Saturday, 14 October 2017

Another Harvest Sermon

My last of the year . . .

Deuteronomy 26  /  Luke 12

What I want to do this morning is to tell you about the woman whose face appears on your readings sheet. Her name I don’t know, but long after I met her I called her Angela in a poem I wrote about her. In fact, her story in my poem was only partly her own story, it was more a combination of the stories of different people in the place where she lived.

I was in Brazil, in the deep south of Brazil, what is known as the Rio Grande de Sul, and in the old imperial city of Pelotas. Pelotas is a city that still possesses traces of its ancient grandeur; it has some fine houses and a palace, two cathedrals, and three universities. But Angela, we’ll call her that, lived with her family and the other families around her in a very different Pelotas. Their world was the favela.

I was there maybe fifteen years ago. I’d been attending a conference in the busy city of Porto Allegre, some way to the north, as a guest of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. The Bishop of Pelotas was one of the other guests, and he invited me to visit his diocese. I saw the old palace, and visited the Anglican Cathedral, and I remember spending some time in a rather fine coffee shop with cakes the equal of any in the world. But I did also visit the world Angela inhabited. The favela where she lived was known as Anglo; Anglo because it was located in the ruinous grounds of what used to be the Anglo-American Salt Beef Packing Company. There’s no great call these days for salt beef.

The favela consists of shacks not unlike a rather poorly constructed garden shed. But each shed contains a family. Dirt tracks run through, and to gain access from the track to the compound of a particular dwelling you have to cross an open sewer. Everywhere was very dusty, rather smelly too.
Anglo has been there for quite a while. Here and there one or two of the shacks had become small villas constructed from breeze blocks and painted pink. And a few of the dusty tracks had the occasional lamp on a post. Later in my visit I saw a newer camp, on some waste ground near the centre of the city and much more vulnerable to being cleared away by the authorities; and there people were living in what were little more than tents.

But don’t imagine that the people in Anglo were anything other than dirt poor. Maybe a lucky few were doing better, but most, like Angela, were just scraping by at best. What did they do? Angela showed me her cart. It’s in the picture. She walked the streets with this cart collecting rubbish, plastic mostly but cans and things as well. I saw them sorted and piled along one side of her small yard. Plastic bottle tops were especially prized, she told me (through my interpreter, a Swiss girl doing a mission placement there). You got the best price for bottle tops.

But the deacon at the little church there told me they didn’t get much of a price for anything; that was the problem. In Brazil everything that can be recycled is recycled, and it’s the poor that do it. But people in Anglo had to sell to the traders who came round and collect, maybe once a week, once a fortnight. They’d never quite know when the traders would come, and they’d no choice but to accept what the traders offered them. Angela had a pile of rubbish, sorted and ready for the trader, but no-one had come, and that day she’d no money to feed her children. The church had a soup kitchen that day; without it, they wouldn’t have eaten, she said. And just the day before I’d been eating cream cakes with an excellent coffee or two without a care in the world. 

I went to the soup kitchen, and met Angela again there. The place was crowded. Mission hymns were sung, joyfully if not all that tunefully. And soup was ladled out into the plastic bowls and tubs the women brought, and bread and cabbages were handed out too.

Everyone there was pretty much in the same boat. They were all living on the edge, at risk, constantly, from petty crime, from exploitation by traders who rip them off, from disease, those open drains didn’t look or smell all that healthy, and from the city fathers who might just decide to tidy things up by bulldozing the favela and kicking them all out.

The soup kitchen was one project, but the church there wanted to do more. It hoped to buy and secure the old Anglo site: some of the old buildings could be used to set up a co-operative to sort, process and bale the waste the folk of Anglo collected. Then they could sell it directly to the big recycling firms and not have to rely on the traders who turned up when they felt like it, offered poor rates and probably also cheated on the scales. I hope that by now they’ve managed to do that. Angela’s children won’t be far off grown up by now. Will they still be as poor as she was? What do they have to look forward to?

Why tell that story at harvest festival? Look at the labels on the things in your kitchen cupboards and fridges, how many different countries are represented. We thank God for harvest today here in Leighton, but harvest is worldwide. More than once in Brazil I came face to face with the contrast between immense wealth and abject poverty. My visit to Anglo was one of those occasions.

In the Old Testament there are many stories of people on the move, not least the people of Israel in the book Exodus being led through the desert by Moses. They journeyed from slavery in Egypt to find a new land, the land promised to them by God, that would flow with milk and honey. I don’t know how Angela ended up in the favela, where she’d come from; maybe like so many she’d travelled in from the country hoping the city would give her and her children a better life. The people of Israel, on the run from Egypt, spent forty years in the desert. How long would Angela be in the desert of the favela?

The people of Israel reached the land God promised them; all they had to do was to cross the Jordan to enter a wonderful place, with fertile soil in which they could grow all they wanted. But before they crossed that river to enter the land, Moses told them they must never forget what they used to be, that they’d wandered in the desert, desperate for food and water, that they’d been slaves in Egypt. And they must never forget that it was God who’d brought them safely to the land they now held; so they must offer thanks, but more than that they must live thankfully.

Our harvest festival is a time to remember that, as one of the Psalms puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof; the round world and all that dwell therein.” Jesus says, “Consider the lilies; consider the ravens. Seek God’s kingdom above all else, and he will make sure you have what you need.” We thank God for all that’s good in our land and in our lives, but harvest brings responsibility as well as blessing. We honour the giver of our harvest when we use what he gives us according to his mind, and in a way that reflects his love. When we seek his kingdom.

God gives us a rich and beautiful world to share, but we can get depressed, or I can anyway, at all the bad news that comes our way, every bulletin is full of it. And the problems and sadnesses and inequalities of our world can sometimes - often - seem so big, so intractable, so unchangeable that we might just end up believing there’s nothing to be done. I think the church in Pelotas proved to me that day that I’d be wrong to think that. We may only be able to do small things like that soup kitchen, but lots of small things added together make a big thing. Harvest is there to be shared and used, not hoarded up. And every small act of sharing moves us all just a step or two closer to the promised land.

The King's Feast

Sermon notes for this Sunday . . .

Matthew 22.1-14 (Trinity 18, Proper 23 year A)

Don’t you think it slightly strange, in the Gospel story we’ve just heard, that a poor guy plucked from the street to attend the king’s wedding feast should then be bound and flung out for not having the right clothes on? How many street beggars or Big Issue sellers do you think would be in possession of suitable attire for a posh wedding?

We’ll return to him later. But all in all, this is quite a strange parable. It’s one thing to turn down an invitation to a wedding, but it’s a bit over-the-top to actually kill the messengers who bring it, don’t you think? Particularly since the king in the parable was the sort of despot who’d burn down your entire town in response. They’d have been well advised to say yes to a man like that, even if they had had other plans for the day of his party.

I think Matthew gets a bit more stark and even bloodthirsty than the other Gospel writers when he re-tells the stories of Jesus; Matthew also groups the stories together, so some commentators think that here we’ve two quite different stories joined together, the one about the wedding feast being populated by people gathered in from the highways and byways, after those first invited failed to respond, together with a second story about a man coming to a wedding without the proper clothes and being punished for it.

But, separately or together, they’re stories we should take seriously, and the theme of both is judgement: God invites us to a feast he’s prepared, a salvation feast, but woe betide us if we pass up on that invitation. Sometimes we soft-pedal the judgement side of the Gospel, but we shouldn’t. God is love, and his love seeks to include us all, desires to leave no-one out. But God is also the righteous judge who is angered by our rejection and our misdeeds; and his wrath is to be feared.

“The Christian Church is a revolutionary movement that became an institution - discuss.” That might have been a question in one of my papers at theological college, but was in fact a headline in last week’s Church Times. Jesus came with a revolutionary message, and here he targets those for whom the system and the ritual have become more important than God. The priests with their ritual and sacrifice, and the Pharisees with their purity and piety: these two groups had between them created a godless religion.

Let me explain. They professed belief in God, they prayed to him and offered their sacrifices; but really they’d relegated God himself to be just one component in a system that didn’t really need him. As long as they did all the right things God had to let them in: they’d racked up enough points, they’d earned their place.

That’s what they thought, anyway. In the story Jesus told there were people who expected to be invited to the king’s banquet; it was what their social standing deserved. And they also thought it perfectly OK not to go, if it spoiled the routine of their tidy little lives. In the story the king deals very harshly with their disrespect.

In the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we’ve already heard Jesus tell the Pharisees and priests that (quote) “tax gatherers and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Instead of serving God, he told them, and responding to God’s call, they’d been serving only themselves.
So what has the Church done with the revolutionary message of the Gospel? Are we looking to change minds and hearts and lives, are we looking to change the world, or have we become institutionalised? The problem with institutions is that they become hierarchical, bureaucratic and self-serving.

It’s a truth proved time and time again in all kinds of organisations and institutions, that what should be serving and encouraging and enriching the local groups and ordinary members, can end up taking from them rather than giving to them. The organisation itself becomes more important than its aims, and its structures seek to be served rather than offer service, end up impoverishing rather than enriching. The aim of the Church is to teach, preach, proclaim and live the kingdom, to share and show God’s love and to acknowledge him as king. Not to spend as much time as we do just keeping the show on the road.

Sorry - bit of a bee in my bonnet, I guess. But I’m reminded of a company someone I know used to worked for. When they did a programme of restructuring they managed to cut out a whole tier of management without anyone really noticing. They’d got more management than they needed, because one thing managers are good at doing is creating more managers and building little empires.

Let me get back to the man I started with, that poor guy plucked from the gutter and then thrown back again because he hasn’t got the right clothes? “Tax gatherers and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom ahead of you,” said Jesus - but only if they’ve listened, obeyed, responded, made changes. Only if they’re wearing the right clothes.

Here’s a thought. What if the king, knowing that people pulled in off the street aren’t going to have much to wear, had put out suits of wedding clothes for them all? Wouldn’t that be a kind and kingly gesture? And isn’t that what our gracious God does do? When we turn to God we’re clothed with his love. So maybe this man was punished not for not having a wedding suit in his wardrobe at home (and maybe not having a wardrobe, or even a home), but for not having bothered to wear the wedding clothes that had been provided for him.

In other words, for being the person who comes to church but then falls away or maybe departs in a huff because they can’t be top dog; or the person who’s happy to be known as a churchgoer, but who fails to allow Jesus into the rest of his life, whose everyday activities don’t reflect the kingdom principles he hears about on a Sunday. I know that sometimes I am that person, and that’s why I’m here. So often my Sunday praise and fervour doesn’t get properly connected in to my weekday life; it’s something I need always to be working on.

Tax gatherers and prostitutes and all kinds of folk from the highways and byways of life get invited to the kingdom feast of our Lord. They’re welcomed in, they’re commanded to come in. It’s a revolutionary party, it’s a beggars’ banquet, in which all the established principles get turned upside down. Except this one: you don’t come as you are, you come attired in the robes that the king is giving you, the ones bearing the sign of the cross, a cross to be worn not only on the outside of us but in the deep and secret places of our hearts.

To do less than that is to cheat on God and to disrespect his generous and saving grace. It’s not only the obvious targets, like the priests and Pharisees to whom Jesus told his story, who stand under judgement. It’s all of us.

Nature Notes

My offering for local community magazines for the month ahead . . .

Another Autumn Walk

After last month’s foray, a rather shorter walk this month, which I made along the canal towpath on a very wet day in early October, walking home from Coed y Dinas. It wasn’t a cold day, and the breeze was light, but the rain was quite heavy at times and the light wasn’t all that good.

But there was still plenty to see, beginning with a pair of swans and their well grown cygnets on the pool formed out of the old route of the canal. I wonder if these were the same birds I saw at the lock at Berriew on the walk I described last month. They may have been, but there are always several pairs along this part of the canal. These were being quite busy in the rain, up-ending themselves to dabble deep down into the water with their long necks. Swans feed mostly on underwater vegetation, but they don’t mind supplementing that with water insects and other invertebrates, frogs and even small fish should these come to hand, or rather beak.

A moorhen dashed jerkily past in front of the reeds, but either didn’t notice me or wasn’t too bothered at the sight of me. This is one of our commonest water-birds, found pretty much everywhere in Britain, and happy to live on smaller ponds than its relative the coot. Its red bill with a yellow tip is distinctive, as is its jerky, flicking motion when swimming or walking. Like the coot it has lobed toes rather than fully webbed feet. Well-grown juveniles are dull brown and lack the red beak; I saw a couple a little further on as I walked.

Not many insects fly when there’s heavy rain, but a large dragonfly came across just in front of me, close enough for me to hear the rustle of its wings, as I left the pool to walk the canal towpath proper. Maybe I’d disturbed it from its resting place. A surprising number of plants were still in flower along the towpath, including my personal favourite, meadowsweet. The towpath equivalent of the “Chelsea chop” designed to bring on a second showing of flowers in your garden is the midsummer mow along the canal, which guarantees a late flush of flowers from meadowsweet and others. The scent is lovely, but I wasn’t going to stop and sniff in the rain. The same scent, incidentally, is present in the leaves and other green parts - not as strongly, but scrunch up a leaf and sniff it and you’ll get a hint of it. Other plants in flower included low-growing speedwells, a pleasing blue, and the yellow of creeping Jenny, not a wild plant, so I suspect garden soil must have been used to build up the bank here during restoration.

A couple of herons passed over, and I could hear a buzzard mew, but the highlight of my walk had to be a sparrowhawk drifting across the fields used for the country and western weekend and other events. I say drifting, for it wasn’t going at any great speed, but this was quite a purposeful drift: a few wing beats, a glide, a few wing beats again, keeping its eyes open for any opportunity. The short wings and long tail are typical; the wings have a rounder shape than the kestrel. This hawk is a superbly adapted and deadly hunter, and always, for me, a delight to see.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Growing Up

What was now
what was you
what was me
has been turned into history
in this whitewalled room
such a short journey
such a sudden change
a last page turned
the book closed
no time for goodbye
you took the overnight train
heading for that new dawn
leaving us breathless
leaving us lost
everything now will be measured
as before you or after you


A sermon preached today at Dovaston on Isaiah 5.1-7 and Matthew 21.33-46

The two readings I’ve used this morning have a certain similarity to them, since they both are about vines and vineyards. But there are important differences too, which we’ll think about as we go along. Vines and vineyards were familiar places to the people of Israel, and the vine in its abundant fruitfulness symbolised not only God’s gifts to his people, not least his gift of the land itself in which they lived, but it also symbolised what God asked of his people - that they were to be as fruitful, as abundantly fruitful as the vine; all their thoughts and actions were to be a thank offering to the Lord who had blessed them so richly and abundantly. And the vine was seen as a sign of sacrifice: vines had to be staked and supported, the branches couldn’t support themselves; so it was seen as choosing not even to support its own branches, but to give everything of itself away.

Our first reading, from Isaiah is a poignant statement of God's loving care for his people. The People of Israel are God's vineyard, we read, and the Lord has tended that vineyard with loving care: he has cleared it of stones, and dug the soil, and planted choice vines in it. After all that care, why then has the vine produced so poorly? And what should I now do? That’s what the Lord asks through his prophet.

When we moved into a new home many years ago, we were delighted to find a well-stocked and nicely cared for back garden, with fruit trees that included the only peach tree I’ve ever had - and it did bear fruit, just a few, but freshly picked peaches from your own tree knock anything you might buy into a cocked hat. Anyway, there was also a vine, which grew and grew and grew. It looked handsome, vine leaves are quite attractive, but it produced not a thing. Probably it wasn’t meant to, and was always supposed to be just ornamental, and it did do its bit to add to the beauty of what was a pretty good garden. But I like grapes, so I was a bit disappointed.

I might have dug up that vine, but I didn’t. I grew quite fond of it, and anyway we weren’t in that house for very long, only three or four summers. But in general, it’s never enough just to look good. Vines are supposed to be fruitful. Think on this: coming to church isn’t being fruitful. Singing hymns, even saying prayers isn’t being fruitful. All these things are essential steps towards being fruitful, but fruitfulness is proved not by what we do on a Sunday, but by what we decide and give and do in the rest of the week, in our off-duty moments, our everyday lives.

Now here’s an interesting thought. God created the Earth and all that moves within it. And there it was, moving and working and blending together very well, each ecosystem finding its own harmony, to use scientific language, each different environment fruitful and productive in its own way, as its own version if you like of the Garden of Eden. Only when people appear on the scene do things start to go wrong. If you’re being picky and Biblically precise, only when the man and the woman eat the fruit that was forbidden to them does it all start to go wrong. And while you could blame it all on the serpent, I think it was always going to happen. God made us with the capacity for independent thought. He made us with the ability to be disobedient.

Since we also read that he made us in his own image and likeness, that’s an interesting thought. You might wonder, why on earth would God want to spoil the harmony and loveliness of what he had made, by adding disobedience into the mix. The answer has to do with love. God could have created automata who would do his every bidding - like a modern production line in a car factory where robots install each component in exactly the same way and can be relied on to get it right all the time every shift.

But we are made in his image: made therefore with the capacity to love, and you can’t programme love. However much you love someone you can’t make them love you back. God makes us with the capacity to respond to his love, but that includes the risk that we won’t.

God wants his world to be filled with peace and love. But for that to happen he accepts the risk of hatred, discord, injustice. He creates us to be fruitful, and in the summary of the law we’re told how to be: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Getting back to the image of the vines in the vineyard, God showers us with gifts that should encourage us to bear fruit - by sharing, by caring, by responding to our neighbour in need, by desiring a better world and helping to build it. But what if we just keep those gifts for ourselves? That’s the risk he takes with us.

But if you’re a vine grower and your vines aren’t producing, I guess there does come a point when you have to act, when you have to accept that the vines you’ve got are just taking up space and using resources, without giving anything back. What would you do with your vines, asks the Lord - and what should I do with mine?

Our Gospel reading also ends with a question. Probably the story from Isaiah was in the mind of Jesus when he spoke as he did to the religious leaders; but the story as Jesus tells it isn’t about the vines but about those who tend them, and by the time Jesus finished telling the story, the chief priests and Pharisees knew perfectly well just who it was aimed at: themselves.

Jesus had already told them the parable of the two brothers, one of whom offers to help his father but doesn’t, while the second says he’ll not do it but then changes his mind and does it after all. The religious high-fliers, temple priests and Pharisees, may have looked good and said all the right things, but in the end they were not delivering, they were not doing it.

Now in this parable he takes his accusation against them a step further. He tells them that to further their own ends and looks after their own well feathered nests, they’ve been prepared actively to oppose the will of God.

In Isaiah’s story the people of Israel are the vines; in the story told by Jesus, the tenants who’re supposed to be caring for the vines are the religious leaders: formally designated leaders like the high priests, or self-appointed religious authorities like the party of the Pharisees. Those who have the privilege of caring for the vineyard, have also responsibility towards the owner of the vineyard, to make sure his vines produce a good harvest.

A short aside: I remember some years ago, at rather a low point in my life, going one Sunday to a large and well attended and outwardly very successful church (I won’t say where). I’d not been there before, but I’d heard it was lively, and to begin with I was impressed. But as the worship went on I was becoming uncomfortably aware that no-one from start to finish had said a single word to me. Not even the minister did as I left; he was so happily engaged with conversation elsewhere that he never noticed me as I went past. Maybe I caught them on a bad day; maybe their welcome team was on holiday or laid low by the flu. But maybe, just maybe, this outwardly successful church might have been a little too full of itself, rather than of the Spirit.

As I say, I may have judged them harshly and unfairly. But one sense I get from the parable Jesus told is that the tenants in the vineyard had got a nice little business going there. They got a good living out of it, and they didn’t want the boss disrupting things by wanting his share. So they thrashed and sent away the messengers sent to them (in other words, the prophets). And then the owner sends his son.

Well, we know what happened next. Jesus predicts his own destiny in this parable; and indeed the parable itself may have played its part in provoking some of the opposition that would in time see him taken and tried and sent to be crucified. Jesus asks a question: “How would the owner of a vineyard deal with tenants like that?”

“He’d bring them to a bad end,” reply the priests, and in a sense they’re condemned from their own lips as they say that. Maybe they only realised that later. Jesus went on to speak to them about “the stone the builders rejected, that has become the chief cornerstone.” In the Bible the cornerstone’s often used to describe the relationship between us and God. Nothing we build will last, unless we build on him, as in Psalm 127 - “Unless the Lord build the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watch over the city, its watchmen stand guard to no avail.”

So Jesus is telling them: “What you are building you’re building for yourselves, to please yourselves. Unless you choose to build on the foundation God provides, that corner stone you have rejected, you build in vain. You’re just like the rebellious and self-serving tenants.” No wonder they didn’t like to hear it.

The challenge of the parables told by Isaiah and Jesus is one we need to hear too. The Gospels show us that we are both sheep and shepherds (sheep as we hear and obey the shepherd’s voice, shepherds ourselves in the care and leadership we offer one another); and I think we’re also both vines and vine-growers - and as both vines and vine-growers we’ve a responsibility to the one whose vineyard this is. We should be fruitful as vines, not just looking good on a Sunday by Sunday basis, but really delivering on that: by on a daily basis being the servant people God desires us to be, in his image, in the image of the servant-King; and we should be fruitful as vine-growers, loyally encouraging and directing and supporting one another in a ministry we all have a share in, that honours and serves the one who is the giver of all life, and who will in the fullness of time call each one of us to account.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A Harvest Address . . .

. . . given at Chirbury, Sunday 1st October:

What I want to do this morning is to tell you a heartwarming and true story about what harvest is really about, and why it’s good that we come to church to celebrate it.

Imagine, look around you: instead of green hillsides and valleys, with trees and fields and hedges, imagine that the land all around is the same dusty brown colour; dusty brown because the ground itself is just dry dust. There are steep hills on either side, and they too are brown. Nothing is growing here. As you walk, the dust covers and stains your shoes, and it gets into your clothes, and it makes your eyes water.

I was there just about twelve years ago, in a place called El Trebol, which means The Clover Leaf. But there is no clover in sight: you could be in a desert; and in fact you are in a desert. No rain falls here, which is why nothing grows. I’ve been in one or two deserts in my time, and deserts are usually fairly empty places, but this one isn’t. Look around again: this desert scene is full of houses, lots of houses, houses that stretch along the valley, and march up the hillside.

As you look, you’ll see that many of these houses are in fact hardly more than tents. Even the better and more solid ones are more like rough sheds than houses, built mostly out of bits of hardboard, planks of wood, corrugated iron. The houses you see have been knocked together out of anything people could lay their hands on. You might find yourself thinking of allotment sheds, except that nothing grows here, and every shack has a family living in it. Some of them are just hanging onto the side of the hill. How did they manage to build there, you wonder. Why are all these people here? Why make a home in a place so arid and dry and desolate?

In the Old Testament there are many stories of people on the move; in Exodus you read of the people of Israel led through the desert by Moses, journeying from slavery in Egypt to find new land, a land promised to them by God, a land that would flow with milk and honey. They were in the desert for forty years, we’re told. They didn't want to be there, but back in Egypt they'd been slaves, overworked and treated badly by their Egyptian slave-masters, by Pharaoh the king of Egypt. So the desert was a better option, at least until they reached the land they’d been promised.

And when at last they did reach it, it was a wonderful place, with fertile soil in which they could grow all they wanted. But before they crossed the river to enter the land, Moses told the people that they must never forget what they used to be, that they had wandered in the desert, desperate for food and water, that they’d been slaves in Egypt. Most of all, they must never forget that it was God who’d brought them safely to the land they now held, so they must offer thanks and they must live thankfully.

Our harvest festivals, like the festivals of the people of the Old Testament, are a time to remember that, as one of the Psalms puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof; the round world and all that dwell therein.” So we thank God for all that’s good in our land and in our lives; and, I hope, we also remember that God wants us not only to say thank-you but to live thankfully, using well what he has given us, and being mindful of all with whom we share our world, especially those whose own harvest is much poorer than ours. Like the people whose story I started with, living in the desert.

You might imagine them to be living in some terribly remote place miles from anywhere. But in fact the people I visited were living on the edge of one of the world’s great cities, Lima, the capital city of Peru. I went there to visit people and projects supported by the mission agency for whom I then worked.

The people I met had trekked in from miles around to seek a new life in Lima. Why? Because back home they had no land, or they were terrorised by cruel landlords or bandits or rebels. Perhaps they’d imagined the streets of Lima would be paved with gold. But where they landed, in El Trebol, streets were paved only with dust. The reality of life for those recently arrived was very tough indeed. But the church was very much there among them. The church building I went to see was itself a shack, with walls made of hardboard, and a dirt floor - but it was a place of hope. Inside it, the people who came heard the stories of Moses and the people of Israel, and they prayed that God would help them too.

But how would God help them? God uses people to help people, and the church was running a project to help families in this shanty town to rear Muscovy ducks, and to sell duck eggs as a co-op. I was quite inspired to meet some of the families taking part, and a couple of the church leaders who were helping to teach them. But that was only the beginning of a harvest story that still continues.

So now, imagine that dusty scene again; El Trebol to look at was like an old-fashioned sepia photograph brought to life, in which everything is some shade or other of brown. But look again today, and you’ll see some patches of bright green: squares of rapidly growing crops protected by fences made out of blue plastic sheeting: gardens, new gardens, growing in the desert.

These gardens are a new project that hadn’t started when I was there. People from the church had spent time gathering families together who wanted to start co-operative allotment gardens where all kinds of things could grow. Lima isn’t far off the equator, and things really do grow there. The blue plastic shelter was vital though, to make sure the wind didn’t  blow the thin soil away. More plastic was used to make scarers to see off any birds that might steal the seeds.

The duck rearing project contributed too. Ducks produce more than just eggs; and duck manure had helped stabilize and enrich the soil, making it more fertile and less likely to blow away. Now the folk from the church had all these things, or they could lay their hands on them anyway. All they needed on top of that was a bit of a start to make it happen.

In a very green and pleasant village in the English midlands, in prime growing country not far from Evesham, people at a little church were gathering to celebrate harvest festival. And they decided they’d like other people to have a share in the harvest for which they were thanking God. As it happens, Worcester diocese is linked with the Anglican Diocese of Peru, so the bit of money they decided to send went to Lima, where it was just the start the folk there needed to make this little miracle in the desert happen. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough, and well targeted. So today it’s helping those particular desert people to take a step or two towards the promised land they’ve been longing for.

God gives us a rich and beautiful world to share, but we can get depressed, or I can anyway, at all the bad news that comes our way, every bulletin is full of it. And the problems and sadnesses and inequalities of our world can seem so big, so intractable, so unchangeable that we end up believing that there’s nothing we can do. So my simple harvest thought for you today is that this little story about ducks and gardens proves that it’s not true that there’s nothing we can do. There is. And every small act of sharing moves us all a step or two closer to the promised land.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Two Sons - A Sermon for this Sunday (Trinity 16)

Today’s story of the two sons, each of whom did the opposite of what he had said he’d do is a familiar one. Most people know the parable; I’ve used it a lot in school assembly - and most people will know it also I guess from their own personal experience. Probably most of us who are parents, anyway.

It’s great when your child says, “Right, that’s fine, just leave it with me,” when you’ve asked them to do something. Not so good if you come back later and find they’ve not done it after all. In the world of work there’s the sycophant who sucks up to the boss and always presents himself as keen and eager - but in actual fact he’s idle and useless, and as soon as the boss isn’t looking he’s doing his best to offload the work on someone else or to come up with an excuse for why it hasn’t been done.

But then again there’s the sort of experience I had the other week. I’d been trying to find someone to help me out with something, but everyone was too busy, had something better to do. I just had to find the time to do it myself, which was hard. But when I came to it, I found the job had been done after all. A couple of people had found some unexpected time to spare, and they’d thought of me and just got on with it. Brilliant!

Jesus told this story to make clear to the religious folk who were criticising him just where they really stood, and why it was he was speaking to the sort of riff-raff they didn’t have time for. They looked good, and they were making all the right noises, but were they really prepared to do the job? Were they really listening to God? Whereas these people who didn’t count, these people who were only one step up from the gutter - well, it didn’t matter how late in the day it is, if they start to listen and start to work and are prepared to get the job done, God will look on them with favour. You - the priests and elders - says Jesus, are like the younger son - you may look good, but inwardly you’re self-righteous and hypocritical.

Tax gatherers and prostitutes will get into the kingdom before you, he tells them. For they listened to John the Baptist and repented, when you refused to hear. So that’s the context. But how does this story relate to us? Which child in the story am I - the one who said yes but didn’t do it, or the one who said no and changed his mind and did it after all?

Well, I suppose I’m either one at different times, and that’s probably true for all of us. In fact sometimes we say yes and we do do it. And probably at times we say no and keep to that no, without changing our mind. We vary in the way we respond, but maybe that’s the point: one thing this story can do is to encourage in us a spirit of self-awareness.

And maybe also a readiness to follow-through . . . by which I mean that anyone can look good by reciting the creed, singing the hymns, joining in the church fellowship, but what about the rest of our lives? Does what we do here, where we say to God, “Yes, I’ll do it, leave it with me!” - does that promise follow through into our everyday world?

I’ve spoken before about the distinction between religion and faith; you could say it’s something of a bee in my bonnet. But here’s one distinction that occurs to me : religion can (it shouldn’t but it can) be practised with a clear and sharp boundary around it, so that it has to do with this churchy bit of my life but doesn’t really impinge on the rest. But faith has to do with what’s going on all the time in our hearts and our heads, and what forms and guides our attitudes and actions.

If our religion is more about style than substance, we may well find some of those who started off saying no to God, or maybe even saying there is no God, coming past us. People with unsavoury previous lives but who’ve seen the light, heard the call at last. People who started by saying, “I’ve no time for this stuff, but who then changed their minds.

The reality is that one day I’m this son, another I’m the other one. God probably despairs at my fickleness. But that’s the point of the story: it prompts me into asking who I am, it prompts me into self-awareness. 

The good news is that it’s never too late to change our mind, if we started out by saying no to God. Now Jesus says that an awful lot in the Gospels: that God loves us whatever we say to him, yes or no. That God is the father who watched and waited for his prodigal son. 

So God is forgiving and gracious, he wants to include, not exclude, to save, not to condemn. On my bad days, when I’m not very God-minded, well, I may not be thinking of God, but he’s still thinking of me. But this story also makes clear that God’s not going to be fobbed off by displays of piety that don’t lead anywhere. “I am among you as one who serves,” said Jesus. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,” says Paul, in our first reading this morning. Our faith is proved in where it leads us, how it directs our thinking and our actions.

If we’re truly open to God’s power and will, we’ll be building within ourselves a servant spirit that reflects what we see in Jesus, that’ll be revealed when we make the most of the chances we have each day to show care and kindness to those around us. That’s the vineyard God is calling us to work in, when he calls us to be his people, his church.

I love this church building, and I hope it stands here for ever. But if the building wasn’t here, the church still would be, so long as God is honoured here in Leighton by people who pray to him and care as he cares. Religion requires buildings, faith doesn’t, however much it may value them and however well it may use them. What faith does is to seek to know the mind of Christ and to do the work of Christ; and where that is happening, even if it’s in the day, we’ll be building his Church.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

A sermon for today, on Matthew 18:21-35

A word or two about the reading we’ve just heard. First question: is it good news or bad news? It’s not that long ago that hiring fairs and the like were still part of the rural scene in this country, as they were at the time of Jesus. In the days before there was any sort of safety net other than perhaps the poor house, a lot depended on whether you were noticed and picked and hired for whatever the daily rate might be. If you weren’t, you and your family went hungry.

Harvest time would be the best time for most people; more hands were needed, so more people were hired. But in the story Jesus told, even at harvest there were still men waiting hopefully in the market place each time the owner of the vineyard called to see. Just an hour before sunset there were still men there, so even that late, he hired them.

Now this story is generally called the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and not surprisingly we tend to view it from the workers’ point of view. Good news, then, or bad news? Good news for those who were hired late in the day. They were probably pretty much resigned to being out of luck, but not only did they get a bit of work, they were paid as though they’d been there all day. Bad news, you might think, for those who’d been sweating all day in the hot sun. When they saw what the others had been paid, they naturally assumed they’d get more, but they didn’t.

Well, that certainly seemed like bad news. But was it really? The rate agreed was a daily rate, and they got what they’d shaken hands on, the fair rate for the day. They’d not been underpaid - but it still feels rather annoying I guess to see the guy next to you get paid more per hour than you got. But look at it another way. The men who did just one hour’s work had wanted to work, it was just that no-one had wanted them. And they had just as much need for the money that would provide for their family needs.

So maybe this parable should have a different title, to encourage us to look at it from a different angle. We could call it the parable of the generous landlord. But, you may say, he wasn’t so generous to those who’d worked all day. And what about the answer he gives: "Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money?" It’s arguable that one of the main problems with society is the gap between rich and poor; we could get offended when a rich person says, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?”

So we might be upset a bit by this parable, and actually I think it’s OK to be upset. In general it’s surely true that  those who work harder and longer should get more than those who’ve worked for less time and at less cost to themselves. It would certainly be wrong to suggest that this parable excuses the injustices and unfair situations there are in the world of employment. Because that’s not why it was told.

Jesus was using a scene from everyday life. That’s where the best parables always come from. People will have understood what he was describing, it was a fact of their own daily lives, for good or ill. Jesus wasn’t approving or criticising the system of hiring day workers, just using it to get quite a different point across. And no-one in the story was underpaid, remember. Those hired in the morning received what they’d contracted for: a day's work for a day's wage.

So let’s think for a moment about those guys. They’d had to work hard all day, yes - but right from the start they knew they’d got work and they’d got pay. But how about the guys who were hired last. All day they’d been passed over: would no-one hire them? Without work, how would they eat? What about their families? They weren’t slaving away in the hot sun, but I bet they wished they were. They needed the money.

But just as their last hope was about to fade away with the setting sun, they got hired after all. They’ll have expected only a tiny bit of the daily wage, but any little thing would be better than nothing, for day workers like them.

But then of course the owner of the vineyard unexpectedly - and to be honest, quite madly - paid them as though they’d been working for him all day. And that, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of God is like.

So was Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is unfair? Well, yes, I suppose he was: for the kingdom of God may well be unfair if we were to measure it in worldly terms, or with our trade union rule books in hand. For in the kingdom God gives not according to how much we’ve done, or how long we’ve been signed up, or how faithfully we get to church even; he gives according to his love for us, and according to our need. Not surprisingly, the temptation for the long term, hard working Christian may well be to be like the men who’d worked all day in the story: we may take issue, we may take umbrage: we may say, “Hang on a bit, what about me? I've worked harder, I've been here longer, I've done more.”

So this parable is about recognising our blessedness. It’s about the love of the God of love: we can’t earn it, we don’t get it by ticking all the appropriate boxes, or putting the hours in, or passing some test - it’s just here for us anyway. Divine love doesn’t measure what we’ve earned or might think we deserve.

And maybe that’s just as well. Those who worked all day in the story only did so because by chance they’d been hired first. They could just as easily have been overlooked till later. The difference between the guys in the story was in one sense a matter not of merit but of circumstance, it was how it happened.

So in the story the owner of the vineyard looked at those who worked for him, whether they’d spent an hour in the fields or been out there all day, and the question he asked himself wasn’t 'How much does each of these deserve?' but rather, 'How can I help them? What do they need?'

And that’s how God looks at us. The Bible word for this is grace: which is about a love that gives more than we deserve, that pays over the odds. Jesus said that in the kingdom, ‘Many who are last will be first, and the first last.’ Why is it that those who are first end up being last? I think because they (we, perhaps; me, sometimes, for sure) forget how it is we got to be first, that that was God’s gracious act and not our own right or merit. The danger if we forget that is that we’re led to question God's love for those who happen to come along later.

One final thing, then: our churches need to be like that vineyard. In the kingdom it doesn’t matter how late you come in, or what you were doing before, the same gracious love is available to you; all you have to do is to turn to God and answer yes to his call. And so for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear there is good news in this parable, good news of a love that makes space for all.

But there’s also a challenge for us: does the ministry offered where we are match up to that love? Do we make space for all, do we resist the temptation to resent God’s love for others who maybe come later? Do we do all we can to reflect God’s open and impartial love in the welcome we offer and the invitation we give? For all are called, however late in the day, to work in God's vineyard, and all who say yes to that call will by grace receive the same generous reward.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

White Bryony

I saw it well before I came to cross the stile:
that flash of orange-red skeining the hedge
the opposite side of the lane. On this September day
all the hedges are laden: tight berries of hawthorn,
dark and waxy, and the lighter tones of rose hips,
which we used to break open to make itching powder;
then, here and there, close clusters of honeysuckle fruits
that cling to the end of their naked stems. But here
the berries of white bryony tumble across the hedge
like an untidy string of pearls - but what pearls!
The young green berries fade almost to white,
glistening softly, before the orange tint forms,
and strengthens, and deepens, to become like flame.
The ripe berries are attractive, they grab the eye,
but they are deceivers, and will poison the unwary.
The plant straggles up the hedge, its leaves (to me)
the shape of baby dinosaur footprints, then, near the crown,
it releases its fruiting stems to tumble back down.
Well, I am glad I’ve seen them today, these fiery pearls,
and I’ll not try one for taste. The bark of a passing raven
riding the cool and choppy autumn breeze
calls me back to my walk, and to its other claims and colours.

Monday, 11 September 2017

An Autumn Walk

It was a mid-September morning, still summer according to the calendar, but the weather said Autumn - cool, with a blustery wind and splashes of showery rain. I walked out towards Berriew on the canal towpath, accompanied by soaring and diving swallows and house martins, chasing the insects over the dark water and the damp grass beyond. A swan and five or six well-grown cygnets relaxed on the bank.

At the Belan locks I left the canal and trekked uphill towards Powis Castle, through fields well stocked with sheep. A buzzard was mewing somewhere overhead, rejoicing in the brisk wind. Crossing the stile onto Red Lane, my eyes were caught by a flash of red across the hedge opposite - berries, firstly rose hips, then honeysuckle, with a few late flowers also hanging on, and lastly and most vividly, white bryony, the only wild British member of the cucumber family, the skeins of berries turning from green through white to a vivid orange-red. A blue tit spotted me and fled.

I passed through the kissing gate and onto the exit road from the Castle. A rough bark from overhead made me look up, to see a raven enjoying the wind. He led me towards the castle, where a band of jackdaws tried unsuccessfully to see him off. I decided to do a circuit of the gardens, having remembered my National Trust card, and was delighted as always by the well-planted beds. Having said that, I’m as pleased by the unplanned flowers that are set free just to spread as I am by the carefully placed and planted ones: in this case the Mexican daisies that spill over many of the walls (as they do over my paved area at home), the distinctive soft mauve-purple of autumn crocus naturalised in the grass below the formal gardens, and the sharper purple of clematis among the trees.

A vivid red admiral butterfly swept past me as I neared the orangery, and settled on a sweet-scented citrus flower before moving on to some nearby sedums. There was still enough warmth in the sun to please the butterflies, and I was buzzed by a speckled wood, deep brown with buff freckles and one of our more territorial species. Bees, wasps and hover flies browsed among the flowers.

I walked back through the park woods, and was pleased to spot a tree creeper moving mouse-like around the gnarled trunk of an oak. It’s said that tree creepers can only creep upwards (then fly back down), and that’s more or less true, but this one didn’t mind backing down a little way when something caught its fancy. Further on there was a redwood: not a native tree, but much loved by our native tree creeper - they hollow out roosts in the soft bark, and I think I spotted one.

Out of the park, through the town, and back home via the stately beeches of Bronybuckley Wood. In the deep shade not much grows besides ferns and brambles and the last of our woodland plants to flower, enchanter’s nightshade. Robins were singing to claim their winter territories, as I climbed the steep woodland path.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Falling Out

Sermon for this coming Sunday, on the Gospel (Matthew 18.15-20)

Looking again at the Gospel reading we’ve just heard, clearly there were problems and difficulties and fallings out in the church even in its very earliest days, even when the Gospels were first being written. We know that anyway, because there are a number of examples in the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul wrote several of his letters to address issues and quarrels in the churches he had founded. And we shouldn’t be surprised that even prayerful holy people fall out. We’re still human, after all.

I have the fortune or the misfortune (I’ve used both words at different times) to be part of quite a large family. I am in fact the eldest of six, five boys, one girl. We don’t live in each others’ pockets, but we know where we belong, and we’re all ready to be there for each other when help is needed. I can think of a couple of times in my life when I’d have been sunk without my brothers and sister, and I guess each one of us could say the same.

So that’s the fortune side of things, but what about the misfortune? Well, as they say, you can choose your friends but for family you get what you’re given. We’re all different people: we don’t vote the same way, we don’t go out to the same places, there are lots of things we don’t agree on. So just now and then, that might mean a couple of us have a proper falling-out.

I really don’t remember many of those, not since we were very young anyway. But when they do happen, the vital thing is what happens next, what we do about it. I know someone quite well who hasn’t spoken to her sister in twenty years; and while I can’t comment on that, as I’ve no idea what caused it, I really can’t imagine that ever happening in my own family. If we even tried not to speak, I doubt we’d manage to keep it up for very long.

But let’s turn to this morning’s Gospel reading. It’s fairly tough, focusing on what to do when relationships go wrong, if, as Jesus says, “your brother sins against you”. This isn’t just actual brothers or sisters within a family. As Christians we call God “Our Father”, and that immediately turns everyone else who prays the same prayer into my brother or my sister. So in church every argument or disagreement is a family matter - and nice though we are, they will happen, so what do we do?

The proof of our faith is found not in how we behave when it’s all going terribly well, but in how we behave when things go wrong. Jesus knew that as well as anyone, and he had to cope with a few disagreements among his own disciples.

So what about us as present-day disciples? How do we deal with the problems and issues and slights that happen among us? The first thing to say is that I do need to do something if things are going wrong: just to let it lie is not an option. Things are likely to fester, after all. I know that when I get hurt by someone or by something said I can end up brooding about it in such a way that something that probably ought to be quickly sorted and pout to one side instead threatens to take me over. That’s obviously no good. Unresolved issues lead to a toxic environment in which everyone suffers.

Secondly I find it’s always good to put any complaint I have into words; one thing that often happens then is that this big bad things becomes a lot smaller, and more easily resolved. It helps me not to get things out of balance: what may have felt like a personal attack might just be someone’s clumsiness or thoughtlessness, and not malicious or targeted at all.

But if in the end I do feel wronged, talking things over face to face would be good if it can be done. It’s not always easy. It might need someone else to prepare the way beforehand. A friend once did that for me. Neither I not the other person would have taken the first step - so he set us up.
In fact on that occasion it didn’t work too well. But at least we tried, and I think it did begin a process that sort of began to work eventually. So another thing there, about not giving up when it doesn’t work straight away.

But what if nothing is working, and the problem won’t go away? In this morning’s Gospel Jesus says that we should then take two or three witnesses along with us. That could sound like escalating things, but I think Jesus was carefully reminding his disciples of the Jewish Law in Deuteronomy 19, verse 15.

For we read there that a charge of misdemeanour can’t be sustained on the evidence of one person; you have to have two or three further witnesses. Those witnesses aren’t there though as a sort of legal heavy mob to make sure the charges stick, so much as to help clarify things, maybe defuse tension and help reconciliation to happen. To have a band of barrack-room lawyers (or even real ones) probably wouldn’t help. But two or three wise and clear sighted folk might help a lot, if what we want is to help two people at odds to start listening to each other and finding common ground. The Biblical equivalent to the arbitration service ACAS in a union dispute - or perhaps just the honest friend who says, “Have you really had a look at yourself?”

An issue between two people can end up poisoning the whole well if it’s not sorted out. I remember one church I used to know that became utterly toxic by an argument that had  happened over thirty years before, and that could and should have been sorted out then. Any stranger coming into that church would have felt uneasy straightaway; there was always something in the air.  So Jesus goes on to say that if a matter can’t be sorted out face to face or with the help of others, then it becomes a matter for the whole fellowship.

The last resort is perhaps the court of law, and that’s when some fallings-out end up, but when they do my heart always sinks. A legal pronouncement might settle the issue, but it’s unlikely to restore unity. But a caring and prayerful Church, with patient and loving prayer and fellowship just might be able to bring people back together.

I could say more, but I’ll restrict myself to just two more points. The first is a comment on the scripture itself this morning. The context of this passage of scripture is that it comes immediately after the story of the lost sheep. That story tells of the ninety-nine that are left, while the Good Shepherd goes to find the one that’s lost. In context, today’s reading isn’t about how to deal with trouble-makers, it’s about how to find and restore the lost, it’s about how to keep the flock together. It’s about staying together as family through difficult times. This is so important point, I think: Jesus isn’t intending to teach us how to manage a situation, he’s talking about how to save a soul. Unless that’s our aim too when were faced with a situation of hurt or breakdown in the church, we’re probably going to fail. We need to address the issue according to the mind of Christ.

And lastly, and very much from my own experience: we’re none of us perfect, so if I have an issue with someone else I need to look hard at myself as well. I’ll get it wrong if I insist that all the fault’s on the other side and none of it’s on mine. I can recall times when a word or action that hurt me had really been sparked by something I’d done or said without realising or intending the hurt I’d caused. Thinking about it, that’s probably why in my own family our arguments don’t become feuds. We’re pretty self-aware, and we tend to keep on talking. We need to as Christians too: and to be both self-aware and Christ-aware, and seriously in the business of wanting souls to be saved. Then God will be able to use us graciously, and we’ll be good at being his family. Amen.

Friday, 1 September 2017


A short reflection on Revelation 3.14-end, for a service on "Building Bridges" at Welshpool Methodist Church on Sunday next.

The other night I arrived home a little after everyone else had eaten, which was fine, as I had a curry that just needed heating through. But Ann said, “There’s a bit of mashed potato left in that pan, which you can have if you like.” I’m fond of my spuds, so I got myself a spoon and ate the bit of mash straight from the pan. Well, it was all right, but it was no better than that.

It wasn’t that the potatoes weren’t up to scratch, or that they hadn’t been cooked properly. They’d been mashed with a decent amount of butter, couldn’t fault them there either. No, it was just that they’d sat there too long, and they were no longer hot. They weren’t cold exactly. Maybe they’d have been better if they had been. They were neither one thing nor t’other.

Of all the churches, seven altogether, addressed one by one in the first three chapters of Revelation, it’s the church in Laodicea of whom Christ has nothing good to say. There is no redeeming feature. They are lukewarm; they aren’t really doing anything.

Laodicea was a great commercial centre, a place also where clothes were made, and a centre for medical study, famous for the ointment produced there to treat diseases of the eye. But in Revelation we read that the church there is spiritually poor, not rich; naked, not well-clothed; blind, not clear-sighted.

And it wasn’t that they were doing anything bad. There were no scandals, and if you were to measure the strength of a church by the balance sheet and the numbers there on a Sunday, they were doing all right - so much so that they could say, and believe, and mean, “We have everything we want! We have it all!”

What they were not doing, I suggest, is building bridges. They were happy and secure in themselves, and that made them firstly blind to their own deficiencies, and secondly blind to the opportunities and needs there were in the world around them. They had constructed their own little kingdom, but they had forgotten how to live in the Kingdom of God.

One title used by the pope is “pontifex”. What that means is “bridge-builder”. To be builders of bridges is absolutely basic to Christian identity and witness. Many bridges remain unbuilt in our world because those who could afford to build are saying “Why should we? We don’t need to go there!” while those who need the bridge can’t afford to build it.

What bridges do I mean? Real bridges are things of great beauty and wonder: so many people turned out to see the new Queensferry Bridge across the Forth on its first day of opening that it began its life hosting traffic jams. The other day I was looking (on TV) at the bridge that will cross miles of sea to connect Hong Kong and Macau. We’re good at building that sort of bridge. But what about bridging the poverty gap? What about bridging the divisions we make our race or gender or nationality or creed?

The Laodiceans were saying, “We’re all right. We don’t need anything else.” But as Paul says elsewhere, it doesn’t matter what we have or what we do, if we don’t have love, it’s worth nothing. We’re sounding gongs or clanging cymbals. Love is what builds bridges. Love is what breaks barriers. Love is what makes connections. And it’s our failure to love that, if we don’t take care, cuts us off from the love of Christ, without which we have no life.

As the Laodiceans were told, he is standing at the door, knocking. All that’s needed is one small action to open the door, and he will be the enabler of our bridge-building programmes, and the opener of our minds and eyes and hearts. Amen.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Take up your cross - a sermon for next Sunday

(To be preached at Middletown and Chirbury)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of World War II, once wrote that "When Christ calls a man to follow him, he calls him to die". Those prescient words are an echo of what Jesus himself says in this morning’s Gospel reading: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Bonhoeffer literally gave his life for his beliefs. He’d been imprisoned for his outspoken opposition to Hitler’s regime, and for his involvement in the failed bomb plot to assassinate him. And just a few days before the Second World War ended, it was a special order of the Fuhrer that ensured his death.

Death: we may not like to think about it, but it lies at the heart of our faith. The cross in our church is a sign of death, of a particularly shameful death - that becomes a sign of life only because of what Jesus secured there. And he says to us: “Take up your cross, and follow me.” So faith is about dying: the way of faith is to die to our old self, to our old way of living: to die for Jesus, as Jesus died for us.

We die to our old self in order to begin afresh, and to take on the new life that God desires for us, and that only Jesus can secure. But it’s a hard word, all the same. Our natural view is that death is bad, something we don’t like to think about, and we don’t like to talk about. But Jesus talked about it quite a lot.

The way of the world is focused on preserving life, on keeping ourselves safe and secure. So to protect ourselves is a priority: we strive for good health, we want our income and our savings to be healthy too, we look for status and security. It’s natural to think that your life is more important than anything else. But however much we do, and however much we worry, all of us, old or young, are a day closer to the end of our lives than we were yesterday.

Jesus turns us away from the way of the world. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,” he says. There’s something more important than mere life, and it’s this: life lived how God wants us to live, life lived in a way that brings peace and wholeness to others, and establishes these things in the world around us, life that bears living witness to the sacrificial love of God, life that is cross-shaped.

In other words, life in the kingdom of God. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” says Jesus to us. He challenges us by saying: Follow me, not after you’ve got everything else nicely sorted in your life, but before you do  anything else. Take up your cross and follow me.

So what in fact will taking up our cross require of us? First, that we surrender our own selves to God, that we “let go and let God”, as the bookmark in my Bible reminds me. What we surrender is a way of thinking and acting as though God doesn’t matter. John Ruskin once wrote, “He who gives God second place in his life gives him no place.”

So in the Gospel we find Jesus rebuking Peter, saying, “Out of my sight, Satan; you are a stumbling block to me. You think as men think, not as God thinks.” We too need to give up thinking according to the way of the world, and to begin to think as God thinks. In this morning’s reading from Romans Paul writes about what this new way of thinking, and of living, might look like. It happens when we no longer seek to save our own lives by the ways the world teaches, but choose to live by faith in God, trusting him to provide what we need to serve him well.

It was our wedding anniversary last week, and yesterday I took part in a wedding service at Leighton yesterday. So marriage has been a bit on my mind, and marriage is a good example of what we’re talking about here: losing your life so that you find it. I often say to people that marriage is an act of mutual enslavement. They usually smile at that. But it’s true.

For in the vows, each partner gives himself, herself, totally to the other. It’s not, “You can have fifty percent of me and what’s mine,” but “All of me I give to you.” The introduction to the marriage service says that the couple, once married, begin a new life together in the community. In marriage you give yourself completely to your spouse, and from that mutual giving of self comes a new life, a new way of living. It’s no surprise that in scripture our relationship to God is described as a marriage, and the Church as the bride of Christ.

If surrender of self to God is the first mark of what we might call living in the Kingdom, alongside it we place humility: not a false humility that denies the gifts we have, but the genuine humility that recognises that they are gifts - things given to us to be used well, humility also that enables us to delight in the gifts of others. The gifts we have are given by God, so each gift brings with it a new opportunity to serve him. To believe that is to believe also that every person is special in the eyes of God.

So we should use what God gives us in the service of each other. As members of God’s family, we’re called to use our gifts in ways that help the whole family prosper and grow, and to do that cheerfully and generously. That’s not the kind of charity that’s gives away a bit of what’s left when we’ve finished spending on ourselves, it’s something altogether deeper and more sacrificial: cross-shaped. An acknowledgement that in Christ we belong to one another.

Lastly, we need to take seriously the words with which Paul starts the passage from Romans we heard this morning: “Love in all sincerity, loathing evil and holding fast to the good.” This is about being connected to God, so shunning all that opposes his love, and delighting in what his love can do within our own selves and within the world around us.
So, to paraphrase Paul’s words: be zealous always, be joyful in hope, be patient when things go against you, and be faithful in prayer. To be connected with God means to pray sincerely and regularly, to listen attentively to his word, and to do with a willing spirit what he asks of us.

In other words, to follow: to follow the way of Jesus, taking up our cross, turning from the way of the world, choosing not to go along with the crowd, choosing not to care about our own popularity or status, but trusting in God’s provision and care. In sober assessment of what we are worth in ourselves, we’re called to use all that God gives us - time, talent, opportunity, and wealth - in ways that will serve and benefit others. Dying to the old life, taking on what’s new.

Tall order? Yes, but this is where the Church began, this is what motivated its every revival through the centuries. This is how we proclaim the kingdom that we pray will come - by living today in that kingdom, connecting ourselves firmly and sincerely to the God in whom alone we find true life, the God whose Son gave his life for us on the cross. Put simply, we’re called to live as though we belong no longer to ourselves but to Christ, hating what is evil and clinging to what is good, and allowing his life-giving love to flow through us into this needy world.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

A Sermon on 2 Kings 6.8-23 and Acts 17.15-end . . .

. . . to be preached tomorrow, 27th August, at Newtown Methodist Church:

The readings I’ve chosen to use this evening are the second service readings for today in the revised common lectionary. In fact they’re the first readings on which I ever preached, quite a few years ago now. I might have just blown dust off that sermon and recycled it tonight, but perhaps not. Instead I’d like to think about mission. At the time I preached that very first sermon, I’d just started at college training for the ministry, and back in my home church in Stafford there was a mission campaign in process. Through the summer before we set off for college I’d been part of the team preparing for it.

We’d visited every home in the parish, and from the questionnaire sheets we filled in, the parish leadership team and the visiting mission team had drawn up a programme of targeted visits to make during the mission fortnight. We’d had prayer and Bible study groups through the summer as well, as part of what was a very intensive and thought out process, planned in great detail.

“It’s going to be quite a campaign,” said my vicar in his sermon, maybe a couple of Sundays before I left to start at college. “But,” he continued, “don’t imagine that when it’s over, that’s it, we’ll have done mission and won’t need to think about it any more. The mission team will work hard on our behalf; but nothing they do will be of any use unless we all go on doing mission here after they’ve gone.”

Back in 1931, Emil Brunner wrote this: “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.” So mission isn’t one project within the Church’s programme of activities, but the fundamental reason why the Church exists at all. It’s why we’re here. That may come as a shock to those Christians who think their primary purpose is to maintain their building or to keep things how they’ve always been.

It may also come as a shock to those who say, “Yes, but look how small and weak we are. How can we do anything? It’s as much as we can manage just to keep going!” I spend a lot of my time working in very small churches, and so I can understand that point of view; and there is a very valid and Biblical ministry of being the faithful remnant, of holding on, hanging on in there until the tide turns.

But there’s also a message for us in our first reading tonight, that lovely story from the second Book of Kings. The prophet Elisha seems to have got himself into a bit of a pickle. And his servant is alarmed, even if Elisha isn’t, when he sees the vast army that surrounds them, with their horses and chariots. So the prophet opens his servant’s eyes to see what’s really there: the hills all around their enemies is covered with the armies of the Lord, with their chariots of fire. As Elisha tells him: “Those who are for us are very much more than those who are against us.”

I love this story, in part because, unlike many Old Testament accounts where enemies get comprehensively slain, in this story they all just have a really good knees-up feast together and then go safely home. But the message for us is a timely reminder that we are on the winning side, and that, however weak we may think we are, those who are for us are very much more than those who are against us.

All of which says to me that mission is still our primary task even when we really are just two or three gathered together. In fact almost everything in the New Testament scriptures is addressed to small disciple groups with big tasks ahead of them. And when Paul writes to Corinth that “not many of you have status or learning as it is measured by the world,” we’re reminded that the extraordinary things we read about in the New Testament were done by ordinary people. Like the disciples of Jesus - ordinary people: hardly the cream of the rabbinical schools.

But when we’re working for Jesus, we’ll not be doing that work in our own strength alone. When we work for him we also work with him. And while some missions require complex and well-prepared campaigns like in my home church, and others might involve internationally known evangelists and football stadia, and there’s certainly a place for that - what really works better than any of that is the opportunistic, maybe one-to-one bit of evangelism that not only invites but accompanies, that brings people in soul by soul.

I’ve spoken often about a friend of mine who whistles hymn tunes when he goes round his local Sainsbury’s - so if I’ve already mentioned him to you, my apologies. Anyway, his story’s worth repeating. People respond, and conversations are started; it’s amazing, he tells me, just what can come out of a quick whistle of “The Old Rugged Cross” in the cheese aisle at Sainsbury’s. Since you don’t have a Sainsbury’s here, I promise it’ll work just as well in Tesco or Morrison’s or Lidl.

We can find a good example of opportunistic evangelism in our second reading. Paul’s been left stranded for a while in Athens, and you do rather get the impression that Athens is a place he’d like to get out of as soon as he can. But in the meantime he’s open to any opportunity to share the good news, and, among all the variety of temples and altars and shrines, it’s a shrine inscribed “to an unknown God” that presents the opening he needs.

The story behind this inscription goes back another six hundred years, to a time when Athens was devastated by plague. The poet Epimenides proposed that a flock of black and white sheep be released to roam through the city. Where any sheep lay down, it would be sacrificed to the god whose shrine was nearest. If no shrine was close, the sheep would be sacrificed “to an unknown God” - hence the shrine Paul saw that day, and on which he based his sermon.

There are always opportunities to do mission, and while Paul certainly had a way with words, if words are not your strong point that doesn’t exclude you from mission. Francis of Assisi famously said, “Preach at all times, and where necessary use words.” We share our faith as much by what we do as what we say, by how we live rather than what we talk about. Ours is an inclusive God - we know that God is like Jesus, who was open to all who came to him - so if our approach to life is narrow and exclusive, we’re getting it wrong. But ours is a God who challenges and who encourages us to seek perfection - he does indeed already love us, just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way - so to do mission is also to challenge people to look at themselves, to see what needs to change, to start afresh.

So if we say, “God is love,” and then act in an unloving way, people will see through what we say; our success in mission is very dependant on how we are when we think we’re off duty. If we say “God is love,” and then fail to challenge what is unloving in the world around us, then again, any success in mission is going to be short-term. A clergy friend of mine, when asked her secret as regards getting people into church, smiled and said, “Chocolate!” Well, she does have a very healthy and thriving church, and chocolate may well be what gets people in through that door, but what keeps them there is a fellowship where the love of Christ is not only sung about and talked about, but shown and lived.

I spent three years of my ministry working for a mission agency, which had for over three hundred years been sending missionaries overseas. Nowadays our emphasis was much more on partnership in mission than primary evangelism, but still people were going into places that were culturally challenging with a big task to perform. But wherever we go with the word of God, and in the name of Christ, we’ll find, as did our very first missionaries, that Christ is already there.

Having said that, not all will hear, and hear gladly. Jesus of course told the parable of the sower to make that point. Some seed doesn’t grow, or if it does grow it isn’t fruitful, for a host of reasons. That might put us off sowing, but it shouldn’t. If nothing is sown, nothing will grow. If something is sown, some of that will grow. We might not see it grow, sometimes the seed takes time to germinate. But our task in mission is to sow anyway.

So with Paul. Some of those who heard him that day in the Court of Areopagus were contemptuous and dismissive, especially when he started talking about resurrection, something they couldn’t accept. Others said, “We will hear you on this some other time,” which probably meant they had no intention of doing so. But some did respond, and we’re told their names. And who knows? Maybe some of the others thought again, maybe some of the seed sown lodged and sprouted, long after Paul himself had left. We may never know where the witness we offer might lead.

Thinking back to that mission campaign in - when was it? - probably 1978, I’ve often wondered about the conversations I had with people we visited. Our job was to test the water, to prepare the way. Sometimes people were dismissive, and those addresses presumably didn’t made it onto the list for the mission team. Some people were already members of other churches, and often they were eager to pray with me for the success of our mission. And maybe some of the people I talked to, even though they didn’t respond then, did do so later. I’ll never know, this side of the veil.

But here’s what motivated the guys who came as the mission team to my home church; here’s what motivated Paul that day in Athens (and throughout an amazing ministry); here’s what I hope will motivate me and you - that what we have been freely given in Christ is so amazing and transformative, and burns so bright within us, that we can’t help but pass it on. Amen.

A sermon on Romans 12.1-8

. . . to be preached at Marton and Worthen on Sunday 27th August, Trinity 11:

It’s been a while now since I last went running on a regular basis. I used to start nearly every day with a run. No longer, though, sadly: time and a slightly dodgy knee have caught up with me. So a few weeks ago I decided to do a short run, just to see how the body stood up to it. I seemed to get through it all right, considering. But next morning, my body was telling me just what it thought! I was a mass of aches and pains, and every part of me seemed to be shouting in protest.

Of course, I shouldn’t have given up at that point (though I did). It was just a reminder that you do need to work at this sort of thing. And when you see someone who really is at the peak of their athletic ability, it’s an inspiring sight, but it’s also the result of an awful lot of work, a very serious commitment of time and effort.

It’s impressive when you see a body working at its peak on the running track or wherever. The combination of a strong personal commitment and good coaching is needed, to improve coordination, and to build up strength and skill in the precise way they’re needed for the chosen event, so that the balance and focus and poise are established that a successful competitor needs. Result - just maybe, a winner, a world champion, a record breaker.

In our New Testament reading this morning we find one of Paul’s remarkable images of the Church: he describes the Church as being a body, the body of Christ. And each member is like a limb or organ of that body, he says. So each member has their right place to occupy and their own task to perform. If any part of a body isn’t functioning as it should, the whole body is weakened. If things don’t work inside you then you’re ill, or disabled, or at the very least inconvenienced. And it’s also true that if some part of a body is over-functioning - working, but not working in a complementary or supportive fashion, that too will disable the body as a whole.

My wife had to have a thyroid operation a few years ago, not because the thyroid gland wasn’t working, but because it was working too darn well, and indeed it was growing and taking up more space than was really available for it. It was a very necessary operation and thankfully a successful one. Things are now back in balance.

Applying that image of the body, we can see how churches are weakened by every absence, and by every half-hearted failure to pull one’s weight. That’s obvious. To take Paul’s other great image of the Church as a spiritual temple: if a brick is missing from the wall, the whole wall is weakened, and if more bricks go missing too, the building may fall.

But what about the person who tries to do too much, who’s a power grabber perhaps? What about the person who takes on roles they’re not suited for, maybe because that makes them feel more important? Churches where that happens also become unbalanced and cease to work as they should.

And there is of course the wild card, the person whose own agenda differs from the one agreed. Perhaps the person who can’t help but bring their own personal issues and problems into church with them.

You might well say, “If you can’t bring your own personal problems and issues to church, where can you bring them?” And of course any church should be a place where help and healing and health are on offer. Where things do go wrong, and the healthy and responsive body becomes a toxic environment instead, there may well have been a failure in its own pastoral response to its members. But then again, I’ve also been uncomfortably aware of situations where a person who wouldn’t admit to their own need for help or change did a lot of damage by lashing out in ways that couldn’t help but hurt others.

All of which suggests that nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems. Where people are half-hearted or missing altogether, that may not be entirely their own fault. Maybe there’s been a failure in leadership, a failure to energise, encourage or recruit. Maybe there are people blocking the path, and refusing to let new blood come in.

Where someone’s working inappropriately, that may also be down to a failure in leadership. A former colleague of mine was brilliant at getting people involved, but hopeless at discernment, so we often had people doing things that weren’t right for them, and then getting discouraged and downhearted, or else needing so much help that my friend might just as well have done the job himself. Of course it’s also true that in a small church people are almost bound to have to do things they don’t feel suited to, because there’s just no-one else there. And clergy and other leaders may well be hopeless at delegating - it’s a job that attracts one man bands, and if I’m honest I have to recognise that in myself.

So how do we get the body of Christ working well where we are? People have written lengthy books about this, so one shortish sermon isn’t going to include all the answers. This diocese has actually been quite good at developing local ministry, and coordinating collaborative ministry both within and among churches continues to be an important dimension for our bishops and their staff. We can sometimes be too defensive about our own little patch, especially when we’re small and feel vulnerable, but we do actually need to learn to co-operate with others so as to achieve together what we won’t manage to do on our own. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.” We sometimes have to let go of some of what we have, in order to begin a new process of growth.

Two pointers though, that I draw from this morning’s readings. In the Gospel Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church.” For the body to work well it needs good and firm leadership: apostolic leadership, by which I really mean leadership that’s mission minded, outward looking, and deeply connected into the mind of Christ.

Peter’s leadership was all of that; but more than that, it was also broken leadership. Read the whole story of Peter, and see how this brave and faithful man denied three times that he even knew Jesus. Peter had to admit to his own frailty, he knew his need of grace, his need of Christ; he knew what it was to be broken. The best leaders are those who know their own selves for real, and have no false sense of their own grandeur or worth.

And secondly, what use is a body without a head? Our limbs and organs only work when the head tells them to, via the messages our nerves convey. Communication failures from the brain result in serious disabilities.

So a healthy body needs to be obedient to its head, and aware of every message the head is sending. An athlete may spend ages honing every muscle, but unless the mind is also right he’s not going to win. Where there are problems within the body of Christ our first action must be to be in close and intimate touch with our head. An effective and useful Church will be constantly seeking to know the will of Christ, and so will be constant in worship and in prayer. The marks of a successful church are not so much packed pews and healthy balance sheets as good discipleship, marked by forgetfulness of self, persistence in prayer and a heart to serve. We’re called to serve our Lord, and all else must flow from this. We must be single minded, and that mind is the mind of Christ, his call to proclaim the Kingdom, and as a fellowship together to show and share and live his love.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Private Ward

There was always someone there to pick up the tab,
always someone to invite you across,
to share one with you, order the next,
go on with you to wherever was next,
to carry you home.
There was always someone there to overcome
your best intentions, to subvert
your attempts at discipline, to encourage those deep desires
you hated and cried over
but could never escape.

Now the bright lights are dimmed, the music no longer plays;
under subdued fluorescents
the bedside machines with their steady beep
measure out the minutes into hours.

There was always someone there,
but now there is no-one,
only the efficient nurses, and the one gentle soul
who had done most of her crying long before tonight,
and yet somehow still cares, cannot cease to care,
sees still under the tangle of lines and drips the used-to-be,
the original untouched soul,
the open smile that stole her heart,
the hopeful days.

And when the machines stop, it will be her hand
that will touch and close your tired eyes. 

Flesh and Blood

A sermon based on the 2nd service Gospel for Trinity 10, John 6.51-58 :-

I want to focus tonight on the reading we’ve just heard, from St John’s Gospel. It’s quite blunt, sometimes uncomfortably so for our modern ears. Jesus talks about “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood . . .” At the service of holy communion many of us if not all of us will regularly gather to eat a pinch of bread and to drink the wine, and we hear words like “The body of Christ, broken for you.” And indeed, regular attendance at the Holy Communion was an absolute fundamental for John and Charles Wesley, and is rightly therefore a central part of Methodist practice today. But somehow what Jesus says here seems altogether more stark, more blunt, more shocking, than our usual gentle celebrations of communion.

The saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is only needed because it isn’t true. Words can hurt and they do. Words can shock and they do. Words are powerful things. They can inform us and cheer us, but they can also challenge us or even appal us.

But we can also use words to massage the truth away, to cover over difficult things, or just to get people off our backs. Simple example: “How are you?” “Fine, thanks!” “Sh’mae?” “Da iawn, diolch!” Now that could be true; but it isn’t always. And while I can think of one or two people to whom I daren’t say “How are you?” because they’ll start telling me and I’ll still be there an hour later - on the whole I’d rather people were truthful than just polite (or politely dismissive). Sh’mae? Ah, wedi blino; or, as my old granddad used to say, “To be honest, I’m - (word I really can’t use in chapel)”

I passed a friend in the street the other day, and he asked, “How are you?” “Fine,” I replied, but I mustn’t have looked it (to be honest, it was a bit of a heavy day). He looked at me and commented, “Who are you trying to convince - me or yourself?”

In one sense I was fine. I was on time, I had a lot of things to do, but I was pretty much up to speed, meeting the deadlines, fulfilling the commitments, getting it all done. But inside I wasn’t so fine. I was like the toy rabbit that doesn’t have the Duracell battery in the advert, beginning to slow up and run down, getting a bit tired.

So, what will recharge my battery? What works for you when you get run down? Actually, on that day, an honest and perceptive response to my slightly dishonest answer was part of what helped. We went off and had a coffee and a chat, and my schedule slipped a bit but it didn’t matter. When I restarted my chores for the day I was in a better place, things were better inside me.

Someone said, “Life is something that happens to you while you’re making other plans.” It can certainly often feel that way. In the tough words of this evening’s Gospel reading, Jesus is talking about life, not as something that happens to you, but as something that is within you. And there is a difference. When I said I was fine to my friend that day I was doing life OK, I was getting through it. But my time out with him and the coffee and chat we shared helped rekindle life within me. Friendship does that. The times when someone is perceptive and caring enough to not take our throwaway and dismissive responses at face value.

“My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink,” says Jesus, and the bluntness of his words can seem quite shocking. Maybe they might have been less shocking then, but actually I think Jesus did mean to shock, to startle anyway. He is saying to those who hear him (and to us): “What about the life within you? How is it being sustained? How is it being fed? How real is it?” Indeed, further than that, even: “Is there life within you?”

And all this stuff about “my flesh” and “my blood” means we can’t simply brush him off with a “Da iawn, diolch” kind of answer - “I’m fine” “I’m good”. He pushes us to admit to the hunger within us, to admit to our need for the life with which Jesus seeks to gift us, the food with which he seeks to feed us.

So he says, “Eat me. Drink me.” And he tells us that this is the only way we ever have real life within us; he’s quite clear and blunt about it. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink: in other words, any other source of sustenance is not enough. It will leave us unresourced, empty and hollow, lacking in life. Jesus says, “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.” Challenging words that we need to take seriously.

This is about holy communion, but it isn’t just about holy communion. Holy communion as a physical receiving of bread and wine as body and blood is in part - whatever we believe about what happens to or within the bread and the wine - it is in part representational. Terry Waite when held captive in Beirut for all that time was not able physically to receive communion - and yet he still felt within himself the resourcing of the body and blood of Christ.

It is about being intimately connected with Christ, seeking his presence in prayer, in meditation, making time for him in the busyness of our day. This isn’t something just for monks and nuns or other people like that who spend all their time in holy places and doing holy things. But it is I think about saying to Jesus, “I want you to be part of all that I am and all that I do; I want there to be no part of my life that is not enriched by your presence.”

Have I ever managed to pray a prayer like that and completely mean it? I suppose not; however much I may want to make Jesus the centre of my life, there are still bits of who I am that I sort of shut away into cupboards and don’t let him in there. Most of us spend a fair amount of time, energy, and prayer trying to create and possess the life we want. But as the words in the annual covenant service remind us, “Sometimes we may please both you and ourselves, but at other times we cannot please you except by denying ourselves.” That prayer, by the way, is a wonderful expression of what I’m trying to preach about, and I hope you don’t only pray it once a year. We’ll end this sermon with it.

For here’s the truth of my life. In spite of all my best efforts, I still end up - yes, living, yes, doing all right, but really less than fully alive. The outside and inside of who I am don’t match up. “Is this all there is?” I can find myself asking.

Jesus offers me treatment for my condition of not being fully alive, of not being sure where I belong; he offers me food for my hunger. The message for today is this: Our destiny is life in Christ, not death in the wilderness. Think of the flesh and blood of Christ as medicine that saves those who otherwise are lost, “the medicine of immortality” in the words of Saint Ignatius. And like most medicines, we need to take it in a disciplined way, we need a daily dose.

Jesus today seeks to awaken us to a hunger we too often deny we have, to our fundamental need for what only he can give. To eat his flesh and drink his blood is to open our lives to his: to consume his life so that he can consume and change ours; to eat and digest the love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, that are the marks of his life, and that spring from the relationship with the Father that he now opens to us. And if Christ lives in us we can bring his life to the world.

The Covenant Prayer :-

Lord God, I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me having nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.