Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Transfiguration - a sermon for next Sunday

Jesus went up onto a mountain to pray. I can understand that. Mountains can be very good places on which to pray. We’re not short of high places and superb views round here, and one thing I’m aiming to do this year is to hold some “Forest Church” type worship events where for at least part of the time we’re out in the open air, perhaps walking, even climbing. The midsummer service at Mitchell’s Fold will be one of these, and of course that’s been going now for many years. I’ve often turned the circle of us inside out at that service, so that instead of looking in at each other we’re looking out across the moors and the fields. The wide view you get up there is so full of inspiration.

On this occasion Jesus took Peter and James and John with him, and it’s what they saw there that forms our theme for today - along with, I guess, why they saw it. We sometimes speak of a mountain top experience, meaning those dramatic and special times when we feel specially close to God, and more intensely aware of his presence and power. As someone once said to me, “There are places, special holy places, where the sky just seems thinner.” Such dramatic encounters with God, though, are rare, even I think for very holy people, which I am not.

But the main theme of this story, the Transfiguration, isn’t about us having special mountain top experiences. It shows us Jesus revealed as he fully and truly is. Peter, James and John are witnesses on our behalf to a lifting of the veil, a look behind the curtain that normally remains firmly drawn.

Tired out, they’ve been asleep as Jesus was praying - but as they awake they see his face and his clothes shining with a light so bright they can hardly bear it. All the glory of God is shining in this man, and he’s speaking with two men who can only be the two great heroes of the faith who were believed not to have died but to have been taken up bodily into heaven, Moses and Elijah. They’re speaking about the departure Jesus is to accomplish in Jerusalem. The Greek word translated here as departure is exodos.

The Book of Exodus - same word - describes the departure of the people from Egypt, and their journey across the wilderness to find their promised land. It’s a story of salvation, and of    re-creation, and so is this new exodos. Jesus in Jerusalem will release his people from slavery - will release all people, everyone who turns to him, from our slavery to sin and death.

But as he does this, what the disciples will see is a man broken, lost, degraded, defeated, falling victim to his enemies. And that will test their faith to breaking point and beyond. That’s why Peter and the others are granted this mountain top experience. We call it the Transfiguration because that’s what it seemed like to them. But was it, really? This isn’t Jesus changed so much as their eyes and senses being opened, activated, so they see Jesus as he always is. For everything Jesus is and says and does shines with the glory of his Father.

Peter and James and John couldn’t really understand what they’d seen till Easter; until they finally became convinced that their Lord was risen, that death no longer enslaved him. But they needed to see it now, before everything happened that would need to happen. In a few weeks’ time we shall see these three once again asleep while Jesus is praying - but in the Garden of Gethsemane, where they wake from sleep to see their Master all too human, all too frail, so easily captured and taken.

On the mountain, see how Peter tries to hang on to the moment. He wants to make shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah - it’s such a special place, and there needs to be some kind of shrine. But before he can do anything there’s a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, my chosen.” And then everything is as it was before. The mountain was probably Mount Hermon, and today there is a church, and pilgrims stream to it. But the message of the voice to Peter and the others is that it’s not the place that’s special, but the person. Jesus, with whom they’ll travel on to Jerusalem.

Moses and Elijah were, as I’ve said, the two heroes who were supposed not to have died but to have been carried up to heaven. Moses represents the Law, Elijah the prophets, and we’re reminded that Jesus said: “Don’t imagine that I’ve come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” What Jesus will go on to do is to complete the work of salvation spoken of in the Law and the prophets. And only he can do this. He is abused and spat upon; he is broken and pierced on the cross at Calvary. And love divine changes our life and destiny for ever.

Before these events, Peter, James and John are given a glimpse of that love divine. They see how - as Paul would later write, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Jesus is not just a good teacher, he is God incarnate, God present with us, God not abandoning us to our failure and our sin.

I’ve been trying to remember whether, when Ann and I visited Mount Hermon some years ago, our visit include the Eucharist, the Holy Communion. We celebrated communion at many of the places we visited, but I’m not sure we did there. I do recall thinking that while there’s something special of course about standing in the actual place where Jesus himself might have stood, I might have felt closer to the actual experience of the Transfiguration on some lonely stretch of moorland (which is how I picture it in my head), rather than in a church busily filled with pilgrims who travel up the hill in noisy Mercedes taxis.

But even so, I’d want to say that there is a real connection for me between that single event, the Transfiguration and the Holy Communion we celebrate week by week, connecting us to the Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples. At Holy Communion we meet together and we meet also with our Lord. As we break bread and share the cup of wine his glory is both hidden and revealed in these two ordinary things. And perhaps, like Peter and James and John, we see just for a moment beyond the veil.

But it’s a moment only, this meal that we share. It’s not a place we can stay. On the mountain top, the voice from heaven spoke, the cloud lifted, the glory was veiled again, and all was as it had been before. And as we read on in chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel we see how Jesus and his companions went back down the mountain and straight back into the busy hurly-burly of life and ministry, all the time keeping on the road to Jerusalem.

“Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord,” we shall say as this service closes. What we’re given, the glimpses we may have of God’s glory, the sense of his presence and love which perhaps is that bit more intense in one of those places where the sky is thinner, or perhaps the taste of his saving love and the sense of his presence as we kneel to receive communion - these moments are given to inspire and encourage the rest of our living. For us to use and share; to further enable us to tell his story and bear witness to his love. Neither the mountain top nor the altar of our churches are places to stay; they’re places we’re sent out from, with work to do.

So may we shine as his lights, who is the light unconquerable, the love divine and eternal, our Saviour and our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Stilling the Storm - a sermon for next Sunday

Based on Luke 8.22-25 :-

The Sea of Galilee is really a lake rather than a sea, but it’s a big lake, and very prone, I’m told, to sudden squalls and storms. The squall that sprang up in the story we’ve just heard must have been pretty bad. There were seasoned sailors in the boat, and they were very alarmed. But Jesus had fallen asleep.

It’s no surprise that Jesus should have been so tired. He’d had a tough couple of days of intensive ministry. But a wooden boat like that would have got pretty noisy as the storm raged, so I’m surprised it didn’t wake him. He must have been really exhausted. So the disciples had to wake him; I’m not sure that they expected him to do anything - I imagine they just wanted him to help them stop the boat from sinking, and to save himself if it did sink.

But what Jesus did do was to rebuke the wind and the sea, and the storm ceased: the air and the water were still. And the disciples are amazed - who wouldn’t be? “Who can this be?” they ask. “What kind of man is this, that he tells the wind and the waves what to do, and they do it?”

They were beginning to realise what the apostle John later wrote, in chapter 1 of his Gospel: that “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” The man they already honoured as teacher and leader was more than just that. For he spoke with all the authority of the Creator God.

Jesus responded to the panic of his disciples by asking, “Where is your faith?” In other words, “With me in the boat, how could you think we wouldn’t get through?” Fair enough, but it’s all too easy to panic when things begin to look stormy and rough. Or to get depressed and downhearted: you should hear how we clergy moan when we get together. And yet surely, if we’re with the Lord and he’s with us, if we’re really his folk, we should never allow the world around us to control us, to get us down, make us afraid or leave us feeling that we’re lost. We’re with the Word of God.

This is what Paul wrote to the church in Philippi: “I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” Now Paul was in fact no stranger to storms and hardship, and there were certainly times when he was tested so hard he was tempted to give in; but in the end his faith and his sense of Christ’s presence kept him confident and hopeful whatever the storms around him.

When we find ourselves in times of trouble, we probably end up asking, “How could this be happening to me?” - or even, “How could God let this happen to me?” Reading this story we could ask why God allowed a storm to threaten his Messiah and those with him. But nowhere in scripture does it say that God’s servants will have things easy - not all the time, anyway. Scripture’s full of times when folk were on the verge of giving up, because life was getting too tough. Like when the people rebelled against Moses in the wilderness, or like Elijah, ready to accept death out in the desert, or Jeremiah on numerous occasions. And many more besides. There’s a hymn I used to enjoy singing as a child that includes the great lines “Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, torn asunder, slain with sword” - a setting of the list in Hebrews of those who in times past had been tested for their faith in God.

Faith provides a rock on which to stand, in which our faltering faith is built into the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, as Paul and Peter both tell us, the chief corner stone. Our faith will be tested through the trials of life, but as Peter wrote, our faith is tested by fire so that God may be glorified. And he was writing to people who knew direct and outright persecution.

“Why me?” we ask when things go wrong. But do we also ask “Why me?” when things go well. Why have I received this blessing? How can I use it and share it? How can God use me? Whatever faces us in our lives, good or bad, if our eyes and hearts are fixed on God we can make use of what we have, and can continue in faith and hope. We may be earthbound, but Christ makes us citizens of heaven.

And faith isn’t static, it’s not an intellectual belief in God. In scripture faith always leads to action, faith causes things to happen. Jesus said, “Where is your faith?” to his disciples. That’s not just whether they believe enough - it’s are they committed to him, to service and action and witness and work in his name.

Do you remember the man who asked Jesus to heal his son? His disciples had had a go at doing it, but without success, while Jesus was away praying on the mountain. “Do you believe?” Jesus asked the man when he took over. In some translations he says, “Do you have faith?” “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief!” replies the man, in the King James version. A more modern translation has him saying “I have faith; help me where faith falls short.” That’s a prayer we all can and should be praying.

And there’s a message for us in the fact that the disciples, full of panic as they were, came and woke Jesus. They at least had enough faith to do that. Jesus rebuked them for the weakness of their faith, but nonetheless he stilled the storm. We don’t have to be superheroes of the faith in order to pray and know our prayers will be heard. We just have to do it. We don’t need special words, probably we don’t need much in the way of words at all, just to honestly present ourselves to the Lord. My faith may be something of a flickering candle, but when I come to God in prayer the bit of faith I have still finds a faithful response in him.

I say that with some feeling, because many of us as Christians feel vulnerable today. Our churches are small, much smaller than they used to be. Most of us are getting on a bit. It can maybe feel a bit too much like that boat, as the disciples desperately tried to bail the water out, only to find it flooding in faster than they could get rid of it. “Help us, Lord, we’re sinking!” we might well find ourselves praying. It’s easier to have a confident faith when we’re surrounded by people who think the same way; but it’s a lot harder when we’re only a few.

But if we’re in a position of trials and testing, it isn’t anywhere the Church hasn’t been before. We should neither panic or despair. What matters is not the strength of the storm around us, but the presence of our Lord with us. However small we are, however weak we may feel, have faith: the man whose teachings we follow is not just one teacher among many. He is the Word by whom all things were made. He stilled the storm on that lake, and he’ll see us through the storms of life. And though we will be tested and it will from time to time be tough, every time of testing is an opportunity to proclaim our faith and to bring glory to God’s name.

When our strength is weak and our nerve falters, help us, Lord, not to be controlled by the worldly forces around us but to have faith in you. Receive us and bless us, call us again to your service, and may we know the peace and calm of your unfailing love. Amen.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

On Being Blessed - a sermon for next Sunday.

(Luke 6.17-26)

The word “bless” is one we use a fair bit. “Bless you!” we say when someone sneezes. “Ah, bless!” we might say if we see something or someone cute, maybe if we see a little toddler taking his or her first steps. “Well, bless me!” we may say as a slightly old-fashioned expression of surprise. But what does it actually mean to be “blessed”?

In our Gospel reading this morning we heard Luke’s version of what in Matthew we call the Sermon on the Mount. The version in Luke’s Gospel is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain. We could discuss whether we have two accounts of the same event, or whether Jesus spoke on two occasions in similar vein. But in both accounts Jesus talks about the people who are blessed by God. In the version in Luke we heard today Jesus also mentions the people who are not blessed by God, and we’ll come to that later. But first, let’s think about what it means to be blessed.

The Greek word in the beatitudes that’s translated in English as blessed is Makarios. You may well recognise that word, if only because of Archbishop Makarios and Cypriot independence. His name meant “blessed”, even if our government didn’t think so at the time. Some modern translations translate makarios as “happy”, and that’s a reasonable translation of the Greek word, but I don’t think it goes far enough in this setting. Jesus is surely speaking about more than mere happiness - something about receiving God’s favour, being brought into his presence, knowing that we are accepted and have our place with him.

Mary, when in the Magnificat she says “all generations will call me blessed” uses the verb makarizo, which derives from makarios: all generations will recognize God’s presence with her, his choice of her, because of the child she bears. And God’s choice of her is because of the choice she has made. Mary said yes to what the angel asked of her. So we’re blessed when God recognises and affirms the godward choice we’ve made.

In our Gospel, those who are blessed have all made a choice for God; they’ve sacrificed material things or worldly status or happiness in order to serve him. That’s one reason why I’d want to say that makarios needs to mean more than just happy. We can be happy, for a while at least, with what we own or with our status or popularity. But those who are blessed have given up that kind of transient happiness for something more.

Or at any rate it’s not what they seek or value most, and mere happiness won’t replace the way of God and the worship of God in their lives. We can be happy whether or not we believe in God, and I guess most of us are, a lot of the time. But being blessed isn’t the same as being happy. Jesus never promised his disciples they’d be happy all the time. In fact he told them they’d need to take up their cross in order to follow him. But he did promise they’d be blessed by his Father.

Here’s what Paul writes in chapter 1 verse 3 of the Letter to the Ephesians: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.’ That suggests that being blessed means we’re in some way participating in the divine nature. Elsewhere, Paul writes (Galatians chapter 3 verse 26): ‘in Christ Jesus you are all children of God, through faith.’ Jesus on Easter morning (John chapter 20 verse 17) sends Mary of Magdala to tell the disciples that he is ascending to ‘my Father and your Father.’ We’re blessed as brothers and sisters of Christ, our blessing makes us children of God. Whatever the world may throw at us, we can be sure of his accepting and redeeming love.

The quote from Ephesians used a different Greek word - not makarios, but eulogeo. Eulogeo is I think used more in scripture than makarios, in fact. Both words translate as the English word “blessed”, but there are different shades to their meaning. The tribute at a funeral service is sometimes called a eulogy, and this is the Greek word that eulogy comes from.

Of course, you don’t actually have to have died in order for someone to give a eulogy - a eulogy is in fact any speech of praise; and I might just mention that it’s a shame if we wait till they’re gone before we start praising people. It’s good that people know when they’re doing well; it’s good that people know when they are appreciated by others. Being British, we tend not to be too demonstrative; but sometimes we’re better at picking up on mistakes or sending letters of complaint than we are at praising or commending. Yet most of the time we’re treated well and there’s more good stuff than bad stuff in the world around us.

Anyway, to get back to my theme, eulogeo means blessed in the sense of being well spoken of, being recognised and affirmed by others. Another word for that might be worthy, like in the prayer that says: Lord, you are worthy to receive our praise and thanksgiving. And we know that our sin makes us unworthy, but we are made worthy by God’s grace and blessing.

Most services close with a benediction or blessing, and in many of our prayers we ask God to bless us. When we say “Bless me Lord” we’re asking God to speak well of us. If that sounds like a prayer for special treatment, look again at our Gospel reading. The people listed as blessed have all set aside earthly things and placed themselves in God’s hands. When we ask God’s blessing, that’s a purposeful thing: we’re only really ask God’s blessing when at the same time we’re offering ourselves to him. And his blessing is granted in our doing of his will, in our being light and hope and mercy for others, in our being channels in his name of love and peace.

After all, when God speaks his words are words of creation. Think of Genesis chapter 1: when God speaks, things come into being, creation happens, the world is made. To say “Bless me Lord,” is to ask for his word of re-creation in our lives, and for him to breathe his good purposes into us.

Matthew chapter 5 and Luke chapter 6 both list those who are blessed. But only Luke lists those who are not. Alas for you who are rich, he says. Alas for you who laugh. Now Jesus isn’t in fact condemning riches and happiness so much as short termism and short sightedness. It’s the people who don’t see beyond those transitory things who’ve put themselves outside God’s blessing. For God’s deep desire is to bless every single one of us. It was his word of blessing that brought all things into being. We push his blessing aside when we put our faith in transitory things, in the stuff that rots and rusts and gets moth eaten, and doesn’t pass the test of time.

To have those things may look good and feel good for a while, but in the end it’s a waste of our lives. I suppose the ultimate question at the heart of it all is: “Are we made for just this, the however many moments of our earthly lives, or are we made for more than this? Do we have the seeds of eternity within us?” You see, I think the people who are blessed are those who discern within themselves the seeds of eternity. They discover how God enriches us in blessing with a depth of joy - makarios - and speaks his affirming word into our hearts - eulogeo. To be blessed doesn’t mean we’re perfect, or that we get everything we want; it doesn’t mean we’re free of pain, or the life doesn’t continue to have it’s worries and troubles and struggles. Life goes on with all its messiness and uncertainty, but we are seeing beyond that. God’s blessing upon us requires that we first turn to him; but that blessing upon and within us makes us already citizens of heaven.

Friday, 8 February 2019

A Barn Owl by Day

We are so lucky to live in this part of the country - there’s so much variety in the landscape, with hills, woods, water, and a farming landscape with plenty of hedgerows and a fairly mixed agricultural economy. That doesn’t insulate us entirely from the big declines there have been in many formerly common farmland species. Turtle doves are no longer a feature of our summer landscape, for example, and birds like yellowhammer and corn bunting that I used to see easily I now have to hunt for.  The curlew’s call has ceased to be the reliable indicator of Spring that it used to be, and the winter flocks of lapwings, if seen at all, are much smaller than I remember them as a child.

But I was delighted the other day, driving up into Forden on the road from Chirbury, to have a really good and close view of a barn owl. It was late afternoon, but a very bright and sunny day, and the owl was just to my right, flying along the top of the hedge. This is something barn owls do a lot, and sadly quite a few are hot by vehicles. I recall standing for a long time outside the Halfway House pub on the Welshpool to Shrewsbury road, watching a barn owl drifting up and down the hedge on the other side of the road with solemn purpose.

But that was late at night, though under street lights. This was in bright sunshine, and the intricate patterning on its golden-buff back and wings was wonderfully visible. I was able to slow almost to the bird’s speed, there being nothing else on the road, and that allowed me to glance back at the distinctive heart-shaped face, which, like the underparts, is white. In fact the whole bird looks white when seen, say, in one’s headlights at night - and this, along with its shrieking cry which is uttered in flight, has given it a reputation as a bird of ill omen in folklore.

Like most owls, the barn owl is a night feeder, and you would think was plenty enough darkness at this time of the year, without the bird needing to hunt by day. However, we had had a touch of hard weather with some ice and snow, limiting the bird’s hunting options - and the breeding season starts quite early for barn owls. They can sometimes have two broods in the year, but they begin to breed in February or even earlier in a mild season, and it’s not impossible that this bird already had young to feed.

Barn owls feed mostly on voles, mice and rats, but will take other prey too. They do of course nest in barns and other buildings, but also in holes in trees or cliff sides. As with other birds of prey, the indigestible parts of their prey are egested as pellets, and examining these will give an idea of what the birds have been able to catch. The barn owl is found very widely in the world, and in most parts of the British Isles, but they are at risk from changes in the way we live and farm, and I’m glad to still see them fairly frequently in these parts.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Sermon for the 4th Sunday before Lent (proper 1)

Readings - I Corinthians 15.1-11, Luke 5.1-11 :-

Fear is an element in both our readings today. Paul, writing to the church he helped to found in Corinth, hints at the story we know from the Acts of the Apostles - how on the road to Damascus he encountered Jesus, and was blinded by that experience, but also changed - changed from the chief persecutor of the followers of Jesus into an apostle, into a teller of his story. And then in the Gospel we find Simon Peter terrified by the amazing haul of fishes he and his companions have brought up from the lake in response to what Jesus has told them to do. They’d fished all night without a catch, remember - and night is the time to fish, not a bright sunlit morning. His fearful response is to say - go, leave me, I’m a sinful man, I can’t cope with this.

Fear can paralyse us into doing nothing, keeping things as they are, refusing to change. Fear can persuade us that we can’t do it, that we’re not worthy of this or that responsibility, even that people won’t like us, or that what we say or do or offer will be rejected. Fear often works against reason, and it allows us to imagine only the possible bad outcomes as we look to the future. And although fear is actually a good thing, in that from our early days it helps keep us safe, if we allow fear to become our whole story, we’ll be trapped by it.

A phrase often used in church language but not much understood by the rest of the world is “the fear of the Lord.” God saves those who fear him, we say. The problem is that we tend to associate fear with cowering in terror, hiding under a rock, so fearing God translates in terms of fleeing from his wrath, hiding because he has the power to do terrible things to us. Because we’re not good enough, and never good enough, and he’s bound to punish us. Well, you can find something of that in the Old Testament, and maybe Peter’s response to Jesus is rather an Old Testament response. Peter recognises in Jesus the power of God. This man in his boat is not just a rabbi, he’s something so much more. And Peter is terrified. I’m not good enough for this, he realises.

So his reaction is to say, “Go, leave me!” It’s more than just uncomfortable to have God in his boat! But all through the Gospels we see how Jesus comes to where people are. And just as Jesus came to Simon Peter in his boat, and to so many others as he travelled and taught, so he comes to where we are; and yes, that can be uncomfortable, and yes, we can be very aware of our own deficiency, but he comes to call us, to enrol us, to ask us to do things. And he comes with love, he comes to change us, and to change the direction of our lives. I don’t know who first said this, but it’s a quote that’s often used: “God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way.”

To stay the same would be to go against what are baptized to be. To follow Jesus means not staying as we are, but growing in love, and accepting his challenge to live in a way that will help make the world around us a better place. It means responding to his love for us in the love we share and give and live. And we don’t have to be perfect in order for God to meet us and call us and use us - just willing as we are to drop our own baggage, to overcome our fears, and to say “yes” to his call to follow.

Peter and his friends did just that, once they’d brought their boats to shore, overflowing with the fish they’d caught. Luke tells us they followed him straight away. Jesus had told the fishermen that from now on they’d be catching people, not fish. And that they shouldn’t be afraid. The fish they’d caught were a sign of the blessing and the abundant mercies and the boundless love of God. As they set themselves to follow Jesus, the whole order of their lives had now changed, and even though things might get scary, even though there might be much in what lay ahead to make them afraid, they’d now be placing Jesus at the heart of every action or decision in their lives. They were replacing the fear that paralyses with the true “fear of the Lord” - which really means recognising God’s authority in our lives, placing him first, giving him honour in all that we do.

As Secretary of my local Rotary Club, I’m being bombarded at the moment with messages about making sure I’m using the right logo, because our corporate identity seems suddenly to have become really important. I’m getting some of the same from the Diocese as well, I have to say. Logos and straplines aim to establish identity, and to express common values and a shared ethic. That’s how business does it, and we’re all supposed to be getting more businesslike. Personally, I think too much emphasis on corporate identity can dampen individual flair and initiative.

But, having said that, I can also see how in business and more widely, it can be good to know clearly what your core values are. When major decisions have to be made about future policies or directions, it helps to ask “Will the outcome support our chosen core values?” - because if it won’t, then maybe those plans need to be changed. A clear sense of identity and purpose can make for clarity and consistency in planning, and that can help ensure that an organisation moves forward with energy and direction.

Applying that sort of ethos to Christian living, how might we, like Peter or Paul, place Jesus at the centre of our decision making and planning? I was always told to keep asking, “What Jesus would do?”, but maybe that’s not quite enough. I need also to ask, “What would Jesus have me do?” What is my list of values - and how do they square with the promises made at my baptism, or the list Paul gives us of the fruits of the spirit, or the “marks of mission” agreed by churches worldwide? These are values like aiming to serve Christ in all I do, being faithful to his example and word, proclaiming in what I say and do the gospel message of triumphant love in Jesus Christ; it has to do with meekness and  gentleness, with being a maker of peace, with being controlled in the way I see, act, respond. Do I really take these things as seriously as I should? Are they really at the centre of my life? And how would my life be different if they were?

At my collation service last September, I recall using the response, “I will, God being my helper”. To do it on my own won’t work - or to quote the old mission hymn “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way”. If I choose to follow Jesus, I’ll need God’s help to do it. There are too many other fears around, and the road ahead is unknown and full of challenge. To counter the fears that otherwise would tie me down, I need the fear of the Lord, I need to trust him as my Saviour.

So that’s my experience; my own preference might be to stay where it’s safe, to keep to what I know, to pull back from doing anything that might be scary, and to be much more aware of my limitations than my possibilities. In some areas of my life that very much continues to be the case. I am never going to get on a zip wire, for example, or do a parachute jump, and that’s that. But Jesus seems to have other plans for me than staying safe and settled. He insists on getting into my boat, no matter what. No matter whether I think I’m good enough, or able enough, or strong enough, no matter how great my fears might be. He says “Follow me” to all kinds of people, and he says it to me. Not just the once, but again and again: when I slip, when the fears take over, when I fall back or get discouraged, he says it again.

Jesus meets us where we are, and offers us his outstretched hand, calling us to travel with him into the unexpected, but meeting our fears with his grace, and inviting us to know his love and to share his love, as we follow.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Sermon at Candlemas . . .

Candlemas was actually yesterday, but the lectionary allows us to celebrate it today, so we will. It’s the last day of the Christmas - Epiphany season, and in fact it’s also one of the days people took to predict the end of winter. Here’s an old rhyme:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas be cloud and rain,
Winter be gone and not come again.

I’m sure that rhyme is the fruit of long years of observation and experience, so there'll be some truth in it. And if it reminds you vaguely of something else, that’s because February 2nd is also Groundhog Day in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the USA. If on that day a groundhog comes out and sees its own shadow, there’ll be six more weeks of winter; but if it can’t see its own shadow, that’s a sign that winter’s pretty much over. The custom probably came to Pennsylvania from Germany, where it referred to badgers rather than groundhogs. Whether it works as well in the USA as this side of the pond I couldn’t comment. But over here, bright and clear sunshine at the start of February can be a sign of a prevailing continental theme to the weather, so there’ll be low temperatures and sharp frosts. Cloudy conditions suggest that Atlantic weather systems are in charge, so we may have some mild south-westerlies bringing an early start to Spring.

Fat chance this year. And it’s not foolproof anyway, as another shrewd rhyme reminds us:
A farmer should on Candlemas day,
Have half his corn and half his hay.
In other words, make sure you’ve still got some fodder laid in, because no-one should never be fooled by an early splash of spring weather into thinking winter’s over and done with. It’s usually got a trick or two up its sleeve - like another Beast from the East, perhaps.

'Groundhog Day' for most people is perhaps more likely to remind them of the 1993 film than the Pennsylvanian custom. Bill Murray played a weatherman who seemed doomed to live Groundhog Day over and over again, until he found a sort of redemption. But what bearing has any of that on the Christian feast of Candlemas or the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple? Not a lot at first sight - but maybe there’s the sense of being on the crux of things; Candlemas is a watershed point in the Christian year. And we might also think of Christ the light of the world releasing us from a sort of Groundhog Day spiral of repeated failure and sin. Simeon and Anna in the Temple saw the sign that something new was about to begin: the winter of the people’s separation from God's mercy and love was over.

Only Luke out of the Gospel writers tells this story. Keeping the customs is one of his themes, and here Mary and Joseph are doing what law and custom require of them; as a first-born son their son is deemed to belong to the Lord, so they must bring him to the Temple, present him there, and buy him back with the sacrificial gift they offer in his stead. They brought the poor person's offering of a couple of pigeons or doves.

Surely every parent wonders at times like these, like a special birthday or a Christening: “What lies ahead for us as a family, what will our child grow up to be?” In the Temple that day were two people who could read the signs and tell the parents of this child. Like those unknown people who made up those old rhymes about the weather, Simeon and Anna had been around a long time; they had a wealth of experience, the harvest of years of watching, waiting and hoping. And now Simeon says: "Lord, now you can let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation." We sing his words as the Nunc Dimmitis at every service of Evening Prayer or Compline; and I think Luke set them down with that intention. This is a great canticle of faith, structured like one of the Psalms.

Candlemas has a pivotal role in the traditional Church calendar, as the end of the great Christmas season. My article in the magazine this month describes being in Krakow at a time when I thought Christmas was over, and finding that there it was still in full swing. But then Candlemas turns our thoughts from the gift of the Christ child to what it is that child will do; and by tradition it has been one of the days when we revisit our own baptism vows and are be re-presented to our Lord. 

A few years ago I attended a conference at which the then presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States was a keynote speaker. Her talk was quite compelling and moving, and part of her message was something that up till then hadn’t really occurred to me - that every time we come to the table at Holy Communion we are consciously remaking our baptism vows and placing them at the heart of our lives.

At one level I knew that was true. After all, Paul speaks about our being baptized into the death of Christ (and dying to our old selves so as to gain new life in him) - and the Holy Communion is our close encounter with that death. This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you . . . poured out for you, as one communion song puts it. Here we are consciously brought into the presence of our crucified Lord, brought to the foot of the cross, and to the sacrifice only he could make, once and for all.

But what I hadn’t considered was that my baptism vows are something I should be living every day. Maybe I’d thought of them more as one-off promises made once as an act of membership. But we are baptized into the death of Christ so we can receive his life and put that gift to use, and every act of Holy Communion remakes that connection. Let’s think a moment about those promises made at baptism, or made for us: we promise to repent of our sins, to renounce evil, and to turn to Christ.

I try to follow the rule of Francis of Assisi. I'm not all that good at being a Franciscan, but I do have a rule of life to guide me and help me structure and discipline my life as a Christian, and I think I'd do a lot less well as a Christian without it. I feel it's one way of taking those baptism promises seriously. My rule of life is my way of trying to follow the Lord, to present my life to him as an offering. And while a structured rule won't be for everyone, all of us should I think be constantly considering how best to offer ourselves to God.

And that must involve repenting of our sins: in other words, being honest about our failures and doing our best to correct them, and wanting to do better, to grow in holiness and obedience (and remembering that sin isn't just naughty things we do, more often it's all the good stuff we pass up on doing). Then renouncing evil: doing what we can to make the world a better place, by opposing the things that are bad, things like greed, selfishness, prejudice, injustice, hurtful actions and words -opposing these at three levels, if you like: within our own selves, within the places where we live and work, and within the wider world. And lastly, but most importantly, turning to Christ, because we won’t manage any of that on our own; to do all of this we need to be taking Christ as our example, depending on him as our Saviour, and coming regularly and prayerfully to him as our Friend.

Today Simeon speaks of the light to lighten the nations: Christ whose glory fills the skies. He could see that the long dark winter of our souls is over because this child is given; that the spring of God's mercy is newly begun, and all the world will share that light and mercy and saving love. That’s the story we’ll be following through the next few weeks of ordinary time, and then on into Lent, as we walk with our Lord the way of the cross. The message of today is simply this: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. For he did, and he does, and the child blessed by Simeon and marvelled over by Anna now calls me and you to shine with the light he brings, so all the world may see and know his love.