March 17, 2018 § 1 Comment
I was privileged to be Chaplain to the annual conference of Diocesan Children’s Advisers at High Leigh this week. The topic was “Blessed…?” – reflecting on the finding and bringing of blessing is situations of trauma and brokenness, and in times of joy and peace for children. As an example, 1 in 30 children of school age has lost a parent or sibling. Blessed are those who mourn?
The 48 hours were profound and challenging, as well as hopeful and affirming. I wrote what I wanted to say at the final Eucharist at the last possible moment. It’s raw and not researched. Here it is.
John 10. 11 – 16. The Good Shepherd.
In the last two days we have inhabited the hardest places, for ourselves, with others, and for the children we serve.
We have struggled to find and to bring blessing. We have wondered about fairness and rightness and justice; and wrestled with the theology of an invitation to find blessing in the depths where God is undoubtedly present, but which God has at least allowed and might also have formed.
We have wondered then what is “Good” about our Shepherd, even as we have acknowledged the grief of that Shepherd, and the utter identification of that Shepherd in everything we have encountered.
In these days I have turned back to some foundational doctrines of Scripture and the Church Fathers:
- There was never a time when God was not
- There is no place where God is not.
- There is nothing which God cannot redeem.
In these times of brokenness and trauma we long to be people of peace, healing, friendship and acceptance. We long to be people who can agonise with others without explaining; people who can make connections without restricting, people who can hold others with the wounded hands of Christ; people who can rage at God and rage with God and rage for God.
We long to be people who inhabit the mystery of God and share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings…
…and who, with humility and with faith, proclaim the death of Christ until he comes, and all is enfolded in eternity. Amen.
March 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
God of all,
In the blessing of children you revealed your kingdom.
Teach us to welcome, not to despise;
to be humble, not to oppress.
By your Spirit
make us a blessing, not a stumbling block,
that your children may find life in all its fulness
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make His face to shine upon you
And be gracious unto you
The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you
And give you peace, and give you peace
Numbers 6. 24 – 26
Music by John Rutter
March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
From Exodus 4, 5 and 6
The Lord said to Aaron, ‘Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.’ So he went; and he met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him, and all the signs with which he had charged him. Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites.
Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped.
Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’
But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’ Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.’
But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours!’ Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!’
That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labour at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.’
So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, ‘Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.” ’
So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. The taskmasters were urgent, saying, ‘Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.’ And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, ‘Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?’
Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, ‘Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, “Make bricks!” Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.’
He said, ‘You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, “Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.” Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.’ The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’ As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. They said to them, ‘The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odour with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’
Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.’
March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
This is for Morning Worship on Thursday 15 March for the Children’s Ministry Advisers National Conference
December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
All my sermons are on the church website, but some seem to be worth sharing more widely. This is tonight’s.
Years ago I remember watching an animation. It started by looking at an ordinary human being, rowing a boat. It quickly zoomed out, flying away from the person, showing them on the lake, the lake in the city, the city in the country, the country on the planet, the planet in the solar system, and on to the far reaches of the universe. Then we returned to the person, zooming into the person’s body, showing us the detail of skin and blood vessels, and even further, to cell and molecule and atomic level. We then zoomed out, back to the person again, rowing the boat. But now you saw them in a new light, immensely complex, and in a new context, within an infinitesimal universe. The film is called Cosmic Zoom, and it’s on YouTube – here. I’m pleased to say that, having seen it as a child (it was made in 1968) I remembered it pretty well.
I was reminded of it because of the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians, our second reading this afternoon. It has a similar feel, ranging from the day to day life of a new church: messages sent from Colossae to Paul via Epaphras, to the outer reaches of the universe and of human longings and imagination: Christ, the image of the invisible God, the maker of all things. Paul knows the people he is writing to, and wants to support their ordinary daily life in Christ. And he knows the God he is commending them to, and Christ the head of the church. Our daily life has to be seen in its detailed complexity, and in the context of the whole spiritual universe.
The beginning of Colossians appears at various points in the church’s pattern of Bible readings, and often at this time of year. It’s a passage which will help as we use the end of one year and the beginning of another to put ourselves into context, and to use a review of the past to enable a plan for the future. I’m trying hard to avoid using the word ‘resolutions’, but you know what I mean. What Paul is doing here is praying for the new church he has helped to bring into being. Praying is about the future as well as the present. When we pray we are imagining things as they should be, as we would like them to be. To quote Frank Senn, the Lutheran liturgical scholar, intercession is about ‘the world done aright’.
It’s worth unpacking this a little. When we pray that something should change – that a person might be healed; that a violent confrontation might become peaceful; that an injustice may be righted – when we pray in this way it is because we have a vision of the world as it should be. We are made for health, not illness, peace not war, right not wrong. To pray for these things is to align ourselves with God’s vision for the world as it will be, with the values and practices of God’s kingdom. Far from being the fulfilment of selfish desires, true prayer is about going beyond ourselves to discovering life in all its fullness. True prayer is about finding God’s desires, not our own.
To make resolutions is to desire a future and to create practices which will bring that future into being. Those resolutions need to be put into context too. Paul prays that the Colossians will be ‘fruitful’, not so that they can pile up wealth and success and be filled with pride, but so that what God will for the world will be brought to fruition. His prayer is that they will grow in ‘every good work’ and in ‘the knowledge of God’, that they will be able to cope with whatever is thrown at them, so that they will know the hope of the church and of the saints, the light and life of God. To put this into context he gives them that amazing universe wide vision of Christ, the ruler and creator of all things.
Why be fruitful? For the sake of the Christ who holds everything in his hands. Why grow in good works? For the sake of the one who is the head of the church. Why endure all things with patience? For the sake of the one who was the firstborn from the dead. Why give thanks to the Father? Because the fulness of God was pleased to dwell in his beloved Son. We might apply that to our own resolutions as a church, and as individuals. Why seek to welcome new people as disciples? Why feed and shelter the homeless? Why welcome a refugee family? Why look for young people to make a commitment of faith? Why engage with this community and contest for the role of faith in the public square?
Not because it will make us feel better, however much I’d like to slap some positive statistics in front of the Daily Mail and say ‘what about this, cynical media.’ Not because we’ll be shown to be a success, and gain affirmation and self satisfaction. Why resolve to do all this? Because in prayer we align ourselves with the love and literal passion and demands and challenges of the God who is in and over all things in Jesus Christ. This is the big picture. And just like that animation, in the Kingdom of Heaven the macro and the micro are one and the same. Thanks be to God.
July 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
Today’s Gospel reading was the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13. 24 – 30, 36 – 43). A couple of pronouncements about the Church of England, here, and here, were in my mind when I got a sermon together. Enough people talked to me about it afterwards for me to pop it here as a blog. Just as I quoted the disparaging remark about bishops I spotted a retired diocesan in the congregation, but we’re still friends.
It has been a week full of intrigue, backbiting, briefing and counter briefing, contradictory positions being taken, opposing camps making their points and playing the short and long game. So, perhaps, it’s a relief to be in church, where we can get a respite from politics in the US and Europe, and, just for a while, not have to be overwhelmed by the clamouring voices all over the TV, radio and digital media.
Except that I was also talking about the church. We’re right in the middle of briefing, counter-briefing, opposing camps and contradictory views. Take this from the Catholic Herald this week, following General Synod’s votes on matters of sexuality and identity:
“The Church [of England] selects bishops largely on their ability to avoid controversy … they are very carefully chosen so as not to have strong opinions on matters of faith. Consequently the ranks of the episcopacy are packed full of weak men.
When governments try again … to push through some [radical legislation], they will find willing accomplices governing over the husk of the Church of England, useful chaplains to the culture of death.”
That was written not by a Roman Catholic (thankfully), but by an Anglican, Andrew Sabisky, who turns out to be the Deanery Secretary for our neighbouring Deanery of South Camden. He’s clearly unimpressed with the direction he sees the Church of England taking, and wants to do something about it. That same feeling presumably drives the 21 signatories to an open letter to ‘British Anglicans’, inviting us to plan with them a ‘faithful ecclesial future’. They say:
“Many will share our dismay at the recent decisions of the General Synod of the Church of England and the pursuing principles, values and practices contrary to Holy Scripture and church Tradition. Given the persistent failure of the majority of the House of Bishops to fulfil the God-given duties which they have sworn to discharge these tragic developments were, sadly, not wholly unexpected.”
I will not be the only preacher finding food for reflection on this in our Gospel reading today. What do we do when life is full of conflicting opinions and practices? The parable of the wheat and the weeds counsels patience and trust. Bearded wheat (good), and bearded darnel (poisonous) look similar. When they are young, it is hard to tell the difference. As they grow if you pull one out its root system will disturb the other. It’s best to let things develop, rather than take too hasty action. Jesus tells a wise story here. If you wait until the wheat has done its job, you can separate them out, use the weeds for fuel, and harvest the grain successfully.
Jesus invites us to be patient, take the long view, and, crucially, to let God be the judge. The two articles I quoted are keen to take a stand and make instant judgements on what’s happening. Jesus is speaking in a world where the Pharisees and teachers of the law could make easy pronouncements about people based on words and actions. If there is a blueprint for pure action and faithful lifestyle it is possible then to see whether people measure up; whether someone is conforming or not. And once you’ve done that you can take action. You could expel them from the community.
Jesus challenges this relentlessly. Only God can tell what is righteous and pure, because God looks at the heart. We could be making judgments on the wrong criteria. Our job then is to let people grow, and to care for them. All will be revealed one day. It works for the church too. It’s all too easy in church settings to start making judgments about who is in and who is out, and the people I quoted earlier are doing just that. Based on this parable I have to say that, unless people disqualify themselves, we should welcome all. It is not our job to judge.
But, neither is it our job to be woolly about what we believe. We neither judge nor compromise. To welcome all, and to worship together, is not to lose our distinctiveness or saltiness. We should be distinctive and welcoming, and let God be the judge. Many conservative Christians use the word ‘liberal’ to denote someone who believes in anything, everything, and therefore nothing. It is surely possible to proclaim Good News in Jesus Christ and to reserve judgement on things which others would want us to make a line in the sand. A commentator on this passage says:
“The Kingdom of God is not the exclusive coterie of self-elected saints: God, in his time…will separate the pure community … it is God’s business alone to decide who belongs to the Kingdom” (David Hill)
This is not an allegory about specific aspects of church discipline (Matthew does that later, in Chapter 18), but it can speak powerfully into debates about what is central to our doctrine, teaching, and practice. Don’t be rapid in rushing to judgment. Or, as Paul says to the Corinthians: “Do not pronounce judgment before the time” (1 Cor 4. 5)
It is not that there will be no final reckoning, no final judgment, according to Jesus. All of these parables are based on God sorting things out at the end of all things. One day we will answer for what we have done. We have to ensure that we act in faith, with love, righting wrongs, confessing sins, looking for the Kingdom of God.
And the good news is that the allegory breaks down here. You can change from weed to wheat. The thing about people is that they can be changed by the love of God. The thing about the church is that, in all its variety and complexity and differences of opinion, it is living a life which includes repentance, renewal, turning round, and fresh starts. Weedy people, in Christ, can become wheaty people.
I will continue to read the blogs and articles written by people who make radical judgments about the state of God’s church, and this Church of England. I would prefer though to write about God’s radical call to welcome, inclusion, community, and working out our salvation together with fear and trembling. I will instinctively oppose those who make a judgment only God can make. And until the great harvest we will be a church where we look to find the Kingdom, in the most unlikely places.