Sunday, 20 September 2015

Who do you think you are?

I first made friends with her in 1958. She and I were at primary school together, and then at secondary school, and although we grew apart and have led very different lives, we have remained in touch, and have lunch together every six months or so. And last time we had lunch together, we agreed that where our primary school had fallen down was in teaching mathematics. We were very badly taught. “And,” said my friend, who remembers everything, “We were told to ask if we didn't understand, but if we asked, we were told we hadn't been listening properly!” And it wasn't until I started to try to teach my daughter the rudiments of numbers that I discovered that, despite a quite good maths O level, I was fundamentally innumerate, and hadn't much idea of how numbers worked.

But the point is, when we were told off for asking, despite how often we were told to ask, we became afraid to ask. And in our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus teaching his disciples, privately, away from the crowds. And they, too, reacted with fear, and were afraid to ask him what he meant. We then see them fighting among themselves, and, finally, learning something of what it means to be first.

So first of all, Jesus tries to tell his disciples about his forthcoming death and resurrection, but apparently the didn't understand and were afraid to ask. Afraid to ask? I wonder why they were afraid. Do you suppose they thought Jesus might be annoyed with them for asking?

I don't think he would have been. I think if the disciples had said, “Look here, what are you talking about?” he would have tried to explain more clearly. And this might have avoided some unpleasant misunderstandings, like when Peter says, “No, no, I won't let that happen!” which was so totally not what Jesus wanted or needed to hear at that moment that it felt as though the evil one was tempting him.

So why do you think they were afraid to ask? I wonder if it wasn't that they were afraid of appearing total pillocks in front of the others. Everybody was thinking, “Well, I don't know what he's on about, but everybody else obviously does, so I'm not going to be the one to make a fool of myself by asking!” I have a feeling we may all have been there and done that at times – I know I have! You really don't know what the other person is talking about, but you don't like to ask for fear of appearing an idiot.

I don't know where that particular fear comes from – it may be down to early experiences at school, like mine in the maths class. If you ask, you are told off for not having listened properly; if you don't ask, you are assumed to have understood even if you hadn't. And when nobody else asks for clarification, you think you must be the only one who didn't understand!

But in a way, this is a form of pride, isn't it? We are too proud to ask; we're afraid of looking silly in front of other people.

So the disciples reacted with fear, and then they started fighting among themselves, arguing about who was the greatest. Well, we know that Jesus was very unimpressed by this, and so, of course, it's not something we ever do.

Is it?

Are you sure?

The thing is, we might not argue about who is the greatest, as we know that's not what Christianity is all about, so what we then do is pride ourselves on how humble we are, what good Christians we are, how we don't ever put ourselves forwards.... Or maybe we boast about our children. Some years ago, you may remember, there was that excellent comedy sketch series called “Goodness Gracious Me”, with Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar – you know, the famous “Going for an English” sketch. But that wasn't the one I'm remembering here, but the two mothers who keep making ludicrously exaggerated claims about how well their sons are doing. Competitive mothering – or competitive grandmothering – is very definitely a thing! I even find myself doing it with my own daughter: “Well, of course, dear, you were potty-trained before you were two!”

And we have probably all met the sort of Christian who just mentions in passing that they are fasting for Syria, or have donated twenty toothbrushes and six blankets to the collection point in Venn Street – do it, please do do it, but don't talk about it! Or so Jesus said. He pointed out, do you remember, that the people who made a great show of being holy, or of giving alms, already had their reward. “But your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly!”

It's all about pride. Again. In fact, this whole passage is about pride. It was pride which kept the disciples from asking Jesus what on earth he was talking about. And it was pride that caused them to argue and fight about who was the greatest – and you will notice that they didn't answer when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about! But he knew. And he began to teach them what it meant to be first.

Being First
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

This, then, was Jesus' teaching about being first and greatest. Again, this doesn't seem to say much to us – we know all this, don't we? We've heard these teachings since we were in Sunday School. Of course we try to be last of all and servant of all. We're the ones you find arguing in the kitchen that of course we'll do all the washing up, all by ourselves, and then we'll sweep the floor and everybody else should go home.... and if people take us up on it, we grumble loudly that we're the only person who every does anything around here, and go around in a delightful glow of martyrish self-pity.

It's pride, all the way. C. S. Lewis said that pride was the central sin of humankind, and that the prouder we are, the more we dislike pride in others. I quote: “In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, 'How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?' The point is that each person's pride is in competition with every one else's pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise.”

And Lewis goes on to point out that it is pride that comes between us and God: “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
St James, in our first reading, said something very similar: “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” And he goes on in that vein: “And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Again, pride. It seems to be at the root of all human evil. The disciples were too proud to ask Jesus what he was talking about. They claimed to have been afraid to ask, but it was probably a fear born of pride. Then they started bickering about who was the greatest, like small children. And then Jesus taught them that they must be the servant of all, and welcome small children in His name. But that, too, so easily goes wrong and becomes a matter of pride.

So what can we do about it? I suppose the first thing is to admit it, to confess it, if you like. But it's the most difficult sin to confess, because it's the one we are most unaware of. And if we do become aware of it, we start being proud of that awareness. You remember Jesus' story of the pharisee and the tax collector, how the Pharisee spent his prayer-time thanking God for how much better he was than other people, and especially than that tax-collector? Well, I read a story about a Sunday-school teacher who taught that story to her class, and said, “Now, children, let us thank God that we are not like that Pharisee!”. Which was all very well until I found myself thanking God that I was not like that Sunday-School teacher....

And it was, we are told, the tax-collector, who contented himself with praying: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” who went away right with God.

Pride is a horrible vice, and I am inclined to agree with Lewis that it is the antithesis of Christianity. It is often the basis of all other vices. Of course we can, must, and should rejoice in our achievements – but having succeeded in whatever it was we set out to do doesn't make us a great person!

We are all sinners, saved by grace. And that is the thing, isn't it – saved by grace! No matter how proud we are, no matter how much we secretly – or openly – want to be the greatest, no matter how much we dislike looking foolish, the moment we turn to God, the moment we stop looking at ourselves and start to look at God, in that moment we are forgiven. And with God's help, and only with God's help, we can overcome our pride. It's not a matter of behaviour – it never is. It's about allowing God to change us, to re-create us, to help us grow into the person we were designed to be. After all, as Aslan said to one of the Kings of Narnia, being human “is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the head of the greatest emperor on earth.” Amen.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Refugees? Migrants? People?

The situation was changing so fast this week that this sermon was being updated right up until the last minute - you might prefer to listen to the podcast to hear what I actually said!

“Even the dogs,” said the woman who had come to Jesus to beg healing for her daughter, “Even the dogs get to eat the children's leftovers!”

It's always difficult to know what is going on in this story – why was Jesus so foul to the woman? Very unlike him, he's normally courteous, even to women who are no better than they should be. But here he is, in Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon, having a brief holiday, and this woman comes to him, and instead of healing her daughter, he says “Let us first feed the children. It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words – bugger off, my mission is to the Jews, not to the likes of you!

At least, that's what it reads like. Of course, we don't know the tone of voice he said it in. I wonder whether, at this stage in his life, when he is obviously exhausted from so much that has gone before, he really isn't certain who he is and what is mission is. And maybe, maybe when he says that, he is wondering aloud whether he ought not to reserve his energies for his own people. And she replies that even the dogs get to eat the leftovers, and this, for him, is the voice of God, telling him that yes, he can and should heal her daughter. Which he promptly does, and when she goes home she finds her daughter peacefully asleep, with no sign of whatever had been tormenting her.

Whatever Jesus was, or was not, thinking when he confronted this woman, he did heal her daughter. He showed that His love has no boundaries. It is not just a particular race, or a particular tribe, who are God's people. It is each and every one of us.

And in our first reading, from the letter of James, we heard this: “My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don't have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, 'God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!' – if you don't give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.”

And in today's Old Testament reading, from Proverbs, there was this verse:
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate.”
“Or crush the afflicted at the gate”. I wonder what that reminds you of? I know what it reminds me of.

And unless you've been living under a rock for the past two months, you will know that there's a major crisis going on in Europe. Today, there are more refugees than at any time since the end of the second World War. War and famine have driven countless millions – I'm not exaggerating, there have been at least four million people who have left Syria alone – countless millions from their homes to save their lives and, they hope, find a better life elsewhere.

Roughly 3,000 people are trying to find a new home in Europe every day. Three thousand people whose home lives are so unbearable that they can't stay there any more. They confide their life savings to someone who offers to get them a safe passage, and find themselves on a rickety, overloaded boat that may or may not get them across the Mediterranean. Many, far too many, don't make it. Or they find themselves locked in the back of a lorry, again probably overcrowded, very hot, no water or sanitary facilities. And again, many die.

And if they arrive on Europe's borders, when they do, they find themselves blocked off by barbed wire fences. Not Welcome Here, is the message they get, although, to be fair, a great many countries do welcome them. Germany, for one. But it's a matter of getting there.

And many of them speak good English, so where they want to come is here. After all, if you're going to have to resit exams so that you can work as a doctor or an architect or whatever in Europe, it's a lot easier to do it in a language you already speak than to have to spend a couple of years learning German or Swedish first before you can sit the exams. Or they have family or friends who have been able to settle here.

And we don't seem to welcome them, either. They are forced to live in squalor in a makeshift camp in Calais – although there is talk about building a more permanent camp for them – starving and hopeless, having to pay their minders for the chance to try to get on a lorry, with many so desperate that they have tried to run through the tunnel, or even to swim across, and have died. Our politicians talk about “swarms of migrants”, as though they were not quite human.

And yet each and every one of them is an individual with his or her own story. And most of these stories are of hardship, of persecution, of famine, of war, of flight, of despair. They are human beings.

We call them “migrants”, lumping them all under one umbrella. The term is supposed to be neutral, less laden with emotional baggage than “refugee” or “asylum seeker”. It isn't, of course, because people then talk about “illegal immigrants” or “economic migrants”. And it's noticeable that if we Brits go to live abroad we aren't called migrants – I did the whole economic migrant thing back in the 1970s, when I went to work in Paris for some years after leaving school, but nobody called me a “migrant”, economic or otherwise – I was an expatriate! And people talked about cultural exchange, and our young people learning about different lifestyles, and so on, and it was all considered a Good Thing.

And, of course, many of your families came over here to work and contribute to our society and learn about our way of life – and have enriched this country beyond all measure! Maybe you can remember the bewilderment of arriving here, not too sure of your welcome, not too sure what life in this cold and rainy land was going to be like.

Even if someone does make it across the Channel, their problems aren't yet over. They aren't allowed to work while their claim for asylum is being processed, and although they do get an allowance, it really isn't very much. Not really enough to live on, and certainly not enough for a comfortable lifestyle. And if they are found not to be in imminent danger of death back home, they are thrown out again, and if that's on their records they can't really go and try their luck somewhere else in Europe.

I don't know what the answer long-term is. The politicians will have to work that one out between them. I think it's finally got to the stage that the political will to do this is actually there, which is a good thing. They need to work out some way, perhaps, of screening migrants before they get stuck outside barbed-wire borders, or locked out of railway stations, or forced to live in squalid camps.

But what can we do? You and me? Well, first and foremost, of course, we can pray for them. We can pray for those forced to leave their countries, those forced to hand over large sums of money for very dubious means of travel, those forced to risk their lives again and again to try to get to safety.

We can stop believing most of what we read in the Daily Mail, and read round from various sources – the BBC is relatively impartial, and it's not difficult to find first-hand accounts from people who have visited the camps themselves. Obviously we mustn't be na├»ve – while most people are genuine refugees who only want to find a safe place where they can live and work and bring up their families, there will be a few rotten apples. We know there are, of course – look at the traffikers who are responsible for so many, many deaths from sinking ships and overcrowded lorries, and who charge people for the “privilege” of breaking their ankles or worse trying to get on trains. But by and large, they are ordinary people like you and me whose lives have been disrupted by war or famine.

And we can donate. There are various organisations, mostly in Calais, who collect donations of things like toothbrushes, tents and tracksuit bottoms, to distribute to those in need. There doesn't yet seem to be a regular dedicated place where you can drop off your donation, but there are various charities who will see to it that a cash donation goes where it will do most good. And there are occasional “pop-up” collection centres – there's one in Hackney, but it's only open today, so not much good to us; their van will be going over tomorrow. And, of course, our local food banks are always needing donations, even if it's only a cheap packet of pasta or tin of meatballs. Many of those who use their services are refugees.

What we can't do is nothing.  "Even the dogs get to eat the children's leftovers".  " What good is there in your saying to them, 'God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!' – if you don't give them the necessities of life?

It is our problem, because these are people for whom Christ died. And I don't know about you, but I don't want him to be saying to me “I was a refugee at that camp in Calais, and you did nothing to help.” Do you?

Sunday, 23 August 2015

You have the words of eternal life

This service was a little different to usual, since it was August and many people, including the music leader and the older young people, were away.  And we don't have Sunday School in August.  So I laminated the "I am" sayings and put six of them round the church, and got members of the congregation to find them and hold them up when relevant....

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

“To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
It was Peter who said it. A great many people who might have liked to have been followers of Jesus have given up – they found what Jesus was saying just simply too much to swallow. Literally! And then, when Jesus asks Peter and the others if they are going to disappear, too, Peter says “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life!”

Peter is a pretty terrific person all round. He does have his moments, and he gets it wrong a lot of the time, but he goes on because, whatever else happens, he knows that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

I don't know whether Jesus really knows that he is, or if he's just beginning to think so, or what. But in John's Gospel we have those seven great sayings beginning “I am”, that we've just sung about. And I want us to think about these a bit this morning, because I think some of these “I Am” sayings are, to us, the words of eternal life.

You see, even though Jesus might not have been totally aware of it when he was saying it, what he was doing, on one level, was declaring himself to be divine. I expect you know the story of Moses and the burning bush, where a voice speaks to Moses out of the bush, which was burning up but didn't burn away. And it told him to get Pharoah to let the Israelite slaves go. And Moses said, “Well, who shall I say sent me?” and the voice said “I Am has sent you”. And Jesus, apparently used exactly the same wording. Now I don't know how fully he was aware of this, but certainly on one level this is what he was saying.


I am the Bread of Life

Let's start with the one this chapter of John's Gospel has been expounding for the last month. I expect you have heard several sermons on it over the past few weeks, so I won't add much, except to remind you that his first hearers reacted very differently to the way we do when we hear those words. At first they said, “Oh rubbish, we know this man, he's Joseph the Carpenter's son, we know his Mum, too – how can he say he is the bread that comes down from heaven? Don't be silly!”

And then Jesus expounds a bit on it: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” And he goes on like that, and this is when most people decide he's either being totally gross, or else he's talking nonsense, and go away. Peter and the other disciples may not have understood what Jesus was talking about – after all, it doesn't go into words very well, does it? All the same, they knew that the needed to go on following Jesus: “Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”

Now then, who can remember another “I am” saying of Jesus? We just sang them in the hymn there now. And round the Church you will find some laminated sheets with the sayings on them. Will someone go and find one of them, and bring it to me, please? One of you younger ones?


I am the Light of the World

I am the Light of the World.” And in fact Jesus added that and said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Here in London it doesn't really ever get totally dark, does it? There are so many streetlights and so on that it is even quite difficult to see the stars, always assuming it doesn't rain. But when we're in the country, it can be quite different. I remember one Christmas when we were going to midnight service at my sister's church in Norfolk, and we had to park the car in a field next to the church. So there were no streetlights or anything, and we had to turn the torches on on our phones so that we could see what we were treading in!

That's the thing, isn't it. Light, however feeble, is always stronger than darkness. Think of the rare occasions when we have power cuts – if you go and find a tea-light or similar candle, it doesn't produce much light, but you can still see enough not to bump into the furniture. And the same here – if you follow Jesus, there will always be light enough to see your way ahead in life, even if it's only one tiny step.
Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the Gate for the Sheep

I am the Gate for the sheep”. This one's a bit weird, isn't it? Whatever can he mean?

I don't think it's quite within living memory these days, but time was, on the Sussex Downs and elsewhere, the shepherd lived with his sheep for weeks on end. He had a little hut that was like a tiny caravan where he could sleep and store food and so on. During the day, the sheep roamed fairly freely on the Downs, but at night, the shepherd would build an enclosure from hurdles, and “fold” as it was called, the sheep in there. They would move the fold each night, so that the sheep weren't subjected to mounds of manure. These folds were closed in with a final hurdle, but in the middle east, the shepherd himself would lie down in the gap so that wolves and stray dogs and thieves and so on couldn't get in. And the wolves and stray dogs and thieves and so on knew that, and would sometimes jump over the walls of the fold. Jesus riffs on this: “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the good shepherd

This is the more familiar of the two “sheep” sayings, isn't it? Actually, it happens in the next paragraph in John 10.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”

I know my own, and my own know me.” I think I may have told you before that my brother and his wife are shepherds, and when they go into the field where the sheep are, the sheep know who they are and either carry on with their own lives, or else, if they are hungry, start demanding food NOW! But if Robert or I, or anybody else they don't know, goes into that field, they run away, bleating ferociously.

Jesus also points out that a hired shepherd might run away if a wolf comes, because they aren't his sheep, so naturally he'd rather save his own skin than that of the sheep, but Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will lay down his life for the sheep, if necessary.

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the Resurrection and the Life

I am the Resurrection and the Life”. This, of course, comes in that lovely story where Jesus' friend Lazarus has died, and his sisters Martha and Mary are grieving for him. Jesus, weeping himself, says that Lazarus will rise again. And Martha says: “‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’”

Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Do you believe this?

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the way, and the truth, and the life

I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. Here, Jesus is talking to his disciples only, not to the crowds. He has reminded them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father's house. But Thomas says, “Well, how are we going to know the way?” and that is when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

So it is through Jesus, and Jesus alone, that we can know God as Father, that we can know ourselves beloved children of God.

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the true vine.

I am the true vine”. Jesus is speaking to his disciples again, here. And this time, it's a two-way thing. First of all, he says he is the vine, and his Father is the vine-grower. “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

And then Jesus goes on to explain: “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.”

So this “I am” is a two way one, pointing up to the Father and down to us. We can do nothing unless we “abide” in Jesus. I don't know about you, but that always makes me feel that we have to strive and struggle to stay in Jesus, but if you think of branches on a fruit tree, they don't do any such thing! They just stay where they are put, perhaps swaying a bit if it's windy, but otherwise just relaxing, knowing that the trunk of the tree is holding them tight so that they will bear fruit in due season. As, I expect, will we.

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”

And that's it. The seven great sayings of Jesus.

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.” Amen.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Bread of Life

Only a short message this week, as some people were needing to get off early to go to an event at a sister church.

“I am the Bread of Life,” said Jesus. “Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.”

But what, exactly, did he mean? His followers were totally unsure: “But he can't be – don't be silly! We know his Mum and Dad, he's not something that came down from heaven!”

The thing is, we are used to these words. We have heard them so often, and we associate them with the Sacrament, where the minister says over the Bread: “This is my Body, given for you”, and over the Cup: “This is my Blood, shed for you”. We don't actually hear them any more.

Those who were listening would have had no idea that he would take the Jewish Friday-night ritual and lift it and transform it into something very different, yet essentially the same. For them, when he said, “You must eat of my flesh and drink of my blood,” what they thought was cannibalism.

And, of course, that was seriously offensive to them, as it would be to us. Perhaps even more offensive than it would be to us, since we have no taboo against eating blood. But the Jews, like the Muslims, do have a terrific taboo against it, believing that the “life is in the blood”. I'll come back to that in a minute – and so to them it is probably not only unheard-of to drink blood, but rather sick-making, too. Whereas other cultures – the Masai, certainly, drink blood as a matter of routine. And even we have our black puddings, although I think we'd blench at being offered a nice warm glass of fresh blood.

And, of course, there are things that we wouldn't normally think of as food that other cultures eat routinely – think of the Chinese and their dogs and snakes, for instance. Or even the French with their snails, which are actually delicious if you like garlic butter! And I know that many West Indians follow the example of the Jews and Muslims and eat no pork, and probably feel rather sick at the thought, just as I expect Hindus do about eating beef.

You may well know that Jack Rosenthal play, “The Evacuees”, where the two Jewish children are presented with “delicious sausages” for their supper and expected to eat them. And although they've been told and told that as it is a national emergency, they may eat food that is normally forbidden, they simply can't bring themselves to try. The taboo against eating pork runs so deep, for them, that they simply can't overcome it.

And Jesus' followers certainly felt most uncomfortable at his words. To start with, they simply couldn't understand what he was on about: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Visions, there, of Jesus cutting great chunks out of his arms, I shouldn't wonder. Or of people cutting up a dead body and preparing to eat it - in some cultures, that would be considered quite normal, and the correct way of honouring the dead, but not for the Jews, any more than for us.

St Paul, or whoever wrote the epistle to the Ephesians, takes this concept – although he was, of course, writing long before the Gospels had been written down, but he would have been familiar with the teachings – he takes this concept and runs with it. He gives us that list of instructions as to how Christ's people are to behave, and summarises it: “Since you are God's dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God.”

Jesus said that his flesh is the Bread of Life, which he is giving so that the world may live. We think of Holy Communion, but his first hearers couldn't think what he meant. Jesus tells them that what God wants is for them to believe in the one who was sent. But, as I said, they can't see that at all – how can he possibly say that he came down from heaven when he is Joseph's son, and they know his parents quite well.

It is, of course, one of the famous “I am” sayings in John's Gospel. The thing is, of course, that it wasn't just Jesus saying something about himself, because it echoes – and his first hearers may well have heard those echoes – it echoes the bit in Exodus, where Moses asks God his name when confronted with him in the burning bush. And the answer is “I am”, or perhaps “I am who I am”. And here, Jesus appears to be using the same phraseology:

I am the bread of life
I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
I am the light of the world
I am the gate for the sheep
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, and the truth, and the life
I am the true vine.

Jesus is claiming to be divine. All very strange, because on another level I rather think Jesus was trying to put things into words that won't really go, like so much of Christianity doesn't quite go into words – even what happened when he died on the Cross; even what happens when we make our Communions. We all have a mental picture of it, which is certainly partly true – but none of us will ever know the whole of it, as the more we know, the more we know we don't know. And I think this Bread of Life discourse is something a bit like that. And yet, it was a definite claim to the divine. But how are we to come to him, to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood? There is Holy Communion, of course – but is there not more to it than that? Wesley would say that Holy Communion, one of the means of grace, is only helpful insofar as it brings us closer to God. It is not, in and of itself, something magical!

Paul is more practical, of course. Tell the truth, don't steal, help those in need, don't be angry in a destructive way, and don't feed your anger. “Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.”

Hmmm, well, I don't know about you, but I'm not good at most of those things! But it isn't really a matter of outward behaviour, as I'm sure you know. It really is much more about allowing God's Holy Spirit to change us, to make us into the person he designed us to be. St Paul reminds us that “the Spirit is God's mark of ownership on you, a guarantee that the Day will come when God will set you free.” The day will come when God will set us free. So we are not yet free from the things that harm us, the things that bring us down. We are not yet able to live wholly surrendered lives as God's person – and yet, one day we will be.

Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life, those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.” So let us come to him again, let us recommit ourselves to him once more. Amen.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

It's you, dear!

I want to talk about our Gospel reading in a minute, but first of all, we need to look at the Old Testament reading, the story of David and Bathsheba. This is, in fact, the second week of this story – you may have heard the first part last week, but just in case you didn't, I'll recapitulate.

David is now King of Israel and Judah, a united kingdom. He has built a very splendid palace in Jerusalem, and is one of the richest and most powerful men in the region. And, like many rich and powerful men, he has a high sex drive, and, of course, many women find riches and power very aphrodisiac.

So David can more-or-less have any woman he wants, and, quite probably, the reverse is also true – any woman who wants the King can have him! And there is Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, who allows herself to be seen while having her ritual bath – and responds to the King's summons.

Unfortunately, what neither Bathsheba nor David had any way of knowing, given the state of medical knowledge back then, was that when you have just finished your monthly purification rituals is when you are likely to be at your most fertile. And so it comes about that Bathsheba finds herself pregnant, and there's no way it can be anybody other than David's.

And they panic. David could arguably have got away with it, but he wasn't going to abandon Bathsheba like that, and, it's probable that it was she who panicked. Uriah, from what we read about him, strikes me as very much the kind of person who always does the right thing, no matter what the personal cost to himself, and in this case, the right thing to have done was to have had Bathsheba, who had obviously committed adultery, stoned to death. Yes, killed. Even if he hadn't wanted to do that. He was far too prim and proper to sleep with his wife while on active service, no matter how hard David tried to make him do that – if he had, he would have accepted the coming child as his own, and their problems would have been solved. But he refused, because his country was at war and he was a soldier on active service, and wouldn't even go and see Bathsheba, even when David got him drunk, but just slept on his blanket in the guard room.

So David feels he has no option but to get rid of Uriah, which he does by causing him to be sent into the front line of battle, and get killed. And as soon as it is decently possible, he marries Bathsheba.

End of story? No, not quite. You see, it might seem to have all been tidied up and nobody any the wiser, but they had forgotten God. And God was not one bit pleased with what David had done.

So he sends Nathan the Prophet – brave man, Nathan, wasn't he? - to say to David that there is a man who only had one sheep, just one, and a rich bully had taken that sheep away from him. So David said, well, who is this bully, I'll deal with him – he can't get away with that sort of thing in my kingdom, so he can't! And Nathan looks him in the eye and says, “It's you, dear!”

And, then David sees exactly what he has done. The lust, the adultery, the deception, the murder. He looks at himself and does not like what he sees, not one tiny little bit. He doesn't know what God must think of him, but he knows what he thinks of himself – and he knows, too, that he needs to repent. Which he does, and some of the words he is said to have used have come down to us:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness;
   according to the abundance of your compassion
      blot out my offences.
  Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness
   and cleanse me from my sin.
  For I acknowledge my faults
   and my sin is ever before me.
 Behold, you desire truth deep within me
   and shall make me understand wisdom
      in the depths of my heart.
Turn your face from my sins
   and blot out all my misdeeds.
  Make me a clean heart, O God,
   and renew a right spirit within me.
  Cast me not away from your presence
   and take not your holy spirit from me.
  Give me again the joy of your salvation
   and sustain me with your gracious spirit;
Deliver me from my guilt, O God,
      the God of my salvation,
   and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness.
  O Lord, open my lips
   and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
  For you desire no sacrifice, else I would give it;
   you take no delight in burnt offerings.
  The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

And so on. There's a bit more, but I've not quoted it all – it's Psalm 51, if you want to have a read of it.

Anyway, the point is, his repentance is genuine, and he will be reinstated. The child will not live, though. And there is that lovely scene where the child is born, and David is told that it cannot live – it hasn't “come to stay”, as they used to say – and he prostrates himself before the Lord in prayer. And the baby duly dies, and the servants are at a loss to know how to tell him, thinking that if he's in that sort of mood, he might well shoot the messenger, but when they have stood outside the door for ten minutes going “You tell him,” “No, you tell him!” he realises what's going on – and when he finds out that the baby has died, he astonishes them all by going and washing his face and going to comfort Bathsheba, and when asked, he points out that while the baby was still alive, there was hope that God might yet be persuaded to let it live, but now that it's dead, there's no hope and it won't help anybody to lie on the floor rolling about in grief.

And as we know, just to round off the story, Bathsheba and David do eventually have another child, who becomes King Solomon, arguably the greatest King of the combined kingdoms.

David's main fault, I think, that started the whole sorry saga, was greed. He was greedy for life, and for women, and for pleasure. He wanted to have it all, and had to learn the hard way that it wasn't all his.

Jesus says much the same to the followers in the Gospel reading, doesn't he? It takes place almost immediately after Jesus has fed five thousand or more people with a small boy’s packed lunch.
He then sends the disciples on ahead of him, so he can spend some time in prayer and being quiet for a bit –
in some of the gospels, we’re told that he’s just heard about his cousin John’s execution and needs a bit of space to grieve.
Anyway, he then walks across the lake to join the disciples,
and next day the crowd finds him on the other side of the lake than they’d expected.

But Jesus reckons they’re not following him because of his teachings,
but because they want another free lunch.
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs,
but because you ate your fill of the loaves."

And this is not what he plans for them.
“Do not work for the food that perishes,
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.”

Jesus points out that in the wilderness, it wasn’t Moses who provided manna for the children of Israel to eat, but God.
And it is God who gives the true Bread from Heaven.
“I,” said Jesus, “am the Bread of Life”.
You know what I’m reminded of here?
The story of woman at the well, a little earlier on in John’s Gospel.
She asks Jesus to work the pump for her, which he duly does, but he tells her that he is the Living Water, and any who drink of that water will never be thirsty again.
Same sort of principle.

Many – not all, but many – of those who followed Jesus did so because they wanted the spectacular. They wanted a free lunch from a small boy's packed lunch. They wanted to see the healings, the deliverances, the people collapsing on the floor as evil spirits left them, and so on. They weren't interested in the teachings, in the way your faith has to manifest itself in actions or it isn't really part of you, in loving their neighbour, in feeding the hungry.... they were wanting to believe in Jesus without having to become Jesus' person. I don't want to pre-empt what you'll doubtless hear about next week, but many of them walked away when the teachings got too hard for them to cope with.

And what about us? What about you and me? Are we just interested in the next thrill, the next sensation, the next fashion? Are we willing to be Jesus' disciples, and pay the price that the Bread of Life requires – all of us. Even the dreadful bits, even the bits that we'd rather keep hidden. David had to surrender all of himself before he could receive God's forgiveness. Can we do that? It's very far from easy, and I don't pretend to be able to, at least, not all the time. It has to be a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment surrender. And when you find you've taken yourself back again, as it were, then it's all to be done again. What it needs, of course, is the will on our part to be Jesus' person, even if we don't succeed all the time.

King David was not a wicked man. He did a very evil thing when he allowed his lust for Bathsheba to overtake his common sense, but normally he was God's person – and when it was pointed out to him where he'd gone wrong, he came back.

My friends, let's be like David. When we go wrong, when we take ourselves back and live our own lives again, and when we realise we're doing that, then let's recommit ourselves into God's hands. He will be there to welcome us back with loving arms. “There you are, there you are at last! Welcome home!” Amen.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Dancing before the Lord

David, we are told in our first reading, danced before the Lord! And if we are to believe his wife, he was really rather over-enthusiastic about it, especially given what he was, or was not, wearing! But what is happening, and what is this story all about?

Well, to answer that question, we need to go back some forty or fifty years, right to the story of Samuel in the Temple. Now, we call it the Temple, but it wasn't the Temple that we think of in Jerusalem, the one that Jesus chased the money-changers out of from. In fact, it wasn't in Jerusalem at all, but in a place called Shiloh. It was the place where the Ark of the Covenant resided.

The Ark had been built very soon after the Israelites had left Egypt. It was a box of acacia wood, gold-plated, and richly decorated. You can read about it in Exodus, if you've a mind to. It was designed to be carried, but you didn't ever touch it – it had carrying-rings through which two acacia-wood poles were pushed, and they were a permanent fixture, apparently. The Ark travelled with the Israelites during their wandering in the desert, and when they stopped, it had its own special place in the inner room of its own special tent. Only the priests were allowed to look at it – when it travelled, it was covered up with hides or material, and only the priests were allowed into the inner room of the tent. When the Israelites reached the promised land, the Ark was taken to Shiloh, and it looks as though a more permanent home was made for it, although we're not told when, or by whom. And it did still occasionally go with the Israelites into battle!

The Ark contained the tablets on which Moses had inscribed the ten commandments. Hebrews tells us it also contained a jar of manna and Aaron's staff that had flowered. But the thing about the Ark was that it was not only a sacred object in its own right, it also represented God.

Anyway, we rejoin the story in the days of Samuel, when Eli was the priest in the Temple.
Back then, being a priest was something that only certain families could do;
and if your father was a priest, you usually were, too.
It’s actually only within quite recent history that what you do with your life isn’t determined by what your father did, and back then, you followed in your father’s profession,
and if your father was a priest, as Eli was, then you would expect to be one, too.

Unfortunately, Eli’s sons were not really priestly material.
They abused the office dreadfully –
taking parts of the sacrifices that were meant to be burnt for God alone,
sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the temple.
I don’t think these women were prostitutes –
temple prostitution was definitely a part of some religions in the area,
but I don’t think it ever was part of Judaism.
These women would have been servants to Eli and his family, I expect,
and considered that service as part of their devotion to God.
And perhaps, too, they helped people who had come to make sacrifices and so on.
Whatever, Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons, shouldn’t have been sleeping with them,
and they shouldn’t have been disrespecting the sacrifices, either.

There had been a prophecy that the Lord would not honour Eli’s family any more, and that Hophni and Phineas would both die on the same day,
and a different family would take over the priesthood.
Eli had tried to tell his sons that their behaviour was unacceptable, but they hadn’t listened, and one rather gets the impression that he had given up on them.
He was not a young man, by any manner of means.

And then Samuel hears God calling in the night, and when he answers, this is what God has to say. It was not a message of encouragement and reassurance, such as you might expect, but this:

“See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.
For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever,
for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,
and he did not restrain them.
Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

There will be no escape for Eli;
he could, and should, have stopped his sons from being blasphemous,
from disrespecting the offerings of God’s people,
from sleeping with the temple servants.
I get the feeling Eli has rather given up, don’t you?
When Samuel tells him what the Lord has said, his reaction is simply,
“It is the Lord;
let him do what seems good to him.”

And sure enough, there was a battle with the Philistines, and because it was going rather badly, the elders decided to have the Ark brought from Shiloh because it would give heart to people and tell them that God was with them. Big Mistake. The Ark arrived, and all the Israelites shouted for joy. The Philistines were rather disconcerted by this, so they decided to attack again – and things went horribly wrong. About thirty thousand men were slaughtered, including Hophni and Phineas, and the Ark was captured! Eli, too old, too blind and too fat to fight, was so horrified when he heard the news that he had a heart attack or stroke and died. It wasn't so much his sons' deaths, but the loss of the Ark.

But you don't capture the Ark with impunity! The Philistines took it to their capital, Ashdod, and put it in the Temple of Dagon, only to find that the statue of Dagon had fallen down before it, as if in worship. And the next day, they found the same thing had happened again, only this time the statue was in pieces. And the townsfolk began to get ill, so after seven months the Philistines said they would send it back. Only how? Any couriers they sent with it would certainly be killed out of hand. So they decided to load it on a cart pulled by two cows, and allow the cows to take it where they would, assuming that if the Ark wanted to be back with the Israelites the cows would take it to the nearest Israelite town. They also put some gold treasure in a separate box and sent that, too. And, sure enough, the cows went straight to the nearest Israelite town. And eventually the Ark settles down in a place called Kiriath-Jearim, which is about 15 kilometres from Jerusalem, and a man called Eleazer the son of Abinadab is consecrated to look after it.

And the years go by. Saul is anointed king, and then David. The wars with the Philistines continue. David and Saul fall out. There are all sorts of adventures and battles and sadness and misery, and some happiness, too. And now, at last, we come to today's reading. David has now conquered Jerusalem, the City of David, and has decided to move the Ark there, too. So they all go down to Baale-Judah, which appears to be another name for Kiriath-Jearim, and the Ark is put on a new cart to be brought home with great rejoicing. But then, and this bit was omitted from our reading, something dreadful happens – the oxen pulling the Ark stumble, and someone rather thoughtlessly reaches out his hand to steady it. Now that is what you simply didn't do with the Ark, and the man, called Uzzah, fell down dead on the spot. David is very worried, and thinks, well, maybe I'd better not have the Ark in Jerusalem with me if this sort of thing is going to happen, and he leaves it in care of a man called Obed the Gittite for about three months. Until, that is, he learns that God has richly blessed Obed for taking care of the Ark, and he decides that, after all, it can come into the city. And so we see him leaping and dancing before it, bouncing all over the place and, just possibly, showing a little more of himself than perhaps was polite. Whatever, his wife, Michal, was most embarrassed on his behalf – imagine the King behaving like that! And to round off the story, when David gets home at the end of the party – because of course, when the Ark arrived, there was a huge party – Michal says rather snottily, “Oh my, look at this great king exposing himself before all the serving-girls.” And David said, “It was before the Lord, who anointed me King, and bother the servant-girls!” And Michal, apparently, remained childless, although whether that's because she was actually barren or because she and David didn't go to bed together again, I'm not sure. David did, after all, have lots of other wives and concubines.

So anyway, that's the story, and some of the background, but what does it have to say to us today? How is it relevant?

I think it's about sacredness, and about whole-heartedness. The Ark was a sacred object. David would have liked to have built a proper temple for it, but God said no, and in the end it was his son, Solomon, who did so. But wherever the Ark was, it was in its own inner room, and it was the most holy place. Only the High Priest ever went in there, and he would always take blood with him, so the letter to the Hebrews tells us. And, of course, Hebrews reminds us that it is Jesus who is our great High Priest, and the Holy of Holies on earth was only a copy, a shadow, of the real one in Heaven. And because of Jesus' sacrifice, we can enter with boldness into God's presence.

The Ark was a sacred object, and nothing and nobody unclean could touch it. It's long since vanished – after all, it was no longer necessary once Jesus had been raised from dead, and you may remember that when he died, the curtain covering the entrance was torn in two. But when it was there, it was a real, and present, symbol of God's presence, and you touched it at your peril. It does serve to remind us that God is holy, and we who are his people need to be holy, too. We can't achieve holiness, wholeness, if you like, by ourselves, but only through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. But because we are now bound by the New Covenant, rather than the Old, we can enter God's presence with boldness. But we do well to remember, at least some of the time, that God is holy.

And the other thing is about whole-heartedness. David danced before the Lord with all his heart. He didn't care that his hair was all over the place, and his face was red and sweaty, and his loincloth had slipped. He was worshipping the Lord, honouring the One who had brought him from being a humble shepherd-boy to one of the most powerful rulers in the region. David was very far from perfect, as we know, but he never, ever forgot what he owed to God, and he worshipped God with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

And we? Do we remember what we owe to God? Do we remember that Jesus came to be one of us, to live among us and share what it's like to be human, and to die for us? Do we worship God with our whole being, forgetting to be self-conscious about what we are doing, focussing solely on God?

David danced before the Lord. Do we?

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Goliath and the Storm

Well, these are two very familiar stories that we have just heard read, aren't they? David killing Goliath, and Jesus calming the storm. I'm sure I've known them since I was in Kindergarten, and I expect you have, too. Let's look at them more closely, and then see what, if anything, ties them together and what, if anything, they have to say to us as God's people gathered here this morning.


So then, firstly David and Goliath. Just to remind you, in the part of the chapter that we didn't read, as it would have made the reading far too long, we learn that the Israelites under King Saul are at war with the Philistines, and things aren't going well. The Philistines' champion, Goliath, is challenging someone to single combat, which was a recognised way of finishing a war – you often find this happening in novels, especially if you read the sort of historical fantasy novels I do! Anyway, Goliath was rather terrifying and none of the Israelites felt able to stand up to him.

Now three of Jesse's sons are fighting with the army, and David, the youngest, is mostly responsible for looking after the sheep. One day his father tells him to leave all that, and to take some food to his brothers and their commanding officer in the camp, and to come back with news of what's going on and whether his brothers are all right. So David goes off.

And, of course, when he gets there, he hears all about Goliath's challenge, and the reward the king has put up for defeating him – a big financial reward, plus his daughter's hand in marriage and tax relief for his family, the usual sort of thing that heroes always are promised! David keeps asking about this, and his eldest brother tells him to shut up and go home: “You've only come to watch the fighting. Now go away and look after your sheep and stop being such a smartarse!”

But David, quite rightly, takes that as merely elder-brother-itis, and goes on asking until he understands what is happening, and what is at stake. Then he has a little think. He can kill lions and bears and wolves when they threaten his flock, he's been doing so for years. How is Goliath going to be any different? So he goes to the King and says he's up for it. The king says “Don't talk nonsense, you're just a boy, how could you possibly fight a professional soldier?”

David explains about the wild animals and points out that if God has kept him safe from those, he'll surely keep him safe from Goliath. The King is rather desperate by now, so he says, okay, have a go.

They load up David with armour until he can scarcely walk – do you get the impression they are laughing at him? But David, as we heard in our reading, said he couldn't manage with that. And with a stone and his slingshot, he hits Goliath square in the forehead, breaking his skull and killing him. And, just to finish off the story, David grabs Goliath's sword and cuts his head off with it, and the Philistines all run away, so the Israelites are victorious.

There are some rather odd bits of this story, of course – apparently, in the earliest versions nothing is said about David taking food to his brothers, but he's just there with the army all along, and they omit those verses where Saul appears not to know who David is, despite the fact that earlier in the book he has appointed him as shield-bearer and court musician. And Goliath's height is rather more realistic – instead of being over nine feet tall, he is described as over six feet tall, which is still enormous by the standards of the day! So some of the ambiguous bits are probably from a folk tradition of the story that got mixed in. There are also questions as to whether that sort of armour was worn at that sort of date, and whether the tradition of challenging someone to single combat existed in that culture, and so on and so forth. But I don't think they matter, because it doesn't make the story any less true, even if some of the factual details are arguable.


So let's fast-forward nine hundred years or so and go a little further north along the Mediterranean until we reach Jesus and the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. We don't know exactly where they were, it doesn't say. What it does say is that Jesus has been teaching all day, and vast crowds came to hear him, so he stood in a boat so that everybody could see and, we hope, hear. And at the end of the day, he suggests that they cross to the other side of the lake, and he collapses, exhausted, on to a cushion in the stern and falls asleep while the disciples row across.

I don't know if you've ever been to Galilee? I haven't, although my parents have. But some years ago now, one of the ministers in the then Brixton circuit went, and when he came back, he told us that he had actually been on a boat on the lake when one of the sudden storms blew up, and that it really had been quite scary. And I've been looking at some videos on YouTube, and it really does seem quite stormy. I believe these easterly winds can blow up very suddenly, too, and it might have been fine when they set out.

So there are the disciples, many of them experienced fishermen who know about the sea of Galilee, struggling to control the boat in the storm, and there is Jesus, sound asleep. So they wake him up and yell at him: “All hands on deck, there! Don't you go sleeping as if you don't care whether we drown or not!”

And Jesus, instead of helping to pull on the oars, which is probably what they expected, addresses the storm and it calms down as quickly as it came up. And he asks why they were still so afraid? Where, he wonders, was their faith.

But of course, this demonstration of his power over nature made them even more afraid than ever.


So, then, what is the link between these two stories, and what do they have to say to us today?

I suppose the obvious link is that, in each story, people were out of their depth. They couldn't control the situation. The Israelites had no way of coping with the Philistine army, and especially not with Goliath and his challenges. The disciples couldn't cope with the storm. They were out of their depths, and everybody was afraid.

David, when he went up against Goliath, or so we are told, said firmly that he was going in the Lord's strength, not in his own. He refused to put his trust in bronze armour, but in the weapons he knew, backed up by the Lord's righteousness.

The disciples were unable to trust in their usual methods of getting home safely when the wind started to blow. The oars simply would not co-operate, as the winds were too strong, and those who didn't know how to row were wanted to bail, but they couldn't keep up, either. It wasn't until Jesus intervened that they were safe.

So it's a bit about trusting God when things go pear-shaped, but, as we all know, that is easier said than done! So maybe it's a bit about not panicking when things get out of control. If we can't trust God – and, as I've just said, that is often easier said than done – if we can't trust God, then let's look round for someone who can. In the Israelite's case, this was David. He trusted God, he didn't panic when he faced Goliath, and he trusted that God would use his skills to defeat the enemy. And that is exactly what happened. The Israelites relied on David's faith, and God saved them.

And for the disciples, their faith was fast asleep in the back of the boat. They, at that moment, couldn't trust God to save them, but Jesus could, and did. He didn't panic when he saw the boat was swamped, he trusted that God would use his power to still the storm. And that is exactly what happened. The disciples relied on Jesus' faith, and God saved them.

Now, all too often, we are the ones who panic, who can't cope, when the situation has got out of our control. I know I am. But wouldn't it be lovely if we were the ones who people could rely on to have faith? To not panic when we saw what the situation was, to trust God to use our skills – or to intervene directly in some way – to save the situation.

Mind you, if we were like that – and I'm sure some of us are, although not me – then it is just as well we don't know it, or we'd start to rely on our faith and not on God. It's one of those paradoxes, like it always irritates me – does it you? - when people talk about the power of prayer, as it isn't the prayer, it is the God who answers prayer.

But I think we should all aspire to be that kind of person. And you can't be one just by wishing. It is really only by God's grace, by God's power at work within us, that we can become the people God created us to be, people who don't panic when life gets out of control but who trust God, either directly or through the use of their skills, to sort things out again.

But we can grow into that kind of person, by using the means of grace available to us – prayer, fellowship, the Scriptures, Holy Communion. But being aware, as Wesley was aware and reminds us in his sermon on the means of grace, that they are only a means, not an end in themselves. They need to be used to bring us closer to God, so that God can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, make us more the people we were created to be. We will become more like David, and less like Saul. Amen.