Sunday, 22 May 2016

Trinity Sunday 2016

For the children's talk, I had a Thermos with ice in it, a flask of water, and an electric kettle that I brought to the boil during the hymn before.  So steam, ice, and water.  I asked the children why they were different, and what qualities they had.  But then I pointed out that, no matter whether it was solid, liquid or gas, it was all chemically identical: H2O.  And that it is just a tiny picture of how God as Three and God as One could work, but only a picture.


Today is Trinity Sunday, the day on which we celebrate all the different aspects of God. It’s actually a very difficult day to preach on, since it’s very easy to get bogged down in the sort of theology which none of us understands, and which we can very easily get wrong.

The trouble is, of course, that the concept of the Trinity is trying to explain something that simply won’t go into words. We are accustomed to thinking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and most of the time we don’t really stop and think about it. Trinity Sunday is the day we are expected to stop and think!

The thing is, the first half of the Christian year, which begins way back before Christmas, is the time when we think about Jesus. We prepare for the coming of the King, in Advent, and then we remember his birth, his being shown to the Gentiles, his presentation in the Temple as a baby. Then we skip a few years and remember his ministry, his arrest, death and resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. Then we remember the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, and today we celebrate God in all his Godness, as someone once put it.

The second half of the year, all those Sundays after Trinity, tend to focus on different aspects of our Christian life. And today is the one day in the year when we are expected to stop and think about God as Three and God as One.
And it is difficult. It’s a concept that doesn’t really go into words, and so whatever we say about it is going to be in some way flawed. It took the early Church a good 400 years to work out what it wanted to say about it, and even that is very obscure: “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.” The whole thing incomprehensible, if you ask me!

St Paul said it better, in our first reading. ‘We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,’ and a little later in the same paragraph, ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ St Paul may not have known the expression “The Holy Trinity, but he certainly was aware of the concept!

The illustration I gave earlier of steam, liquid water, and ice all being H2O but all different from each other and with different purposes, is just that. An illustration. It happens to be my favourite one, but I could have brought in three tins of soup – lentil, mushroom and tomato, say – all tasting very different but all soup. Or perhaps I could have mentioned Wesley's favourite illustration: he lit three candles, but there was only one light. They are all sort-of pictures, but only sort-of. Nobody really understands it. And, of course, that is as it should be. If we could understand it, if we knew all the ins and outs and ramifications of it, then we would be equal to God. And it’s very good for us to know that there are things about God we don’t really understand! It’s called, in the jargon, a “mystery”. That means something that we are never going to understand, even after a lifetime of study. Lots of things to do with God are mysteries, in that sense. Holy Communion, for one – we know what we mean when we take Communion, but we also know that it may very well mean something quite different, but equally valid, to the person standing next to us. Or even the Atonement – none of us really understands exactly what happened when Jesus died on the Cross, only that some sort of change took place in the moral nature of the Universe.

Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, we live very happily with not understanding. We synthesise some form of understanding that suits us, and, provided we know it is not the whole story, that’s fine. And the same applies to the Trinity. It doesn’t matter if we don’t really understand how God can be Three and One at the same time; what matters is that we love and trust him, whatever!

And in our Gospel reading, Jesus talks of Himself, the Father and the Spirit as equal: “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” Like St Paul, He doesn’t have the word “Trinity”, but it is the kind of thing He means.

And in the reading from Proverbs, which I chose not to use, we are reminded of Wisdom.
The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was appointed from eternity,
from the beginning, before the world began.
When there were no oceans, I was given birth,
when there were no springs abounding with water;”

and so on and so forth. Wisdom, here, is personified as female. The Greek word for Wisdom is Sophia. And some commentators equate Sophia, here, and in other passages, with the Holy Spirit.

Incidentally, some people find the image of God as Sophia, Wisdom, helpful and different. It’s one of the many images of God we have, up there alongside the Shepherd, the Rock, the Strong Tower and so on. If you don’t find it helpful, then don’t use it, but if it is something that appeals, then do.

But that is beside the point. Seeing God as Wisdom is a very old tradition, but the real point is that even in the Old Testament we get glimpses of God as having more than One Person. The Trinity might not be a Bible expression, but it is a Bible concept.

But really, the thing about today is that, no matter how much we don’t understand God as Three but still One, today is a day for praising the whole Godness of God. It is not really a day for deep theological reflection, nor for self-examination, but a day for praise and wonder and love and adoration.

So I’m going to be quiet now, and let’s spend a few moments in silent worship before we sing our next hymn.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Our Doctrines

It was Hannukah. This is the festival of dedication that our Jewish friends celebrate every year shortly before Christmas, which involves lighting candles every night for eight nights – one more candle each night. Various blessings are said, and hymns are sung, and, of course, there is the usual feasting and celebration, although you still go to work or school, as appropriate. In Israel it's a school holiday, but elsewhere it isn't, and you aren't excused school as you are for some of the Jewish holidays. The festival commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over pagan kings who wanted to ban Judaism and defile the Temple.

The festival was about 200 years old in Jesus' day, and he, as we see, is in Jerusalem for it, and he's walking up and down what's called Solomon's Porch, or Solomon's Colonnade, which was on the eastern side of the outer court of the Temple. And various people – ones, I suspect, who had no reason to wish him well – came up to him and said “We do wish you'd tell us clearly, are you the Messiah, or not?”

To which he replied: “But I have told you! You just didn't believe me!” And he goes on to explain that those who are never going to be his disciples, no matter what, will not listen to him. But “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never die. No one can snatch them away from me.”

“My sheep listen to my voice”. And, conversely, “You will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”

So, Jesus is basically saying that he can tell them he's the Messiah until he's blue in the face, but they are never going to listen. They are not his sheep.

Now, I think we need to look at this a bit this morning, because it can be quite scary to think that there are people who are not Jesus' sheep. I wonder what he meant.

Well, first of all, our doctrines tell us that everybody can be saved. We don't believe, as some churches teach, that there is only a limited atonement and it's not for everybody. We believe that everybody can be saved. Everybody. Even a terrorist. Even a paedophile. Even a politician. Everybody can be saved. Jesus doesn't exclude anybody from His flock.

But yet, we also believe that everybody needs to be saved. Everybody needs to be saved. I strongly suspect that the default position, for very small children and so on, is that they are part of Jesus' flock – but people can exclude themselves. There are prominent atheists like Stephen Fry or Jimmy Carr who would be horrified to find themselves part of the flock! And others who exclude themselves by their actions – they couldn't care less whether they are part of the flock or not, but go their own sweet way regardless. And then there are those who don't follow Jesus, but do follow God to the best of their ability and knowledge, people like Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists. I don't know how God deals with such people, but I'm quite sure whatever happens to them after this life is fair and right. Jesus condemned the Jewish church leaders of his day, certainly, but that was basically because they didn't want to know, when he was right there in front of them.

But in many ways that is not our problem. Sure, we share our faith with Jews and Muslims and so on when it's appropriate to do so – and I very much hope that we listen when they tell us about theirs! But whatever God has provided for their salvation – and I'm perfectly convinced He has, because whatever else God is He's not unfair, and it would be terribly unfair to exclude people because they had been taught to worship God differently and to say different creeds; whatever God has provided for their salvation, the point is we do know what­ He has provided for ours!

We know that everybody can know that they are saved. Everybody can know that they are saved, that they are part of Jesus' flock. We know that we can hear His voice, through Scripture, through our friends, through our teachers.... I think all of us here have made a commitment, one way and another, to being Jesus' person; whether we said a specific prayer of commitment on a specific day, or whether it came so gradually that we couldn't possibly say when it was, only that you couldn't be doing without Jesus now. We have all, I expect, made such a commitment – and if by any chance you haven't, you might think whether it is time that you did so – and we can know that we are saved.

I don't really know exactly what “our doctrines” mean by “saved” in this context. It's far more than just “pie in the sky when you die”, of course; it's about being Jesus' person all the time, the “abundant life” Jesus talks about is for here and now, not just in some remote afterlife. It's about being filled with the Holy Spirit; it's about receiving the gifts of the Spirit to enable us to become more and more the person God created us to be. But it's one of those things where we all probably have part of the truth, and none of us has the whole truth, because it's about God. I know what I mean when I say “saved”, and I expect you know what you mean when you say it, but we may not mean quite the same things. And we may not mean now what we meant when we said it twenty years ago, or even yesterday – we all grow and change and this sort of thing is apt to change a bit as we go on our Christian journey.

So: Everybody needs to be saved; everybody can be saved; everybody can know they are saved, and the fourth line of “our doctrines” is “Everybody can be saved to the uttermost”.

“My sheep listen to my voice”, says Jesus. And it isn't just listening like we might listen to the radio or a CD, just background noise. It is active listening, that focusses on what is being said and reacts to it. It is the sort of listening that enables God to make us into the person we were created to be, the sort of listening that enables God to give us the gifts we need.

Most of us, of course, aren't good at listening to God all the time. Like sheep, we wander away and have to be brought back. Have you ever seen a field of sheep with their lambs? Actually, more to the point, have you ever listened? There is constant bleating going on, as that's how the sheep stay in touch with their lambs. Each sheep knows her lamb's particular bleat, and each lamb knows it's mother's. So they listen out for their own lamb, and ignore other people's. It would be a serious mess if they didn't know how to identify their own lamb in all that flock. And­ most sheep learn to recognise their shepherd, or at least the car or quad-bike. Their reaction to a familiar vehicle or person is quite different to an unfamiliar one. “My sheep listen to my voice!”

And, like sheep, we are apt to wander away, but the joy is that the Good Shepherd is always there to bring us back, always on the alert for someone straying, and grabbing them before they go too far. Those of us who are committed to being Jesus' person, and committed to being part of the flock, know that. It is a great comfort, as we know we're going to mess up sooner or later, but Jesus will be there to help us get things right again.

But John Wesley was convinced that there were some people who had grasped the knack of living so closely with God that they didn't mess up. They were, in all the ways that matter, perfect. He says obviously nobody is perfect in understanding God – you can't be. And making mistakes doesn't necessarily make you less than perfect, nor does any kind of infirmity – physical or mental. Although he does qualify that, when he says: 'Only let us not give that soft title to known sins, as the manner of some is. So, one man tells us, "Every man has his infirmity, and mine is drunkenness;” Another has the infirmity of uncleanness; another of taking God's holy name in vain; and yet another has the infirmity of calling his brother, "Thou fool," or returning "railing for railing." It is plain that all you who thus speak, if ye repent not, shall, with your infirmities, go quick into hell!' And, of course, one can be tempted. Wesley says, 'Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some . . . seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.'

Holiness. Wesley goes on to define holiness as he sees it, being freedom from sin. He spends a great deal of time saying, “Oh but people say the Bible says”.... yadda yadda yadda and refuting it, rather like people do about homosexuality in our day. But he also tries to explain that we are forgiven in this life, forgiven and cleansed, and that we can live in the reality of that. He reminds us of Paul's letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And he reminds us, too, that we produce fruit by the power of the Holy Spirit. He doesn't quote the list of fruit of the Spirit given in Galatians, but you can tell he's thinking of it.

We can be saved to the uttermost. We can so spend our time listening to the Good Shepherd, aware of His presence, that we become fully whole, fully holy, more fully his person than we could possibly imagine. And yes, one can – well, I can't always, but people do – be aware of God and of His presence with us even while busy with the rest of life, with school and work and watching television and being with friends....

I'm not quite sure how I ended up talking about our doctrines this morning, but it's always good to remind ourselves of them.

Everybody needs to be saved.
Everybody can be saved.
Everybody can know they are saved.
Everybody can be saved to the uttermost.

It seems to me the secret is to be open to listening to Jesus, to be part of His flock, not to close off His voice because we are so convinced that we are right and everybody else is wrong. The Jews, that Hannukah festival so long ago, simply couldn't hear Jesus – they were so convinced that this young man couldn't possibly be the Messiah that they were unable to listen to what he was actually saying, not what they thought he was saying!

And, sadly, we all know people like that. People who are so convinced they are right that they can't possibly listen to anybody else's point of view. They may claim to follow Jesus, or they may despise what they tend to call “organised religion” (though quite what they mean by that is totally unclear!), but either way, it's utterly impossible to get through to them about whatever particular bee they have in their bonnet.

The awful thing is, if you are like that – although I don't think anybody here is – you won't have heard a word I've said this morning! Some people do come to church just to have their prejudices confirmed, but I'm sure nobody here does. Or perhaps we all do, who knows? But I do pray that I, and you, will be open to hearing the Shepherd's voice, open to being part of the flock, even when that challenges our ideas, even when it touches places within us we don't want to explore. Because by listening, by hearing, by being willing to be changed, only then can we really be “saved to the uttermost”. Amen.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Peter and Paul

This sermon is very similar to the one I preached three years ago on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, but not identical, as this turned out to be a Parade Sunday. 

Our readings today are about two very different men, both of whom were leaders of the very early church, and both of whom had made appallingly bad starts!

To take them in chronological order, first of all there was Peter.
Simon, as his original name was –

Peter was basically a nickname Jesus gave him.
It means stone or rock;
if Jesus had been speaking English, he might have nicknamed him “Rock” or “Rocky”.
“You're Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”
But the Greek word was “Petros”, so we know him as Peter.

Anyway, as you know, Peter was an impulsive type,
probably with a hot temper.
We probably know more about him than we know about any of the Twelve, as it is often his comments and answers that are quoted.
And, sadly, the fact that when push came to shove his courage failed him
and he pretended he didn't know Jesus.
And our Gospel reading today is all about his reinstatement.

The disciples have gone back to Galilee after the Resurrection,
and have gone fishing.
I suppose they must have thought that it was all over,
not realising how much their lives were going to change.
And although the other gospel-writers tell us that Peter had seen the risen Lord, he still seems to have had trouble forgiving himself for the denials.
So when he realises that it is Jesus on the lake shore, he grabs his tunic –
he will have been working naked in the boat –
and swims to shore.
And they all have breakfast together, and then Jesus turns to Peter.
You can imagine, can't you, that Peter's heart started beating rather faster than usual.

Now, part of the whole point of this story doesn't actually work in English, because we only have one word for love. We say we love our mums and dads, or we love cheese, or we love watching boxsets.

But the Greeks had several different words for love. I'm not sure what they said about cheese, or about whatever the local equivalent of watching boxsets was, but they said eros to describe the love between a man and a woman;
they said storge, to describe affection, family love, the sort of love you have for your mum and dad or brothers and sisters.
Then, and these are the two words that are relevant to us here, they had the word philia, which is friendship, comradeship, and the word agape, a word only found in the New Testament, which means God's love.
And when Jesus says to Peter “Do you love me?” he uses the word agape.
Do you love me with God's love.
And Peter can't quite manage to say that, and so in his reply he uses philia.
“Yes, Lord, you know I'm your friend”.
And Jesus commissions him to “Feed my lambs.”

This happens again.
“Do you love me with God's love?”
“Lord, you know I'm your friend!”
“So take care of my sheep.”

And then the third time.
Well, that's logical, there were three denials, so perhaps three reinstatements.
But this time it is different:
“Simon, son of John, are you my friend?”

Peter doesn't quite know what to answer.
“Lord, you know everything;
you know whether I'm your friend or not!”
And Jesus tells him, again, to feed His sheep.
And comments that he will die a martyr's death, but instructs him to “Follow Me!”

And, we are told, Peter did follow Jesus.
We know he was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came,
and it was he who preached so powerfully that day that three thousand people were converted.
We know he was imprisoned, and miraculously released from prison;
there is that wonderful scene where he goes and knocks on the door of the safe house,
interrupting the prayer-meeting that has been called for the sole purpose of praying for him,
and the girl who answers the door is so shocked she leaves him standing there while she goes and tells the others, and they don't believe her!
One of the funniest scenes in the Bible, I think.

Anyway, we know that Peter ended up in Rome, and, sadly, tradition tells us that he was crucified upside-down, which those who wrote down John's gospel would have known, which is arguably why it was mentioned.

But the point is, he was completely and utterly forgiven and reinstated, and God used him beyond his wildest dreams.

And so to St Paul.
Now Paul, at that stage known as Saul, also needed a special touch from God.
He couldn't have been more different from Peter, though.
He was born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus.
He was well-educated, and had probably gone to university,
contrasting with Peter, who, it is thought, only had the basic education that all Jewish boys of his time and class would have had.
He was a Pharisee, the most learned and holy of the Jewish religious leaders of the day.
And, like so many Pharisees, he felt totally threatened by this new religious movement that was springing up, almost unstoppably.
It was, he thought, complete nonsense, and not only that, it was blasphemy!
He set himself to hunt down and kill as many believers as he could.

But God had other ideas, and grabbed Saul on his way to Damascus.
And I expect you know what happened then –
he was blind for three days, and then a very brave man called Ananias came and laid hands on him,
whereupon he could see again, and then,
after some time out for prayer and study,
he became the apostle to the Gentiles, so-called, and arguably the greatest influence on Christianity ever.
He had a knack for putting the great truths about God and about Jesus into words, and even today, Christians study his letters very seriously.

He started off by persecuting believers, but in the end, God used him beyond his wildest dreams!

So you see the common link between these two men:
one an uneducated provincial fisherman,
the other a suave and sophisticated Pharisee, and a Roman citizen, to boot.
Peter knew how dreadfully he had sinned;
Paul thought he was in the right.
But they both needed a touch from God, they both needed explicit forgiveness,
they both needed to know that they were loved, no matter what they had done.

And they both responded.

If this had just been a story of how God spoke to two different men in two different ways, that would be one thing.
It would be a fabulous story in its own right.
It would show us that we, too, no matter how dreadful we are,
no matter how prone to screw things up,
we too could be loved and forgiven and reinstated.
And this is, of course, true. We are human.
We screw up –
that, after all, is what sin is, when you come down to it –
the human propensity to screw things up.
Which we all do in our own particular ways.
It doesn't actually matter how we mess up –
we all mess up in different ways,
and sometimes we all mess up in the same way.
It is part of being human.
God's forgiveness is constant and unremitting –
all we have to do is to receive it.
There is no more forgiveness for a terrorist
than there is for you or for me.
And there is no less forgiveness, either.
It is offered to us all, everybody,
even the worst sort of person you can possibly imagine.
Even a suicide bomber.
No nonsense about God hating this group of people, or that group of people.
He doesn't.
He loves them, and offers forgiveness to them as and where they need it,
just as he does to you,
and just as he does to me.

But, as I implied, that isn't quite the end of the story.
It would have been a fabulous story, even if we had never heard of Peter or of Paul again.
There are one or two fabulous stories in Acts that we don't know how they came out –
I'm thinking here of Cornelius and the Ethiopian Eunuch;
both men became Christians,
one through Peter's ministry and one through Philip's,
but we are not told what became of them.
We don't know what became of the slave Onesimus who had to return home to Philemon,
bearing with him a letter from Paul asking Philemon to receive him as a brother in Christ.

But we do know what happened to Peter and to Paul.
They both responded to God's forgiveness.
They received it.
They offered themselves to Christ's service and, through their ministry, millions of people down the centuries have come to know and love the Lord Jesus.

Of course, they were exceptional.
We know their stories, just as we know the stories of John Wesley,
or of people like Lord Baden-Powell, Dwight L Moody, Gladys Aylward,
Eric Liddell or Billy Graham.
If you don't know who those people are, look them up on Wikipedia after the service.

But there are countless thousands of men and women whose stories we don't know,
who received God's forgiveness,
offered themselves to His service,
and through whose ministry many millions of men and women came to know and love the Lord.
Some of them went to live and work somewhere else,
but many of them lived out a life of quiet service exactly where they were.
Some of them, sadly, were imprisoned or even put to death for their faith,
but many died in their own beds.

And you see where this is going, don't you?
Now, I know as well as you do that this is where we all start to wriggle and to feel all hot and bothered,
and reckon we can't possibly be doing enough in Christ's service,
or that we are a rotten witness to his love and forgiveness.

Perhaps some of you here this morning aren't quite ready to call yourselves Jesus' people just yet. That's okay – Jesus still loves you and forgives you, and when you are ready to be His person, you just say, and He will accept you.

Others of you will already have made that commitment – some of us did so many years ago, and for others it's more recent.
And we are told that when the Holy Spirit comes,
we will be witnesses to Christ –
not that we ought to be, or we must be, but that we will be!
And I know that many of you are doing all you can to serve the Lord exactly where you are, and I'm sure you're doing a wonderful job of it, too.

But maybe it never occurred to you to offer.
Maybe you accepted Jesus' forgiveness, and promised to be his person, and rather left it at that.
That's fine, of course.
For many of you, school and your studies have to come first, and that's absolutely as it should be.
God wouldn't ask you to do anything that would badly interfere with that. But what if you're missing out?
You see, the giving and offering isn't all on our side –
how could it be?
And when we offer ourselves to Christ's service, you wouldn't believe –
or perhaps you already know –
the wonderful gifts He gives to help you do whatever is is you're asked to do.
I know that sometimes people have even wondered if God could possibly be calling them to do whatever it is,
as they want to do it so badly that it might be just their own wants!
But, you see, God wouldn't call you to do something you would hate, would he?
And so what if it did end badly?
Look at a young lawyer, in a country far from here, who was thrown into prison for his faith, which led him to stand up for what he believed was right against the government of the day.
He left his country when he was released from prison –
and to this day he will tell you that it was knowing his Bible as well as he did that helped him stay sane while he was in it.
And you will have seen him on television, and maybe even you older ones have met him, as he used to be a local vicar, and now he's the Archbishop of York.

I'm rather waffling now, so I'll shut up.
But I do just want to leave this with you:
Perhaps, today, you just needed to be reminded that God loves and forgives you, whoever you are and whatever you have done.
Perhaps, today, you needed to be reminded that when you are ready, you need to commit yourself to being Jesus' person and then you'll really know that love and forgiveness for yourself.
But it maybe you need to think:
have you ever offered yourself to God's service as Peter did, as Paul did, as so many down the years have?
And is God, perhaps, calling you to something new?

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Thomas Gives Permission

The text of today's sermon can be found here.  I see I recorded it back then, too, but here is today's podcast.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Love bade me welcome

Please scroll down for the main sermon and its podcast - I did add some additional stuff, so it is slightly different.

Children's Talk - Mothering Sunday

It will not have escaped your notice that it's Mothers' Day today. But what you might not realise is that it's also Mothering Sunday, which is a church thing. Mothers' Day is basically a commercial festival, useful for making money for retailers by selling flowers at twice what they normally cost. But Mothering Sunday is only tangentially about human mothers.

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and it’s long been known as Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday – it’s half-way through Lent, and in days when people kept it rather more strictly than they do now, it was a day when you could relax the rules a little. And the tradition grew up that on that day, you went to the mother church in your area – often the cathedral, but it might have just been the largest church in your area.

Families went together, and it became traditional for servants to have time off to go home and see their families on that day, if they lived near enough. In the Middle Ages, servants may only have got one day off a year, and it was, traditionally, the 4th Sunday in Lent. Many servants had to leave home when they were very young – only about 11 or 12 – because their parents simply couldn't afford to feed them any longer. And, indeed, many of these children hadn't known what a full tummy felt like until they started work. But even so, they must have missed their families, and been glad to see them every year.

And today is also a day for remembering God’s love for us. We’re having the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent today, but if we’d had the traditional Mothering Sunday readings, we would have heard Jesus weeping over Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you. I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you wouldn't let me.”

The image of Jesus as a mother hen! What we remember on Mothering Sunday isn’t just our mothers, although that, too, but above all, the wonderful love of God, our Father and our Mother.

We do give thanks for our mothers, of course we do. But we have to remember, too, people whose Mums are no longer with us, and to remember that some people didn't have satisfactory relationships with their own Mums, and some people have never known the joy of motherhood. The Church isn't always very tactful about Mothers Day, I'm afraid – I used to find it very patronising, especially considering that for the rest of the year I was rather left to get on with it, and was told that the loneliness and isolation and lack of fellowship was “the price you pay for the wonderful privilege of being a Christian Mother!” As if....

But we can all celebrate God's wonderful love for each and every one of us. 


 Love Bade Me Welcome

This is such a familiar story, isn't it? We probably first heard it in primary school, and have heard it on and off down the years ever since.

Jesus had a couple of stories that began, “A farmer had two sons”. I shouldn't wonder if he didn't flesh them out a bit, give them names, and so on, and when he started a new story about them, the crowd would relax, knowing that a favourite type of story was coming. That's slightly a fantasy of mine, but don't you think the two sons who were asked to help in the vineyard were the same two sons as in this story, only younger?

Well, we don't know why the younger son got fed up with his comfortable life on the farm; Jesus didn't go into details about his family background, or, if he did, Luke didn't record them! Perhaps he was being asked to marry a girl he really disliked – or perhaps he'd fallen in love with the wrong girl. Or perhaps he just found farm work boring, and the lights of the big city more attractive. Whatever, he goes to his father and asks for his share of his inheritance, and takes off.

Now, it was really awful of him to ask that – he was more or less saying “I can't wait until you're dead!”. And, of course, it wasn't a matter of going to the bank and writing a cheque – it was a matter of ­dividing up the farm, letting the younger son have a certain number of fields and buildings, and a certain amount of stock. But this story is taking place in God's country, where the rules are not the same as ours, so the farmer does just that, and a few days later, when the son has sold all this – I wonder if he sold it back to his father, I wouldn't put it past him – he lets his son go with his blessing.

And the son goes off to seek his fortune in the big city.

But, like so many of us, he doesn't make a fortune. Instead, he wastes what he has on what the older translations of the Bible called “riotous living” - “reckless living” is what the Good News Bible calls it. You know the kind of thing – fashionable clothes, champagne, caviar, top-of-the-range smartphones, expensive callgirls, fast cars, and so on and so forth. They perhaps didn't have quite those things in his day, but very similar! And he almost definitely gambled, and may even have taken drugs as well.

And, inevitably, it all goes horribly wrong and he wakes up one morning with no money and with his creditors ringing the doorbell. And he is forced to earn his living as best he can.

I don't think we Christians can ever quite realise the absolute horror of what happened next. We don't have the utter horror of pigs that the Jews had and have. We think of pigs, we think of bacon and sausages and roast pork with crispy crackling; for the Jews – and, I gather, for Muslims, too – it was more like taking a job on a rat farm. In terms of actual work, it probably wasn't much different from the work he'd been used to, but he would be an outcast among his own kind, and we gather from the story that he wasn't paid very well, either. He was hungry, to the point where even the pigs' food looked good. I wonder if he was working for one of his creditors?

Anyway, one morning he wakes up and thinks to himself, “What on earth am I doing? Even my father treats his people better than this – maybe he'd take me on as a farm worker.”

You notice, perhaps, that he doesn't say he's sorry. He doesn't appear to regret having left home, only finding himself in this fix. And yes, he would be better off working for his father than he is here.

And again, we know what happened next. Father rushes out to greet him – and men simply never ran in that place and time, but remember that this story takes place in God's country, and anything can happen there. The celebrations go on and on.

Elder brother is most put out. He has been working hard all the time, and nobody ever gave him a party, did they? And this wastrel, who has caused so much grief, is being treated like a prince. What's all that about?

Well, the elder brother could have had a party any day in the week, if he'd wanted one. He'd never said, had he? He'd seemed quite content with his lifestyle. Perhaps underneath, though, he was seriously jealous of his brother. No, not jealous, that's the wrong word. Envious. Perhaps he wish he had had the guts to cut loose and make a life of his own. We don't know.

But whatever, Father's reaction seemed to him to be well out of order. He wished his Father had said, “Get out – how dare you show your face around here!”

Or that Father had said “Well, I suppose you can be a servant, but no way are you coming back into this family.”

Or, perhaps, “Well, if you work really hard and prove to me you're really sorry, I might be prepared to forgive you – in about ten years' time and providing you are absolutely perfect during that time!”

But for Father to rush up and hug Little Brother, and to be calling for champagne and throwing a party – well, that was definitely out of order, as far as Big Brother was concerned. His only hope was that Little Brother would insist on being treated as a servant: “No, no, you can't give me a party! I don't deserve it. I'm going to live above the stables with the other workers, and behave like a worker, not your son!”

You know, that's what I think I would have done. I don't know about you, but I find being forgiven the hardest thing there is. Responding to God's love is really hard. I want to earn my forgiveness, earn God's love, God's approval.

But it doesn't work like that, does it? The bit of Luke Chapter 15 that we didn't read was the other two “lost” stories – the lost sheep and the lost coin. We don't blame the coin for getting lost; we know how easy it is to drop something, or to put it down in a safe place, and we can't find it. Just as I was settling down to prepare this sermon, Robert rang up to say his bag had been stolen, with all his credit cards, his phone, his keys.... in fact, it hadn't been stolen at all, someone had moved it, but great was our rejoicing when we learnt that!

We don't really blame the sheep for wandering off, either. Sheep are dumb animals – well, noisy ones, really, but stupid ones, whatever – and if they can get into trouble, they will. But the Good Shepherd isn't going to lose one if he can help it; he'll be pulling on his coat and wellies as soon as he realises one has gone missing, and set off with his dogs to find it.

You might say that is over the top – but again, this is God's country, the Kingdom of Heaven, and anything can happen there. In God's country there is more joy over one lost sheep being found than over the 99 that stayed in their field.

But we can and we do blame the young man for running off. Perhaps we would like to run off, who knows? In any case, we can identify with him. We know we can – and maybe we have – done dreadful things like that. And we don't like it, like the big brother didn't like it, when the Father forgives him so generously and open-heartedly, even without his repenting properly. He came home, he is here again, this calls for a drink! No, we think, this won't do. I can't be forgiven that easily. It can't be that simple. I need to earn it.

But we can't earn it. We can't earn forgiveness. We can't earn salvation. Sometimes we speak, and maybe even think, that salvation is down to us, that we need to say the special prayer so that God will save us. No. Salvation is all God's idea, and God has a great deal more invested in the relationship than we do. God pours out his love on us unconditionally, and all we need do is accept it.

There's a lovely poem by a 17th-century poet called George Herbert which I'm going to finish with today, as it does summarise what I'm trying to say here:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

May we all “sit and eat”, and receive God's love and forgiveness, not as we deserve, but as He desires. Amen.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Second Chance

There had been an atrocity. Some people from Galilee had been making their sacrifices in the Temple when they had been murdered by Pilate’s officials and their blood had been mingled with that of the sacrifices, something that, to them, would have been really badly upsetting.
So some people who had heard about this went to Jesus and told him about it, and said, “But were these people worse sinners than most Galileans?”

Jesus said, “No, of course not, any more than the people who were killed when that power station collapsed at Didcot were any better or worse than anybody else in the area.”

Well, actually, he didn't say “When that power station collapsed at Didcot”; he said “When that tower collapsed at Siloam”. But it's the same principle, isn't it? Buildings collapse. Terrorists attack. Kids get stabbed. We hear of so many atrocities week by week, and of course there are the minor tragedies nobody knows about except those directly involved – someone dying of a heart attack in their 30s, for instance, or killed in a road accident.

“No,” says Jesus, “they were no better or worse than anybody else.”

But then he seems to contradict himself, because he adds, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did!”

“Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did!” First, he makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies. He doesn’t say, “It was God’s will.” The Galileans killed by Pilate were victims of the Roman government’s whims. It could have been anybody offering sacrifices that day. And the people killed by the tower? It could have been anyone who happened to be standing there.

It's not about God's will. It appears to be random – it looks to me as though Jesus himself didn't really know why such things happen, and perhaps it's never going to be something we really understand this side of Heaven. Those people who tell us we must praise God for disasters which, I am sure, break God's heart, are talking through the back of their heads. We can praise God in tragedies, and during them, sure, but not and never for them.

Jesus is saying that it’s not about cause and effect.
Were those who died worse sinners?
No, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Jesus is telling them to look at their own lives –
don’t speculate about others.
What about your life?
What about mine?
We can spend so much time trying to explain things –
so much time worrying about other people’s lives
that we forget to pay attention to our own lives with God.
Maybe these deaths should be an alarm call, Jesus said.

Then, then in response to those unanswerable questions,
in response to the warning, “Unless you repent, you will perish”,
then Jesus told them a parable about a fig tree.
A parable about destruction?
A story of punishment for those who failed to repent?

There have been fig-tree stories like that, haven’t there?
Jesus himself, according to St Matthew’s gospel,
once cursed a fig-tree that bore no fruit.
And in that passage in John 15, Jesus reminds us that branches that bear no fruit are pruned and disposed of.
John the Baptist says something very similar.
It’s a very common metaphor in the New Testament.

But this story is a little different.
It starts off the same way –
the barren fig-tree that hasn’t produced a single fig for three years or more.
It’s taking up valuable space in the garden and, what’s worse,
it’s leaching the soil of valuable nutrients but not giving anything back.

I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten fresh figs –
my parents had a huge fig-tree in the front yard of their old house, just by the garage,
and in the height of summer it grew so big and shady that it made it quite difficult for my mother to get her car out.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember it having any figs when I was a child,
but in recent years it’s had a lovely crop.
Fresh figs are delicious, although you mustn't eat too many at once, and often they are quite expensive in the supermarkets. I did once manage to get a punnet of them fairly cheaply in a Turkish supermarket, but that was only once. They can cost up to 50p each in Tesco's, and I don't buy them often!

So I can quite see that the owner was really disappointed and frustrated that the tree simply wasn’t producing any.
“Let’s cut it down and get a new one!” he said.

But the gardener, who loved his garden and loved his trees, said,
“No, hang on, let’s give it a last chance.
If I dig around it, loosening the soil, and put in lots of manure,
it just might produce some figs this year.
If it doesn’t, I agree, it’s finished.”

And there the story ends.
The implication is that the tree will be given another chance,
another year to bear fruit.
But only another year.
What we need to know is, is this a threat or a promise?

Do you have a supermarket loyalty card? I do, and I've learnt over the years to save the main vouchers I get to use to pay for channel crossings and things like that. And every so often, I get an e-mail from Tesco's reminding me to use them up before they expire. If my vouchers expire, they are no good to me, but if I use them while they are still in date, I can get some great bargains. And the fig tree was given an expiry date, if you like. One more year....

Some people, I know, see it as a threat. “Shape up, or else!” But I'm not sure that it is. I think it is more of a promise: “How can we best help you become the person – or the tree – that you were meant to be”. The gardener is going to do some serious work on the tree, give it lots of manure and so on, to try to help it to bear fruit. The tree isn't just left to get on with it – that, we know, hasn't worked.

Jesus reminds us, too, that we need to repent. All of us need to repent. What do you suppose he means by this?

We tend to think of repentance in terms of being sorry, of thinking that we must be dreadful people, even if we aren't. But while being sorry can come into it, it's more about changing direction, about going God's way.

Sometimes, when Robert and I are driving around in our mobile home, we have the satnav on to tell us what way to go, and if we miss our turning, or take the wrong road out of a roundabout, or something, the machine is apt to say, in its computer-generated voice, “Turn around when possible”. But we aren't turning round just to retrace our steps; we are turning round so that we can go in the right direction.

We're apt to think of judgement in terms of prison sentences or fines, aren't we? We think of judges as though they were all magistrates or county court judges. But actually, there are many different sorts of judges. When I was skating competitively, we sometimes took tests to see whether we had reached the required standard, and if we had not, as was usually the case, we were told we needed to try again another time. We weren't being condemned or anything – we just hadn't reached the required standard this time. If we competed, we would be ranked against others who had entered, and the judges would put us in order – but no condemnation on us for coming last, which we usually did.

At a flower show, the judges decide whose flowers, or vegetables, or cakes or jam or whatever, is the best in that particular class; again, no condemnation for those who don't win, although no point in entering if you don't want to win.

And some competitions are referred to as “trials”, but they have nothing to do with justice and judgement, but to see who is best – often dogs, in this case, working with sheep or working as gundogs. Which dog can do it best? Which needs a bit more practice?

And those who don't succeed this time go away and practice and work really hard and they hope that next time they will succeed. They are free to try again as many times as they like!

Repentance isn't about looking at the past and saying “Oh dear, oh dear, how dreadful!”, it's about looking to the future and seeing what God is doing. It's about going God's way. Of course, we do need to take stock of our lives,
make amends when necessary, and ask for God's forgiveness.
But we mustn’t get stuck there.
That is not real repentance.
To repent is to come to our senses,
to change our mind,
and to face the future with a sense of the hope, love and companionship that God offers to us in our lives.

God has something in store for us in our future.
God will give us gifts for our future.
God will be there with us and for us in our future.
To repent is to change our minds and recognize these things.
It is to turn towards the future with faith, hope, and love.

The fig tree was to be given another chance –
but so much more than that!
It was to be given special love and care and attention to help it grow figs again.
Not just: “Shape up, or else,”
but “Let’s see what we can do to help you bear fruit again!”

“Seek the Lord while he may be found,
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
    and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

“Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon!”

We have to return to the Lord,
but God is going to do everything possible to enable that to happen!
To enable us to turn towards the future with faith, hope and love!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Scrolls and Bodies

 For the children's talk, I told them Aesop's fable of the Belly and the Members:

"One fine day it occurred to the Members of the Body that they were doing all the work and the Belly was having all the food.  So they held a meeting, and after a long discussion, decided to strike work till the Belly consented to take its proper share of the work.  So for a day or two, the Hands refused to take the food, the Mouth refused to receive it, and the Teeth had no work to do." 

 at which point I stopped, and asked the children what they thought would happen in a day or so.  "I think," said a 10-year-old, "That the person would die!"  I said they certainly would if they persisted, but before that time:

But after a day or two the Members began to find that they themselves were not in a very active condition: the Hands could hardly move, and the Mouth was all parched and dry, while the Legs were unable to support the rest.  So thus they found that even the Belly in its dull quiet way was doing necessary work for the Body and that all must work together or the Body will go to pieces."

I then added that no matter how young they were, they were still a very necessary part of the Church, and not to let anybody ever tell them different.  Nor, I said, addressing the whole church, are you ever too old!

Two interesting readings today, I thought. Firstly St Paul, talking about the Body of Christ, and then Jesus, reading the Scriptures in the synagogue in his home town.

So, St Paul. The story I told the children earlier is a very ancient one; it dates back to a fable by Aesop, Aesop is thought to have lived around 600 BC, and the story may be much older still. St Paul, who was an educated man, probably knew it, and thought of it when he drew the analogy about our being parts of the Body of Christ.

St Paul was, of course, writing to the Church in Corinth, and it looks as though the people there had got themselves into a bit of a muddle about who was the most important. Some people thought they really didn’t matter very much. Other people thought that everybody else should be just like them. Still others thought that people with smaller roles to play in the Church didn’t matter as much as they did. But there would have been educated people in the congregation, who would have known the story, and nodded wisely as they realised where Paul was going with this. Yes of course, all parts of the body are necessary. Yes, the stomach may appear to do nothing, but you see how far you get without any food! And Paul takes this and runs with it: the foot is just as much a part of the body as the hand is; the eye just as much part as the ear. If the whole body were just an ear, how would you smell? If the whole body was an eye, you wouldn't be able to hear! And so on. His point, of course, is that all parts of the body are equally necessary and important, and if we are the Body of Christ then we are all equally necessary and important.

Then we have this story of Jesus, fairly early in his ministry, going home for the weekend, and on the Sabbath Day, he goes to the synagogue with his family, and because he’s home visiting, they ask him to choose the reading from the prophets. So Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, the bit where it says: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.” So far so good. But then he says “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Our reading ended there, but I expect you remember what happened next – the people were outraged. They knew this young man, they'd known him from a small child, ever since his family had settled there when he wasn't much more than a baby. “He’s only the Carpenter’s son, Mary’s lad. These are his brothers and sisters. He can’t be special.” And they were offended, so we are told. They even went so far as to try to kill him for blasphemy, but he escaped and went away.

Once upon a time, two men were talking in the pub, or their club or somewhere like that. One of them told how he had been lost in the Sahara desert. I don't know what he was doing in the Sahara desert in the first place – perhaps he was an aviator whose plane had come down, as so many did, or perhaps he was an explorer, or perhaps he just thought he knew better than anybody else. Well, anyway, he was lost, and dying of thirst, and he knew that, barring a miracle, he wouldn't make it home. So he prayed to God to save him.

“Oh,” said his hearer. “And what did God do? You obviously were saved, as you're here to tell me the story.”

“Actually, God didn't;” said the first man. “Just at that moment a caravan came past and helped me, so you see, God didn't need to save me.”

Now, we can see, can't we, what our hero couldn't – that it was God who sent the caravan at just that moment. But he didn't expect God to work in that way, so he didn't see it.

Similarly, the people of Corinth couldn't always see how God was working in and through other people in the church – people with, perhaps, different views on how things should be done. We know from later in the letter than some people were bothered about eating meat that had previously been offered to idols, and others reckoned that, as the idols had no power, it didn't matter. We know they argued about sex, whether within or outside of marriage. We know they argued about all sorts of things, but for Paul, what mattered was that they were all part of the church, and God could and did work in and through them.

The people of Nazareth had no idea that God was coming to earth in the person of the young man they'd seen grow up from a baby. Do we have definite ideas about how God works, I wonder? Do we expect to see God working in the ordinary, the every day? Or do we expect him always to come down with power and fire from Heaven? Do we expect Him to speak to us through other people, perhaps even through me, or do we expect Him to illuminate a verse of the Bible specially, or write His message in fiery letters in the sky?

We do sometimes, because we are human, long and long to see God at work in the spectacular, the kind of thing that Jesus used to do when he healed the sick and even raised the dead. And very occasionally God is gracious enough to give us such signs. But mostly, He heals through modern medicine, guiding scientists to develop medicine and surgical techniques that can do things our ancestors only dreamed about. And through complementary medical techniques which address the whole person, not just the illness. And through love and hugs and sympathy and support.

We do need to learn to recognise God at work. All too often, we walk blindly through our week, not noticing God – and yet God is there. God is there and going on micro-managing His creation, no matter how unaware of it we are. And God is there to speak to us through the words of a friend, or an acquaintance. If we need rescuing, God is a lot more likely to send a friend to do it than to come in person!

And conversely, we need to be open to God at work in us, so that we can be the friend who does the speaking, or the rescuing. Not that God can’t use people who don’t know him – of course He both can and does – but the more open we are to being His person, the more we allow Him to work in us, to help us grow into the sort of person He created us to be, then the more He can use us, with or without our knowledge, in His world. Who knows, maybe the supermarket cashier you smiled at yesterday really needed that smile to affirm her faith in people, after a bad day. Or the friend you telephoned just to have a catch-up with was badly needing to chat to someone – not necessarily a serious conversation, just a chat. You will never know – but God knows.

We are, of course, never told “what would have happened”, but I wonder what would have happened if the people of Nazareth had been open to Jesus. He could have certainly done more miracles there. Maybe he wouldn’t have had to have become an itinerant preacher, going round all the villages. Maybe he could have had a home. I think God may well have used the rejection to open up new areas of ministry for Jesus – after all, we do know that God works all things for good.

Another story: Once upon a time there was a big flood, and people had to climb up on to the roofs of their houses to escape. One guy thought this was a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate, so he thought, God’s power, so he prayed “Dear Lord, please come and save me.”

Just then, someone came past in a rowing-boat and said “Climb in, we’ll take you to safety!”

“Oh, no thank you,” said our friend, “I’ve prayed for God to save me, so I’ll just wait for Him to do so.”

And he carried on praying, “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Then along came the police in a motor-launch, and called for him to jump in, but he sent them away, too, and continued to pray “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Finally, a Coastguard helicopter came and sent down someone on a rope to him, but he still refused, claiming that he was relying on God to save him.

And half an hour later, he was swept away and drowned.

So, because he was a Christian, as you can imagine, he ended up in Heaven, and the first thing he did when he got there was go to to the Throne of Grace, and say to God, “What do you mean by letting me down like this? I prayed and prayed for you to rescue me, and you didn’t!”

“My dear child,” said God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter – what more did you want?”

What more indeed? You, and I, and each and every one of us here is part of the Body of Christ. We cannot say that we have no need of each other. We cannot say that they have no need of me, and we most certainly can't say that we don't need you! But we also need to be aware of God at work in our world. Do you remember what happened to the people of Nazareth?

Nothing. That's what happened. Nothing at all. God could do no work there through Jesus. Okay, a few sick people were healed, but that was all. The good news of the Kingdom of God was not proclaimed. Miracles didn’t happen. Just. . . nothing.

We do know, of course, that in the end his family, at least, were able to get their heads round the idea of their lad being The One. His Mother was in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost. James, one of his brothers, was a leader in the early church. But were they the only ones? Did anybody else from Nazareth believe in Him, or were they all left, sadly, alone?

I think that’s an Awful Warning, isn’t it? If we decide we need to know best who God chooses to speak through, how God is to act, then God can do nothing. And God will do nothing. If he sends two boats and a helicopter and we reject them because we don’t see God’s hand at work in them, then we will be left to our own devices. As the people of Nazareth were. Amen.