, the Messiah (Is 9:6-7 and Is 11:1-5) But it was just that, news. Something else to listen to.  And the fact that Philip said this person came from Nazareth fed all the prejudices that Nathaniel had learnt; Philip’s excitement was just words, easily dismissed,… until Philip said “Come and see”.

Sitting under a fig tree listening to others was no help. Getting up and discovering that the man Philip spoke of had been watching and listening to him without him being aware, made a significant difference.

It was only when Nathaniel had been drawn away from his place of safety under the fig tree, the place where his hearing senses dominated, that he is able to actually see the truth of Philip’s words, and use his natural abilities as a down-to-earth Israelite to recognise Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah. There was no point just using words with Nathaniel, he had to see for himself.

In some senses Jesus was just like him, a down-to-earth, blunt-talking Israelite who knew his scriptures. But Israel’s purpose as God’s people had been to provide the means of bridging the gap between heaven and earth, repairing God’s broken creation, initiating God’s rescue plan among people’s who were intent on destroying God’s handiwork. Unfortunately Israel was a little too hung-up in it’s old prejudices, rather more intent on reciting scripture than getting out and looking to be it’s fulfilment. Until he got out from under the fig-tree, Nathaniel was a good representation of an Israel too fractured and hidebound by tradition to be able to break the seals on God’s rescue plan.

Jesus was the image of what Israel should have been, had indeed been created for. What Nathaniel saw in Jesus in those first moments of personal engagement, and the realisation that Jesus had been watching over and listening to him for a significant period, was the power of Israel’s royalty, combined with a gentle vulnerability that enabled people to encounter him on their own terms. Jesus: the lion and the lamb, something to be spoken about, and something to be seen for yourself; a true Israelite of the house of David and the ‘lion-cub’ tribe of Judah (Gen 29:9), and the slaughtered sacrificial lamb of Passover, through whom Israel was saved, and by whom all the people’s of the world would now be bought the opportunity of new life. Jesus was a piece of news worth getting out of the shade of a fig tree for.

  • Only Jesus could show Nathaniel that he was visible and listened to by God.
  • Only Jesus could be both the lion and the lamb of Israel’s people.
  • Only Jesus could provide from Israel the fulfilment of God’s original creative intention to heal the world and it’s people of the broken-ness which had become endemic.
  • Only Jesus could bring about a new covenant and a new kingdom that would start to bring earth and heaven together.
  • Only Jesus could enable us to sing a new song to God as the priesthood of all believers.

We are being watched.

It’s perfectly appropriate to have places of meditation and prayer where we feel at peace. It’s perfectly reasonable to sit in the shade of a metaphorical fig-tree, listening to and discussing what it is that scripture says about the future. It’s indeed not uncommon for those discussions to wander off and feed our own prejudices about different elements of the community we live in.

But it’s worth remembering that we are being watched, and listened to, by Jesus.

If we haven’t already, soon we’re going to have to leave listening and talking behind, get out from under our fig-tree, and go and meet the Jesus who has been watching and listening to us, and knows us through and through, prejudices and all. Are we ready to see more? Are we ready to encounter the power of the lion and the sacrifice of the lamb?

Some of us have got out from under the fig tree before. We’ve recognised that through those that come and talk to us, we hear news about what God is doing that is worth going out and seeing for ourselves. But when the fig tree provides plenty of shade from the heat of the sun, and life wears us to a frazzle, a little comfort and company can do wonders for our energy levels. However, then we have to remember it’s not necessarily where we’re going to encounter Jesus. We have to get up and go meet the next piece of good news.

I can’t necessarily tell you where we must go to find Jesus, but it means knowing we are being listened to and seen by Jesus as we work out where we go, and will involve listening to and seeing others. Part of that starts over the next ten days as our two PCCs coming together to listen to each other and God as to the direction we go in making sure Jesus is seen in our communities, our mission and our worship. A small group of us are also going to listen and help Jesus and this church be seen at the wedding fair at Warbrook House next Sunday.

There will be other things. It might be sitting and listening to children read in school, seeing whether the school want people to return to gardening for them, or joining the Open The Book team so that the children meet Jesus. It may be that we have to spend time finding a non-threatening way to tell the people who come and sit under the local trees about Jesus, like the horse-riders who frequent Church Green, or the families who use the play area. It could be that in encouraging the community to recycle things the council won’t accept, and finding a site and a mechanism for doing so, we might be more like Jesus himself, bringing healing to God’s creation. Whatever the things are that we do, they will be a new song, a song that lives and celebrates the power and the sacrifice of Jesus, if we not only listen to what people say, but also go out and meet Jesus, the lion and the lamb.

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

It’s not easy talking about money, especially in a church, but the parable of the talents is first and foremost about money. I also wanted to talk specifically about the way the Church of England and the Diocese of Winchester is using it’s money, so all pretty ‘hard’ stuff.

So I also wanted something that brought the ideas alive creatively… so I stole my own Pentecost children’s talk, and got the popcorn maker out! The children loved the first bit (and the fact they got to make more after the service), and even some of the adults left church thoughtfully munching handfuls!

CHILDREN’S ACTIVITY BEFORE FIRST HYMN

Get children to identify popcorn.
What’s is it?
Is it edible as it is?
What do we need to do with it to make it edible?

Run the pop-corn maker.

Get the children to look at, and describe the popcorn (before they eat it!)

How has the popcorn changed?
How much bigger is it than it was?
Is there any that is still hard and horrid because it hasn’t popped?

This is an illustration that I sometimes use at Pentecost, when we remember the work of the Holy Spirit, so you might just see it again at school. What I want you to remember today is that God changes us, makes us spiritually bigger, perhaps a little softer in our character, and definitely grows us through what we learn about Jesus, and through what Jesus teaches us in his life and stories.

So, as the children go to their group in the hall, let us pray that all of us this morning will be changed by what we learn from and experience of Jesus, so that we can play our part in the Kingdom of God. Amen.

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

SERMON:

At the beginning of the service I made popcorn with the children and we looked at how most of the kernels get hot and expand to become much softer and delicious, but a few stay hard.

Cast your mind back to my little popcorn illustration with the children, and then think about the Parable of the talents that we heard in our Gospel this morning. What do you think the tenuous connection, or connections, could be?

Take answers.  Don’t offer an answer.

Listen to this, and see if the point I’m making, if not the tenuous connection itself, helps you grow, puff up and be spiritually a bit softer and tastier this morning? Hopefully you’ll be able to play your part in God’s Kingdom more fully as a result.

When Jesus originally told the Parable of the Talents, he was speaking to the people who concerned him most at that particular point in time. It is just before the Feast of the Passover, in what we now know as Holy Week. Jesus is only too well aware of the fact that he is about to be killed by the religious powers of his day. Why? Because they are refusing to accept that the wonderful promises that God had made to the people of Israel – regarding it being a light to the whole world through the gift of a Messiah – are being fulfilled in Jesus. The wealth of wisdom and insight handed down through the faithful patriarchs, prophets and kings and interpreted in the laws, rules, theology and teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, was being wasted because in relation to Jesus, they were burying that wealth in the ground, rather than investing it in understanding and acting on this new thing that God was doing for and through the people of Israel. Hardened as they were to their living God (hard un-popped corn), it was they who Jesus knew would be thrown into the outer darkness of abandonment by God.

As well as considering its purpose when Jesus first told it, this Kingdom parable can be interpreted appropriately with the rest of scripture to talk about the God-given talents that we have and how we use them, and to consider God bringing judgement on us when Jesus returns, among other themes. All perfectly appropriate and useful.

Yet, at its heart, this parable talks about money, and how it is used. It’s all very well knowing that we get our English word talent from this parable, but we mustn’t forget that a ‘talent’ in Jesus’s day was money, and a lot of money at that. One talent was roughly equivalent to 15 years of wages for a labourer! That’s how much the last servant in the parable buried in the ground for a long period of time. No wonder when the master came back he was incredibly cross; even at the rates of interest that we’re used to these days, a deposit account would have netted a few quid profit!

Of course what the more creative servants did with their five and two talent allocations was not to deposit it with the bank, but to trade, or we might say today, invest it. Jesus’ language suggests a trade in goods or services, not a one off action to bury or even deposit the money, but an ongoing process that continually took decisions about what the best use of the money was, spent it on those things, received money back through the sale of those goods or services, and then started that process all over again. If we do that today with units of stocks and shares, or actual goods that we buy or make and sell on, it’s regarded as an investment and involves a certain degree of risk – risk that we’re making the right decisions, or that others are behaving appropriately with our money. Investing money can reap significantly better rewards than a deposit account, even in today’s economy, though we’re unlikely to make the return of 100% that Jesus signifies in his parable!

The word ‘investment’ comes from the same root as words like vestment (what I’m wearing, something I put on to share in the meal that Jesus offers us), and investiture, which we associate with giving people an extra layer of honour for some good work they have done. If we think about another Kingdom parable a few weeks ago, people are meant to put on new, fine clothes for the wedding banquet of God’s Son. There is a new layer of bright, clean goodness with which we are called to meet God, just as in this parable we are being asked to act in such a way that there is a new, fresh accrual of wealth with which to greet him.

Rev’d Lerys and I were hearing this week that the Church of England has stopped the old system of holding its long-term wealth, which limited its spending to the basic interest that it could earn in that way. It has decided instead that as well as being more careful where that wealth is held, the best way of resourcing the church to grow future generations of Christians is to invest carefully selected chunks of the original assets for specific projects they consider worth spending them on. Each diocese is effectively now bidding for a share of not simply the profits but the original investment, which it then has to invest wisely, not for financial return necessarily but to grow the number of people who know about and engage faithfully in a journey of discipleship with God.

As churches, as individuals, we are asked to invest similarly. The Common Mission Fund, what used to be known as the Parish Share, is designed to do exactly what it says on the tin: fund our common, shared mission as Christians across the diocese. So, the necessarily increasing amounts that each church is asked to pay from our own pockets, is invested in things like paying the wages of stipendiary clergy from Lerys to our Bishops, and funds training for not just clergy but LLMs (like Jane) and others called to a range of authorised ministries. It also goes from this diocese to those whose poverty and population are greater; Winchester offers ongoing support to the Diocese of Newcastle and our many links with the Anglican Church worldwide, not least those in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, places where we’re all aware God’s love and grace needs to be urgently heard and felt.

In our Life Groups here in St. Mary’s, we’ve spent this term questioning ourselves as to how generous we are with what God has given us, financially and other ways. I’m getting some interesting feedback that will go to PCC this week as to how our answers could change what we might term our investment lifestyle as both individuals and a church, so that we witness more effectively to the generosity of God, and work more efficiently to extend and grow his Kingdom here. Lerys too will have something to say next week about the shortfall that currently exists between what our combined financial offerings are, and the financial commitments they need to fulfil.

This is all serious stuff, a long way from a pile of popcorn (bowl of pre-popped fresh popcorn). So what’s the connection? To make the corn pop, there has to be heat (if not in this instance a flame) and a rushing wind. As the corn is turned this way and that in the heat, so it is changed, at least doubling its size, become soft, almost fluffy, and delicious. Now you know why I use this illustration for Pentecost! The heat, is the investment, the risk, the cost of turning something hard into something useful, like we are changed by God through our discipleship and the power of the Holy Spirit into something that tastes more of God’s Kingdom.

As you take home or eat some popcorn at the end of the service, please consider this week, how it is that God wants to change the way we use the money he has given us. Allow the Holy Spirit to turn our thoughts this way and that in the heat of our commitment to respond to Jesus teaching; have we looked at the amount of money we are trading and investing for God recently, or has become a static deposit we rarely consider changing, or simply been buried in other considerations and concerns?

Let us pray that as individuals, families and a community of Christians, we can wholeheartedly investing our money, as well as our time and skills, in the Kingdom of God and how that Kingdom can be extended in this place.

 

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.

By whose authority are we living? Matthew 21:23-27

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Pipe-cleaner man reminding us that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. One of the prayer stations at ‘Gratitude’ the first service at which this sermon was preached on Sunday. (‘Man’ and photo by my husband Graham!)

So this week provided the chance to talk about baptism at a baptism… sometimes I just love the lectionary! And I didn’t fall off the plinth the font is on either…

In our Bible reading this morning, it’s Holy Week. It’s a day or so after Jesus’ triumphal if confusing entry into Jerusalem as the Messiah, the Jewish king. He does so on a do nkey, to shouts of ‘Hosanna to the son of David’, or we might say, ‘son of David, save us’. But he’s not there to conquer the rule of the Roman oppressors of the Jewish people, he’s there to show who’s authority he’s acting under.

For this reason, Jesus is spending time in the most holy place in the Jewish faith, the Temple in Jerusalem, and he’s been doing things that remind people just how holy that place was meant to be, a place where God’s presence was at it’s most tangible, if it was allowed to be. So he’d thrown out the people selling things for financial gain because that wasn’t the sort of justice and freedom to receive God’s forgiveness that God wanted, and he’d been healing people, giving them a better life. Now, a group of leaders of the Jewish people who don’t like this behaviour, are trying to get Jesus to say something that puts him in trouble, so they can arrest him, and effectively silence him. It’s all a question of authority: who has the right to change the traditions that the faith leaders have built, or allowed to be built, around their worship of God? Who has the authority to heal people, God or someone else? Who holds authority over our lives?

Let’s think about the idea of authority for a minute? Some of us will remember the game ‘Simon says’ where a leader tells the children to hop, skip, jump, or any other directions and the children will DO what “Simon says”, but otherwise they should NOT do the command.

[Play: “Rev’d Rachel says…” (remember to say some WITHOUT the ‘Rev’d Rachel says’) hop, kneel, clap, jump, turn all the way round, stick your right arm up, hug someone near you.]

Explain to the children that Simon/Rev’d Rachel is the one who has the authority in this game.

Jesus knew that as God’s Son, his authority came from God, but he also knew that was exactly the answer that would get him arrested, because the leaders of the Jews thought they were the only ones who had God’s authority to teach people, to judge people or tell them off, to help people or make things better for them. Jesus also wanted people, including the Jewish leaders, to work out for themselves by what he was doing, where his authority came from… good psychology that, people learn at a deeper, more life-changing level, if they work things out for themselves, rather than simply believing or doing what they are told!

So, Jesus gives the Jewish leaders a riddle, a riddle about another man they have recently had arrested and killed. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, the other man who we hear about being born as part of the Christmas story, and the person who God had helped to preach and baptise among the Jews in the months leading up the start of Jesus’ ministry, [what was called a prophet]. John was someone whom the Jews, or at least some Jews, had understood to speak God’s truth, and had told of a special person who was coming after him who was the Son of God (Matthew 3:1-3) and would act with the authority of God himself (Matthew 3:11-12 and John 1:19-28).

Jesus asks the Jewish leaders something that could have a straightforward answer; “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Was John the Baptist a prophet sent by God, or was the baptism he offered, just something he made up, and therefore of human origin.

Baptism. We’ve got baptisms today. We know it as something that happens often at a font, where water is sprinkled on someone’s head. In some circumstances it can happen in a giant bath, pool or even a river, which is where John the Baptist did his baptisms, in the River Jordon (Matthew 3:13-17).

When John was baptising people, he was asking them to turn away from their sins, i.e. the things they do that are not what God wants, and do the ones he does want them to do; to accept God’s authority in their lives. The symbolism of water was about being washed clean, made new, renewed to live the life God wanted to give them. [If I put this very muddy ‘person’ in this bowl of water, they will come out as clean and new as the day they were made.]

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was himself baptised by John in this way, not because he had done things that God didn’t want him to do, but to show his humanity and his divinity, to show by whose authority he would work. He was just as human as you and me except he was God’s Son and therefore perfect; he had never done wrong. When John baptised Jesus he had been anointed with the Holy Spirit to do the work of the Messiah, declared to be God’s beloved Son.

Jesus was pushing the Jewish leaders to decide and say out loud that they understood what John had been doing, and that he, Jesus therefore had the right to behave in the Temple as the Messiah, the only one with authority greater than the Jewish leaders to change their traditions, and with those traditions their understanding of God.

The leaders were incredibly worried by what the crowds who’d followed John, some of whom now followed Jesus, would say: denying John was a prophet from God would make them very unpopular; admitting he was would meant the lost their own authority in the eyes of the Jewish people. That question,  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” only turned into a riddle because of people’s fear and selfishness, in other words their unwillingness to believe that God was doing a new thing through Jesus, a new thing for the whole world (John 1:15-18).

Baptism, or if we’ve been baptised as a child Confirmation or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, is a sign that we know the answer to Jesus’ question: the baptism that John brought as God’s prophet, was from heaven, it was from God. Through being baptised, and having our children baptised, we are saying we understand that Jesus was the Son of God, and that we accept God’s authority in our lives. We’re not playing ‘Simon Says…’ or even ‘Rev’d Rachel says…’ but ‘God says…’ For this very reason, when I stand at the font and baptise it may be ‘Rev’d Rachel’ saying the words, but I do it in the name of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit, the means by which we can all recognise ourselves as children of God.

So when you think about baptism, your own, or someone elses, remember that it’s about giving up your own authority, and if necessary your use and misuse of that authority, and accepting that God is the one whose authority we live under as baptised Christians. Jesus is the supreme example of how we should use that authority, to offer God’s forgiveness so others can live renewed lives, to work for healing where people and relationships are broken, and to seek justice where authority is being abused.

 

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.