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Sunday, 1 December 2013

Getting ready

So today is Advent Sunday.
It's the first Sunday in the Church's Year, and, of course, the first in the four-week cycle that brings us up to Christmas.
Christmas is definitely coming –
if you go by what the supermarkets do, it's been going on since September!

It seems strange then, doesn't it, that the readings for this Sunday are about as un-Christmassy as you can get!
This from the Gospel we've just heard:

“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

It's all about the end of the world!
The time when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, as we say in the Creed.
Now, there are frequently scares that the end of the world is about to happen –
some cult or other claims to have deciphered an ancient text that tells us that it might occur on any given date –
Last year, some people thought that an ancient Mayan calendar “proved” that the world was going to end on 21 December.
As you can see, it didn't!
And that was only one of a very long line of end-of-the-world stories which people have believed.
Sometimes they have even gone as far as to sell up all their possessions and to gather on a mountain-top,
and at least two groups committed mass suicide to make it easier for them to be found, or something.
I don't know exactly what....
And because some Christians believe that when it happens,
they will be snatched away with no notice whatsoever, leaving their supper to burn in the oven, or their car to crash in the middle of the motorway, a group of non-believers even set up an organisation called After the Rapture which you can sign up to, and if and when it happens, they will look after your pets for you!
They assume that, as they are not believers, they will be left behind.
The people behind the website, I mean, not the pets!
People who believe in what they call the Rapture take it from this very reading, where it says that two people will be in the field and one will be taken and the other not.... but we don't know how much notice we get, if any!
It sounds to me rather more like the sort of pogroms where the dictator's army swoops down and takes people, chosen at random or not, away to imprisonment.
God is not like that, of course, but such things have happened throughout history.

Actually, the second coming/the end of the world is a very difficult thing to think about
because it hasn’t happened yet!
The Bible shows us most clearly that the early church was convinced that it was something that would happen any minute now,
certainly in their lifetimes.
But here we are, two thousand years later,
and nothing has happened.
So most of us don’t really believe it will,
or if we do believe it, it isn’t a belief that’s in the forefront of our minds.
It doesn’t really affect the way we live.

But maybe it should.
Jesus said we don't know when it's going to happen.
Nobody knows.
He didn't know.
He assumed, I think, that it would be fairly soon after his death –
did anybody expect the Church to go on for another two thousand years after that?
Certainly his first followers expected His return any minute now.

What is clear from the Bible –
and from our own knowledge, too –
is that this world isn't designed to last forever;
it's not meant to be permanent.
Just ask the dinosaurs!
We don't know how it will end.
When I was a girl it was assumed it would end in the flames of a nuclear holocaust;
that particular fear has lessened since 1989,
although I don't think it's gone away completely.
These days we think more in terms of runaway global warming,
or global pandemics of some disease they can't find a cure for, or something, or a major asteroid strike.
But what is clear is that one day humanity will cease to exist on this planet.
We don't know how or when,
but we do know that God is in charge and will cope when it happens.

Whatever is going to happen, whenever it happens, we need to be ready.
Our readings today all reflect that.
Our Gospel reading sounds a bit disjointed, almost as though Matthew has collected odd bits of Jesus’ sayings.
But it still has a clear theme –
be ready, because you never know!

Some years ago there was an ad put out by the police, I think, saying that leaving your doors and windows open was absolutely inviting burglars to come in.
I don’t think Jesus could have seen that ad,
but the end of the gospel reading reminded me of it:
If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Okay, so we need to be ready.
Fair enough, but how?
How do you get ready,
how do you stay ready,
and above all, how do you go on being ready when nothing seems to happen?

I think the answer is also in the parallel with the thief in the night.
We make it a habit, don’t we,
of checking that our doors and windows are locked before we go out,
even on a short trip to Lidl or Tesco.
If we have our car, it’s automatic to check that we haven’t left anything visible, and that it is locked, before we leave it.
And we have insurance to cover us in case the worst happens anyway,
no matter how careful we’ve been.

Well, it’s the same, I think, in our Christian lives.
We can build good habits of prayer, of reading the Bible,
of fellowship and of coming to the Sacrament regularly.
These are what John Wesley called “The means of grace”,
and they are the building blocks of our Christian life.
They are as essential to our Christian life as food and drink are to our physical life.
But they are also habits that one can acquire or break.
You’re in the habit of locking your front door whenever you leave the house –
are you in the habit of contacting God every day, too?
You make sure you’ve shut your windows –
are you sure you take the Sacrament?
And so it goes on.

Parallels only work so far, of course,
especially because it’s not all down to us.
I know we sometimes talk as though it is,
and, of course, we are always free to say “No” to God –
though I do very much hope we won’t choose to do that.
But God has far more invested in the relationship than we do –
either that, or God is so far above us that he’s totally uninterested in us as individuals.
And we know that’s not true!
So it must be true that God is numbering every hair on our head,
and being far more interested in maintaining a relationship with us than we are with him.
We don’t have to do all the hard work.

Nevertheless, good habits are good habits,
and we need to acquire them!
And with God’s help, we can.
We don’t have to do it alone, because God indwells us,
through the Holy Spirit,
and enables us to actually want to read the Bible and pray, and worship, and take Communion, and so on.

We don’t often think about the end of times and the Last Judgement,
and that’s probably as it should be.
If we thought about it too much, we’d never get on with our lives,
and we’d end up being so heavenly-minded we’d be of no earthly use.
But we do need this annual reminder,
because we don’t want to end up living as if this life were all there is, either.
Obviously we don’t absolutely know that when we die,
we’ll go on with Jesus somewhere else.
It might just be wishful thinking on our part.
But that’s what faith is all about!
We can’t know, not really, but we can choose to believe it,
and to live accordingly.
And to work together with God to become the best we can possibly be.

And then, if, or perhaps when the unthinkable happens,
then we’ll be ready.
Are you ready?

Oh, one loose end –
in my parallel with burglar-proofing our houses,
I mentioned insurance.
Do we have insurance?
As Christians, yes, we do.
We have Jesus’ promise in John’s gospel:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Those who believe in him are not condemned;
but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Says it all, doesn’t it!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Job and Remembrance

“I know,” said Job, “that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”

We are all very familiar with those words,
whether we know them from Handel’s Messiah
or from Martha’s reprise of them in John’s Gospel,
or even from this bit of the book of Job, which is where it came from originally.

It's a funny old story, isn't it, this story of Job.
Do you know, nobody knows anything about it –
what you see is totally what you get!
Nobody knows who it was written, or when, or why,
or whether it is true history or a fictional story –
most probably the latter!
Apparently, The Book of Job is incredibly ancient, or parts of it are.
And so it makes it very difficult for us to understand.
We do realise, of course, that it was one of the earliest attempts someone made to rationalise why bad things happen to good people, but it still seems odd to us.

Just to remind you, the story first of all establishes Job as really rich, and then as a really holy type –
whenever his children have parties, which they seem to have done pretty frequently, he offers sacrifices to God just in case the parties were orgies!
And so on.
Then God says to Satan, hey, look at old Job, isn't he a super servant of mine, and Satan says, rather crossly, yeah, well, it's all right for him –
just look how you've blessed him.
Anybody would be a super servant like that.
You take all those blessings away from him, and see if he still serves you!

And that, of course, is just exactly what happens.
The children are all killed,
the crops are all destroyed,
the flocks and herds perish.
And Job still remains faithful to God:
“Naked I came from my mother's womb,
and naked shall I return there;
the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord.”


So then Satan says, well, all right, Job is still worshipping you,
but he still has his health, doesn't he?
I bet he would sing a very different tune if you let me take his health away!

So God says, well, okay, only you mustn't kill him.
And Job gets a plague of boils, which must have been really nasty –
painful, uncomfortable, itchy and making him feel rotten in himself as well.
Poor sod.
No wonder he ends up sitting on a dung-heap, scratching himself with a piece of broken china!
And his wife, who must have suffered just as much as Job, only of course women weren't really people in those days, she says “Curse God, and die!”
In other words, what do you have left to live for?
But Job refuses, although he does, with some justification, curse the day on which he was born.

Then you know the rest of the story, of course.
How the three "friends" come and try to persuade him to admit that he deserves all that had come upon him –
we've all had friends like that who try to make our various sufferings be our fault, and who try to poultice them with pious platitudes.
And Job insists that he is not at fault, and demands some answers from God!
Which, in the end, he gets.
But not totally satisfactory to our ears, although they really are the most glorious poetry.
Here's just a tiny bit:

“Do you give the horse its might?
Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust?
Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily;
it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
it does not turn back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground;
it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says "Aha!"
From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings towards the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey;
its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there it is.”

Wonderful stuff, and it goes on for about three chapters, talking of the natural world and its wonders, and how God is the author of them all.
If you ever want to rejoice in creation, read Job chapters 38, 39 and 40. Indeed, my father has asked for Job 39 to be read at his funeral!

And at the end, Job repents "in dust and ashes", we are told, and then his riches are restored to him.

But would even more children and riches really make up for those seven children who were killed?
I doubt it, which is one of the reasons it’s probably a story, rather than actual history.
But even still, Job makes one of the central declarations of our faith:
“I know, that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”

Job may or may not have been only a story, but we do believe that much of the Old Testament, by and large, is historical.
Jesus certainly believed that.

When he talked to the Sadducees, he mentions the story of Moses and the Burning Bush as though it were historical fact.
And he comments that “even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’.
He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

For Jesus, it was history;
Moses said this, and it proved that.
And I think that, because it is Remembrance Day, we, too, need to look a bit at history this morning.

The thing about history is its continuity.
God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob today, just as much as in Jesus’ time.
And just as much as in Moses’ time, come to that!
God doesn’t change.
And there are other continuities, too –
including the pyramids in Egypt,
which Abraham might well have seen,
which Moses probably knew well,
which Jesus might have been taken to visit,
and which one can still see today.
I find this gives me a sense of continuity.

And so, too, the particular bit of history we celebrate today,
when we honour those who gave their lives or who were wounded in the service of their country.
I know our troops are still deployed in Afghanistan,
but for the past sixty years and more,
it hasn’t impinged on our daily lives unless we happened to have a relation serving with the armed forces.
In the two wars we call world wars, last century, it was very different.
Everybody’s lives were affected in one way or another.

But here in the UK we were pretty lucky.
I've visited a lot of places which were destroyed in either the first world war, or the second, or both –
Warsaw, Berlin, Dresden and most recently Arras, among others.
All of those cities have been beautifully restored, although Dresden is a weird mix of restored, modern and Communist-era buildings, which somehow works.

But there hasn’t been a battle fought on British soil since Culloden in 1745 –
not a pitched battle, anyway.

Yes, we were blitzed in the Second World War,
and you can still see the scars today, that block of newer flats in Glenelg Road, for instance, showing where the original houses were destroyed.
I wasn’t around in those days, but if you were,
I'm sure you'll be able to tell me how terrible it was.
And yes, we have been subject to terrorist attacks of all kinds,
from the IRA bombs of the 1970s to the 7/7 attacks some years ago.

But, although there have been wars of all kinds,
they’ve all taken place in someone else’s back garden.
The tanks have rolled through other people’s streets.
At least, for us here in the UK.

We haven't had foreign soldiers walking in our streets,
swaggering around imposing their will on us,
perhaps even raping every woman.
And maybe that’s one of the reasons we continue to remember those who fought and died for their country so long ago.

My grandfather was badly wounded in the First War,
and my father in the Second.
Actually, the First World War must have been really terrible –
I’ve read my great-grandfather’s diaries.
His elder son was wounded so badly nobody thought he would live –
although he did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale –
and my great-grandfather got permission from the War Office and went over to France to visit him.
And then it became clear that he would live, after all, so my great-grandfather came home again, only to hear that his other son had been killed on the Somme.

My other grandfather was a career soldier, involved in both wars.
He went through the first war unscathed, but broke his leg during the second war – not in action, I believe quite a trivial accident.
But my mother said it was really nice, as the rest of the family were living in South Africa, and he went on leave to bring them home.
But he hadn't seen them for four years, and that's a long time when you are twelve and sixteen, as they had been when he went off to fight.

One of his brothers was killed in action, too –
he was a flyer, and the life expectancy of fliers over the Western Front was measurable in minutes.

But this is all history.
Kids study it in school.
Even the oldest of us here weren’t much more than children when the Second War finished.
I wasn’t even born.
I don’t remember having a ration book, although I’m told I did.
I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t buy anything I wanted in the shops, whenever I wanted it –
although naturally Tesco’s has always run out of, or stopped stocking, the one thing you go in for, but that’s rather different.

There are those who say that Remembrance services glorify war.
I think not.
They are not easy, of course.
For those who have been involved in war,
whether actively or by default because their whole country was,
they bring back all sorts of memories.
For those who have not been involved, they can seem irrelevant.

Many Christians, too, think that all fighting and killing is wrong,
and refuse to join the armed forces, even in a time of conscription.
I’m inclined to agree, I have to admit, but for one thing –
do we really want our armed forces to be places where God is not honoured?
That’s the big problem with Christian pacifism –
it leaves the armed forces very vulnerable.
We must, of course, do all we can to bring peace.

But almost more important is to bring hope.
To bring the good news that
Job, and then Jesus proclaimed.
“I KNOW that my Redeemer lives.”
“God IS the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

We all find the concept of eternal life enormously comforting, of course.
You may well have known people who have died very suddenly; I know I have.
We may have known people who have been the victims of terrorist attacks, or just the random shootings and stabbings that seem to have happened far too often recently.
And we wonder, as Job must have done, where God is in all this.
Job, we are told, never lost faith –
but many people did when they saw the horrors of war.

But if God grants people eternal life,
if this life is not all there is,
if the best bit is still to come,
then death isn’t a total, unmitigated disaster.
Of course it is a disaster.
Of course we hurt, and ache, and grieve, and miss the person who has gone.
But we can know they haven’t gone forever, and it does help!

I certainly believe in eternal life!
Some preachers will say that God limits those who can get into heaven to those who have professed faith in Jesus,
but I think it is rather we who exclude ourselves than God who excludes us.
People who are seriously anti-God,
seriously anti-faith,
wouldn’t be comfortable in eternal life, would they?

God is a God of love, a God who delights in us,
who loves each and every one of us so much that Jesus came to die so that we can have eternal life.
“I KNOW that my Redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Who needs God?

(Luke 18:9-14)

Sometimes, when you hear Jesus talk about the Pharisees, you would think they were really wicked, awful people.
Worst sinners in the universe.
But they weren’t, of course.
They were actually really religious, holy people.
People like Nicodemus, you remember, or St Paul –
they were Pharisees.
Not even wicked villains at all!

And that, of course, was the problem.
Because back then, if you wanted to be God’s person,
it was thought that you had to keep loads of rules and regulations.
It was all very well when it was just the Ten Commandments,
and some of the food and other rules laid down in the book of Deuteronomy, they were simple enough to follow.

But, of course, people got themselves rather worried by all of this.
What did you mean when you said “You mustn’t work on a Sunday”?
Was lighting a fire work?
Was getting dressed work?
That sort of thing.
So the Pharisees and their like laid down all sorts of rules and regulations to try to cover every possibility,
from how far you could walk on a Sunday,
to just exactly what you could and couldn’t eat.
Even today, observant Jews have two sets of crockery and cutlery,
one for when they eat meat, and one for when they eat dairy products.

Well, okay.
But there were then two problems:
first of all, you simply couldn’t keep all the rules and regulations –
nobody could.
No matter how hard you tried, it simply wasn’t possible.
So almost everybody went round feeling like a failure.
And, of course, as happened in Jesus’ story, people who could and did keep most of the rules felt very proud of themselves, very clever.
And, Jesus says elsewhere, some of the time they got so wrapped up in keeping the rules that they forgot all about loving other people!

Actually, there was a third problem, too.
And that is that human nature simply adores rules.
Especially when it comes to our relationship with God.
It’s a lot easier to keep the rules than to live in a relationship with God –
that’s just scary!
But we like rules anyway –
and, of course, we need rules to keep ourselves and our society safe.

But we do tend to impose our own personal rules on other people.
To take a very silly example, when I was a child, my mother had a rule that my brother and I were only allowed tomato ketchup if we were having chips –
I think we would have poured it on to everything if we could, and never developed any appreciation of any other flavour!
So even though I know better, I still think it’s awful when I see someone put tomato ketchup on anything else!
I have to remind myself that not everybody grew up with that rule, and it’s perfectly all right to put tomato ketchup on your egg and bacon, if that’s what you like.

And sometimes we make rules for ourselves because we know we are tempted in certain areas, so need to steer clear.
Some people, for instance, can’t drink any alcohol as they can’t stop once they start.
So they would like to have a universal rule saying that nobody can drink an alcoholic drink.
Which those of us who are able to enjoy a drink without being addicted, or without having to get drunk, can’t see the point of at all.
And if you remember your history, you’ll know that they tried that rule in the USA in the 1920s and it didn’t work at all,
just created a whole new load of crimes and criminals.

But the problem in today’s reading is that the Pharisee in Jesus’ story was so pleased with himself for keeping the rules –
and indeed, keeping them even better than most people, look how he boasts about fasting twice a week, when he really only needed to do it once –
he was so proud of himself that he actually seems to have forgotten what it was all about.
He forgot he needed God!

The publican, or tax-gatherer, on the other hand, knew he was a pile of pooh all right.
He had a rather awful job, actually.
He was working for the colonial authorities and had to collect taxes from people.
Which was fine, only he wasn’t paid a salary, and was expected to charge people a little extra and provide a living for himself that way.
And many, if not most, tax-gatherers got a reputation for making a very good living for themselves that way –
you remember Zaccheus, who hid up a sycamore tree to watch Jesus, and Jesus decided to go and have supper with him.
You can quite see the temptation, of course.
And they were pretty well hated anyway, as quislings, collaborators, so they might just as well do what they were accused of!
So all the tax-gatherer could pray was “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

We don’t know whether the Pharisee went on from the synagogue to take a basket of fruit to an elderly member of the synagogue who was housebound, or whether the tax-gatherer went back to his job,
but it’s quite probable that they did.
But the difference was that, that day at any rate, God had heard and answered the tax-gatherer’s prayer,
but the Pharisee had been far too pleased with himself to need God –
and God can’t get in where there isn’t room!
That was the Pharisee’s big mistake –
he forgot that even though he did keep the rules, and was good at it, he still needed God’s help.

We all need God’s help, of course.
No matter how good we are, no matter how clever, or talented,
we still need God.
We are still sinners.
That’s why Jesus came –
because every single human being is a sinner.
We’d rather go our own way than God’s way, it’s part of human nature.
And when we do decide we want to go God’s way, we would rather do it by means of rules and regulations than by a relationship with the living God.
Again, it’s part of human nature.
It’s why we have a prayer of confession at the start of every service.

The Pharisee forgot that.
He reckoned that because he was a good, God-fearing Pharisee that made him a better human being than the tax-gatherer who was also praying that day.
And, of course, in human terms he was!
But not in God’s terms.
God loved the tax-gatherer every bit as much as he loved the Pharisee, and was quick to answer his prayers and forgive him. In God's eyes, that day, the tax-gatherer was the better person.

We do find it difficult not to go by rules and regulations, don't we? Years ago, I read of a Sunday-school teacher who shared this story with her class, and then said “Now, children, let us thank God we are not like this Pharisee!”

Well, yes, that's all very well – until you find yourself, as I did, thanking God I was not like that Sunday-school teacher! Derrr!

But you see, that's human nature! We like to compare ourselves with those around us – are we doing it right? Are we doing better than he or she is? We like to have rules and regulations to tell us how we should behave, and what we can to do make God love us. We like to define our relationship with God by the rules.

And, of course, it's not like that. Christianity, it has often been said, is a relationship, not a religion! It is about having a mutual relationship with our Creator. It's about letting God love us.

It's the kind of relationship where, when you go astray, the Good Shepherd pulls on his boots and wellies and goes in search of you. No reproaches when he finds you, either, only joy: “Rejoice with me, for I have found that which was lost”.

It's the kind of relationship where, when you take one tiny step towards God, when you are still a long way away, God rushes to meet you and celebrates your return with a massive party.

It's the kind of relationship where you are encouraged to dare great things for God, where you're encouraged to let go of the rulebook and throw it in the bin.

It's the kind of relationship where you are encouraged to allow God to do great things in and through you. All the time, not just the hour or so a week you spend in Church on Sundays.

Most people do a fantastic job of being human without God, of course. But think, how much better could you do with God?

Do you dare try for a relationship with God on his terms? Without rules and regulations? Maybe you have been doing so this past fifty years, and wonder what I am on about – if so, that's fabulous, and I congratulate you!

But all too many of us cling frantically to the rules. The trouble is, when we let go of them, we don't have anything else to cling to – only the Cross of Christ. And that is scary.

The tax-gatherer was able to let go, though. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” That was all he needed – and it is all we need, too.

God, have mercy on us sinners. Amen.



Sunday, 22 September 2013

God or Money?

I imagine I'm going to be far from the only preacher this morning who starts her sermon with “What on earth is Jesus talking about here?” or words to that effect! This is probably the most difficult parable in the entire New Testament, as it really looks as though Jesus is commending dishonesty!

Let's look at it more closely. You have the landowner, who has employed a steward to look after his interests, much as large landowners do today, only they are usually called agents now. The agent would have been responsible for collecting the rents owed by the various tenants, and back then, would have been expected to pay himself out of those rents, rather like the tax collectors were. And this agent appears to have been defrauding his employer big-time, and the employer gets to hear about it, and demands to see the accounts – and if he finds he's been being defrauded, well, the agent will shortly be an ex-agent!

So the agent panics slightly – whatever will he do? He's getting a bit too old for a labouring job, which is all he could expect after being turned off like that, and there's no way he's going to beg. Ah, but what if.... and he has a great idea. If he adjusts the amount of the various tithes and rents in favour of the tenants, they'll have his back when he needs them. And that's exactly what he does. Now, you would have thought that the employer, when he heard about it, would have been even angrier, and would have sent for the police, but no. He laughed and commended the agent for his shrewdness!

And Jesus added: “You see, that’s how it is. The people who belong to this present world are far better equipped to dodge and weave their way through their dealings with one another than you lot are, and you belong to the light. So take it from me, if you’ve got a fistful of filthy lucre, use it to help other people out. That way, when it runs out, you’ll have friends for eternity.”

That seems very strange, doesn't it? I've seen explanations that say the agent was just not charging the usual tax and his own cut, or that he was doing a Robin Hood and robbing the rich to help the poor, or any other explanation to help sanitise it.

But if you think of it, there are plenty of other parables where you raise your eyebrows and go, “Really?” when you hear them. The unjust judge, for instance – are we really supposed to think that God will “give in” to us if we nag at him, if only to get a little peace? Or that it's right and proper to knock up your friend at midnight to borrow a loaf of bread?

Even the parable of the Lost Son, that immediately precedes this one in Luke's gospel, you are supposed to expect that the Father will drop everything and welcome his Son with open arms?

Well, we believe that God the Father rejoices over us in that way, don't we? And this parable comes immediately after that one.

Jesus doesn't stop at saying that being shrewd with money is a good idea. He goes on to point out that those who can be trusted with a little
can be trusted with a lot.
Those who are dishonest over little things
are also dishonest over big things.
If you can’t even be trusted with a fistful of filthy lucre,
who is going to trust you with things of real value?
If you can’t be trusted to look after other people’s things,
who is going give you anything to keep as your own?”

“No one can play on two teams;
you’ll either give your best to one
and under-perform for the other,
or short-change one
and give your heart and soul for the other.
You can’t dedicate yourself to both God and financial success.”

Mind you, I rather think the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was a rich banker before he followed God's call on his life, might disagree with that last sentence!

Jesus appears to be making three points in this passage. Very convenient for us preachers! Firstly, he is saying that being shrewd with money is a good idea. Secondly he is saying that being trustworthy is incredibly important. And thirdly, he says you can't dedicate yourself to both God and to financial success – you can't serve God and Mammon, as the old translations had it.

Firstly, then, being shrewd with your money is a good idea. Do you remember the other stories Jesus told about this – the stories where the master went off on a long journey, leaving his servants in charge of masses of money? Two of the servants invest the money wisely, and perhaps start their own businesses, and manage to double, and more than double, their initial investments, whereas the third buries his share in the ground and pretends it isn't there. And when the master comes back, who are the ones who are praised? The ones who were shrewd with the money, the ones who knew what they were doing and who invested it wisely and made a massive profit, they are the ones who are praised and given more responsibility. And the one who just hid his share away safely, not doing anything with it – he is the one who is condemned. The master even says he should have put it in an investment account so it could have earned interest – this would have horrified Jesus' hearers, as interest was as anathema to the Jews of those days as it is to the Muslims of ours.

So we are expected to use our money wisely. We're not necessarily called to be financial experts, of course – many of us will want to pay for the services of such a person, though, to help us get the most out of our savings. But even if we don't have any savings, even if we're just managing on a pension, we're still supposed to use it wisely. We shouldn't fritter it away on things we don't really need – especially if we don't really want them, either. Supermarket chains make a great deal of their profits from what they call “impulse purchases”, things you didn't go in there to buy. Look how difficult it is to come out with nothing more than what you went in for. Actually, given that supermarkets never seem to have the one thing you did go in there for, that's even more difficult than it sounds! But seriously, we should think before we buy. God isn't mean and stingy – we are perfectly allowed to buy what we need, and nice things that we want, but we don't want to fritter our money away with nothing to show for it.

And there are times when God asks us to use some of our money to help other people. In the Bible world, you were required to give 10% of your income for others, and it was only once you had done that that your giving really started. God promises that if we do that, we will be repaid abundantly, not necessarily in money, but repaid, nevertheless. We aren't required to give to every good cause that pushes junk mail through our letter-box, or accosts us in the street, but there are times when that still small voice prompts us to buy an extra packet of pasta for the food bank, or something like that. And, of course, we can't do that if we have frittered that money away on a lottery ticket or those biscuits that looked nice but we left to go stale.

Being shrewd with money is a good idea, Jesus said. And he went on to say that we must be trustworthy with it, too.

It almost goes without saying, doesn't it? We know that people who embezzle money, or who cheat on their social security get put in prison. Did you see that silly story the other day about the woman who was cheating on her social security? It turned out, apparently, that if she had been honest, she would have actually been entitled to 64 pounds a week more than she was actually getting, what with tax credits and family allowances and things.... Ah well. The system is probably wrong, but it's the only system we have. And we need to be scrupulously honest in our dealings with it. We need to be so trustworthy that a complete stranger could give us a hundred pounds and say “Hold that for me”, and we would be there holding it when he came back.

We know this, of course. It's been dinned into us over and over again that God's people are people of total and utter integrity. We ask before using someone else's broadband! Twenty years ago I would have said that we don't use office stationery or make phone calls on the office phone unless that was a specific perk of our employment. These days, I suppose, it's about not faffing about on Facebook when there is work to be done, or not downloading books or music from sites which you know are ripping off the authors or musicians. We need, Jesus said, to be trustworthy in little things so that we can be entrusted with big things.

It's not just about money, of course – can your friends trust you to keep a secret? Would you repeat something a friend told you in confidence? Do you tell other people's stories? We need to be trustworthy in absolutely everything we say or do.

So, Jesus says that being shrewd with money is a great idea, that we need to be utterly trustworthy, and, finally, that you can't serve both God and money – it's like trying to play for Crystal Palace and West Ham at the same time – what happens when they are playing one another? You have to decide who you will serve, and serve whole-heartedly. Preferably, of course, God. Now that doesn't mean you have to be silly about things – if they want you to go to a church meeting and you already have an engagement, say so. But you do need to put God first. It is very far from easy, of course – giving in to ourselves is always far easier. But that is part of what God the Holy Spirit does for those of us who want to follow him, and who want to put him first in our lives. By being in us and with us, God makes it easier, and helps us become the people we were designed to be – people who are shrewd with money,who are utterly trustworthy, and who don't live for money, but live for God instead. Amen.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

You have to go there to be there!

I didn't actually preach this sermon!  It was all ready to go, hymns and readings submitted to the Steward, and then I went down with a very nasty virus and couldn't get out of bed!  My husband, with the authority of the Circuit Superintendent and the stewards, very kindly read it for me.

Have you had your holidays yet? We went in June, inter-railing. And, of course, when you go on an inter-rail holiday, getting there is half the fun. All those trains taking you to new places in different countries! But sometimes the journey is horrible, isn't it? Endless hours in a car or in a plane, or worse, hanging around at the airport waiting for your flight. You long to be able to skip the journey and be at your destination without having to go there!

And it's the same, too, when you're learning any new skill, or a new subject. I don't know if anybody here is waiting for exam results over the next couple of weeks, but if you are, I bet there were times when you wished you could skip to the results without having to take the exams, or even wished you could skip to the exams without having to study for them! But you have to go through it to get there, alas.

We all have times we wish we didn't. But we know we have to. Our Bible readings this morning are all about faith, about getting to a place where we have such a great relationship with God that we can do as we are asked without worrying about it. And, of course, we can't get to that place at once – wouldn't it be great if we could? But again, we have to go through it to get there.

---oo0oo---

I have often said that these Sundays in Ordinary Time are when we discover whether what we think we believe actually matches up to what we really do believe. And our readings this morning are the absolute epitome of that. I chose to have all three readings because they all emphasise faith, but slightly different aspects of faith.

Isaiah, for instance, is talking about repentance:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?”
   says the Lord;
“I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
   and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
   or of lambs, or of goats.”

And then:
“When you stretch out your hands,
   I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
   I will not listen;
   your hands are full of blood.”

In Isaiah's day his day, people worshipped other gods, gods who didn't actually require you to do more than perform the sacrifices and rituals. But for God, our God, this was not enough. God demanded – and still does demand – a lot more than that:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
   remove the evil of your doings
   from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow.”

You can't just go on as you were and then come to the temple to do your sacrifices. This will not work. Remember Psalm 51: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” We need a complete change of heart, to turn right round and go God's way, not ours. This is called repentance, of course – not so much about being sorry, although that can be part of it, but about a complete change of outlook. And then, according to Isaiah:

“Come now, let us argue it out,”
   says the Lord:
“though your sins are like scarlet,
   they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
   they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
   you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
   you shall be devoured by the sword;
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

It is about an attitude of the heart.

The letter to the Hebrews shows us how this faith works out in practice: we are reminded that “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Abraham, we are told, was promised a wonderful inheritance. God promised to make his descendants, quite literally, more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore. He was going to be given a wonderful land for them to live in.

Now, at this stage, Abraham was living very comfortably thank you, in a very civilised city called Ur, and although he didn't have any children, he was happy and settled. But God told Abraham that if he wanted to see this promise fulfilled he had to get up, to leave his comfortable life, and to move on out into the unknown, just trusting God. And Abraham did just exactly that. And, eventually, Isaac was born to carry on the family. And then Jacob. And we are told that, although none of them actually saw the Promised Land, the promise was not fulfilled in their lifetimes, they never stopped believing that one day, one day, it would be. Their whole lives were informed by their belief that God was in control.

This sort of faith is the kind we'd all like to have, wouldn't we? Wouldn't we? Hmmm, I wonder. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That's great, isn't it? “It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Well, it would be great, but then he says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

That's the bit we don't like so well, do we? Like Abraham, we are very-nicely-thank-you in Ur, comfortably settled in this world, and we don't want to give it all up to go chasing after something which might or might not be real. This is the difficult bit, the bit where what we say we believe comes up against what we really do believe.

It's like I was saying [to the children] earlier, we would like to be there – wherever “there” is – without the hassle of actually going there! We want to have all the privileges and joys of being Christians without actually having to do anything.

Of course, in one of the many great paradoxes of Christianity, we don't have to do anything! We can do nothing to save ourselves! It is God who does all that is necessary for our salvation.

But if we are to be people of faith, if we are to be of any use to God. And faith does, or should, prompt us to action.

First of all, then, our faith should prompt us to repent. To turn away from sin and turn to God with all our hearts. It's not just a once-and-for-all thing; it's a matter of daily repentance, daily choosing to be God's person.

And as we do that, our faith grows and develops and strengthens to the point where, if we are called to do so, we can leave our comfort zone and try great things for God. As Abraham did, and as Jesus calls us to do.

We aren't all called to sell our possessions and give what we have to the poor – although a little more equity in the way this world's goods are handed out wouldn't be a bad thing; look how 25% of the world consumes 75% of its production, or whatever the figures actually are – I may be being generous on that one. We are all called to work for justice in our communities, whether that is a matter of writing to our MPs if something is clearly wrong, or getting involved in a more hands-on way.

Some people – maybe some of you, even – are or have been called to leave your home countries and work in a foreign land to be God's person there, whether as a professional missionary, as it were, or just where you are working. Others are asked to stay put, but to be God's person exactly where they are – at school, college, work, home, at the shops, on the bus, in a traffic jam, on social media... everywhere! Being God's person isn't something that happens in church on Sundays and is put aside the rest of the week.

It isn't easy. It's the every day, every moment hard slog. The times when we wish we could skip over all this, and be the wonderful faith-filled Christian we hope to be one day without the hard work of getting there!

Sadly, it doesn't work like that. We don't have to do all the hard work in our own strength, of course; God the Holy Spirit is there to help us, and remind us, and change us, and grow us as we gradually become more and more the people God designed us to be. But God doesn't push in where He's not wanted. If we are truly serious about being God's person, then we need to be being that every day. Each day we need to commit to God, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Jesus reminds us that this world isn't designed to be permanent. One day it will come to an end, either for each of us individually, or perhaps in some great second coming. But whichever way, it will end for us one day, and not all of us get notice to quit. We need to be ready and alert, busy with what we have been given to do, but ready to let go and turn to Jesus whenever he calls us.

None of this is easy. Being a Christian isn't easy. Becoming a Christian is easy, because God longs and longs for us to turn to Him. But being one isn't. Allowing God to change us, to pull us out of our comfort zone, to travel with Him along that narrow way – it's not easy. But it is oh, so very worthwhile! Amen.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Prayer Stations

This was an All Age Worship service held on 28 July 2013.  I had some good feedback; on the other hand rather too many people for my taste just sat in their seats and refused to get involved.  And I realised, half-way through the following week, that I had originally intended to use a labyrinth as a sixth station, and forgot!  Bother!

Opening Prayer, led by Worship Leader

Opening Hymn: What a friend we have in Jesus

Reading: Luke 11:1-13

Explanation of what is happening

Prayer Stations

The Lord's Prayer

Hymn: Father, I place into your hands

Notices and offertory

Closing hymn (“May the peace”)

Prayer Stations

Prayer Station 1; Prayer topics:
Index cards in two colours – white for please, pink for thank you. Some topics already written out. People to pick up a card and pray for who or what is on it, either asking or thanking (or both!). Detail unnecessary. People encouraged to add their own topics to other cards, one or two words only.

Prayer Station 2; Newspapers:
Glance through and cut out a headline that says something to you. Pin under one of three headings: Thank you, Please, and Sorry.

Prayer Station 3; Mirrors:
Look in the mirror. Reflect on who you are, and who you would like to be. Know yourself a beloved child of God.

Prayer Station 4; Tactile prayers:
Rosaries and crosses. Pick them up and fiddle with them. Traditional & other prayers will be provided. Just hold the holding cross for a few moments.

Prayer Station 5; Fridge Magnets:

Leaf through magazines to find something that appeals. Cut it out and stick it on cardboard, then stick a small piece of magnetic tape on the back. Take it home to be a reminder of prayer.

When you have finished: Return to your seat in the body of the church, and look at the Cross, allowing it to speak to you.



Sunday, 19 May 2013

Party Like it's 33 AD

How many languages do you speak? Who speaks more than one language fluently? Anybody speak more than three languages?

I only speak European languages – English, of course, and French, but also some German. And all three languages “work” the same way. German is very like English in a lot of ways, and very different in others. French is very different, but it still works the same way. And both German and French are ancestor-languages of English. Most European languages – not all, but most – are related to each other, and fairly mutually comprehensible. In some areas of France, for instance, they speak a version of German, and in Luxembourg they all speak both French and German, and their native dialect seems a bit of a mixture!

If I go to a country where I don't speak the language, I can usually pick up the words for groceries or wine or beer even if I don't know how you say them, just by looking at the notices in the shops.

But I know some of you – most of you, perhaps – speak languages that work very differently to European languages. They diverged from whatever the original spoken language was very early, so they build up differently. I'm sure if you grow up speaking them, they seem normal and natural, but I would find them very difficult to learn, other than occasional words. Some European languages, too are like that. Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, for instance, are very different from the languages that descended from Latin, and nobody knows where Basque came from!

In our first reading, we heard the story the ancient Hebrews told to explain why there were so many different languages in the world. The people had tried to build up a tower that would reach up into heaven, and God said “Can't have that!” because that's not how you get to heaven, so he scattered the people and caused them all to speak different languages so they couldn't co-operate and understand each other.

Well, I wonder why we had that story today? It is, of course, Pentecost, and don't you think that the story we heard read, as we hear every year, is a sort of anti-tower of Babel? Now, everybody can understand what the people are saying! No matter what their native language – as the bystanders said: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites,
and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene,
and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
Cretans and Arabs –
in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."

So in a way, what happened at Pentecost closed the circle, and unmade the differences that God was thought to have caused at Babel.

Some were puzzled –
were these people drunk, or what?
So Peter, glorious, wonderful Peter, who never used to be able to open his mouth without putting his foot in it –
they used to say he only opened his mouth to change feet –
Peter jumps up and lets out this terrific bellow which shuts everybody up, sharpish.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," he goes, "we're not on the sauce –
come off it, it's only nine a.m., what do you take us for?"
And he goes on to explain that this is what Joel was talking about,
this is what they'd all been expecting.
And, as you know, he preached so powerfully, and God's presence was so overwhelming, that three thousand people got converted that day alone!

Thus the story.
We know it so well, don’t we?
Every year, this passage from the book of Acts is read.
We could probably quote a great deal of it off by heart, and the bits we can’t quote –
all those nationalities, I can never remember them without looking –
we know what they say, even if we don’t know the words!

One way of seeing it is that it’s the Church’s birthday.
The day we celebrate the anniversary of the explosive growth from a tiny handful of believers –
barely over a hundred –
to several thousand, and on down the millennia to the worldwide organisations and denominations that is the Church today.

But there again, that’s just history, rather like we celebrate our own birthdays. But we should celebrate it. And my grandson is at the age that thinks a birthday has to include cake, so I have brought some cakes – I think, though, that we had better wait until afterwards to eat them so that we don't make crumbs on the carpet in here!

Pentecost is more than that. I think that much of it is one of those things that doesn’t go into words very well –
what is officially called a “mystery” –
the Church’s word for something that words can never fully explain.

After all –
a mighty wind, and what looked like tongues of fire?
We know the damage that both wind and fire can do;
we've seen it all too often.
1987 was a long time ago now, but I still remember clearly the devastation caused both by a fire at King's Cross Underground Station and a huge gale that destroyed vast swathes of woodland. Even today you can still see traces of the damage it caused, if you know where to look.

But the wind and flame from God were not sent to destroy, but to cleanse, to heal, and to empower.

Wind and flame can be good things, as well as destructive. After all, think how when it's really cold, we want to warm ourselves at a flame, don't we? And back in the day, flames were the only way people had to make light when it was dark – we like our little tealights even now, don't we? And sometimes we light tealights or other small candles as a form of prayer.

And wind.... we can do lots of things with wind. Here are some windmills. They don't do anything if you just hold them, but if you blow on them, they come to life and turn round and round..... Blowing on them is all very well, but of course they really come to life if you put them in your garden and let the wind blow them as it will! And remember, when you see them going round, that the Holy Spirit came as wind.

The Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Breath of God; the Hebrew word for “Spirit”, Ruach, can also be translated “Breath”. It seems only fitting that the Breath of God is a rushing mighty wind!

Let's blow some bubbles – go on, you know you want to! Share them round so everybody can! I love to blow bubbles; you have to be fairly serene and steady to be able to do it, and you can't blow them if you're panicking all over the place. Very calming.

But look, too, at the bubbles. They are all different sizes, no two are quite alike. But they are all similar. And they depend on our blowing them! They don't form on their own. They remind me a bit of God's making us. God breathed life into us. And they remind me of how God transforms us - ordinary washing-up liquid transformed into beautiful bubbles!

It's fun to celebrate Pentecost with bubbles and windmills and cake! And, do you know, if you are Jewish you celebrate with cheesecake! Or even if you aren't Jewish – I'm going to have cheesecake for my supper pudding tonight! Robert will be out, but I might save him some if I'm nice! Apparently the reason is that the Jewish festival, Shavuot, celebrates the giving of the Torah, the Jewish version of the Scriptures, and, as you know, one of their rules is that you don't eat meat and dairy products at the same meal, and so they have a tradition of eating dairy produce on Shavuot, and, well, cheesecake is really rather delicious! I only learnt that tradition last year, from a Jewish friend on Facebook, but I promptly adopted it!

Anyway, the point is, while it's fun to celebrate, and we should – we need to remember that Pentecost isn't just history. It happened, yes, on a given date in about AD33, but like so much of our Christian life it is a here and now thing as well as a then and there. As I said earlier, it doesn't really go into words very well – stuff about God very often doesn't.

But what does go into words is that God still sends his Holy Spirit to us today. God the Holy Spirit is still breathing life into us. Still giving us light, still leading us, as Jesus promised, into all truth. And we are still commanded to be filled with the Spirit! We can still have the various gifts St Paul saw in use (the tongues, the prophecies, the healings and so on) and the fruit he saw develop in people’s characters:
"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control".

And as we saw earlier, the Spirit undoes the divisions between people, enabling us to understand one another, to listen to one another, to hear one another.

And God the Spirit brings life. Abundant life. And so we celebrate, this Pentecost as every Pentecost. Amen! And, perhaps, Hallelujah!

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Peter and Paul

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, which we use for loving anything from God down to strawberries, including our spouse, our children, our best friends and the writings of Jane Austen! But the Greeks had several different words for love. There was eros, which was erotic love, the love between a man and a woman; then there was storge, which was affection, family love, the love between parents and children. Then, and these are the two words that are relevant to us here, there was philia, which is friendship, comradeship, and 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! Quite the funniest scene 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 we all 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, we 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 mass murderer 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. 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, of people like Dwight L Moody, or David Livingstone, Eric Liddell or Billy Graham. 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. But that isn't really what it's about. For a start, 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, 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 – you may have known him, for some years ago he was a local vicar and now he is 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. 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? Amen.