I originally prepared the following material for Passiontide 2019 when I was asked to lead Lent Reflections for the wonderful local Mothers’ Union group that has nurtured and encouraged my ministry over many years. The reflections focussed on various items, most of which were in a small bag given to each participant.
Obviously this was a group that met ‘in person’ and could share with each other in their thinking, singing and praying, something which sadly this year isn’t going to be possible for most people in Lent. However, some of the material may be useful to the spiritual context in which we find ourselves currently, so I’m making it available in .pdf formats below. Hopefully all the items you’d need could be made or created from items around your home or could be found when out for daily exercise. They include:
hand or body lotion
two penny pieces
three lengths of (preferably brown) wool or string, knotted at one end
Some written material in this material is from named sources, unattributed elements are my own original material. If you use any of it, please could you credit the appropriate person, and leave an appropriate comment on this blog post.
I am in the process of preparing some Lent in a Bag materials for distribution in our parishes this Lent 2021, starting with ash mixed with varnish and applied to a nobbly stone/pebble. I will share these materials when they are finished.
This morning 11th Feb 2018, it was announced that the Bishop of Winchester has appointed me on a permanent basis as Associate Priest in the Benefice of Eversley and Darby Green. My Licensing Service will take place at St. Mary’s Church, Eversley on Monday 9th April, rather appropriately the Feast of the Annunciation.
My husband Graham and I will remain living in our home in Yateley, my ‘sending’ parish, and the place with which Eversley and Darby Green has strong historic, social and economic ties. On paper it doesn’t look like we’ll be living in the communities I will be serving; but because of the way they relate to each other, and how the congregations are spread among them, I will be. I will also remain a Non-Stipendiary Minister – the accepted terminology in this diocese is Self-Supporting Minister (SSM) but I’m not self-supporting as I don’t anything from anywhere; and my ministry is enabled through the love and generosity of my spouse!
I will be honest, for a long while I didn’t think this was what God wanted. But, it’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, or been very slow on the uptake – my call to ordination being a fine example. Whilst some significant moments in my ministry have included instantaneous recognition of God’s hand on my life, sometimes I have been too busy trying the doors that fit my dreams and/or the recommendations of those around me, or burying my head in the sand, to notice or accept the calling God is trying very hard to make obvious. In this case, as Graham and I sought to discern where God wanted me next, he opened an unexpected new job for Graham in his vocation as a teacher at the same time as the door that logically fitted it for me, closed in my face. Then when we looked at another exciting door for me, and found it very willing to open, with heavy hearts we realised it wasn’t compatible with where Graham’s new job was being affirmed and confirmed, so we had to firmly close the door I liked so much.
Cryptic, well it has to be really. If you’re interested and meet me face to face, I can explain a bit more. But it seems appropriate that such painful decisions are acknowledged in the process of discerning a new ministry, role and context. The struggles are important in themselves, but sometimes we can get lost in our struggles, and ignore the calling, the welcome, and the work, that is staring us in the face. Such is the case in this instance.
The warmth of the welcome last year when I was deployed to St. Mary’s Eversley, and the encouragements I have received over the intervening months both there and more recently at St. Barnabas Darby Green, have been a significant in me coming to realise where it was that God has called me to serve these churches. Developing a great working relationship with the new incumbent has helped too!
So, here’s to Lent, the time of preparation and penitence that suitably for me starts this week on Ash Wednesday and will lead through to Holy Week, after which I will take a week’s retreat in the run up to my Licensing for this new work. I’m looking forward to it, and to seeing where God is leading both these communities in the months and years to come.
This week I’ve achieved another first in curacy, my first Act of Worship in our local CofE Junior School. The brief was to link the theme of RESPONSIBILITY (joint responsibility, working together in school) to the story of Nehemiah rebuilding God’s people, and the wall at Jerusalem.
I found Lesson from Loom Bands 3 over at SPCK Assemblies.org.uk which looked at exactly this story and sort of idea, and told it in a clearer context than the Storyteller Bible version I’d been given. The problem is I am not loom band compliant, so I needed to think of another way of explaining taking individual responsibility as part of a team to make something stronger.
My mind when back to 2007 in St. Peter’s Yateley when we created a rope of prayers from lengths of blue and white tork roll! St. Mary’s Old Basing has tork roll which I could plait since I didn’t have the rope-making gadget and quickly achieve a similar effect and demonstrate increased strength. St. Peter’s Yateley said I could borrow the rope woven round a cross, and I fiddled slightly with the Assemblies.org telling of the story to fit it better to the Act of Worship plan at the school, and so I had an Act of Worship!
So, here ’tis. If you’re interested in more about the full rope making idea, which features equipment in the shape of a cross, ask me and I’ll blog about that another day.
Now then, thinking caps on; who can tell me the word that we’ve been thinking about last week and this week? RESPONSIBILITY
Last week Fr A talked about our responsibility to support people in our community, like you have with your Food Bank donations, and across the world where people may not have enough to eat or clean water to drink.
This week, we’re thinking about that word RESPONSIBILITY again, but in a slightly different way.
Can anyone tell me what this is? TORK ROLL – PAPER FOR DRYING HANDS (giant loo roll!)
One of the things that this paper needs to do easily is to TEAR, so that when we are washing our hands we can have a piece each to dray them on. So would we say that this tork roll paper is WEAK or STRONG? Fairly weak.
Now, I’ve got 3 LENGTHS OF TORK ROLL here, and we’re going to see if we can do something to make this tork roll STRONGER by several of us WORKING TOGETHER.
I used a representative of each year group – 2 boys, and 2 girls.
One child hold all three bits of tork roll, gently knotted together.
The other 3 children, TWIST your individual length of tork roll just a bit, so it’s slightly more like a piece of string.
Now, I need you to PLAIT your three bits of tork roll together.
Left over centre, right over centre, keep going… the 3 children moving around each other.
Taught but not tight.
Careful remember the tork roll tears easily!
After a few minutes plaiting, test the strength of the plaited bit. Shouldn’t tear as easily.
BY TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR INDIVIDUAL TASK, BUT WORKING TOGETHER, WE MADE SOMETHING THAT WAS WEAK, STRONGER!
Show ROPE of tork roll (borrowed from St. Peter’s).
Going to read you a story from the OT part of the Bible, that talks about someone called Nehemiah: Nehemiah and the walls of Jerusalem
Nehemiah had a very important job in Persia (now called Iraq), working for the king, but his heart was in his homeland, in Jerusalem, which is in Israel. He loved his homeland and missed it very much. Some 100 years before Nehemiah was born, some of his people had returned from exile in Persia to their homeland there and had rebuilt the temple.
One day, Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem had not been rebuilt after the many years of armies invading and breaking them down, so most of the people were still living outside the walls rather than inside the holy city. Nehemiah’s people had lost their identity as God’s people.
When Nehemiah heard all this, he wept. What could he do? He was only one man and not a builder at that.
The King of Persia noticed that Nehemiah was sad, and Nehemiah wasn’t normally, so he asked him what was wrong. Nehemiah explained and the king asked him what he wanted to do. Nehemiah was brave and asked to be sent to rebuild Jerusalem and the king gave his blessing for Nehemiah to go and rebuild the walls of his beloved city. So Nehemiah set off on the long journey home, with some building materials that the King had given him.
Once there, Nehemiah toured the city walls by night. He found rubble and stones and burned gates. He thought that his heart would break. Just like a single strip of tork roll!
‘Let’s rebuild, the city walls,’ he said to the people. ‘I can’t do it by myself. It will take us all working together, but I am sure that together we can do it!’
That is exactly what happened. Different families took charge of different sections of the walls. All along the walls, families took up their spades and shovels and got to work. It was a huge task. There were so many repairs that Nehemiah could never have done it all on his own.
In working together, sharing the RESPONSIBILITY for rebuilding the walls, the people of Jerusalem had all grown stronger together, as well as now being protected by the finished wall. They had once again found their identity as the people of God, and their joy was very great.
Reflection and Prayer:
So, what did the people end up doing under Nehemiah’s guidance that is like what we did with plaiting the tork roll?
Each family took RESPONSIBILITY for a section of wall.
Worked together to make the wall STRONGER, where individual efforts hadn’t been enough.
I’m going to pray now, and if you want to say at the end that you agree with what I’ve prayed, what do you say? AMEN!
Thank you for the story of Nehemiah and his friends.
Thank you for our friends and classmates.
Help us to each take RESPONSIBILITY for working together
so that we can make this school a strong, and happy place. Amen.
Ever since Pentecost 1988 when I first acknowledged an encounter with God as being through the power of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost has been special. A time to celebrate that God’s power is so much more than we can imagine, and that he can do things in, with and through our lives that we would never in our wildest dreams anticipate.
So it was a very concious decision to bid farewell to 16 years of worshipping with the lovely folk of St. Peter’s Yateley at Pentecost. I specifically wanted to be sent out towards ordained ministry from the place that has nurtured and helped to grow it so much, on the day that celebrates how God can use and equip people for the next step in his mission.
There are two words that I wanted to share with all those I know and love at St. Peter’s, some who have moved on to new ministries, and some who watch as saints in glory. These are two things that they have provided in bucket loads in the last 16 years and for which I am incredibly grateful:
The first is TRUST. They have trusted me. I have done so many “firsts” in ministry at St. Peter’s, sometimes planned, frequently less so. Often they were firsts in the living memory of the church too; everything from starting all-age services back in 1999, through safeguarding administration to a military funeral, with plenty in between! In every instance clergy and laity alike, have trusted that I knew (roughly) what I was doing, and supported what the ministry was with time, energy, skill and patience, recognising that each was something we shared as we journeyed forward with God in service of him in our local community and beyond.
The other word I wanted to share and highlight is related to this and is ENCOURAGEMENT. St. Peter’s is full of people who have encouraged me in aspects of my ministry, faith and even my flower arranging! Even better, every week they do the same for each other – encouraging each other and thus providing the strength and inspiration to serve the Lord in a myriad of ways. Of recent weeks I have so appreciated the encouragement of their prayers for myself and my family as we’ve struggled with various matters that have created additional stresses among the preparations for ordination. But it’s also been 16 years of hugs, affirmation, guidance, an openness to what God is saying through his Holy Spirit, and the occasional metaphorical slap with a sensible stick, that has made up this environment of encouragement that brings me to this point of needing to leave for the next step of my adventure with God.
So for me, it is trust and encouragement that is encapsulated in the wind and flames of Pentecost this year – God’s trust and encouragement to do his will equipped in with words and actions we never knew we had, just like the disciples. It is trust and encouragement I will both treasure and take with me from St. Peter’s, and which I wish to leave behind, especially at a time when as a church it too is experiencing a time of change and transition in the facilities and ministries it provides. May St. Peter’s Yateley know God’s trust and encouragement in all you do, as you have made it known to me through the love of Christ.
Today is of course not just about me. My husband and son leave St. Peter’s with me; their own decision but one for which I’m grateful as it makes the break a little easier by being shared. Our son has grown up in St. Peter’s from the toddler encouraged to dance in theaisle by the (then) vicar, to a strapping lad whose musical gifts he’s been happy to share regularly in our worship bands. Hubby Graham, is my rock and encourager-in-chief, one of the first to be convinced of my calling to ordination, and without whom the next steps in ministry would seem even more daunting than they do now. Though many commented today that they will miss his music and his ‘think-spots’, he probably does less now in the life of the church than he’s done in the previous twenty-five years, but whilst that’s partly because if his invisible support of what I’m doing, and to keep the domestic show on the road, I suspect the Secretary of State for Education needs to take a share of the blame!
Ours will now be a strange existence as for the next few years, I/we minister in a community we don’t live in, and live in a community we no longer worship in. There are Yateley people we love and we will try and see in our free time, and others we wish we could see and don’t manage to as often as we’d like. There will of course be social media through which to keep in touch and share the highs and lows of life a little, and I guess occasions when the dog-collared me will be seen dashing through a shop going to or from Old Basing or footling around Yateley on my day off (Friday).
Thank you St. Peter’s. Your gift to God is everything you have equipped me for.
Part 1(confused, uncertain, slightly hyper, critical of self)
My name is Thomas.
He’s gone. Jesus that is.
Not just dead, but dead and gone. Gone from his tomb.
Peter, Peter said so. John backed him up.
Mary, well Mary Magdalene, she reckons he spoke to her.
Outside the tomb when she hung around after Peter and John had left.
But she told us that he had said he was going.
Returning to his Father. Father God.
His Father, our God.
Our Father, his… him… his God.
So he wasn’t God after all, like we’d almost started to believe.
So perhaps he rose from the dead, but he’s gone again.
Jesus is properly gone.
At least that what I thought at lunchtime yesterday.
The rest of them, they met up last night.
The story was out, that Jesus was gone from his tomb and us lot,
well we were getting the blame.
Can’t think why we’d want to steal Jesus’ body,
or how the heck we’d hide it
given the smell of a bloodied copse after three days in this heat;
but I wasn’t going to risk getting picked up by the authorities and taking the blame.
I was more sure of seeing the others in daylight today,
when the risks were fewer.
So, I stayed home, whilst the rest of them got together in that room.
I think the intention was to try and remember what Jesus had said,
and work out what the heck was was going on.
The rest of them?
They’re nearly as unsure as I am!
Anyway, apparently he hadn’t gone.
Jesus that is.
Because he showed up.
That’s what they’ve told me to today.
They’d been careful to lock themselves in.
The shutters were closed, the doors locked.
And apparently, he just appeared.
We’ve been together three years now,
and witnessed a lot of strange things on our journeys with Jesus.
Signs and wonders that would have been beyond belief,
if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes.
I’d actually made us go with him,
when Jesus went to Lazarus’ sisters after the lad died. (John 11)
So yes, I know Jesus raised him from the dead.
But the stone was removed first; I watched them do it.
And when he came out, he shuffled and staggered,
all wrapped up in his death bandages and stuff as he was.
Lazarus didn’t roll his bandages up neatly and leave them on the side,
and then just stroll through a wall, or a door, a few hours later;
which is what the guys are saying happened last night.
Well, they say Jesus came back.
Like he’d said he would, not long ago.
At least that’s what the others reminded me.
It was after we’d got into Jerusalem, and Jesus had us all together.
He did a lot of talking.
We,… we were confused, like normal, and just asked questions.
He’d said something about going,
but not leaving us as orphans,
and coming to us again, (John 14:18)
in a little while. (John 16:18)
It was mixed up with some stuff about who was going to be able to see him,
and who wasn’t.
Who he was, who we were, and how that fitted in with God,
who he insisted on calling Father.
Our God, his Father.
Oh darn it, I don’t know.
I wasn’t there last night, so I don’t really know what happened.
Not really, really know.
It’s not like we’ve covered ourselves in glory, running away and hiding.
I for one had said I’d die with him (John 11:16);
Peter,… Peter had said he’d lay down his life for him (John 13:37).
Neither of us had the courage.
We’ve just hidden, and watched them crucify him.
From a safe distance.
If he could come back,
why would he want to come back to us lot?
I probably I should believe them,
they’re normally trustworthy, about stuff like that anyway.
As long as it doesn’t involve getting killed.
But no, no I can’t.
I will NOT believe.
Unless, unless I see him for myself.
I need more than just seeing.
I need to know that it’s really, really him,
I need to touch,
touch the wounds,
the things that will make me believe he’s real.
But that’s hardly going to happen, is it?
Because, he’s gone.
Part 2 (calmer, much more assured, confident, certain)
My name is Thomas.
I had said to the others, privately,
that I would only believe if I touched him.
My Lord, and my God.
He was with us tonight.
Among them all, all my friends.
Things have calmed down somewhat in town, so I’d felt able to join them.
They’ve been really rather patient with me, all things considered.
My considered, and considerable uncertainty as to what to believe.
So we met again earlier.
To break bread like he’d asked us to.
To remember him.
To try and understand how bread and wine might help us encounter his presence.
(OK artistic license, but some commentators think this is what they’d met to do!)
And suddenly his presence was all too obvious.
He greeted us with words of peace.
Words that became peace, peace like I cannot describe.
It was like something from another world, (John 14:27)
and, even as he spoke directly to me,
I could feel the anxiety melt away,
the fear and doubt evaporate.
Jesus knew exactly what I’d said to the others,
what I thought I needed to believe them, to believe he’d really risen.
His rebuke was gentle, his appeal firm.
His offer clear and beyond anything the others had talked of.
And yet, and yet with him there,
I needed nothing more to confess from the very depths of my being…
My Lord and my God.
They hadn’t said,
when they told me they’d seen him last week,
that he’d given them a mission, and a gift.
What had made the deepest impression was obviously his physical,
risen presence among them.
at least not now I’ve encountered him myself.
What he’d apparently said to them last week was
what I experienced today.
With this overwhelming sense that he is our Lord,
there is a sense of forgiveness,
that I felt before I’d even understood my need for it.
And yet this is depsite him knowing how weak we have been;
Peter, myself and the others.
It was like being made whole again,
having the broken pieces of what had been me,
glued back together again.
But, that’s only the part of it.
I discovered in this brief exchange I was part of something bigger,
a journey that he is sending us on.
We,… all of us,
have to chose what is the trigger to our belief.
Are the words and testimony of friends good enough?
What happens if we can never see Jesus,
can’t touch him, can’t seem to sense how close he is to us:
Does that stop us believing, like it nearly did with me?
I guess this means we have to choose to believe
and in choosing to recognise the risen Jesus as real,
encounter his immediacy in our lives.
Yes, this is what it means to believe.
That there is no classification system for faith,
how, or when we should believe, how much or how little.
There is simply believing, and what we chose to do with that belief.
‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
This isn’t about me.
That beatitude, that blessing poured over us,
like those he’d taught with on the hillside in Galilee, (Matthew 5)
it wasn’t for us,
but for all those who were not there tonight,
had not been there last week,
had not stood at, or hidden from, the cross,
and those who aren’t here now,
will never see him physically in his glorious, risen flesh.
Our Lord and our God.
Part 3 (equally calm, confident, believing, with a degree of urgency).
My name is Thomas, and I am a follower of Jesus.
The work has started.
The journey has begun.
we’ve made a start.
Here in Jerusalem, today, among the crowds gathered for Pentecost.
Our Lord Jesus has really gone this time,
from our visible presence that is,
ascended to be with the Father, ours and his.
We had gathered together again, as we have daily since he finally left us,
praying, listening, sifting our memories,
tying together what we now know and believe,
with all those things he has patiently said, done and taught us
over the last three years.
We are not alone, we are no longer hiding, and we’re complete.
Yes, we’re complete in that we are twelve again, with Matthias among us.
But we are also complete inside,
made newly complete in each moment,
through the power that he has left with us,
which was so visible today, not just in the flames and the wind,
but in our understanding of the task ahead,
and in the knowledge that this Spirit the prophet Joel spoke of
gives us the strength to do more than we can ask or imagine.
This was the gift that meant many who gathered today for Pentecost could understand us.
The same gift, that gave Peter the strength to speak out
with boldness and authority from among us.
Among our Jewish brothers and sisters there was no point us all talking at once.
Neither was there any point relying on the miraculous
to make the connection with our Lord and God who they,…
but who had risen again, uncorrupted by death.
King David was the vital reference point.
They know the stories of his sin, his corruption;
they know his words, his prophetic instinct,
the music of his psalms.
His belief should have been their belief, our belief,
in the prophesy that God’s rule would once again come to his people,
through David’s own line of inheritance.
The people of Israel,
the people we’ve met and seen daily for the last three years,
who’ve witnessed and willingly accepted Jesus’ miracles, just as we have;
they knew Jesus.
They knew he was of the line and lineage of David. (Luke 2:4)
That had, after all, been part of the curiosity factor that drew them to him.
Even if he wasn’t quite what they had expected or hoped for.
Their unbelief in the next step of the Davidic connection,
that he was of God, one with God,
meant they were easy prey to the seeds
of doubt and fear sown by the Scribes and Pharisees;
but that made it all the more important, that they understand this prophesy,
that they are given the tools to understand, to make the connection, to believe,
that God had raised the beaten, tortured, tormented, and crucified Christ,
If the people,
Israelites and Gentiles, everyone,
Don’t have anything solid to believe in,
it makes them unwilling to challenge the corruption of others,
because it might force open the cracks of their own double standards.
We live lives under the burden of our doubts,
our fears and uncertainties hovering constantly
under the surface of otherwise confident actions;
our unwillingness to believe what we can not see,
do, what we might otherwise shrink from.
I know, because I’ve carried this burden of unbelief through all my travels with Jesus,
through the worst of my incomprehension as we listened to him talk
and I asked him dumb questions that proved I hadn’t understood;
in the best of my intentions as we stumbled on his way when he sensed it was right,
through to that day he came and sought me out…
Death couldn’t hold Jesus, and neither can our unbelief,
even when it comes back to haunt us.
It must not be allowed to restrain anyone,
to keep people from the paths of life,
or withhold from us all the joy of knowing
his presence alongside us as we take this journey of faith.
(Delivered as my sermon at St. Peter’s Yateley 27th April 2014 – my last sermon in my sending parish before ordination.)
In todays reflection (First Sunday in Lent) Maggi Dawn highlights the fact that in Luke 5:33-39 it becomes really obvious to those who see Jesus interacting with his disciples that as a community of friends they do not make a particular habit of fasting as was normal for the Jews generally, unlike other teachers of the time.
She goes on to talk about the value of old and new, in worship styles, and in churchmanship. As a songwriter and past chaplain of a Cambridge College (now at Yale Divinity School in the USA) Maggi is in an excellent position to say that with authenticity.
For me, it’s really interesting how this idea of old and new interacts with some of the things my colleagues and I have been talking about at the weekend. Each of us final year ordinands had to give a presentation about our (all too brief) parish placements, and reflect on a critical incident within them. It proved a fascinating journey around Anglican churches in southern England, featuring some Bollywood dancing (taught to a student on placement in Slough), a 9 parish benefice in a very wealthy area of Wiltshire, a couple of Local Ecumenical Partnerships functioning with various degrees of success and diocesan support on infamous estates, a church with no building to call it’s own and ghastly orange seats but good pastoral outreach, and varieties in worship that included BCP, charismatic evangelical, anglo-catholic Eucharistic, and some that were just middle of the road Common Worship with few frills. In the other group our final year pioneer ordinand stretched the worship context still further I gather. Some were old, some were new, some used borrowed buildings (or lent them out) and one was sadly blue.
All were church. Each provided worship in at least one form, some several. They were meeting different peoples understandings of God, enabling the Christ-light to shine in their communities, and feeding different spiritualities.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m moving from an open charismatic evangelical context in my ‘sending parish’ to a high, Eucharistic choral tradition in my title parish (the choral element being the one I’ve experienced very little of till now). In both, other forms of worship are used at some services, including styles like BCP and Taize. I know I meet God in a variety of worship styles, in Word and more recently in Sacrament, in creation and in creative acts, thus my expectation is to develop the skills that mean I can serve communities by being flexible and competent at a whole variety of worship styles that can draw different people closer to God.
There was a lot about context too. I can’t see learning Bollywood dancing being particularly relevant to the worship of every parish in the CofE just yet! One parish in my own diocese featured, a place where the image of ‘tent stretching’ was highlighted, stretching from a very traditional building through a congregation planted into a school, homegroups, house communions, Costa-pastoring and youth groups, and more. The apparent success of this (measured in contact points between church and people, not bums on seats) seem to somewhat belie Jesus’ teaching in this passage that you shouldn’t sew new bits into an old garment, and am erring towards the heresy of disagreeing with the Biblical portrayal of Jesus.
But, before I’m excommunicated and barred from ordination, what I think is at the heart of this is the need to seek to make Jesus come alive in a way that is authentic for the gathered community, both those who know God, and those who are yet to make that encounter. For, at the heart of this reading is the suggestion that Jesus is the bridegroom, the one to whom we are drawn to spend as much time as is possible. To me Jesus exemplifies the practice of a patchwork ministry, that is just as comfortable teaching on hillsides and in temple courts, challenging the authorities, and healing the sick in the streets and their homes. To be honest, worship styles weren’t something he really focused on, what mattered was about the honesty and authenticity of peoples encounters with him; where they being true to themselves, and simply being attention seeking or trying catching him out. My reflections on the churches I saw presented this weekend was where worship or pastoral practice is simply designed to draw attention to church, it wasn’t drawing local people into an encounter with God. Where worship and pastoral practice were authentic to and seeking to meet the needs of the local community, it was.
So that’s where I am tonight, following a patchwork Jesus, and looking forward to encountering him in old and new alike.
If you’re looking for Graham’s reflections on this reading, they’re here, and I’m off to read them myself now.
Been a while since I preached, but tonight at our Evening Service of Holy Communion with Prayer for Healing, I’ve had the chance to get to grips with Paul’s earliest letter, the one he sent to the Galatians.
There is a lot of talk in our news these days about the power of the regulator. Whether it is the press, the energy companies, education, or – dare I say it – the church !, regulation is seen as a means of offering control or enforcing responsibility, or of speaking on behalf of those who regard themselves as damaged, disenfranchised or dismissed, or not, as the case may be.
In our reading from Galatians this evening, St. Paul is speaking into a situation where the regulatory authorities, known as the Judaisers, have muddied the waters of the Galatians’ freedom found by faith in Christ. These Judaisers have come and played on people’s doubts and fears, suggesting that the gentile Galatians can’t possibly be proper Christians unless they are circumcised like the Jews to whom Jesus came first; circumcised like Christ himself would have been. They are trying to apply the regulations of the old Hebrew Law being applied in this new community, new context, new covenant. Why? So that the Judaisers can avoid the pressure they’re getting from other Jews who see them spending rather a lot of time with Gentiles (Gal 6:12). The regulators were suggesting others fudge the issue of their faith in an act of self-preservation.
Regulators achieving nothing but confusion, and fudging the real truth of a situation? Regulator’s making life difficult for others in an effort to get the authorities off their back? Now who’d have thought it! 😉
These regulators, the Judaisers, are making it up. Forming man-made rules for a new situation. Granted, they’re from old, divinely-ordained rules, but they’ve not thought about whether these are still appropriate, relevant to the new situation, and, importantly, in line with the revelation of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul however, is on their case, and on the case of the Galatians too, and woe betide those who catch his attention by deviating from the priority of living by the Spirit (Gal 5:16)!
He knows he’s told them before, but he’s darn well going to tell them again, and given that it’s written down in large, friendly letters (Gal 6:11), to be read, shared, and re-read among the community, they’re not going to be allowed to forget it. ‘It’ being Paul’s autobiography.
Paul was not brought to faith by men. (Or women for that matter if I want to avoid being accused of sexism.) Unlike the Centurion to whom Peter was sent to explain the faith, or the Ethiopian Eunuch whom Philip baptised after a conversation on a chariot, Paul got it direct. He simply, and most spectacularly, encountered the risen Christ. A bit like Peter and Philip, but much more instantaneous and dramatic and without their three years wandering around Judea as Jesus’ disciples.
We know the story, so let’s not spend time on the road to Damascus, because in this account Paul doesn’t either. Neither does he mention the three days he spent blind and starving before he was healed by Ananias and the scales fell from his eyes (Acts 9:17). What he sees as important for the Galatians, and what is important that we consider for ourselves today, is how much he listened to other Christians.
Paul didn’t. He didn’t consult or listen to anyone (Gal 1:16). We’re not told by Luke in Acts, or here in Galatians, of any detailed explanation being given by Ananias of who Jesus Christ was, and what he had done through his death and resurrection for this warrant-wielding, chain-jangling persecutor. There was no baptism prep – Ananias simply baptised him. No Alpha course, no catechises, no ordination training. 😉 Saul has encountered Christ, and that is enough. As Paul, a changed man, he simply preaches in Damascus a bit, gets himself into trouble (Acts 9:19-25), escapes and goes away for three years, during which he falls almost completely off the radar.
The raging fanatic of a Jew that was Saul, complicit in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), goes away after meeting the risen Christ, listens to and talks with none of the key leaders of the Christian faith, skips off to Arabia, to spend three years doing… doing what exactly? Probably to grapple directly with God over all the different questions he now had about how all the different things he’d grown up learning and knowing as a devout and high-flying Jew were changed by his encounter with Jesus. It’s not like the region around Mount Sinai known as Arabia, hadn’t been used for a similar purpose once or twice before!
And that is his key point in this passage. Jesus Christ was enough. He didn’t need to be persuaded of who Jesus was – he knew all that. We know that this isn’t that long after the resurrection, given his presence at Stephen’s stoning, and Saul’d been persecuting the Christians because he knew exactly who Jesus had said he was, and feared the consequences! Now, he knew first-hand, that far from being a rabble rousing circus act, Jesus really was the Son of God (Gal 1:15-16), there was nothing to question. Neither did he need to have his preaching skills judged by the leaders of the church at this stage; his theological studies and his skills of oration were not in question!
No, what we sense here is important, is that he went to spend time with God. The scales had fallen from his eyes, he no longer needed to be confined by the chains of the old covenant in which he was well-versed, but instead he needed to explore for himself the freedom he talks about later in Galatians, the freedom of faith in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5). He had something that he would later write about to the Corinthians, ‘the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2Cor 4:6).
So when Paul is writing to the Galatians saying “don’t listen to the regulators”, he’s saying it because he had no intention of letting the Galatians be hood-winked by the very laws that he himself had broken free of. The Galatians connection with God needed to come direct, without interference. The regulations of circumcision weren’t appropriate or applicable to these Gentile converts to the Christian faith.
The same goes for us to. Jesus Christ is enough. Faith in Christ gives freedom to live life as God would have us do, directly responsible to him – testing the appropriateness of our actions and callings in the light of the Gospel of Christ, yes, but not testing or regulating the Gospel itself, received by faith. If Christ is recognisable in the Gospel we preach, then God, not man, is praised. The glory goes to God (Gal 1:24). If we put regulations round that Gospel, try and contain it within a set of tick-box criteria that say it’s only authentic if we live it out a certain way, worship in a certain fashion, say certain prayers, wear or otherwise a certain set of clothes, then we’re regulating the Gospel we’ve received.
Yes, we’ve all received a Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus that is not of human origin. It’s a gospel that we have to grapple with daily, whether we encounter it as something shockingly fresh on our road through life, meet it in the healing hands of another believer, or the preaching and witness of a sick man as was the case for the Galatians (Gal 4:12-14). How we receive the Gospel, and the encounters we have with the Holy Spirit as we continually respond to it, is likely to impact heavily on our calling, our Gospel life.
Paul encountered God’s grace in a very direct way, so that’s how he delivers the message of that grace – his letter’s are hardly examples of tact and diplomacy! 🙂 It might not come over very gently, but what Paul desired was that the focus of the Galatians be brought back to Christ, that they be healed of the distractions that the Judaisers are causing. As far as we’re aware, Paul didn’t notify the Jewish authorities that he’d had a change of faith, though I’m sure in due course it became rather noticeable! He didn’t go and check out what he should say and do with other Christian leaders so that they could guide and regulate him. When he returned from Arabia to share the Gospel of Christ, he did so through preaching and debate that was appropriate to Gentile communities spiritually hungry to find truth among the plethora of known and unknown god’s in the Greek and Roman world.
As I’ve been studying recently how and why we celebrate Holy Communion, I’ve revisited the story of Sara Miles, the foody and atheist journalist, who wandered into a particular church one day on a whim and ‘ate Jesus’ as she terms it, in bread and wine. Her encounter with Jesus was that direct, involved no initial explanation of the Gospel, no permission to share in the Eucharistic meal, no baptism. Her call about which she writes in ‘Take This Bread’, turns out to revolve round feeding people who are desperately hungry physically and spiritually; feeding them with sacks of basic food-stuffs off the altar table, and breaking bread in a radically inclusive and sacramental community, all so that others can encounter Jesus without little things like man-made regulations getting in the way.
It’s a tough call deciding to what extent we need to live with and by the regulations we encounter. Few would deny the need for child-protection legislation and the regulations that attend it, but what about in other aspects of our lives? At a corporate level, there are plenty of regulations in the Anglican Church, but is there a sense in which some of them can hinder us from proclaiming the Gospel in some places or at some times? Or are people praising God because of what they see St. Peter’s Church doing in extending the Kingdom of God? We have a Diocesan Bishop who is calling us to be pioneering in the way we connect with our communities, who is encouraging parishes to think “outside the box” as they join in with what God wants to do. Is the gaze of this church firmly fixed on Jesus Christ, or is there perhaps a box which says ‘St. Peter’s only does things this way’ that needs chucking in the skip, so that there’s no danger of fudging and confusing the opportunities that are presented by the Holy Spirit!?
As we consider the Gospel we have received – our own encounters with Jesus, which we will renew this evening in bread and wine and prayer – how is that going to be shared? Will we allow it to be regulated by the way we, or others, think it ‘should’ be done, or will we respond with the freedom of knowing the Holy Spirit will guide us? How much will we keep our Gospel linked to the encounters with Christ that we’ve had as individuals, and how to bridge the gap between that Gospel and the needs of the spiritually hungry? Are we really living like Jesus Christ is enough?
When I set out to our Diocesan Conference, stuck as I am in a funny place half-way through ordination training, my sense of calling dry, and confused as to how and where God is shaping my future, my personal prayer was that witnessing the development of Bishop Tim’s vision for the Diocese of Winchester would lead to a revitalising of my sense of purpose in ministry and my passion to serve God.
God did do some business with me, but there was an overwhelming sense was that he did a whole load of business with the diocese. Through the inspirational Biblical teaching of Prof. Tom Wright, through Bishop Tim’s modelling of a passionate and prophetic focus, and through the the work of the Holy Spirit work in the 200 Synod and ministerial representatives present, a corporate re-imaging of church took shape. On Thursday, the priorities were set that require us to become a pioneering ‘mixed-economy’ of culturally relevant Christian communities, living sacrificially as agents of social transformation. If you live, worship or minister in the Diocese of Winchester I do recommend you watch (start at the bottom & work up, slides here) or read the presentations in detail – they will be changing our lives!
Bishop Tim’s use of a video clip where people build an aeroplane whilst in flight was, frankly, terrifying. It was also honest and realistic.We can’t stop being church whilst we re-imagine how we function, not just as a diocesan structure but at every level of our mission and ministry. Witnessing the pain being caused to the ministries of friends and supervisors wasn’t comfortable either, as the speed and direction of progress for some functions of the diocese were subjected to what might be termed a hand-brake turn. The letter of due synodical process may not always have been completely adhered to and some unheard questions may need close examination in the near future, but then I’m not a synodical specialist. Importantly, there was a sense that the Spirit of God visibly moving through the event was of greater importance, if only the pastoral and personal implications can be handled swiftly and effectively.
There were several specific words of challenge for the ordinands present. I silently wept for myself and others as Tom Wright quoted his own words to others “Don’t be surprised if you go through fire & water, it is the norm. Ministry & mission is cruciform.” Yet, I was consoled to know that even our spiritual leaders have at times spent years surrounded by a sense of darkness whilst in ministry, and I was challenged by interview questions Tom Wright and Bishop Tim have heard of being placed before candidates in their pre-ordination interviews:
How would I lead someone to Christ? (My answer would I am afraid, vary hugely depending on the circumstances and experiences of the person concerned – no one size fits all, I would suggest.)
What are my two favourite Biblical passages and why?
We were reminded we have to carve the stone, or stones, that are our contribution to God’s Kingdom here on earth, in the context of the groaning and sorrow of this world, so that the master mason can draw them together with all the others his followers have produced to build something incredibly special. My private conversations may have suggested this isn’t necessarily possible, but I just hope and pray I have a small stone to carve in this diocese as the journey continues.
At the other end of the emotional scale, there was strong affirmation that though “‘the parish’ is an invented, not a God given structure”, God (and our Diocesan leadership) take a real delight in the variety of ministries we can offer and the desire to change not just our missional focus, but the structures that support it, so that both parishes and pioneer ministries, and particularly pioneering parish mission initiatives, can be resourced, encouraged, affirmed and celebrated.
There was no witnessing the development of our corporate vision; the whole event was participatory even for non-Synod members like me. However, Bishop Tim and the other participants who facilitated our deliberations, made it clear that we’re on a long-haul flight – the changes that have started, including the desire for a Diocesan ‘Rule of Life’ to re-found our mission in keeping with our Benedictine roots, are designed to make the Christian life of this region engage “deep into the mission of Jesus” as our participation in the coming of his Kingdom and his glory, but it can’t happen over-night.
As individuals, as parishes, as departments and deaneries, we might not always sense it, but God really is building God’s kingdom in God’s way… through us!
This morning I preached at our first Summer Sunday combined service, to those of St. Peter’s Yateley who hadn’t yet left for New Wine, or otherwise gone on holiday. It forms the last of a sequence of sermons on the story of Jacob and Joseph, and brings together thoughts about reconciliation and Eucharist.
I wonder how many of us feel trapped in some way by the past?
We’re doing our best to work through the challenges life throws at us, when some circumstance comes along and reminds us of our own past mistakes, our folly, or of the unexpected consequences of some innocuous comment we made a long time ago. Many of us live with these occasional and uncomfortable reminders of broken relationships; we set them aside and get on with life, but unless we can forge circumstances whereby a meeting takes place, reconciliation is impossible. Graham and I know only too well in our family how painful that can be; its like a kind of bereavement – every so often something happens to remind you how painful it is.
For Jacob’s family in today’s Old Testament reading, drought and hunger might be their most pressing concern, but they still live with the consequences of their past actions, now twenty years behind them.
Jacob, has a paranoid fear of losing the second son of his beloved wife Rachel, given that their older child Joseph has been, supposedly, lost to the ravages of wild animals. Benjamin must, at almost all costs, be protected from danger, even at the cost of remaining at home in famine conditions. Jacob still has his favourites!
That of course must remind Benjamin’s older brothers, Leah’s sons, of their own complicity in the so called death of Joseph, and the lies they have woven to hide the truth. Something they continue to have to cover for when faced with the accusation of spying by Pharaoh’s awe inspiring Grand Vizier! When they declare that “one brother is no more” the English translation hides a whole packet of intense emotions that are suggested at in the Hebrew!
I guess the face paint worn by Egypt’s ruling elite must have hidden Joseph’s emotions at this first meeting: not only does he remember his dreams and their role in bringing him on a painful journey to his current exalted position, but he also remembers the part played by his older brothers, now prostrate before him!
If we read back in Genesis 41:51 we find Joseph called his first-born Manasseh, as an acknowledgement that it was because “God had made him forget his trouble and his Fathers’ house”, which actually only goes to show that really the contrary was true! He hadn’t forgotten at all! The naming of his second son, Ephraim, suggests rather, that the real truth was he’d simply learned to live with different blessings in the land of his suffering.
In his book on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, Desmond Tutu talks about different types of “truth” people experience:
There is something called forensic, or factual, truth. This, if we read on through the conclusion of this fascinating story of Jacob’s family, is the type of truth that tells Joseph’s older brothers that somehow the silver they thought they had paid the Pharoah’s Vizier for their first shipment of grain, has been mysteriously returned to their possession. They do not understand why, or how, but the forensic truth is that the silver is there in their sacks in Genesis 42 v28; which only adds to the discomfort at having to leave Simeon behind as hostage against their eventual return with young Benjamin.
It was a different type of truth, a social truth, that finally enabled the political powers of South Africa to bring about the end of apartheid between 1990 and 1994, giving all people equal rights to democratic process and freedom of speech, regardless of colour or race. I guess the social truth in this Genesis story, is the starvation that drives migration and brings together different cultures, the Hebrew and the Egyptian. We see so much such economic migration today, and the social changes and challenges it brings, that it shouldn’t be too hard for us to recognise!
But it is personal truth, what Desmond Tutu writes of as the truth of wounded memories, which is being most prominently featured in these closing chapters of Genesis, that I do encourage you to read as we conclude this series of sermons today. Personal truth, says that when one person is encouraged or allowed to speak their memories, in the context of being heard and respected by those intimately involved in them, healing can be found. Personal truth was what formed the basis of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it followed from the social truth of equality. The reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers’ starts with Joseph’s discovery that they are repentant for their actions of twenty years previously.
You see, if we read through Genesis 42 v21-23, we see that Joseph comes to understand that they see their current trouble as relating to their past treatment of him, a form of confession that brings to light the information that the eldest, Reuben, spoke up for him at the time. Perhaps that is why it is in fact Simeon, Leahs’ second son, and not Reuben, who becomes Josephs’ hostage.
Some of you may have heard me talk before about the African theology of “ubuntu”. It may have become a word that describes a computer system, but even that derives from the theology popularised by Desmond Tutu, that a person is a person, through other people. To live with broken relationships, with other people, or with God, is a kind of death because we are created by God to be in relationship, healthy relationship, with other people. Ubuntu says that supporters of apartheid were as much victims of the vicious system they implemented, as the murdered, widowed, beaten and ostracised of the townships.
By being confronted by a situation where they were reminded of, and forced to acknowledge, the arguments and dehumanising behaviour they had exhibited towards Joseph in the past, the older brothers’ started the process of gaining Joseph’s forgiveness. It is personal truth, Reuben’s outburst of honesty, that sparks Joseph’s tears in Genesis 42 v22. And, if we read on into Chapter 44, on their second visit to Egypt, this time with Benjamin, it is the proof of repentance for their past actions exhibited in their honesty and truth telling under the pressure of new situations in which they feel totally out of control, that enables Joseph to finally complete his own generous acts of reconciliation by finally making himself known to them, thus enabling his reunion with Jacob in Genesis 46 v29. In the long run, it brings the family together in Egypt where they can prosper and grow in number and in their understanding of themselves as the people of God.
Here in the story of Joseph and his brothers being reconciled, we see the same as Jesus teaches us in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus is teaching us, his disciples, that the starting point for our prayers and mission as his people, is to be reconciled to one another. The familiar words of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer includes the practice of forgiveness, a daily awareness of our ongoing need for forgiveness by God for those times we stuff up, that is compromised if there is not a corresponding practice of forgiveness on our own part. It is a teaching of Jesus that we read elsewhere, for example in the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 v23-35, and in Luke 6 v37 where it says “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The biggest challenge of all is that, throughout his ministry, and most obviously in his journey to and in his words from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), that Jesus also gives us a living example of what it means to forgive those who exclude, condemn, and torture, without understanding the personal truth of what they are doing wrong, making any confession or seeking his or anyone else’s, forgiveness.
Admitting fault, confessing wrong thoughts and actions before others, and before God, is not about earning forgiveness, or about putting the right coin in God’s vending machine to trigger forgiveness, but a response to God’s sacrificial abundant love in Christ. Offering forgiveness to those who speak their own personal truths honestly, and with an integrity to their actions, is a response to both God and to such openness. Complete reconciliation should be a celebration of the basic idea that God is over-flowing with his own self-giving love, and has made us to have Ubuntu, to be in right relationship with each other.
Joseph’s reaction to being reunited with his younger brother in Genesis 43 v29-34, is a celebration meal which he serves himself with great generosity, and at which he makes his final reconciliation with his older brothers. What we call Holy Communion, which we will share later in this service, is something that celebrates our God given freedom of relationship with him, and with each other. It is a moment of Eucharist, which means to “give thanks”, the ultimate celebration meal that should grow out of willingness to confess before God the deep personal truths of our lives, our desire for forgiveness, our ability to forgive and the quest for right relationship, for ubuntu, with each other and with God.
The Ash Wednesday service for the EDGY group (Eversley, Derby Green and Yateley) had a focus on how Lent might prompt us not just to give up things, but give them away. The preacher focused in part on our newly launched satellite of the Hart Food Bank under the umbrella of the Trussell Trust. To this end, it had been decided that we would depart from the lectionary readings and use instead Isaiah 58:1-9 and Matthew 25:31-46.
My task as the service leader was therefore to tie this theme together with the wider theme of penitence, and a looking forward to the victory of the cross at Easter, symbolised in the use of ash made by burning old palm crosses.
Several of our local congregations are used to less formal liturgy, so some things I adapted to subtly include the appropriate focus without (I hope) making the overall service feel too heavy. Here therefore are some of my prayerful links, with thanks for additional inspiration to the Digital Nun at iBenedictines, Malcolm Guite’s Sonnet for Ash Wednesday, and Jeremy Clines’s redubbed collect which I used part of.
Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us as we accept your invitation to rest this night in your presence, just as we are. We do so, knowing that through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ has already won for us the victory of life over death which offers forgiveness for sin, and recognising that we fail to keep his way of life and truth. Take down this night, any barriers to our understanding and expression of your love, that we might go from this place into an observance of Lent that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, to the glory of his name. Amen
Collect: (adapted from two!)
Creator God you love all that you have made. Your gift of life is visible all around. We ask that, by your Spirit, you would comfort the afflicted, and unsettle the comfortable.
Holy God, our lives are laid open before you: rescue us from the chaos of sin and through the death of your Son bring us healing and make us whole.
Living God, inspire us to be the change you want to see in the world, and particularly in this community which you have called us to make your home.
We ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Reflective Prayer before closing responses:
We have gathered together under the promise of Christ’s victory on the cross. As we journey towards that promise, let us shine the light of Christ into our hearts through our Lenten disciplines and outward into the community he makes our home, that his light will break forth like the dawn, and his healing will quickly appear. Then will we see God’s righteousness go before us, and witness the glory of the Lord. (based loosely on Isaiah 58:8-9)