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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Growing in new ground: deployed curacy

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St. Mary’s Church, Old Basing and Lychpit
I wrote my last essay two weeks ago, handed in my training portfolio a week ago, and today it was announced that I am on the move, ministerially speaking. I see the Bishop to conclude the formal element of my curacy later this month. Then, it will be all change at the end of June.

I have spent three fascinating years with the people of St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit. They have been welcoming, loving, patient and kind; a joy to know. They’ve even seen the point of starting a Messy Church, and laughed at my husband’s jokes. I was told this morning by one gentleman that my smile will be missed – a very gracious comment to one who defaults to ‘serious’ when she has a lot on her mind. Another lady reminded me that it won’t just be me going, but that my husband will be missed too; apparently he could “sell snow to an Eskimo” (as the saying goes), though I think she means ‘books to a publisher’! [You have to have seen him selling second-hand books to realise she’s right.]

My occasional, itinerant ministry around the North Hampshire Downs Benefice over the last year will also conclude next month; one Basing gentleman has described me as a ‘travelling saleswoman for God’ of recent months. Helping ease their burden during a clergy shortage, as well as my formal placement there, has given me the confidence that I can to adapt to almost any liturgical context even at short notice, and I will miss them too.

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St. Mary’s Eversley
Instead of all this, I am being deployed by the Bishop a little closer to home, and indeed to the other parish to which my itinerant ministry took me last year: St. Mary’s Eversley. They, with their sister church at St. Barnabas Darby Green, are in vacancy and continue together to look for a full-time, stipendiary, Priest-in-Charge. In the meantime they need ministerial support, and in my half-time, self-supporting capacity, I’m it for St. Mary’s. I already know I will be among friends, as there are a few familiar faces from shared ministry with my sending parish of St. Peter’s Yateley, but there will be plenty of new people to get to know, to journey with in loving God, and to collaborate with in sharing the love of Jesus. The Holy Spirit isn’t averse to using obvious geography to support God’s church, and since I live less than a mile from the parish boundary and just three from the church building, it seems such a good idea – and the alarm won’t have to be set quite so early when celebrating Holy Communion at 8am!

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The giant Redwood in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Eversley – from tiny seeds grow…
Eversley was the parish of Charles Kingsley, the Christian socialist and author of among other works the “Water Babies”, but he was also a keen naturalist – I suspect a rather more knowledgeable one than me, and certainly far better travelled. The giant Redwood in the churchyard by the simple war memorial was a seed from a cone he collected in Yosemite, that was planted after his death by his daughter!

Today, St. Mary’s Eversley is a Christian community that describes itself as ‘mixed-economy’ in worshipping style; “a traditional church… with contemporary values”. I look forward to seeking with them how they can grow and strengthen; as I know from my own youth, a long clerical vacancy does not have to be a time of frustration and atrophy, but can enable growth in discipleship and people’s understanding of their own callings under God as they ‘turn a hand’ to tasks and find giftings they never knew they had! That’s part of my story, and I expect to grow as a priest and minister with them as I become part of their story for a while.

Whilst I will be continuing to seek a permanent house-for-duty role somewhere, and my journey with St. Mary’s Eversley will be of necessity short-lived (I have a year to run on my curate’s license, which is why I’m being styled a ‘deployed curate’), I am looking forward to the adventures we can have together. Here’s to 26th June when it all starts in earnest. First come the bitter-sweet good-byes.

Financial battles – 1 Tim 6:6-19 Luke 16:19-end

I was back in Old Basing celebrating Eucharist and preaching this Sunday, before being back on the road again next week.

The Epistle and Gospel spoke about money, at times using some quite militaristic language I thought, but also about listening to God, to Jesus’ example and instructions for living a life that helps to extend the Kingdom of God. To understand my reference early in the sermon, it will help to know that my training incumbent Fr Alec has previously served as a padre in the Guards during the Afghan conflict.

2016-08-04-18-14-02I wonder how many battles you’ve fought in your lifetime?

Some, like Fr Alec and others among you will have fought in, or at least witnessed personal, armed conflict with a dangerous aggressor.

I’ve been reading my great-uncle’s diary, written at least in part during the Battle of the Somme, and it has struck me forcibly that in battle, listening to, and passing on accurately, commands and current positions is vital; you need to know when to move forward and where to, else your battle line will not be covered by supporting fire; you need to be aware of when retreat is the only option; and you need to listen to those around you, to know where the fighting is fiercest. And if those in command are ill-informed, misdirected, or won’t listen to the wisdom of those who have seen and experienced the front line, however junior their rank, then the battle becomes an even more pointless waste of life than it was already.

Many of you will have fought other battles. Battles with various illnesses, battles to get members of your family the support they need, battles of a legal nature when things have gone wrong or accidents happened. And quite probably we have all fought a battle with money in some way.

2016-09-27-12-48-03cHowever rich or poor we are, most of us will say we could do with a little more money. And of course there are untold millions of people in the world, for whom a little more money would make a massive difference. They’d be able to eat more than one tiny meal a day, perhaps have a roof over their head, and be able to afford to send their kids to school. They could leave behind sheer misery, and yes, probably be content with their improved financial lot.

For some people, much of their dealings with money have given rise to uncertainty and stress. Those of us who have lived through the massive fluctuations in the mortgage rates and styles of the 1980s and 1990s, or held savings in more recent financial crises, will know that money will come and go. Listening to best advice doesn’t always guarantee financial security, especially when the greed of a few jeopardises the whole financial system. But, the front line of the battle in individual families is always whether food can be put on the table, clothes on our backs, the rent or mortgage paid, and some form of transport be afforded to get us to work or school. When all is said and done, here in the western world, that is about ALL we need.

Money is NOT of itself evil. Money was a human invention to make the movement of goods and services easier; in and of itself, money is not a bad thing. But when money becomes the thing that we listen to the most, whether we desire more and more of it, or whether we’re in debt because of desiring more and more of what it can buy, then we’ve started on the slippery slope to worshipping it, and that is idolatry. Money isn’t evil. Loving it IS, as our passage from 1 Timothy 6 this morning famously points out.

Loving money, or the things it can buy, makes us greedy, and whether held individually or corporately, loving money will stop us having a generous heart, and that was the rich man’s problem in our Gospel parable from Luke 16. He couldn’t even make the effort to give the starving man at his gate the crumbs from his table. We’ve all seen images of starving people, those on our own streets and those around the world. Written in the pain of their pinched faces and the pattern of their skeletons protruding through thin, fleshless skin, is a picture of what greed can do – even when some of the cause is natural disaster. If we listen to our politicians carefully, we can hear greed in their words too, when the profits made from the sales of arms, far outweighs the increase of a few million in the aid budget to the very places under fire from those armaments!

So in the battles generated through the idolatry of money that leads to greed at a personal or national level, how do we as Christians decide who to listen to, and then how to act?

Money can come, and can go. God doesn’t. He is the constant. His is the voice of instruction that should guide us. In our parable, Abraham listens to the rich man in torment in Hades who has, too late, seen the revelry of his lounging pass away (Amos 6:7). Realising the error of his ways he wants to save his like-minded brothers. Unlike similar fables of it’s time, in Jesus version of this story, there is no happy ending but rather the stark reminder that the rich man and his brothers’ had failed to listen to the voices of Moses, and the prophets like Amos, who taught God’s law. The Law included among other instructions the requirement to enable “the alien, the orphan, and the widow” to collect the gleanings in a field and the last olives from your trees, “so that God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deut 24:19-20)

God has not required those who have money, or other forms of wealth, to simply give it away willy nilly. It is as possible to be a wealthy Christian, as it is to be poor one who remains financially secure. The key in battling to handle our finances with integrity as Christians, is not only to listen to wise financial advice and hope it’s at least half-right, but to listen to scriptures like those today. These scriptures, and others like them, are the battle commands we’ve been given and should lie behind all our financial dealings; to fight with our faith and our money those battles that stand for Jesus’ priorities of love, gentleness, endurance, generosity, and other good works, including feeding the hungry at our gates.

With the Foodbank, our support for Christian Aid and other charities, the occasional purchase of the Big Issue, we are caring in small ways for the Lazarus’s at our gate. But, the characteristics of love and generosity aren’t just about us behaving better towards others for our own peace of mind to show we’re better people; they are the essential requirements of being in Jesus’ army. However, it isn’t about buying our way into God’s Kingdom either, it’s about living by faith from the point that we declare for ourselves a belief in the resurrection of Christ on through our lives. We accept our place in this battle through baptism and confirmation, and we will be constantly challenged to move our financial battle lines forward making appropriate forays and sacrifices along the way, listening for the instructions both scriptural and otherwise that show us when to advance, or retreat, and where the fighting is fiercest for those around us. Those will be the places where our generosity of spirit, and our money, is needed most. There will come alive our calling to fight in Jesus’ army.

Let us pray:

Loving Lord who has given us much
We thank you for the example of generosity set us in scripture;
We repent of those times when we have not been generous.
We repent of those times when greed has made our finances precarious.
Open our eyes to the needs in the world, those on our doorstep, and those further afield,
And grant us wisdom to prioritise your kingdom in the financial decisions that we make.
Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Being Brave and Honest – like Thomas (John 20 v19-end)

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

 

We say that so easily, don’t we?

Like Pavlov’s dogs, I said four words, and to mix my metaphors you parroted the response back.

It’s easy to do isn’t it, when we’re absolutely certain that the crucified Jesus, his body bound in cloths and laid in the tomb, rose again to life – not like Lazarus who would die again, but to a life like no-one has experienced since.

It’s easy to believe because people we trust wrote that we should believe. It’s easy to know we believe because we’ve had a profound experience or experiences of our risen Christ. It’s easy to say we believe because we simply can’t face admitting – especially in church – that it isn’t, or we don’t.

Except it isn’t, is it. Easy, that is. Believing that Jesus rose again and can meet us in our daily lives, in answered prayer, in extraordinary encounters, in another’s pain, in our own pain… None of that is easy at all. Having faith in the risen Jesus, and holding on to that faith, can be really, really tough. Especially, when we’ve not necessarily seen or encountered him for ourselves.

But we do believe don’t we. We share this thing called faith in the risen Jesus, or we are at least intrigued by the possibility of that fact, else we would not be sat here this morning. We base our hopes and/or trust in the fact that the beatitude of the risen Christ that we heard this morning is: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. We rely on the fact that Jesus responded to what we so easily assume were Thomas’s doubts, and returned to a locked room to reveal his risen self, his scars, his love.

I don’t believe the hype about Thomas, or at least about his doubts being such a bad thing. We should not be derogatory about these doubts, but rather celebrate their worth: for me he is Brave and Honest Thomas, someone we need to seek to emulate, not look down upon.

When Thomas said to his friends “Unless I see him face to face and put my fingers in the hole of his and hands and his side, I shall not believe”, he was most likely just seeking “clarity”. He needed “to get to the bottom of things”, to check whether his friends had reached a point of hysteria in their grief, or whether something significant that he really needed to get his mind round had just happened. Thomas knew he had to “find his own way to be faithful to God” that involved not simply blind faith, but his intellect, his mind and a firm grasp of the reality of the situation.**

We know that “It’s… hard to own up to being the odd one out among a group of friends, and [we should recognise that] it was brave [of Thomas when he] found that he was the odd one out, not to go off, be by himself, [and give up on the last three years of following Jesus].  For a whole week he went on meeting up with the other disciples. Their faith and stories… must have made him feel uncomfortable and left out. But he still hung around.”*

It was his honesty, and that willingness to hang around with those for whom the risen Jesus had become a reality which meant that “eventually, Jesus came and met him in person. His integrity paid off; when faith came to him as a gift, it was his own and not someone else’s.”*

“Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe, whereas doubt is an honest owning up to not being convinced”, and finding that the people and ideas we encounter in this life can knock holes in our faith. “In Judaism, according to Dr. Jonathan Sacks,… ‘To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but [suggests a] lack of depth [to our faith].’ Sacks encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, [he says], “not because we doubt, but because we believe.”*

Like Thomas, we need to risk making our ourselves look foolish among our friends, ask apparently awkward questions, confess our doubts and confusion, because even when we can’t see him, Jesus is listening.

Like Thomas, we need to hang around in the places that we are most likely to encounter Jesus. In our private devotions, our public worship and other forms of fellowship with Christians, our participation in the sacraments, in our commitment to serve others, to make time to be in holy places (both natural and man-made), we need to be doing the things that mean Jesus can show up and reveal himself to us – scars and all. That may mean we’re behind closed doors at times, though that doesn’t mean that’s where Jesus wants us to stay.

Like Thomas, we may find that when we are faced with the risen Christ, we will not need to touch or “probe” his wounds, for his presence in and of itself, the encounter with his love for us, will be enough to convince us that it is Jesus.***

Like Thomas, and the other disciples, we need to be reminded that there are many people in this world who believe in the risen Christ without having seen him, and we need to honour and encourage that faith, in ourselves as much as in others: for “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Like Thomas, we are called by Jesus to be brave and honest. Jesus, appeared in the disciples hideaway the first time to commission them to go out into the world – sending them out as they were, but with the power of the Holy Spirit as their guide, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins that comes to those who believe in him as their Lord and their God. St. John’s account of these resurrection encounters gives the disciples, Thomas included, little time for hesitancy. There is no waiting around for Pentecost, no more time to struggle with doubt and uncertainty, for questions to be answered. They have to take those with them.

Acknowledging that we are both ‘Like Thomas’ in his doubts and also blessed by God whatever stage our belief in the risen Jesus has reached, means accepting our uncertainties and the questions that seem to remain un-answered, and yet STILL going out into the world to live as Jesus wants us to – as those who proclaim his name in words of forgiveness. What we watch and read on the news, shows us that there is no more time for us to remain hidden – the world needs to hear that in Jesus there is forgiveness, in that forgiveness there is reconciliation with each other and with God, and in that reconciliation, there is peace.

Lord Jesus
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
We acknowledge before you our doubts, as well as our certainties.
Help us this week to be bold in what we do,
and honest about our search to meet you;
that in thought, word and deed
we will be encouraged to
proclaim your resurrection, your forgiveness,
and the hope of peace it offers.
Amen

Sources: 

*Maggie Dawn http://maggidawn.typepad.com/maggidawn/2009/04/honest-thomas.html

**Rachel Mann ‘Thomas’ in “The Risen Dust” Wild Goose Publications

***Paula Gooder “Journey to the Empty Tomb” 

This is one of those sermons that was excruciatingly painful to preach, though it always is when I speak of Thomas. It has been significant for me to realise that Thomas, and the other disciples in this account, do not meet the risen Lord in the breaking of bread, but hidden behind closed doors. But that doesn’t mean that is where we should stay.

Lenten Array (Sarum use) at St. Mary’s Old Basing

High Altar Lent Array
The Pulpit and Altar in Lenten Array at St. Mary’s Old Basing
I was brought up with Lent being marked by church furnishings and vestments in a deep purple colour, the same as are used in Advent (and by some for funeral services).

St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit however is a church that has turned to an older tradition, as I have discovered that the purple is a relatively modern (19th century), originally Roman Catholic tradition. Instead, we use the more ancient custom of the Lenten Array where we cover the altar and decorative elements of the church in unbleached linen (or in places, it’s modern equivalent – best not look too closely!) The candles held by angels around the altar aren’t lit either.

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The Bolton Chapel, St. Mary’s Old Basing, in Lenten Array
The idea (as I understand it – feel free to correct me if you know better) is that we focus on the suffering of Christ (which is why the red motifs), our need for repentance, and is a reminder perhaps of the sackcloth of the ancients for whom it showed grief when someone died (Lent being a time when we try to be dead to our sins, of omission and commission).

In our large Grade 1 listed church, the Lenten Array means that the various furnishings of the church fade into the background of the whitewashed walls, and I am aware there is much less to distract the eye than at other times of year. One of my Twitter pals (@Turkeyplucker) suggests that this was something that Percy Dearmer was aware of when he revived the Sarum rituals at the turn of the 20th century in his search for a more authentically English catholic sense of ritual in the Church of England.

Old Sarum Lenten Chasuble & Stoles
Chasuble and Stoles to be worn with our Lenten Array at St. Mary’s
Our Sacristan was wondering if we are a rarity in using the Lenten Array, but my little conversation on Twitter this morning, and this 2013 conversation at the Shop of Fools, suggests whilst not common, it’s far from being a forgotten tradition. Salisbury Cathedral unsurprisingly (given the origins of the Lenten Array) use it, as does Westminster Abbey, St. Bene’t’s, Cambridge and the Lady Chapel at Winchester Cathedral. Closer still, but over the diocesan border, All Saints Wokingham use it, and my memory from my Reader Training placement is that just into town nearby, All Saints, Basingstoke use it too. So, perhaps we’re not so unusual.

Part of me wants to say it’s fussy covering everything up; in many of the churches I’ve worshipped in, we’ve struggled to have liturgical furnishings of any sort – in a school hall, you’re lucky if the tressle table doubling as ‘holy table’ has a covering of the correct seasonal colour! However a church like St. Mary’s is very different, and I am finding I like this particular tradition; when Easter arrives it means the sudden colour of golden vestments, floral decorations and candlelight are a much more significant echo of the Resurrection.

(When I remember to take the camera, I’ll try and get some better photos than these taken on my iPad.)

Lifting the Veil – the only ‘ordinary’ sermon this spring

Snowdrops against the East End of St. Mary's 2
On a different note:  The snowdrops at St. Mary’s are stunning at the moment.

My sermon last Sunday 7th Feb 2015 (using the lectionary readings Exodus 34:29-end, 2 Cor 3:12-4:2 and Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]) was the only ‘ordinary time’ sermon of this spring, since the distance between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday was a matter of 7 days. 

 

In only a third of the weddings I’ve had the privilege of taking, has the bride worn a veil that was down as she entered the church on her wedding day. Since my survey currently only covers three weddings, to extrapolate the assumption that veils aren’t very popular with brides today, is possibly a distortion of statistics, but I think it might be safe to say that there have been times in the history of western culture when the wedding veil has been more popular.

In the Roman era they were red to ward off evil spirits! At times they have been used to cover the ‘goods’, lest a bridegroom renege on the deal at the last minute!! Thankfully, arranged marriages are now illegal. At times veils have emphasized on the chastity the bride, and they weren’t lifted until the end of the ceremony, as a symbol we might suggest, of things to come. Today, a veil retains a little secrecy, keeping the beauty and hopefully happiness of the bride hidden from the gauping throng as long as possible. As the veil is now raised BEFORE the service starts, the symbolism is more about the bride freely giving of the inner beauty of her personality and reflecting the love she is receiving from the groom. All suitably romantic. It is nearly Valentine’s Day after all!

In our Old Testament story today, Moses is no blushing bride, but rather is forced into wearing a veil, almost permanently. He has been away from the people of Israel, talking, on their behalf, with God. Actually IN the presence of God, something that no human alive had experienced. He comes away radiant, shining with the joy and glory of the encounter. And, the people of Israel? They can’t bear to look.

Moses has with him a SECOND set of tablets on which are engraved The Commandments. They are, as it were a replacement set, for Moses had broken the first two in frustration when he had returned from a previous mountaintop consultation with God to find the people of Israel had made a Golden Calf. Frustrated by their endless wandering in the wilderness they had thought it might offer better guidance and protection for their journey, than the distant seeming Lord with whom Moses kept conferring.  But they had been firmly shown that the only thing keeping them from understanding God’s constant care over their travels, was their lack of trust in the one who had brought them to freedom.

Now, seeing the reflection of God’s presence on Moses’ face was more than their guilt-burdened hearts could bear. Gradually their leaders, and then the rest of the community come close enough to hear the words of guidance and protection that will really protect them: commandments to love God, respect each other, avoid idolatry and return as gift the best of everything God gives to them. Moses’ radiance confirms that what he is saying is authentically from God, but whilst they’re willing to accept the rules, they can’t live with such constant proof of God’s presence. So it is ironic perhaps, that it is not the people who take up veils to shield themselves from the glory of God, but poor Moses who is forced to hide from them the impact of his encounters with God.

St. Paul wants nothing veiled. In our second reading today, he has no truck with the idea of hiding the impact of God’s presence on people’s lives. Of course, he too had seen God’s glory – and in his case a veil, as of scales, had fallen over his eyes after his vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. For three days they had reminded him of his dependence on God as he grappled with belief in who Jesus really was. With his baptism into that faith, the glory of God which was the boldness of Paul’s ministry was given its freedom, transforming one degree of glory to another, changing the lives of those who heard him and saw for themselves a radically changed man. For him, there could be no cloak of secrecy about the Good News of Jesus that had revealed the forgiveness of God.

It is a brief revelation of the grace-filled glory that would be brought about by the cross and resurrection of Christ, that forms the start of this morning’s Gospel. Peter, John and James are witness to Jesus being gloriously soaked in the presence of his Father God. At the very moment when he is consciously turning his face toward Jerusalem, and another, more ugly hill, Jesus talks with Moses, who had carried the Law of the Lord to his people, and Elijah, the prophet who had challenged them to be faithful to that law. Jesus was of course to be the fulfilment of all that these two men had strived for: a new covenant relationship between God and his people that enables each of us to lift the veils we place between ourselves and the love of God.

So much of Jesus’ ministry was about healing wounds, injustice and prejudice caused by human idolatry, not perhaps of a Golden Calf, but of money, wealth and a craving for power and control. They are the reason His death, resurrection and, glorious ascension are the permanent lifting of the veil of slavery to things which harden people’s hearts, to reveal for each of us that we can be made a new, radiant creation through faith in him. As Christ died on the cross, the curtain or veil of the Temple in Jerusalem was torn in two, because with his death went the last barriers to the freedom of which, and with which, St. Paul later spoke.

Moses removed his veil when he went into the presence of the Lord God to take counsel. The cloud that veils Jesus’ glorious encounter that the three disciples fail to fully comprehend, is lifted by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when they are equipped with the boldness to speak about Jesus as the Son of God. Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians, that when anyone turns to belief in Jesus and receives baptism, their veil is also removed because their faith places them in the presence of God. If we believe in Christ, there is nothing of which to be ashamed.

This Sunday, we turn from our consideration of the birth and early life of Jesus, to a greater awareness of the purpose of his death, resurrection and ascension. As we prepare for Ash Wednesday we are asked to look into our own lives, picturing ourselves perhaps as penitent Israelites or confused disciples, and consider where we may have placed a veil between us and God. Perhaps we have made an idol of something that has become a greater priority than giving time to loving God’s people and his creation. Perhaps we can’t quite bear to look closely at who he reveals himself to be in Christ, so we ignore the need to search for a better understanding of what he asks of us. Perhaps we are confused, unsure of what all this means and frightened of where it might be leading us.

We are called to lift those veils by setting aside our idols,… by study,… and by simply trusting God, even when he might seem absent. God sent Jesus into the world, so that through faith in him we could be transformed into his image, changed from one degree of glory to another, to become more like him, day by day. We need to be willing to keep our focus on the law, the love and the glory of God, and allow it to change our lives so much that we can look at ourselves and see the character of Jesus starting to be reflected in what we think and how we act. That will be our assurance that we are soaked in God’s presence as we journey on through life.

One Holocaust, or many? #DontStandBy #HMD2016 #KS2

Holocaust Memorial Day IMG_0231Today I have lead an ‘Act of Worship’ in the Church of England VA Junior School of the parish I serve.  It has to be based on the Christian faith, but today’s brief is to link Holocaust Memorial Day  with the theme of responsibility for the wider community.(UNCRC: Article 38 – Every child has the right to be protected and cared for in countries affected by war)

Building on the fact that a colleague used the story of the Good Samaritan last week, I will be using the following material, which others may find thought provoking, or helpful to reflect on today.

Excerpt from the story of Corrie ten Boom, the daughter of a watchmaker in Holland. Here is what she says about life after the Nazi’s invaded Holland:

The true horror of occupation came over us only slowly. During the first year of German rule there were only minor attacks on Jews in Holland. A rock through the window of a Jewish-owned store. An ugly word scrawled on the wall of a synagogue. It was as though they were trying us, testing the temper of the country. How many Dutchmen would go along with them?

And the answer to our shame was many…

On our daily walk Father and I saw the symptoms spread. A sign on a shop window: JEWS WILL NOT BE SERVED. At the entrance to a public park: NO JEWS. On the door of the library. In front of restaurants, theatres, even the concert hall…

One noon as Father and I followed our familiar route, the sidewalks were bright with yellow stars sewn to coats and jacket fronts. Men, women and children wore the six-pointed star with the word “Jood” (“Jew”) in the centre. We were surprised, as we walked, at how many of the people we had passed each day were Jews…

Worst were the disappearances… We never knew whether these people had been spirited away by the Gestapo or gone into hiding before this could happen. Certainly public arrests with no attempt to conceal what was happening, were becoming more frequent…

It was [on] a drizzly November morning in 1941… that I saw a group of four German soldiers coming down the [street]. One of the soldiers un-strapped his gun and with the butt banged on the door [of our Jewish neighbours house.]… The door opened…and all four pushed inside…

[Later my sister Betsie and I saw] Mr Weil [our elderly neighbour], backing out of his shop, the muzzle of a gun pressed against his stomach. When he prodded Mr Weil a short way down the [street], the soldier went back… and slammed the door…

A window over [Mr Weil’s] head opened and a small shower of clothes rained down on him – pyjamas, clothes, underwear. Slowly, mechanically,… He stooped and began to gather up his clothing. Betsie and I ran across the street to help him… “You must come inside!” I said, snatching socks and handkerchiefs from the [street]. “Quick, with us!”

Corrie ten Boom, ‘The Hiding Place’ p67-71 (Hodder and Stoughton, 1971)

 

 

The greatest commandment: Mark 12:28-31

Listen and watch very carefully the story this lady is telling: (this is the official video for HMD2016 https://youtu.be/_mk6xNumdgc

Jesus, you asked us not to stand by
when we see people who are suffering and in need.
Help us to show that we are willing to share responsibility
for caring for those who have nothing,
wherever they have come from,
and whatever their nationality or faith.
Amen.

[My husband is a secondary school teacher who will be using different material on the #HMD2016 theme in an assembly tomorrow. It can be found here.]

Luke 4:14-21 Fasten your eyes on Jesus

“The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Jesus.”

It was 1981. We were on holiday & my Dad was buying ice-cream at a rather nice village shop at the back gates to Balmoral. As we waited, a Land Rover sped out the gates from t’big house driven by a striking blond. It accelerated, rather alarmingly, spraying gravel behind it as it turned away from the public roads up an estate track. Later that day, as the press got overly excited by Prince Charles’s first official post-wedding photoshoot with his wife Diana, we guessed that the blond in question had feared that the silver car parked by the gate to the house contained less welcome photographers. At twelve, as I avidly watched the TV coverage, it felt like I’d come within touching distance of possibly the most famous woman in the world. My adult mind sees it rather differently, and with not a little sadness.

In our gospel today, the local boy from down-town Nazareth has returned. He’d been hitting the headlines of local gossip since he’d encountered his cousin John busy baptising the repentant in the River Jordan; the little altercation between the two and the ensuing direct message from God, had caused quite a stir, which at least had filled the ‘gossip columns’ when he vanished completely for more than a month. But, he had returned, the same, but different. No longer helping his father in the carpentry workshop, he was now occupied helping the local Jewish leaders fill their preaching rotas. You can imagine therefore that there was quite a crowd at the synagogue that day – curiosity has ever been the filler of pews, just as it has become a pay-packet to the paparazzi!

A passage from Isaiah was a perfectly appropriate second reading for the day, and the congregation sat watching, in rapt expectation of his wisdom. What they got was… possibly the shortest sermon in history! At least, that’s how some of the more tabloid orientated theological interpreters have styled it.

Hearing Jesus say “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” probably didn’t seem like a history-making moment to those in the synagogue that day, but Luke by basing the rest of his Gospel on Jesus’ fulfilment of this prophesy, tells us that this is deeply significant, and therefore we need to sit down and fasten our eyes on trying to discover exactly what Jesus was doing and saying here.

Firstly, after his baptism and desert temptations, Jesus seems quite comfortable in his own skin; he knows who he is, and he knows what he’s here for. In the tension of the moment, he exudes a quiet confidence. Otherwise he wouldn’t be saying that he was the fulfilment of this famous, much longed-after prophesy. He’s going to fulfil it in a way the Jews aren’t expecting, but he’s certainly no Jonah in the sense that he’s not tried to get as far away as possible from doing what God has tasked him with. As he’s been touring the familiar countryside of his youth and now to his home town, it is worth noting that he’s chosen to bring his message first to the people who have un-knowingly nurtured it over the his silent years of preparation.

There’s two things that this can be telling us, two thousand years on. Part of it is that we need to be looking carefully among those we encounter day by day and week by week, and asking ourselves, what might God be trying to tell us through them, either through the way they act, or what they say? The second part is possibly more difficult; we need to be prepared to be recognised as fulfilling what God is calling us to be and do, in our own home, around the village, and in the communities in which we are known and respected. It won’t always be easy, but if we are looking with anticipation at what Jesus is saying to us, we need to be prepared to act on what we think the answer is.

The second important thing to note about Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, is what words he chooses to highlight from the Jewish scriptures, to succinctly define what it is he came to earth to do. He obviously feels that his Father God has called him most particularly to “proclaim good news to the poor”, to announce pardon to “prisoners and the recovery of sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free”. Those witnessing this rising star of the Jewish faith, steeped as they were in a yearning for freedom from Roman authority and the right to self-rule, largely heard this as the start of an uprising against oppression, and perhaps with a certain pride that it was a local boy that was going to finally make a difference.

Yet, we know from the rest of Luke’s Gospel and on into the Acts of the Apostles, that Jesus’ message was not in fact the one that many Jews wanted to hear – it was not a message of punishment to Gentile oppressors, but part of a larger picture and a wider interpretation of the prophesy in Isaiah, that Israel was called to act with justice, mercy and love as a light to all nations in their own age, and in the years to come.

Jesus, the Messiah, was the announcer of good news to not only the financially poor, but also the inadequate, those who feel their life is a failure, who see no value in themselves. The freedom of prisoners wasn’t an amnesty to those who have committed crimes, but the offer of release for those imprisoned by guilt, anxiety, fear, and the pressure to be someone other than as God made them. Whilst Jesus did indeed come as a healer to the physical ailments of many, he was also speaking to those who have lost their moral and spiritual direction and cannot see clearly the positive use they can put their God-given gifts and talent to. The freedom which he offered was in fact from the oppression of a narrowness of thought that offers only the quickest solution or fix, whether that be to an addiction, or to an economic, political or spiritual problem.

Today, as we sit with the Nazarene community and listen to the words that Jesus carefully chose to reveal his mission, we have to accept the challenge that in seeking to both recognise Jesus in our midst, and be his followers, we too are called to live out this prophesy just as much as he did. We mustn’t be frightened by tabloid headline creators into believing that someone is always after us for the wrong reasons, that speed is of the essence, that people respond to threats, that we can’t change the world.

In Jesus, we see God’s Son baptised and affirmed, spiritually strong enough to withstand all temptation, moving among his own people with a message that challenges preconceptions, and expects positive social and societal consequences. Yet, as we accept the presence of Jesus, the baptism in which he shared, the spiritual strength from which he drew, we have also to accept that through him we are also God’s children, and so with him we are called to seek love, freedom, healing and justice in our own lives, in the lives of the people we love most, and in the life of the community around us. Just as in Jesus time, this may happen in a way we hadn’t anticipated, and it may be a message that people initially struggle to accept, but it is the message and the mission we are called to share if our attention is fixed on Jesus.

Hilltop banquets – an Advent Sermon (Isaiah 25:6-10a and Matthew 15: 29-37)

Our OT reading this morning, sees all the peoples of the world gathered on a mountain top for a great celebratory feast, one at which only the very finest food is served. This abundance of the best is an image of the grace of God who wants to gather everyone to himself, so that they can feast together and with him.

The mountain in question is Jerusalem, Zion, the place that at the time of these prophesies was the ultimate image of God’s peace and presence with his people. Yet, it was also under frequent constant attack due to the disobedience of God’s people, and in a few short years the people of Israel would be in exile in Babylon. The prophesy looks forward to a time when the shroud of death and destruction that must at the time have seemed all-enveloping, would be torn apart so that people could encounter the sort of healing that overcomes the worst that sin and disgrace can do to distance lives and communities from their need for God’s presence. It is a prophesy of hope for which God’s people must wait patiently, and which they must be willing to share – for a mountain-top banquet with God is to be offered to everyone, not simply the Jews; all are called to the feast.

On a mountain top adjacent to the sea of Galilee, an area where both Jew and Gentile lived, we can assume perhaps that representatives of several ethnic and religious groups are gathered at Jesus’ feet in our Gospel reading. Their tears were being wiped away by the power of his healing touch in the lives of those who were brought to him injured, ill or distressed.

But, beyond these miracles, there is something about Jesus that holds thousands with him for three days without a reliable source of food. They may have been attracted to the area for the headline grabbing spectacle of a miracle man, but they seem to recognise in Jesus the possible fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy for which at least some of them will be aware they have waited for generations; the presence of the God of Israel. The banquet he offers on this occasion may only be a few loaves and fishes gleaned from those that had had the foresight to bring sustenance, but as he gives thanks to God and asks his disciples to share it out among the throng, it seems that a little goes a very long way. Yet this initial vision of God’s abundant love, will become a reality only too soon when Jesus is crucified, the temple curtain torn in two and the stone is rolled away; only then will the abundant love of Christ be truly shared among all people by his disciples.

Each year, we are reminded in our Advent preparations of who God’s world is still waiting for. The point of Isaiah’s prophesy, God’s extraordinary birth as an ordinary baby, and Jesus mission of healing and sacrifice, was that God longs to be sat at a banquet with all people. Whilst it is perfectly possible to get the attention of a few through miraculous healings, there are many for whom the needs are more basic: they need to be reminded that they are hungry before they feel faint, and they need to be fed; people live not just by bread and fish, but by their spiritual hunger being met in Christ before they reach crisis point. And it is we, his disciples that are responsible for distributing the nourishment that he provides, in the sure knowledge that there is more than enough to go round.

It is tempting to think of the mountain-top of busyness and banquets that we call Christmas as being a special time for us, God’s faithful disciples, to come close to Jesus, and despair of having enough time and effort in the festivities to share with others who seem to only join us for the spectacle. We need to recognise that Jesus came with compassion for those who are not yet his disciples, seeking to meet their hunger and needs, and asks us to prioritise those over our own. If people are going to be fed spiritually this Christmas they need to be sat at Jesus feet and receive in simple ways the very finest nourishment, so that they do not go away empty. Our role, is make sure that we are aware of the resources both practical and prayerful that we can place at Christ’s disposal, and then be prepared to allow his grace and his blessing to make that a banquet through which all who are gathered can receive their fill.

P1210016cw
St. Mary’s Old Basing is hosting it’s first Crib Festival on 12th and 13th of December where many locals will be displaying treasured crib figures and new creations. The event also features music from our local schools, craft stalls, and our popular book stall and coffee shop.

 

For a different take on the same Gospel passage, here’s what Rev’d Ally said to the students of Westcott: it’s all about the crumbs!

 

Prayers for Harvest

Harvest decorations, St. Mary's Old Basing 2014
Harvest decorations, St. Mary’s Old Basing 2014

I’ve just prepared some prayers that I hope might be used at our Harvest Festival this Sunday by young representatives of the local Uniformed Organisations that attend. 

In the spirit of gratitude and with thanks that they were initially inspired by a quote I found here by William Wilberforce (which I’ve edited marginally to make the English scan better for contemporary ears) I share them for others who might have (even) less time than I. The first two are in language that I hope is simpler, and therefore easier for younger children to read. Feel free to adapt and edit to suit your context.

INTRODUCTION:                     

The famous Christian politician William Wilberforce once said:

“Great things have small beginnings. Every downpour is just a raindrop; every fire is just a spark; every harvest is just a seed; every journey is just a step; because without that step there will be no journey; without that raindrop there can be no shower; without that seed there can be no harvest.”

Thank you God that you made this big and amazing thing we call the world. Help us to enjoy the rain, the sun, the moon, the rivers and sea, and all the animals and plants that are here with us.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Thank you God that you have made some plants and animals good to eat, if we look after them. Help us Lord, to take care of all your creation, and not to use so much of things that they run out.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Thank you God that you created in everything the potential for growth, especially the seeds that grow into plants that feed or give homes to us or other creatures. Lord Jesus, help us also to grow into people who love you, and who can encourage others to love you too.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Thank you God that in the small things of life, we can see your love. Please give courage and patience to all those who care for people and places of the world that are damaged, lonely, lost, ignored, hungry and hurt. Help us to help them and to learn how we can care for others too.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Thank you God that with life you also created death, and from the cross on which Jesus died came new beginnings and renewed hope. Lord Jesus be very close to those for whom the loss of someone or something special has created a big empty space, and fill their hearts with the seeds of your love.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.