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

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

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

Swing low, sweet chariot…

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

Swing low, sweet chariot…

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

Swing low, sweet chariot…

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

Swing low, sweet chariot…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a friend we have in Jesus.

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

“Gluten-free” Jesus – John 6:35,41-51 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

To see the broad smile our resident celiac’s face, when she received the same communion bread as everyone else this morning, made preaching a slightly ‘alternative’ sermon worth while. The gluten-free pitta bread was also popular with several others, and some suggested it should be a regular thing.

At the start of service I got the children up and talked about the selection of bread I’d got laid out on a tray:

Many of us are used to the way that Jesus describes himself in this morning’s Gospel – the “bread of life”.

It’s a lovely image isn’t it; Jesus being one of the most simple and ubiquitous sources of nourishment and therefore health and well-being that the world has. Bread. We could live on bread and water if there was nothing else. Might help to have a few vegetables to keep us in perfect working order, but we would survive.

When Jesus shared a meal with 5000+ hungry folk, he used 5 loaves of bread (as well as 2 fish). That’s all. 5000 people, 5 loaves, oh, and God’s power at work through him. The people’s physical hunger was fed, so they were able to stay near Jesus, and have their spiritual hunger nourished. It was the miracle that sparked off this conversation Jesus was having about bread – with that many witnesses, word had got around as to what he had done; Jesus knew that.

The Jews knew their history, and they knew that someone else had provided miraculous bread for their ancestors in the past. When wandering in a desert for 40 years, the Israelites had called that miraculous bread, manna. In that case, through Moses, God told the people what to do with it, and gave them just the right amount to feed them each day (in that case with quail not fish). It gave them the energy they needed to continue their physical journey, whilst they learnt the patience and obedience required for them to enter the Promised Land.

In the bit of the Bible we heard this morning, Jesus is talking about himself being a bread that helps us on our journey’s, that helps us be patient and do as he tells us, that nourishes us spiritually by being a point of contact between ourselves and God. Jesus is the sort of bread that ‘teaches’ (v45), encourages, and builds us up so that we can be more like the people God really wants us to be (Eph 4:29).

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This was my tray of breads, after one of the children had eaten one communion wafer and most of a slice of gluten free bread!

I then asked the children to come and look at the bread again, and why they though I might have laid out two different versions of each sort of bread, and got round to one lot being ‘gluten free’. Then we talked about gluten making some people ill, but that without it, bread has a habit of falling apart, so to cook it, people often use something called Xanthem Gum. I also let the children eat some of the bread if they wanted it.

If I gave ordinary bread to people who I know are made ill by the gluten found in wheat and barley grains, would that be a good thing? No! It would be unkind, hurtful and upsetting for them. It could make them very ill indeed. Equally, it would also be wrong if I didn’t give them anything at all. In both cases, it excludes them from sharing in a meal we could otherwise share together. Often, if we know someone who can’t eat gluten we give them their own special bread, or they may bring their own. However, the ideal would be to all share the same sort of bread, the gluten free sort, so that everyone receives the same, that way everyone feels included in the meal.

Jesus was “Gluten-free”. There was nothing in him, or that he did, that exuded them, turned them away, or made them ill. When people came to him, they all received the same love, the same understanding, of what was deep inside them. Whatever the people who approached him were like, sad, angry, hurt, obstructive, ill, confused, hopeless, they received the same love from Jesus, even if it was served in different ways…. the angry and obstructive would be challenged to change so that they could live more like God wanted them to, the ill and the confused would be comforted and healed. We might describe the love of God that he shared as being the Xanthan Gum that held our Gluten-free Jesus together.

We are used to hearing the church described as the body of Christ (a phrase that comes out of various teachings of St. Paul in 1 Cor 12), and by coming to share in hearing the bible, in prayer and worship, and in the wine and bread, we are doing just that, we are trying to be the body of Jesus in the world today. Being the body of Christ or all members of one body (Eph 4:25) as this mornings passage in Ephesians puts it, is also about how we live our lives, how we relate to other people, whether we’re being a good example of who Jesus was and what he came to do.

In our Gospel, Jesus is challenging those who are deliberately picking holes in what he is saying, and not looking at and listening to who he is saying he is and what he is doing to prove it. The Jews were past masters at arguing with each other, sharing what they thought, rather than listening to what others might be telling or showing them of what God was doing. That’s what had landed the Israelites in wilderness needing manna from heaven, and little had changed.

By the time St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians the problem had transferred into the Christian community. We can all think of situations where those difficulties are visible in our own families, friendships, and even dare I say it here in our church community. Why? Because being fond of our own views, getting angry, bitter or resentful when others offer alternative views or ways of approaching things, are the bits of being human that are not part of the way God made us. Local or familial disagreements are small, but they are not that far removed to many of the situations that we are so often eager to decry around the world today.

If we’ve got things in us that are simply unpalatable to others, make them physically, mentally or spiritually ill, and if we aren’t looking and listening to what God is doing, then we’re not showing people grace (Eph 4:29), or living in love (Eph 5:1). Therefore we’re not showing ourselves to be God’s beloved children. If there are things about the way that we behave that mean people can’t ‘stomach us’, we’re not holding together as good bread should, and we need more of the Xanthan Gum of grace and love.

This morning I’ve set aside enough gluten free pitta-bread on the altar for us to all share in one bread; gluten-free Jesus-bread. When we share in bread and wine, it is meant to be a unifying symbol that binds us together, because we are all sharing in the body of Christ, to enable us to be the body of Christ. As we take and eat it, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing in it that can make us ill, we will also be reminded of the fact that it’s held together because it contains Xanthan Gum, and that we too need to act in all our relationships with the gum of grace and love that binds us together as the body of Christ, to him who is the bread of life.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Don’t get thrown out the party! Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14

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My husband spotted that the words of the memorial plaque he tends to sit by at church echo the words of Phil 4:1-9 and the themes of this sermon.

It could be quite fun to be able to say that I know what it feels like to be thrown out of a party, but sadly I don’t.

At college in the 80s I’d make all the effort, put my make-up on to the sound of Bonnie Tyler, don the leather skirt, and try and join in the parties. But the leathers were olive green not black, the music was rarely ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, and by mid evening I’d be sat in the corner, stone cold sober, being hailed as everyone’s sister, and no-one’s girlfriend. Drugs weren’t even an option – those friends who did them, quite consciously wouldn’t even offer me any and told me so. I’d frequently leave early, or be the one who made sure the drunks got home safe, or else I’d pick up the pieces when they didn’t. Probably because of all this, I never did get thrown out of a party; instead I left uni without an overdraft, with friends that have lasted a lifetime, and with the man of my dreams who was, and is, my hero. But even as a ‘goody two-shoes’, I may yet get thrown out of the party God’s holding, if I’ve not changed my clothes.

Now I’m pretty hopeful that there’s rock music in the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as Allegri’s Miserere, but it’s interesting to consider this morning, based on our scriptures, why we might be in danger of being the biggest party-poopers at God’s mega-gig, and actually be the one’s thrown out because we’re not wearing the right gear.

Let’s get one thing straight, what we wear to God’s party is down to us. The old idea that the King in Jesus’ parable gave the guests he’d had dragged off the street a new suit of wedding clothes, is a myth. Scripture doesn’t tell us that, and whilst it might have seemed a nice idea to St. Augustine that the wealthy of Jesus’ era were that generous, apparently the idea doesn’t hold up against the historic record.

This is a parable, and parables aren’t factual, straightforward or easy to understand. Neither do they have straight-forward linear timelines, which is how come the food doesn’t go off whilst the King is waging war on those favoured few who got his initial invitations, ignored them and murdered the messengers. So it’s OK if we’re the ones dragged off the street as he widens the field of his generosity, we’ve got plenty of time to put on our glad-rags once we’ve realised where we’re going.

The thing is, have we realised? Have we sussed the significance of the party? Have we spotted that Jesus is the bridegroom who won’t meet his bride, the church, until after he’s joined the murdered messengers via the cross? We are after all guests on the bride’s side… so what are we going to wear?

Surely, it’s our “Sunday best”? If the bride’s the church, and we’re the people who make up the church, then putting on the trousers with a bit of give in them so we can kneel, the sensible flat shoes that mean my feet don’t ache after two or three services, and the warm jumper that can be slipped off if the heating is working, all seems like the best get-up.

But that’s hardly party-wear. We’re not meant to be in our “Sunday best” but in our wedding robes, an outfit suitable for Jesus’ wedding. It would be nice to think they’re the ones we don’t wear very often, the back of the wardrobe suits and ties, the dresses we can spend a fortune on just to squeeze into once. But no, it’s not them either.

If we’re not wearing the robes of purity, truth and justice that St. Paul talks about the Philippians community needing for their survival, then whether we like it or not, we’re going to be the party-poopers that get thrown out of God’s banquet, whether we reckon ourselves among the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ whom he brought in off the street in the first place.

We can only wear purity if we know what it is to be forgiven, and have sought God’s strength to change our ways accordingly. I don’t think purity is a pristine white – that’s simply what’s left when all the colour of our lives has been taken out. What God wants to see is our natural God-given selves revealed in all their glory. So, we have to look what lies beneath our well-worn oft-repeated stories to make us look good, the short-cuts to generosity offered through charity donations, or dare I say it, the lengthy prayers that show we’ve read the news. They may make us feel good about ourselves, but purity means we guard our hearts against the pride that can accompany our ‘good works’, all without showing off through our grumbles about how much hard work it all is.

We can only wear truth, if we search for it and then tell it. Finding the truth is hard enough; but the search for truth is what inspires people to actually go to the problem areas of the world and see what it’s like on the bombed out streets of Aleppo, or in a home where the nearest disease ridden water supply is an hour’s walk away. Unless we’re wearing their shoes to the party, we’re in the wrong footwear. The truth says people need the foodbank because of financial difficulties, and the source of those could be legalistic government penny-pinching, family breakdown, or it could be that some people spend too much on unimportant things. Telling those truths isn’t guaranteed to help us build easy relationships, or changing the facts, so we have to learn to tell the truth with gentleness, patience and self-control, and keep telling it until someone other than God listens, and helps us change things for him.

Which is why we can only wear justice if we know both sides of the story. Justice doesn’t dress in a crisp black and white suit, it’s more of a dirty brown, mixed from myriad colours of ancient history, vested interests, inadequate learning, societal breakdown, and conflict. If we don’t understand, or choose to ignore these, we’ll never wear anything more than a black dustbin liner, tied with white plastic.

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During the next hymn, as we ask God “not to let us go”, there will be the chance to make an act of commitment not to let go to what it is God is calling us to change in our lives.  We can chose to take a shirt of purity, or truth or justice to act as a stimulus to our private prayers this week, as we remind ourselves what it is we’re called to be wearing to God’s eternal banquet.

Some of us might know ourselves to have been the bad people that God invited to his party. Through faith and sheer hard work we have changed our lives and that of others, and so put on the clothes God is delighted to see us in. But complacency is dangerous, clothes can become too tight, uncomfortable, and be taken off.

Others of us will reckon ourselves the good folk that God has drawn from the streets, and it’s tempting to think we don’t need to change. But that means we’re most likely to be the ones thrown out this party of righteousness, because we’ve not bothered to look for the Christ-like clothes of purity, truth and justice.

If we’re going to be excellent and worthy of Jesus’ praise, to party and rejoice in the Lord, then we’re the ones that have to check what we’re wearing.

Valuing those that come last – Matthew 20:1-17 and Philippians 1:21-end

With the licensing of our new Priest-in-charge things were a bit busy last week and I didn’t quite get to post the sermon. It was a challenge to the parish, that we responded to this week in our Baptism service. (I think I need some more interesting illustrations too… text only I’m afraid.)

What is it that we value most in life?

Is it our health, our wealth, or our family? Perhaps it’s our sight, our hearing, our home or the countryside? The freedom to travel? Our ability to continue a much loved hobby?

What about Jesus? What value do we place on our relationship with him?…

What value has he placed on his relationship with us?…

In today’s Gospel reading, our collective alter ego as disciple, Peter, has got in a grumpy mood. Peter has listened to Jesus encouraging a rich young man to give up everything he owns to follow him, only to watch the same man walk dejectedly away. In doing so, Peter has realised that he and his fellow disciples have done just what was asked of the rich young man, given up everything to follow Jesus. So, he asks Jesus what value has been placed on their obedience, their service, their sacrifice? Effectively he’s asking, what’s in it for them?

The first part of the answer is that in eternity, the disciples will get to sit incredibly close to God’s presence, places of significance. The second part of the answer is that so will everyone else – including those who in human terms are the last to hear, receive and respond to God’s call on their lives. The Gospel this morning is that second part of the answer: the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

When the third group of labourers are brought in from the market place in the last hour of the day, there is no mention of money. For some reason no-one had wanted them. But the importance and urgency of this landlord’s work is such that they are needed, and valued, for what they can offer. Self-esteem is so important to those who feel their skills are un-appreciated, and the anticipated bonus of a small proportion of the day-rate of pay which may just have paid for a meal, would have been an added encouragement to their hour’s hard labour on an empty stomach. To unexpectedly receive the full day-rate for that single hour’s labour, gives them the additional dignity of early payment, and a wage equal to that of those who had sweated through larger parts of the day.

Jesus was teaching the disciples not to be concerned about what human society said about them giving up their material security to place at the centre of their lives someone who operated at odd’s with their traditional faith leaders. Through God’s grace they would receive an appropriate reward, but it would require them to be equally generous in their view of those others who would start to follow Jesus much later in time than they. The value they must place on their relationship with Jesus must be such that it really doesn’t matter who joins their fellowship, or when. What matters is that those others are valued identically by God, because of the economy of his amazing grace. The divine economy of love and grace which doesn’t relate well to our human economies!

Paul is talking about this divine economy in the passage this morning from Philippians. For Paul it is the fruitfulness of his labour, and the fact that it is for Christ, that keeps him from preferring an early journey through death to God’s eternal presence, to his present state, harassed and imprisoned by the Roman authorities. Being valued by Christ so much that he continues to have a role in working for the extension of the Kingdom of Heaven, is in part what keeps Paul alive. Paul, the persecutor of the earliest Christians, now apostle to the Gentiles, was after all he who met Jesus much later than the other disciples; well after the Resurrection of Christ on the road to Damascus! In the economy of God’s grace Paul has already received the remuneration, not for his labour, but unasked for, a revelation of love and forgiveness.

God values each of us so highly that we are all offered the same wage; God’s love and grace paid for in full by Christ through his death and resurrection. His is really the labour, not ours. If in faith and repentance, we in turn value that so highly as to make it of first importance in our lives, then we will respond to that loving relationship with God by reflecting in our lives the values that Jesus set in his Gospel; we will put the last first, and the first last.

As with many things with our faith, it is the putting it into practice that comes hardest, and the point where we are most likely to identify with those who have slaved through the heat of the day, and forget that we ourselves are among those who have come late to work the vineyard. Like me, you may have grown up in the Christian faith, or you may be someone for who has loved Jesus for decades because of your own Damascus road experience. If so, it can be easy to forget that those who are yet to understand themselves in receipt of the grace we’ve encountered, are now God’s priority, and therefore should be ours as well.

It might not feel like it, but we are still serving our one hour’s hard labour in vineyard at the end of the day. We can’t therefore act like those who feel cheated of an extra wage, and demand more. God’s love and grace can’t be more than what he gave on the cross. Instead, we must look at where God’s priorities now lay, and welcome in those being valued by him at this moment. And just as those who come to faith in the last weeks and hours of their life are loved and cherished by God as much as us, so too are those who are younger, those just born, their families and friends, those whom we are asked by God to welcome into the field of fellowship with him.

I’m going to give this as a specific example, because this situation is going to happen next Sunday when we have a baptism service. Those children and their families who come for baptism, may be like those who had stood hungry and unvalued in the market-place of this morning’s parable. Our role, our labour for this hour, is to value them as much as Jesus does, because otherwise they won’t be able to hear his voice calling them to join the workforce, to understand their own value to him, and understand that he has already died and risen for them.

As with all our children and young people whom Jesus told us not to hinder when they turn to him, we need to put these families first. For example, let us make sure that as many of us as possible are here to give them a really warm welcome. Let us give them the best seats in the house, and not hide them behind a pillar as I understand may have happened sometimes before. We can encourage them to give the service their full attention by doing likewise, remembering the significance of being the community of faith that lives and gathers around them. Likewise, let us make sure that we give them our attention first after the service, and not prioritise the new vicar – he could be around for years to come; they may not be if we don’t show them what God’s lived-out grace looks like.

As we go forward to receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion this morning, we can do so remembering what it is like to be the ones brought forward to receive an unexpected payment. In the body and blood of Christ, we receive afresh the un-dreamt-of riches of his Kingdom, and once again know ourselves to be forgiven, loved and valued by God, just as we are. God is utterly and endlessly generous, it is what defines him, and we give thanks for that in our worship of him. So we shouldn’t be too surprised if he is equally generous to the people that come along behind us, and that he expects us to be likewise.

 

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

20170917_121811I wonder what sort of yogurt you like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20170917_112358c
We don’t want to be have a weak, watery, acidic church! (Photo snuck by Graham, without my knowledge.. he took the one above, as requested!!)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please stand:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Being like the Elijah of the Canaanites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

I have spent much of this last few weeks listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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