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.

Persistent faith, loving response

A sermon based on the Gospel for Trinity 10 (Matthew 15:21-28)

Martin Luther King wrote that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Last weekend the painful and tragic events at Charlottesville, Virginia (and the strange silence on that subject from the usually freely tweeting President Donald Trump) were a reminder of the deep divisions that continue to exist in America (and in many other places too). At least one white supremacist marcher was carrying a flag emblazoned with the Nazi swastika. One picture I saw showed the right wing marchers being protected by a black city policeman - somewhat ironic, I thought.

Alas, there’s nothing new about race discrimination or race  supremacy. The gospel story we’ve just heard introduces a woman of Canaanite extraction; the sort of person Jesus should have had nothing to do with - a foreigner, an outsider. And to begin with Jesus did seem reluctant to deal with her.
Some commentators suggest that indeed, Jesus didn’t want to have anything to do with this non-Jew. They see this event as a pivotal moment: meeting this foreign woman persuaded Jesus that his mission should not be just to Israel.

I don’t actually buy that. I’m more inclined to think that Jesus was testing both the disciples and the woman herself by speaking and behaving in the way they would have expected him to as a Jewish rabbi. It was the disciples, after all, who’d originally wanted to send the Canaanite woman away; the way I read the story, Jesus played along with that in order to open their eyes and change their minds.

Religion has been as ready to raise barriers and set exclusion zones as any other sphere of human activity. Jesus I think wanted his disciples to realise how wrong we are - how wrong they were that day - to erect barriers that close off the way of salvation; and yet we still do it: barriers of culture, gender and social status; barriers also of race.

In our Old Testament reading Isaiah called the Jerusalem Temple a house of prayer for all nations. The prophet had urged the Israelites to live just and faithful lives that would honour God. But then he went on to say that the foreigners among them who did the same would also find favour with God. Now the prophecies of Isaiah were important to Jesus; he would have known this passage well.

And that’s why I think that in his dismissive words to the woman he was playing the part of the traditional rabbi in order to provoke her to declare her faith. But his words about it being unfair to throw the children’ bread to the dogs do show just how real were the barriers between Jew and non-Jew. Such barriers are often never really thought about or challenged; it’s just how it is. To compare the woman to a dog is a familiar ploy: the person different from us dismissed as less than we are, as subhuman, like in wartime propaganda.

What were the barriers that would keep a woman like this from receiving from a Jewish rabbi the help she sought? Firstly and most obviously, nationality; she wasn’t a Jew, and therefore had no business turning to a Jewish teacher for help. She didn’t belong there because she was a foreigner.
Secondly, she was a woman, and no woman had the right to approach a rabbi uninvited. Jesus in fact had close friendships with many women, who supported him as he travelled and taught - but this Syrophoenician woman couldn’t know that. She didn’t belong there because she was female, but she was there all the same, having crossed a substantial boundary.

And there were other barriers: the barrier of silence, for example. Jesus to begin with seemed prepared simply to ignore the woman, to act as though she wasn’t there - probably to provoke a response from the disciples. The disciples did respond, and their attitude of scorn and rejection, repugnance even, was a further barrier. “Send her away,” they demanded.

The woman’s persistence is admirable and amazing. She fell on her knees before Jesus to ask for help, and he just insulted her, or so it seems. Would I have put up with that sort of treatment, I wonder, or would I have walked out in disgust, and maybe gone on to badmouth Jesus to my friends: “Just as bad as any other rabbi, they’re all the same.” But she didn’t do that; she persisted despite all those barriers. Why? Because only this man could give the healing her daughter needed so much. She wasn’t a Jew, but she’d seen something in Jesus, or heard something about him, that convinced her that this man really was the Messiah the Jews were expecting.

So this is a story about overcoming barriers; about overcoming the barriers that prevent both others and ourselves from being healed, from being made whole. She held firm to her faith despite the barriers raised against her, the rejection and the insults; and in the end she was heard, and her daughter healed. Jesus praised her faith: not her persistence and her cleverness, but her faith, by which I think he means both her faith in his own power to heal, and her faithful commitment to her daughter who needed that healing.

True faith enables us to take courage and find purpose. We might think that a busy and active church that’s doing lots of things is a good example of what it means to be faithful and successful. And that could be the case; but it depends who sets the agenda: what’s being done, and why. What we do needs to be based in what we pray, in our seeking of God’s will.

But a prayerful faith will always lead to action; it turns us outward, to see what needs doing, who needs healing, where the love of Christ needs to be shown and shared. The woman’s faith in Jesus and her faithful response to daughter’s need - these  overrode everything else, and gave her the energy and will and courage to persist in the face of opposition.

So I take two messages from this story: firstly, it tells me that everyone counts. God is not my God or your God but the world’s God; not the God of one sort of people but of every people. “A light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”, as the Nunc Dimmitis puts it. So religion should not erect barriers. When it does it’s not true to the God whose desire is that all peoples should know his just and gentle rule; true religion breaks down barriers. Our mission is to be like Jesus, to let his love flow with good purpose in our lives, crossing boundaries, and healing hurts wherever those hurts may be.

And secondly it tells me that in our faithful response to God we’d do well to follow this woman’s example; we should be bold and inventive on behalf of those who need someone to speak up for them, to work for them, to bring them healing, and we should stick to that task no matter what. Our God is life and love and goodness: his life is stronger than the mightiest enemy which is death; his love is greater than the highest wall of prejudice or the most stubborn barrier of ignorance; his goodness knows no human boundaries or limits, but is offered to all.

The disciples that day had wanted and expected Jesus to turn the woman out; but he went against their expectations and the religious norms of his time, to the extent that he praised her faith. The woman could well have given up and gone, but she refused to budge, she stayed strong in faith and in her commitment to her daughter. In both Jesus and the woman who sought his help we’re set an example of what it means to stand firm in the cause of justice: real justice, not an idea or a system but decisive action to change lives for the better. May we take to heart ourselves what we find in them.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Walking on Water

Whenever I read the story of Peter walking on the water, I’m reminded of the Roadrunner cartoons I used to watch on the box, still do when I can find one; and Wile E Coyote running over the edge of the cliff. He runs off the cliff and comes to a halt, and you see him standing there in the air. Then he looks down, and it’s only when he looks down that he begins to fall.

Thinking about cliffs, do you recall this story about a man who fell off the top of a cliff? There he is, falling; but as he falls he manages to grab hold of a branch sticking out from the cliff face. “If there’s anyone up there, please help me, save me!" he shouts. And to his amazement a voice from heaven sounds: "Hear I am, my son, here I am. Do you believe in me? Do you really want me to help you?"
“Oh yes, Lord,” says the man, “I believe in you, more than I can say. And I so much want you to help me!” “Right then," says God, “Just let go of the branch. That’s all you have to do. Don’t worry, I’ll catch you!"

"What?" cries the man, somewhat aghast. And God says again, “Don’t worry, my son. Have faith. Just let go of that branch you're holding on to, and I'll save you. All you have to do is to trust me." The man pauses for a moment, reflects on what he’s just heard, gulps a bit, and shouts out, "Is there anyone else up there?"

We may not fall off too many cliffs, but as Christians and indeed just as human beings we know we’re going to face some difficult and testing times now and again. How might faith help us get through the hard times and weather the storms?

Last week’s set Gospel reading told the story of Jesus using a couple of little fish and a handful of barley loaves to feed a hungry crowd of five thousand and more out in the wilderness. And one important message I can draw from that story is that with God, all things are possible.

The disciples were there and saw what happened, but did they grasp the message? If they did, they pretty soon forgot it. The story we heard today follows immediately on from the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Having sent the crowd away, Jesus told the disciples to cross by boat to the other side of the lake, where he himself would join them later.

And some of them at least were good sailors who knew the lake well, with its reputation for sudden storms. A storm rose up, and they were struggling to make headway. They were probably beginning to feel alarmed. But why were they out there in the middle of the lake? Because that’s where Jesus had told them to go. And a message I might take from that is that for any of us, to follow Jesus won’t always be smooth sailing. Disciples sometimes have to face stormy weather.

So here we are with the disciples on the stormy lake; and see, Jesus walking to them on the water. They think he's a ghost or something, but Jesus calls out, "Take heart, it’s me, don’t be afraid." And it’s Peter, impetuous Peter who shouts back, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water." Jesus replies, “Come on then.”

And that takes us to the Wile E Coyote moment, if you like. One minute Peter is actually walking on the water, the next he’s realised just what he’s doing and how impossible it is, he looks at the wind and the waves, and straightaway he’s sinking. Walking on water is impossible; but so was feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. I think of these miracles as acted-out parables: the miracle of feeding is a parable of the generosity of God; the stilling of the storm shows how all the creative power of God rests in this man Jesus (as does his walking on the waves). And when Peter panics and starts to sink? A parable, surely, of God’s saving grace: when we’re confronted by what’s beyond our strength, ability and control, God hears our cry for help.

Peter’s cry was heard, and Jesus reached out, grabbed hold of him and helped him get back to the boat. And at this point the storm is stilled, and the disciples are so filled with awe and fear that to a man they fall to their knees.

We find this story told in different ways in the Gospels, though only Matthew speaks of Peter walking on the water. What can we take from it, as Christian disciples here and now? As we travel through life, however surely and faithfully we follow as disciples of Jesus, there’ll be stormy and difficult times, there’ll be challenges, it won’t always be easy. And we discover that (a) we can’t do it alone, we can’t rely only on our own resources and abilities. But (b) alongside that we can set the promise Jesus gives us: "Without me you can do nothing - but with God, all things are possible."

Living the life of faith isn’t easy. Like the man hanging onto that branch, we can find ourselves unwilling to let go, unsure about trusting, hoping for an easier, safer solution than the one God seems to be offering. Or like the disciples in the boat or Peter on the water, we can find we’re focusing on the storms that rage around us, filled with doubts and fears when our focus should be on the one who is Master of the winds and waves, in whom we see all the creative power of the Father.

I’ve got a little card in one of my books at home that just says “Let go, and let God.” Let go of what? I think, of my own anxieties and fears, my dependencies on unreliable sources of help, my trust in things that don’t last, like worldly fame, worldly possessions, worldly measures of success. And let God what? I think, let God help me, heal me, guide me. It’s about me accepting the blessings he offers, it’s about me letting God make of me what he wants of me. Most importantly, it’s about me letting God use me. It’s not just about me, my own life, my own security: there’s a world out there to be saved. So it’s about mission, sharing the word, sharing the love.

As God's people, day by day we’re faced with new opportunities to let go and let God. To let God’s will be done where we are. And each opportunity brings with it the temptation to doubt and falter, to focus on the waves and how big they are, and how small we are. But we’re called to the service of Christ who stilled the storm; we can trust in him. We’re called to the service of Christ who fed the multitude; he will sustain us. We’re called to the service of Christ who reached out to Peter in his fear; we can call on him and know we’ll be heard. Where Christ sends us he also resources us; where Christ sends us he also goes himself.

That takes me back to that guy hanging on his branch - yes, he’s still there, still hanging on. Like him, we may not always like the answer we get when we cry out. Faith is a risky endeavour, and there’ll always be times when the task seems too much for us, our strength seems too little, the road seems too steep and long. But in faith we offer ourselves to be used and to be useful in God’s service, and in return our Lord promises us that he, and he alone is our life, our hope and our salvation. Today Christ is saying to us, “Centre all that you are and have on me. Give me first place in your life. Accept my challenge, so that my love can flow through you into this needy world.” Or, to reduce that down to the two words he said to Peter and Andrew, and James and John, and the rest: “Follow me.”

Saturday, 5 August 2017

A Small Escape

Music is playing somewhere not too far away;
I am walking downhill, on paving slabs a little uneven
and greasy after rain - I need to watch my step.

I need to watch my step. I am alone here
and do not speak the language. I’m not sure
why I came out at all - no, that’s not true,
I came out to find some space, to mend my head,
to get my spirit right, something like that.

We are being well looked after, but sometimes
I need not to have everything provided, organised,
timetabled. So tonight, in the cool evening air,
after an afternoon of gentle rain, I am walking
the streets of a city I do not know, with no particular
destination, just a mental cotton string I am unwinding
and stretching back, for when I retrace my steps.

I should be careful of my steps. They echo
in the stone walls, and up and down the side alleys.
It is growing quickly dark, and there’s no-one much around.
But I do not feel unsafe; this city has been a welcoming place,
despite the challenge of its otherness.
I do not speak the language, but I find I can translate
most of what the street signs and the hoardings tell me.

The garage is a busy oasis of noise in the quiet streets.
I buy crisps and a cola; the lady in the kiosk smiles
and wishes me something in Portuguese.
“Obrigado. Boa noite!” I say, and she laughs,
a happy laugh like bells, a laugh that says, “Well tried!”

Time to retrace my steps. The cotton leads me home,
leads me to my temporary lodgings, anyway,
and I eat my crisps and drink my cola as I walk.
There’s a soap opera on TV, and no-one much has missed me.
“Been out?” asks the American girl, looking up;
“A bit of fresh air,” I tell her. And a little laughter, I might have said:
a little laughter to lift and refresh me, as I wait to see
what we’ll be organised to do tomorrow.

Friday, 4 August 2017


My sermon for Welshpool Methodist Church this Sunday (a shorter version will be preached at Holy Trinity, Leighton) :-

Words from William Wordsworth, “Lines Above Tintern Abbey”:

I have learned
to look on nature, not as in the hour
of thoughtless youth; but hearing often-times
the still, sad music of humanity,
nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
to chasten or subdue. And I have felt
a presence that disturbs me with the joy
of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
of something far more deeply interfused,
whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
and the round ocean and the living air,
and the blue sky and in the mind of man:
a motion and a spirit that impels
all thinking things, all objects of all thought,
and rolls through all things.

I love those words of poetry. I don’t completely understand them, but that’s all right, I think. Poetry’s often an attempt to put into words experiences beyond words, and that’s the feeling I get from these lines. I’m happy to live with an element of mystery: not everything has to be understood and measured, and sometimes the best experiences are right on the edge of what we can describe, or even beyond words altogether.

Keith might not agree. Keith’s a teacher friend of mine: a teacher of mathematics as it happens. Maths never was my subject, so his enthusiasm for maths is a bit of a mystery to me. He likes things to be precise and organised, and gets quite cross if for any reason they’re not. But one thing I can understand is his enthusiasm for teaching: why, through thick and thin, he’s been teaching all his adult life. “It must be pretty boring a lot of the time being a teacher,” I suggested to him once. “And it must be especially frustrating when you get people like me in your class, who just don’t get maths!”

Well, yes, he replied, of course being a teacher can be boring and frustrating. But what I live for, he said, what keeps me teaching are those moments when I see the penny drop, those moments when I see the scales falling from someone’s eyes. I get such a buzz, he said, when suddenly someone gets it, and it’s such a good feeling to know that I’ve helped them to get it.

I’m sure that in life we all have them: those moments when the penny drops, and we see things that bit more clearly, understand that bit more deeply. Times like that are sometimes called disclosure moments.

And among these disclosure moments are what we could call religious experiences, though maybe spiritual experiences would be better, since it would seem they’re by no means limited to conventionally religious people. They don’t just happen in the church or temple or mosque; but they’re moments when we not only see more clearly and understand more deeply, but also feel more profoundly, moments when we’re somehow specially sensitive to our surroundings and to ourselves: times when a story told, or a piece of music we hear, or maybe just the view from some hillside, just moves us. Times perhaps when tears spring unbidden to our eyes.

There’s a programme called “Something Understood” broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 4. I confess I don’t hear it as often as I should, but I’m often moved and impressed when I do get to hear it. Each programme takes a particular spiritual theme, and then explores it through speech, music, prose, and poetry. Quite often I find it not only moving but challenging. It’s not confined to any one conventional religious creed; more the sense many of us have that there’s more to being me, to being you, to being human, more to feel and understand and further to travel, than we usually grasp.

So, the story we’ve heard this morning: Jesus went up a mountain to pray, and on this occasion he took with him the three closest of his disciples - Peter, and the brothers James and John. We’ve heard their attempt to describe what happened there, what they saw, what they heard. Like Wordsworth’s poem, it was I guess an attempt to describe something that was really beyond words: a brightness that dazzled them. So was it that Jesus somehow changed before their eyes? Or were they really seeing what had always been there, except that up till then their sight had been dulled, they couldn’t see it?

The second of those, surely. One of my favourite poems is about the Transfiguration. It’s by the Orkney poet Edwin Muir, who isn’t read these days as much as he should be. In his poem the disciple says:

Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
one glory of the everlasting world
perpetually at work, though never seen
since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
and nowhere?

In other words, what for a moment they’d seen was how it always is, or at least, how it always will be. Sin and short-termist self-interest dulls our vision. But for a moment Peter and James and John had seen what was always there and always true; their Lord infused with all the glory of his Father, just at the moment when he set his face to Jerusalem to take the road to the cross. Jesus knew what the disciples couldn’t know: that in Jerusalem there was a battle to be fought, a victory to be won, a purpose to be completed - the battle, and the ultimate purpose, the liberation of those held in slavery. For a moment the disciples saw it all, even if they couldn’t yet comprehend what they were seeing; just for a moment, then the light faded, and all was as before. Edwin Muir again :-

Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
it might have held for ever! But the world
rolled back into its place, and we are here,
and all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
as if it had never stirred; no human voice
is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
to itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
and blossoms for itself while time runs on.

And back down the hill go Jesus and his disciples: back into the world of time and tide, back to the world of scruffy and frustrating ordinariness: of challenge and pain and suffering and things not being how we want them to be.

But it’s in that world, in this world, that the kingdom has to be proclaimed; here is where the work needs to be done, here is where our love and care and compassion in the name of Christ is needed to make a difference, to win hearts and to save lives. And mission and ministry and witness is sometimes going to be a hard slog, is sometimes  going to feel like too much for us. Things will get us down. But just now and then in all the struggle and the greyness we get a glimpse of the glory, a spark of angel-light, a sense of the eternal reality hidden from us.

That’s how I find things to be anyway. I’m glad of those moments when I just know God’s presence, when I feel the warmth of his love, when I glimpse the light of his glory. I can’t conjure them up; usually they happen as a surprise, they catch me unawares. It might be when I’m praying somewhere quietly, it might happen  when I read or hear a story of quiet heroism or loving care; it might be music that does it, or light through stained glass, or birdsong, or a rising or setting sun; sometimes it’s just that I’ve experienced someone’s kindness or patience or forgiveness.

It can happen of course when I read the Bible; I’m amazed and delighted when a story I’ve read a hundred times before suddenly it strikes me in a new way, and maybe when I read it I sense God’s particular call to me.

I wonder whether like my friend Keith the teacher, God’s waiting for moments like that and loving to see them when they happen. When the penny drops, and when something of his love breaks through in a new way. When we get a glimpse of the great and eternal truth: that we’re already known and loved, that we’re already held safe and sure in a love that is forever, that is beyond this transient world of time and stuff. That the victory is already won, and we have a part and a share in that victory. And that love is what we are made of and what we are made for: the point and purpose of our lives and our destination at life’s end.

[May God’s holy name be praised in our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Church which proclaims and shares his love, now and to the end of the age. Amen.]