Monday, 15 October 2018

A sermon preached last Sunday . . .

. . . at Marton and Trelystan:

Last week scientists warned the world’s nations that we need to act now to reduce our use of the world’s resources. If we don’t the predicted rise in the world’s average temperature will be more than we can sustain. The week before that, the BBC showed a highly disturbing film about plastic clogging rivers and estuaries; soon it will be followed by a “Blue Planet Live” programme one focus of which will be the way the plastic we throw away is polluting our seas. But can we live without plastic? We seem to have forgotten how to, while governments either don’t dare or don’t care to do enough. And some governments, those of the USA and Australia to name two, seem to be blatantly stopping their ears to what most scientists are saying. They’d rather believe their own chosen false prophets instead.

It’s tragic; we own so much, we have so much power, but the things we possess end up controlling us, and the planet suffers and our future is at risk. This is how Jesus put it: “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples would have been surprised and shocked to hear that. They would have believed - as most people did in those days - that to be rich was a sign of God’s blessing. A rich man who kept the law and attended synagogue and made the right sacrifices at the temple was just about as close to perfect in God’s sight as you could get.

So in astonishment the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” Ten days ago the Church celebrated Francis of Assisi. Francis was brought up in a very comfortable and well-to-do home, and he was heir to his father’s very successful business. He had dreams of being a knight, a man of chivalry. But then his life changed; and he began to take seriously those words of Jesus about selling your possessions, giving to the poor, and following him. He seemed to hear God calling him in a special way. So he gave up his rich and privileged lifestyle, to serve sister poverty instead. He determined to spend his life on the open road as a little brother to anyone in need, in imitation of his Lord. And as his life drew to a close he received the stigmata, the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, a tangible symbol of his devotion to Christ.

Even Francis, though, knew his attempt at a good life to be a pale reflection of that of his Lord. Other people might praise him, but he knew himself to be a sinner and unworthy, despite it all. He’d made himself poor, but even the most humble possession could still get in the way of his service of his Lord. And if even a famous saint like Francis was really still a sinner, what chance for the rest of us?

The answer Jesus gave to his stunned disciples was this: “No chance at all.” No chance at all if you mean to trust to your own efforts, if you want to make it on your own. We can try to be good, we can aim to be like Jesus, but we can never match the example he sets us of love and humility and service.

But while Jesus said to his disciples, “For mortals it is impossible” he went on to say, “But all things are possible for God.” God makes the impossible possible. We call this grace, which is a short way of saying “the saving, healing and forgiving and totally undeserved love of God.” God meets us in our weakness, our uncertainty, our failure and our sin, and he welcomes us as though we were strong and pure and clean. God accepts the unworthy offerings we bring, and he counts them as worthy.

It’s like when I’m visiting a foreign country. Like most British people, I’m no good at foreign languages; but myself, I’ll always want to have a go. And what I find is that though my attempt at French or German or Spanish may be mangled and messy and hard to follow, the French or German or Spanish person to whom I’m speaking (or trying to speak) is often really pleased that I’ve at least made the effort. Often their English puts to shame my attempt to speak their language, but they’re still glad I’ve tried. People I've tried to speak to have respected the fact that I’ve made the effort; they’ve met me in my messiness and incompleteness. Though they’ll probably have had a bit of a laugh as well.

Now, you see, I think that’s how God relates to us. We don’t get everything right, but if we're trying to do our best he rejoices in that, and meets us in the attempt we make. We may sometimes go badly wrong and really let him down; but even then, if we wake up to what we’ve done or failed to do and if we’re sorry and turn back to him, he’s gracious and ready to forgive. We can make ourselves quite unlovable, yet still God loves us, like the father of the prodigal son in the story who spent every day watching from the rooftop. The cross in our church and the cross marked on us at our baptism is our sign of a love that is forever, a love which is for all.

But we make smaller gods for ourselves, and they take us over. Things like money, power, popularity, position and status that trap us and turn our hearts and tie us to the earth. Money isn’t itself wrong, and Jesus never said it was, even when he talked about the camel and the eye of the needle. Nor does the Bible say that money is the root of all evil; what St Paul wrote to Timothy was that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” That’s what happens when we get our focus wrong. Things we own can be dangerous; if we don’t watch out, they trap us and take us over. And the more things we own, the more chances we have to get trapped. The easier our lives, the less likely we are to think we have any need of God. Debbie said something similar in her harvest sermon the other day. Graham Norton was quoted recently as wondering why it is that people who are far too rich to ever need to think about where their next penny is coming from spend so much time and effort avoiding paying taxes when, as he put it, that should be their privilege and their duty.

Disciples of Jesus know that worldly things, like money and power and possessions, are both danger and opportunity. They’re a mortal danger if we let them take the place of God. But if we really are seeking God’s kingdom before anything else, our possessions become something to use in God’s name - to change lives, to help our neighbour. But only if we’re ready to see as our Lord sees; for those who seek the kingdom of God, all that we are and have and own is his.

Friday, 12 October 2018

I didn't post last Sunday's sermon . . .

. . . so here it is (preached at Leighton and Chirbury):

Those who study the gospels sometimes debate whether a particular event or saying is completely authentic, or has perhaps been added by the gospel writer or even by a later hand. This is because the gospels as we have them were not written down as it all happened, but much later. The four gospels we have differ from each other in style, and sometimes in content too. All of them though were based on, perhaps some earlier written records, but certainly also oral records - stories and teachings passed on by word of mouth.

When these sorts of academic debates take place, one rule of thumb often applied is that the more difficult teachings are more likely to be genuine. That means something hard to understand - because if something’s hard to understand, it’s more likely to be changed to make it easier to understand than the other way round. And also things that are hard to take, the tough sayings, because surely the natural instinct might be to soften them.

If that rule of thumb works - and of course the professors argue about that too - but if it does, then the teaching in today’s gospel is very likely to be straight from the mouth of our Lord. It’s tough and uncompromising, and quite possibly hard to take.

Over the years the Church has interpreted these words of Jesus as allowing and encouraging it to take a very firm and hard view of marriage, as indissoluble; so that those who had had a marriage end in divorce, or even, like my aunt, having been widowed and having then met and married a man whose own previous marriage had ended in divorce, were (a) told that they could not marry in church, and (b) in my aunt’s case, might well be told that they could no longer receive communion in church. As a good Catholic, my aunt, who died two years ago at the age of 99, for many years attended church regularly which for her meant daily, and always had to remain in her seat when others went forward to receive communion. Until her second husband died, when as a respectable widow she was allowed back into full communion.

While I have nothing but praise for my aunt’s faith and obedience, I can’t find it in me to praise or even sympathize with the Church. The Church had got it wrong. The Church was, I consider, being quite un-Christlike. And indeed the Church was, and often still is, misunderstanding the reason why Jesus gave this hard teaching on marriage (and indeed on other things too).

Jesus loved sinners. In fact it would seem that a lot of the time he got on much better with sinners than he did with good and holy people. Now that’s not to say that he didn’t take sin seriously. He took it very seriously indeed. Sin is fatal; sin, to be clear, will be the death of you. And me.

But Jesus also took forgiveness seriously; and grace, which is love without strings, loved offered to us without our needing to merit it. That’s what he preached to the sinners, and they listened and responded. That’s what he wanted to preach to the good and godly folk too - but they didn’t think they needed to hear him.

So think of the response of Jesus to that question about marriage as shock tactics. He wanted to break through that shell of self-righteousness that was preventing the Pharisees and folk like that from hearing his message. They didn’t hear because they didn’t think they needed to hear. They were all right.

“I live a good life,” people say to me, more often than you’d think. It’s a defence mechanism, I think, in case I might otherwise seek to convert them or persuade them to come to church. They sometimes go on to tell me that they don’t need to come to church because they can be quite good enough without it, and anyway church is full of people who think they’re good enough when they’re not really, or at least no better than the rest of us. No, it’s not full, I’m tempted to reply - we’ve still got room. But anyway, that’s the wrong idea about what church is for, and probably the wrong idea about what goodness is, as well.

We don’t come to church because it looks good, I hope not anyway. We don’t come to church because we feel we’re good enough to be here. I come to church because I’m not good enough - I’ll come back to that thought in a minute. We certainly don’t come to church in order to rack up celestial Brownie points that will help us slip more easily into heaven.

No. We’re here to say thank you, especially at this service of the Eucharist, because that’s what Eucharist means - thanksgiving. We’re here because we’re not good enough, and yet although we’re not good enough, God still loves us and calls us his children. We’re here because though we sin, we have a forgiving and healing Father. And we’re here to commit ourselves to take that forgiving love to heart, and to make it part of our own lives, and as a thank offering to share with our neighbours something of what we have received from God.

To his questioners Jesus was saying this: God’s law cannot be watered down: what’s wrong is wrong is wrong. And, as we’re reminded elsewhere in the New Testament, to break one small piece of God’s law is to break all of it. It all belongs together: you take it all, or you take none of it. Jesus didn’t want to belittle or condemn the Pharisees and their like - but he did want to convince them that they too, even they, were sinners. We all stand under God’s judgement, we’re all in need of his grace. Until they accepted and understood that, he couldn’t reach them.

Historically we in the Church have interpreted today’s gospel as implying God’s special condemnation of those who happen to make a bad marriage. And following that line we end up saying to those who’ve made a good marriage second time round that that doesn’t count, for God still rules you out of his favour because you’ve broken the rules. But does that really sound to you like what Jesus would say? Not to me it doesn’t. What Jesus is saying is this: Yes, you’ve sinned. All kinds of people, even people trying hard to be good, end up sinning, in all kinds of ways.

To sin is to miss the mark, to fall short, to break the rules. And somewhere or other, we all do it. We all fail to be what we could be, or should be. But, Jesus goes on to say: God loves sinners; he meets their failure with his grace; he cancels out our wrong with his love. That’s why we’re marked with the sign of the cross. That cross says: I’m not worthy, but Jesus has made me worthy, by his love, by his sacrifice, by his cross.

And so Jesus places a child in front of his disciples, and he tells them, “You can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you come like a small child.” What in particular about a small child is so important? The innocence of a small child, perhaps? But no, we’ve grown up, we know about the world, we’ve been there, done that. We’re not innocent, like it or not. Can’t go back there.

But I believe what Jesus is pointing to is dependence. A child knows it needs someone to care for it, someone to look after it, someone to give it a name and a place. It can’t cope on its own. I say “it” by the way not just to be gender inclusive, but because in the Greek of the New Testament teknon, meaning a child, is a neuter word. In the thinking of the time, a child did not exist as a separate entity, not until adulthood. A child belonged to its parents, was the possession of its parents, far more completely than in today’s thinking.

So to come to the kingdom like a child is to come knowing we are nothing without God. We are his possession, we belong to him. Without what he alone can give us, we are nowhere; we have no name, no purpose, no destiny. But God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. And with Christ and in Christ and through Christ, to borrow a phrase from the communion prayer, all that we need is ours.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Yesterday's sermon . . .

 . . . at Chirbury, we celebrated both Michaelmas and Harvest:

So, here we are in "Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", as the poet John Keats wrote. And it’s also the season of Harvest Festivals and this weekend the great feast of St Michael and All Angels - Michael’s Mass, or Michaelmas.

Michael the Archangel was credited with having led God’s army in driving out Satan and his followers from Heaven. His feast day yesterday, 29th September, comes not long after the Autumn Equinox, so by now the days are shorter than the nights, and they’ll go on getting shorter. The shortening (or in spring, the lengthening) of days happens at a much greater pace around the equinoxes, and since in the popular thought of past times there was always a link between darkness and evil, people would be praying earnestly through the autumn to be protected from evil. Since Michael was seen as one of the great protectors, Michaelmas was one of the times for such prayer.

But Michaelmas is significant in the secular world too. It’s a quarter day, so therefore a hiring day, a day for the transaction of land and property, and one of the days when rents were paid. And Michaelmas begins one of the four legal terms in the year when the courts of the land sit in judgement.

And at about the time of Michaelmas the “Harvest Home” would be happening too. Harvest home was completely a secular affair until it began to transmute into the harvest festivals we now know maybe a century and a half ago. The harvest home originally was just a big party to celebrate the crop brought in, and the fact that the hard labour of harvesting was over. Back in the days when if there wasn’t enough food in the barn someone was going to go hungry, both harvest home and Michaelmas celebrated being safe and secure, ready for the dark and cold of winter. I suspect the main tradition of the old harvest home was the drinking of lots of rough cider. But there seem to have been quite a few old traditions connected to Michaelmas.

One such tradition was the Michaelmas Goose, which would have been well fattened from the stubble left in the fields at harvest, and then kept to be eaten as winter food. Goose Fairs were commonly held on or around Michaelmas Day, one of the greatest being the Nottingham Goose Fair that still takes place today.

I was always told not to pick blackberries after Michaelmas, because the Devil would have spat on them and spoiled them. I think originally that would have been the old Michaelmas Day of October 10th, because 29th September seems too early to stop. And sometimes people say St Luke’s Day instead, which is 18th October. By this time of the year blackberries are getting past their best, and they don’t have the lusciousness and flavour of the fruit in late summer. But maybe these days we wouldn’t feel the need to blame the devil!

St Michael is also, I’m told, one of the several patron saints of horses and horsemen, and there was a Scottish tradition of horse races on Michaelmas Day. It seems as well that at Michaelmas you could lawfully borrow your neighbour’s horse without needing his consent, and ride it for the day, provided the horse was safely returned before daybreak! You can see how important the cult of Michael was in medieval times from the impressive number of causes of which he’s regarded as patron - chivalry, soldiers, police, paramedics and firefighters. Some regard him as a patron of the sea, of those who are living with illness, and of grocers; and he is the patron saint of Germany.

It would have helped my sermon theme if Michael had also been the patron of farmers, but alas, no. That honour goes to St Isidore, of whom I confess I know almost nothing. But the wealth of old traditions from this time of the year reminds us how such traditions used to rule people’s lives. Now mostly they’re fading from memory, to be remembered only by antiquarian enthusiasts.

And that starts me worrying that maybe harvest festival’s one of those old traditions whose time really is done, and in the end it’s bound to fade away. Could church itself be numbered among the fading traditions? This building was built to last, like the faith it was built to proclaim. But has it really had its day?

When we look back, we see lots of interesting and colourful old traditions, nice to remember but hardly relevant today. What about when we look forward? Maybe we don’t see anything very much, no clear road ahead, no secure future. We find ourselves saying, “Wouldn’t it be great to go back to how things used to be!” I say that myself.

Harvest is a time when memories are at their strongest - and I remember full pews and mighty choirs, processions through the streets, and a well supported church brimming with confidence. It’s amazing what memories can be conjured up by the smell of chrysanthemums or a verse of “We plough the fields”. Some of them may even be true.

My memory’s also triggered by Michaelmas Daisies. Everyone used to have them in their gardens, though I don’t see quite so many these days. Being late flowering plants that would stay in flower right through till the frosts, they were a welcome splash of autumn colour, as this old verse reminds us:
The Michaelmas Daisies, among deed weeds  /  bloom for Saint Michael’s valorous deeds, and seems the last of flowers that stood,  /  till the feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude.

Simon and Jude’s day is 28th October, by the way. Another thing  we’ve lost, I suppose. Now we’ve got things all around us to tell us the time and the date, watches, phones, even cookers and washing machines - we no longer need to look at the sun, and no-one these days measures the date in saints’ days.

But we can’t go back to the past, whether real or fondly imagined. Perhaps we wouldn’t want to go back to the real past, anyway. The world’s moved on, and we’ve only one direction of travel. And, if you’re wondering, I don’t believe that either harvest festival or the church itself is no longer relevant.

In fact I believe the exact opposite. Harvest festival is if anything more important, and Church should be. Harvest reminds me that there’s a God-shaped piece in all of us; we’re not really complete without it. A previous Archbishop of Canterbury - I forget which - once said, “A nation that loses its faith loses its soul.” And by soul I think he meant its raison d’etre, its direction and purpose, its identity.

The harvest isn’t mine to do what I want with - to hoard, stash away, defend from all comers, without any thought for others. That’s a harvest message we need to hear. It’s not my harvest, it’s God’s. The fruits of the earth are at best a co-operative venture; we can only use what’s given us. Harvest festival tells us that, and reminds us that we ourselves should be God’s harvest, fruitful in our care for each other and for the land, fruitful in the praise and service we offer our Lord.

Tradition has an important part to play, and I’m glad that harvest reminds us where we come from, our roots and heritage. Without the labours of our forbears, we’d not be here. Without our care, there is no future harvest. Everything links together.

Harvest festival celebrates the greatest of Givers - God who creates, God who holds all things in being. His church should be a giving church. We call Jesus the man for others; and we should be a church for others. From great cathedrals to the smallest country church we are here to serve, to be community minded and world minded. Michael is celebrated as God’s warrior; may we be warriors too - not holding back or hiding our faith, but living it boldly and generously and lovingly, in the name of Christ.