Monday, 8 July 2019

You reap as you sow

Galatians 6:1-16

What a plum cake of a passage we have just heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There are lots of fruit to pick out :

Bear one another’s burdens
Restore (forgive) in the spirit of gentleness
For all must carry their own loads
Share in all good things
You reap whatever you sow
Let us not grow weary in doing what is right

Now having got you all here early thought i had better choose only one of these to talk about otherwise you will be home later than usual. So I thought to ponder on “You reap whatever you sow.” This was a favourite of my maternal grandmother, but then Nana had many little sayings and not a few superstitions (about magpies, stirring tea and lumps of coal and so on) She invariably used this one as an admonition - Look out don’t do that or say that = you’ll reap as you sow. Maybe she had in m knd the Old English edition that says “He that sows thistles shall reap prickles” or even the Biblical quotation from Hosea: “For they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” Certainly for me reaping and sowing had bad connotations for some time.

Paul though is speaking in the positive : Old English again: “He that sows good seed shall reap good corn.” How unfashionable that way of thinking has become.

Donald Trump for example. Well he would always seem to be sowing bad seed. His campaign for the presidency was uncivil, his trade wars, the latest with Europe where he wants to put tariffs on whiskey and cheese are aggressive, his relations with Iran …. How can he expect to form any future long term dialogue with a nation that he often threatens to obliterate? It has become almost unthinkable in our modern adversarial culture to begin any negotiation by being generous. Why I wonder did we not three years ago at the beginning of the Brexit discussion say that we would grant EU residents in the UK the right to stay? We were going to end up there anyway. Instead we put it in the pot for discussion causing distress to individuals and losing in my opinion respect and global reputation.

People are surprised when you sow good seed and they do not know quite what to make of it. One late evening a week or so ago in tee shirt and shorts I was in a food shop where there was a lady trying to work out where to obtain a telephone charger because she had left her one at home and was now here on holiday incommunicado. Tempted though I was to discuss the merits of that I butted in : “I can lend you one of mine” I said.  There followed a discussion as to whether she could trust this strange man who had made this proposal - her need for a charger overcame her reluctance and along she came to collect it. Having been told in the meantime that I was the rector the second thing she said to me was : “I suppose it is your job to be kind to people!”

So you see the thought that someone might simply make an unsolicited offer of help needed questioning - firstly it was met with suspicion - “what is this strangers motive for this, what is in it for him? And secondly it was thought to be my job perhaps like a policeman or a nurse “ Ah, now I understand he is being paid to do this. “

Paul says that if you sow in the flesh you will reap corruption, but if you sow in the spirit you will reap eternal life from the spirit. Paul is talking long term and this makes all the difference. It is easy to win a one off bargain but if you want to establish a substantive and lasting relationship you have to sow and cultivate quite different seeds: you must sow not thistles but good quality corn.

And what could be more long term than the promise of eternal life?


Monday, 17 June 2019

The Blessing

The Aaronic Blessing

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

The book of Numbers lies between Leviticus and Deuteronomy and tells the story of Israel’s wandering in the desert for 38 years from Mount Sinai to Mount Horeb on the border with canaan, the promised land. There are as you might expect lots of rules - similar to Leviticus and Deuteronomy and indeed Exodus the regulations for being a faithful Israelite are laid down in painstaking detail. It is called the book of numbers because of the census found in chapter one : here is a sample :

“And so he counted them in the deserts of Sinai:

“From the descendants of Reuben, the first born son of Israel :
All the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army were listed by name, one by one according to the records of their clans and families. The number of the tribe of Reuben was 46,500.”

And this formula continues for the tribe of Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher and Naphthali. There follows a description of how all these men are lined up in battle - Frankly this book is an unlikely bedtime read - one is more likely to look for Isaiah, Ruth, Jonah or Genesis ….

But then we come to this evening’s reading which follows some detailed rules of how to be a Nazarite. To be honest with you I did not know it was here - this poetic paragraph in the middle of the bulk of the book. It would be easily missed but that it stands out from everything before and the lists of offerings that immediately follow: again one for each tribe:

“The one who brought his offering on the first day was Nahshon, son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah:

His offering was one silver plate weighing a hundred and thirty shekels, and one silver sprinkling bowl weighing …. And this goes on for a little while.

Not only does it stand out but this is a blessing that I tend to use for informal services or perhaps a service of Baptism where there are lots of young people and so to find that its origins lie in one of the books written by Moses is a discovery. There is to my mind a celtic feel to it :

Compare for example:

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rain fall softly on your fields
Until we meet again
May God hold you
In the hollow of his hand.

Which also has those references to sun and being held.

All of which goes to show that the Bible can still surprise us - that this library of books, history, law, prophecy, stories, songs, poetry and pictures is rich beyond measure and is really the only book we need on that desert island -

And now the Aaronic blessing as conceived by John Rutter


Trinity and Wisdom

To the majority of you here it will come as no surprise that Wisdom is a woman! “She takes her stand, she cries out.Does not Wisdom call and does not understanding raise her voice?” We have this reading on Trinity Sunday to help us begin to contemplate the mystery of God. St. Augustine said “If you think you understand something then that something is not God.” Or try this: Looking for God is like looking directly into the sun - there is brilliance, warmth, absolute brightness but so much unknown and unseen. Because of the difficulty of the topic I have in recent years delegated the preaching on the Trinity to the curate ……

We know that this subject of the Trinity was difficult for the early church, that the creed we say was only agreed in 381 BC and then under pressure from Constantine the Great, we know that it is difficult for other faiths to accept - Muslims consider us polytheist  and yet it is a defining part of our belief. The test for a church wanting to jon Churches together in England is are they trinitarian?

The passage about Wisdom is wonderful imagery but I also suggest it is a helpful place to begin thinking about the nature of God.

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago; when there were no depths I was brought forth; When he established the heavens I was there , when he drew a circle on the face of the deep … then I was beside him…. And I was daily his delight.”

A mysterious and beautiful  passage but also revealing. The first of God’s acts shows that God is NOT solitary. That God who created the world is rich complex diverse and unfathomable should not be a surprise; that he is not to be represented as a bearded white male and so somehow alienated from many millions who have other identities is clear. Wisdom was beside him and we are told that SHE and God rejoice together, “I was daily his delight”

Wisdom and God have a relationship and so there is an emotion there, even before creation.

God is ever revealing himself and God can only reveal Godself (himself, herself) as God is - there can be no distortion - God cannot reveal anything that is not God - our understanding is of course severely limited but what we are shown can only be God

And so the beginning is the creation of the world - God showing us a glimpse of wonder, beauty and perfection that we barely know even after all these thousands of years.

Secondly the disciples understood in the end, if slowly and stumblingly that Jesus was divine - but as well they could see that he was separate from the Father. After all Jesus prayed to the Father - there is a relationship between them.

At Pentecost which we explored last Sunday the disciples experience a power amongst them and within them which allows them to begin the work of the church - reconciling the imperfectly understood languages but a sign of this. They knew, for they had seen Jesus leave them, that the Holy Spirit was not Jesus; they had heard him say “I will ask the Father and he will send you a counsellor to be among you.” They knew there was a relationship between them.

Again, God can only reveal God. These three elements of revealing tell us something, The doctrine of the Trinity redescribes God in the light of the EVENTS , the events of creation, of the coming of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of God’s transforming spirit.

Just as we saw that there was a relationship at the start - so there is one between the three. The three indwell and pervade each other, an infinite current of love streams without ceasing (we heard - I was ever his delight - there was always love, there was love before anything) and it streams unceasingly between the three persons of the trinity. The Greeks, and this may be the only word of Greek I ever use - called this perichoresis - we have no word for this - no word for the perfect flowing of love - no way of describing how God is love and always has been but God reveals through Jesus and the Holy Spirit that this is so and that he wants a relationship with us.


Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Ascension - Sunday evensong sermon

Ascension Thursday

I have had over the years to compose the occasional farewell speeches including the one to my last parish, so I have had a recent taste of the challenges of valedictory remarks; the ones that are the more difficult are when you leaving a team that you have built myself which is what Jesus had to do. To the disciples way of thinking He was leaving too soon, everyone on the team had been chosen by Jesus and  even if he thought they were strong enough the road ahead was steep and he wanted to leave them with helpful advice. This is a tricky problem.

The disciples had come together having seen Jesus several times in the forty days since his resurrection and now they were impatient, they want to know exactly what will happen next and when it will happen. Jesus quickly dismisses their all too human concerns about when the kingdom will come and instead sets out both a mission and the means by which it is to be accomplished. Jesus had previously promised that the Holy Spirit would come “the gift” from the Father but now he tells them why.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, in Judea , in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” These are the same men remember who will shelter in the upper room for fear of their lives worried about the authorities yet they have been given the task of establishing the church that is to spread the Gospel to all the world.

The courage and power that they will have to do this is to be given to them from God the Father and will be the same that propelled Jesus - imagine that for a moment - the power of the Holy Spirit is the same , the same Spirit that was in Jesus, that drove and shaped his ministry,  will be given to the church to fulfil its missionary purpose.

“After he said this he was taken up”. This immediate ascension amplifies and confirms that the Spirit is the same, for it is a necessary pre-cursor that Jesus be welcomed into heaven before the Spirit can be sent. Luke writing this first chapter of the book of Acts takes descriptive care to be sure we engage and understand this moment.

In my many travels through airports I have seen many farewells at the departure gate. Some I agree are perfunctory but the really meaningful ones are when the person saying goodbye, man or woman, boy or girl, lingers long after the passenger has gone through; they stand on tip-toe or crane their necks from  side to side hoping to catch an extra glimpse through the crowd or on a walkway and then when all chances of another sighting, a final wave or an extra blown kiss have passed they stay looking at the space, the doorway perhaps, simply remembering.

Such are the disciples, looking intently up into the sky as a cloud hid him from their sight. The picture strikes us as completely true, exactly what we expect when someone we love leaves us his farewell speech ringing in our ears.

And from now on a page is turned, the disciples have their instructions. They must wait in Jerusalem before being empowered to launch the work they have been given and to start the greatest missionary journey of all time. With Paul, who at this point they do not know at all, they will take the story on a journey from the shores of Galilee to the centre of the then known world to Rome itself. A journey that continues today with the church, and with each one of us a journey propelled by the risen and living Christ.

Monday, 27 May 2019

John 5:1-9 Do you want to be made well?

There are a number of things in these nine short verses which commentators and academics worry about. Some of them have spent time trying to identify which festival of the Jews it was, Weeks, Booths, Passover and so on,  others whether the pool was by the Jerusalem Sheep gate or whether it was a sheep pool somewhere else, whether the place is called Bethzatha, Bethsaida, Bethesda and a few others, and whether 38 years is a direct reference to a verse in Deuteronomy referring to the time the israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. Now it may be that if you are looking for a subject for a PhD one of these might do but what has caught my attention is Jesus’ question.

“Do you want to be made well?”

So here is a man who has been ill for a long time and since 38 years can stand for a generation maybe from birth, but in any case a long while. He has been coming to the healing pool often enough to know the mythology that you have to be one of the first in the pool once the waters are stirred up - perhaps by bubbling from underground mineral springs - and who is yet lying there. So is Jesus’ question redundant ? Why does he ask it?

Notice that the man’s answer is not straight forward. He simply says that he cannot get into the pool. Like me you may have met people who by our assessment and language seem ill and who weave their identity around that. Frequently it is something you are told early on in an acquaintance  “I suffer from X” and you are then obliged to some degree to frame your knowledge and understanding by this X. I sometimes then wonder to myself does this person want to be free of X or would that take away so much of who they are that they would be terrified?  “I am the man who has been paralysed for thirty-eight years, I am the one who lies by this pillar by this pool - this is what I do. I am brought here in the morning and I wait.”

On Any Questions that is the one on the wireless some years ago they were debating depression, when one of the panelists made what I thought was a telling point: “I used to suffer from depression badly and I only began to get better, to take the first steps after I came to believe and then imagine that I could be well.” or going back to our story  “Look, Jesus I am telling you there is no-one to take me to the pool and in any case it would be no use; for thirty eight years I have been like this, it is the way it is and it will always be.”

Jesus’ question is far from redundant for not all will answer it positively.

It is also a beautifully worded question - not “Do you want to walk?” or  Do you want to carry your mat?” but do you want to be made WELL? With all the spiritual nuance of that word.

In just a moment I will go to the altar and say this

“Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith to all who truly turn to him:
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.”

These are words of invitation which is how I hear Jesus’ question to the man lying by the pool: Be clear it is not the man who asks but Jesus, Jesus takes the initiative.

So the question is not only pertinent but it needs to be asked.

Please let those words of invitation that I shall say in a moment dwell in you - hold fast to them, keep hold of the thought that He will refresh us whatever our burdens. Then wonder, when thinking of those we know who could be made whole by a knowledge of God’s love what our proper  response should be.

 It is far from easy this evangelism - Jesus was able to say to an unknown man “Do you want to be healed?”  Now we do not have Jesus’ power to heal nor his confidence to minister nor his resilience should the answer be no. And it might be “no” because they do not want to be “made well” or perhaps cannot imagine what being well in this way would be like. But maybe we could in knowing that turning unto Him is the first step,maybe we could reach out to someone offer them an invitation and try to help them into the pool.


Monday, 20 May 2019

Isaiah 61 a manifesto

As far as I can understand it the newly formed Brexit party does not have a manifesto. There is a single idea, followed by a statement that we will all find out later what we have voted for.

More than 2500 years ago we discover that the prophet Isaiah had a much better approach and if I may say, a much better style. Chapter 61 is a well known poem sometimes said to be the fifth Servant Song and is quite stunning in some of its imagery. It was of course quoted by Jesus himself and we read that in the Gospel of Luke chapter 4.

“He went to the synagogue on the sabbath day as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written :

“The spirit of the Lord is upon  me
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the recovery of sight to the blind
To let the oppressed go free
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Note that this is deliberate, Jesus searched for this passage, looked for it found it and so proclaimed that He was the anointed one. “Today,” he says the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The full passage of isaiah 61 as we heard it divides into four sections: the first identifies the servant - and to a degree it refers to Isaiah also who is but a pale shadow of Christ.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. It is clear to us, post resurrection, who Isaiah is talking about.  And then the manifesto:

To bring good news to the oppressed - that israel would be delivered from the Babylonian exile, from sin and be restored.
To bind up the broken hearted - to mend the hearts of those so broken by life that they despair of even having hope
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour - note that there is a year of favour but only a day of vengeance - the good will last much longer.
To comfort those who mourn - not simply those who have lost loved ones but those who believe their sins have doomed them.

These are the bullet points the things listed on the front page of the leaflet that dropped through your letterbox, and then turning over come the benefits and practical consequences of the coming of the Messiah.

They shall build up the ancient ruins, the city shall be rebuilt, no longer slaves their flocks and their vines shall be tended by others so freeing the Israelites to be priests once more and the coming of the anointed one inaugurates a new and everlasting covenant.

So rightly this is celebrated in the fourth section in a marvelous hymn of praise, which begins “i will greatly rejoice in the Lord” and follows with line upon line of metaphor and pictures:

For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.

Now that is a manifesto - and in verse.


Sunday, 19 May 2019

What is God saying to us today?

Acts 11: 1-18

When your teenage child goes away on a trip with their friends the last thing they want is news of their activities to get back to you!. Somehow though this is what happened to Peter and  he returns from Joppa and Caesarea to face hostile questions from home. The believers criticised him, saying “you went into the home of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” On the conservative Catholic internet forums there are blogs which are highly critical of Pope Francis because he published a document which tentatively opens the door to the admission to Holy Communion of Catholics who had remarried after divorce. Our Anglican church is still prone to disagreements about women: a lady curate in my old deanery was left in no doubt that she was unwelcome in a conservative congregation whether in her collar or not. The common thread in these examples is a robust adherence may be I could say a rigid adherence to doctrine.

Our reading this morning is from the book of Acts, a faithful retelling of Peter’s experience on the rooftop which is told as it happened only a chapter before. “Peter went up onto the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat and while the meal was being prepared he fell into a trance.” It must have been an extreme shock to Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus where the food laws are expounded were after all written by Moses. Peter’s scriptural understanding and long tradition, all he knew said “No, by no means Lord for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But the Lord God persisted and three times, by which metaphor we understand repeatedly and strongly, the vision and command were given.
Even so Peter was unsure, as we can read in the earlier “live” edition: “While Peter was greatly perplexed about what to make of the vision, that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius arrived.” Peter knew Jesus, had walked with him, sat at his feet and listened to him had watched him eat with sinners and yet this event in the roof, this confrontation with something new shook him. The outcome, that he did visit and did eat with Cornelius provoked criticism.

Note that Peter does not respond to his critics by saying “I think that what I did was right” or even by saying “you are wrong” but rested his case in what he and his six companions discerned what God was saying to them and to the early church.

A few weeks ago I was at a small social event when one of the gathering, not a churchgoer, spotting the new rector thought to move in over the canapes and white wine onto the subject of gay marriage. Now I am as fond of doing battle over the knives and forks as the next person but it was neither the time nor the place and in any case the question bore a note of hostility.

The real answer is that it does not matter what the ultra conservatives say about Pope Francis, nor our own anglo catholics about women bishops, nor what the rector thinks about gay marriage: It matters only what God thinks and is saying to us at this time. And like Peter we may be surprised if we really knew but of course we do not.

What I do know though is that the living God is continuing to reveal themselves to us and does have something to say to our time and our context and when we discern that, when we work out what that is,  it will allow us to develop doctrine just as the believers in Jerusalem were able to adapt and welcome gentiles to the faith. Peter was gifted a clear vision to give to the Jerusalem brothers “who when they heard it were silenced.” For us it is not so easy; discovering God’s will in our information saturated world of multiple and various opinions, needs grace and prayerfulness, most often more time than we expect, a willingness to listen, to be open, no hostile questions, and most of all love.