Trinity (Year B) – 27th May 2018
Text: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts!”
My brother-in-law has a father who is about to enjoy his 104th birthday – on 1st July this year. Tom is fit beyond his years, and lives independently at home with his bachelor son, has every marble he ever had – but has, mercifully, only last year given up driving the car! He is one of three brothers, one of whom lived to 97 and the other to just short of 99 – so there must be something in the genes (or the water!). Nowadays a lot of scientific research goes into what makes us live so long – as well as what makes some people shorter-lived than others. Recently something like a thousand British centenarians responded to a questionnaire, and rather unsurprisingly it flagged up a number of things that distinguished them from people who live a less-than-expected lifespan. There were the expected things such as regular daily exercise throughout their lives, never having had a serious illness and so on; but this wasn’t by any means always the case, but there was what the statisticians call a ‘correlation’ between these things and longevity. But quite a lot of people who go for a brisk walk, a jog or a cycle-ride every day die young, so you can’t simply say it’s cause and effect. The most interesting thing about most of the centenarians who responded was that they thought of themselves as having an optimistic outlook on life; but which is the cause and which is the effect? Are they optimistic because life has gone so well for them – or did their life goes so well for them because they are optimistic people? Ask the scientists, and they say they’ll never be able to answer that question – in fact, one of the scientists conducting the survey concluded that the main benefit of doing the research was discovering how little we know! Maybe the only thing we can say with any sort of certainty is that birthdays must be good for you because the more you have, the longer you live!
If what the scientists concluded at the end of their survey is true of physical science, then how much more true it must be of what we might call the science of God. Perhaps you had no idea there was such a thing as the science of God. It’s sometimes called theology – the logic of theos – the Greek word for ‘God”; and it’s what you hear from this lectern week by week on Sundays, as David and I try to talk logically about God. And I find that the more I do that, the more I realize what you must by now have realized – just how little I know about the subject! Trying to talk about what God might be like teaches us another important lesson – that the more we talk about Him, the more we realize that we know very little about His nature, and that there are many questions to which we will never know the answer this side of the grave. That’s not to say – I hope – that everything you hear from here on any given Sunday is complete nonsense – well, not all of it! It can only be a tiny fraction of the mysterious truth we call God, and only seen – as St Paul reminds us – through something like a clouded, misted-up mirror. We heard in our first reading about the encounter Isaiah had with the seraphim in the Temple as the heavenly choirs sang: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” But what does holiness mean, and what is glory? We don’t know that either – we may never know – but those words give us a sense of mystery. Perhaps the benefit of us singing those words in Church is to remind us how little we know; but it might make us more humble in our approach to the things of God – certain that God exists, but aware of how little we know or understand.
Today is Trinity Sunday, when all that is brought into focus as we celebrate the mystery of Three Persons in one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Because we generally like things neatly packaged, we like to say things like - God we know as Father lies behind the Creation of all that is – ‘visible and invisible’ as we remind ourselves in the Creed – though we will never understand how He did it; that we learn from God we see in Jesus Christ that He loves us like a loving father loves His children; we also believe that the character of God was revealed in the life of Jesus; and finally that God lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who can empower us to do things we could never do on our own. This is beyond our complete understanding, and joins the long list of things we class as ‘mystery’. But I found the description of God which I heard on Thought for the Day once on Radio 4 hugely helpful and delightfully simple – “God is a circle, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”. Some might say that if think you understand that, you’re a fool; if you deny it, then you’re a heretic!
But there is a way to learn more about God, and the best way is through the one thing we believe marks His personality – and that’s love. I often think God put us here to be mirrors – mirrors that reflect and project – however badly - something of His essence and something of what He wants of and for us. The love that we try to understand as being the thing that binds the Trinity into unity at the heart of God’s being is the thing above all else that we are called to reflect. I believe this is one way of understanding what it means to be made in the image of God – after all, an image is a reflection or a projection; because when our love of God and of one another grows deep enough, we always realize there’s room for more. This is what Bishop Michael Currie was saying in his sermon at the royal wedding a week ago.
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”, the angels sang for Isaiah. Yes, any understanding we may try to have of the Holy Trinity is bewildering, like trying to address any really profound questions, whether in science or in matters of faith. So, my advice is don’t try to understand it – I can’t believe that God realistically expects that of any of us – and perhaps it’s not for us to know or understand. We can’t come to any conclusions about God the Holy Trinity in the way a scientific survey might expect to do. Instead, I’ll just share a little reflection I have found helpful: “God is complete gift, and that gift cannot be controlled or pinned down, or it will lose its power to change things and its capacity to surprise.” And what a pity it would be if we lost that!
Easter 5 – Year B – 29th April 2018
I wonder what or who it was that had the most influence on you becoming a Christian or continuing in your Christian faith? Who was it that inspired you to make that first enquiry – or when your faith became a bit wobbly (as can happen to all of us) who or what was it that brought you back? Perhaps it was the joy you saw in someone because of their faith? – or perhaps it was to do with something at the other end of the scale, a bereavement or some other sense of loss – or of being adrift. If you ask this of most Christians, just as many of the responses will involve people as events. It might have been a member of the clergy or a trained minister, but in the majority of cases that doesn’t always help. It is often ordinary people who so often walk with us and are then enabled to share their stories of faith – as well as the challenges that faith can bring. It’s been said that Churches don’t need sophisticated resources to grow; what they need is high quality relationships. Our readings this morning talk about the importance of relationships – our relationship with God and with others – and good relationships enable growth – our spiritual growth and the growth of the kingdom of God.
I have a special fondness for this account of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, which we heard in our first reading this morning. This is not thought to be the Philip who had been one of the disciples of Jesus. This is different Philip – Philip the Evangelist. He stands for Mr Ordinary. He wasn’t a famous preacher like Simon-Peter, who went and preached a grand sermon and three thousand people were converted in one day. As far as we know, he wasn’t like Billy Graham – a great orator taking the Gospel into people’s living-rooms, or who assembled vast crowds at which people made wholesale commitments to Jesus. He was among the first deacons – charged with caring for the poor and powerless, appointed to look after the widows and those who fell through the cracks of society; but the thread running through the whole of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles also tells us how God’s Spirit can come down on the most unlikely of people, empowering them to talk to others – sometimes just one particular person - about Jesus Christ and his love for all people.
The story we’re dealing with in our first reading this morning takes place in the weeks or months after the first Easter Day. Philip was part of the community of Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem. Perhaps they didn’t want to go out into the countryside, or out into other villages or further afield to other places with the Gospel; these first Christians wanted to remain just in Jerusalem – partly for their own safety. But we’re told that an inner voice said to Philip: “Get up and go, Philip. Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This was Samaritan territory, and to say that Samaritans and Jews didn’t get on with each other is a massive understatement. There was enormous prejudice and mistrust between them. So imagine Philip’s surprise when he felt God call him to go and head for Samaria, via Gaza and the inhospitable Wilderness Road.
But the God of Surprises had a specific task for him right there, in that most unlikely of places. He sees a magnificent caravan passing through – the entourage of a high-ranking Ethiopian eunuch. God says to Philip, “Go and talk to him.” Now, in those days Jewish tradition held that eunuchs were not allowed to be part of the Kingdom of God. Being an incomplete man meant that you were an abomination – pretty hard-line stuff for us these days - and no matter how highly he was regarded by his queen, he would have been shunned as an outsider in Jerusalem. But he’s clearly been struck by something profound during his visit. Perhaps he’d found something about the Jewish faith which strangely attracted him, so he had made his way to Jerusalem to worship and on his return, with access to the scriptures, he was reading them. He was searching for God not in the official place of worship in the Temple, but in the desert. So Philip takes his courage in both hands, and goes over to the man in the chariot and asks him, “What are you reading?” The man says he’s reading Isaiah chapter 53, where it talks about a lamb being led to the slaughter. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “No.” “Let me explain”, says Philip.
How frustrating it is that we don’t have the details of what passed between those two, just as we don’t know just how Jesus opened the scriptures to his friends on the Emmaus road. Perhaps Philip just told his story, which somehow struck a cord in this court official’s heart. Philip just told the story of his journey with Jesus to someone else who longed to make it part of his road too. The act of telling then became part of his journey – and ours too. We are often under the misapprehension that we have to be qualified in some way that is beyond us to share the good news of the Gospel, or that we have to have a Theology degree so that we can use just the right words; but in fact all we need to do is share our story – our story of faith - what God means to us and how we have known his love in our lives.
As Philip told his story to this stranger, the man asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip responds with action rather than words; and so this man is baptized into Jesus Christ by Philip – a man who from his childhood was carefully taught to sustain a prejudice against just such as him and others who didn’t fit the mould. Wherever the seeds of God’s Kingdom are planted, it bears a fruit which has no room and no time for prejudice – most particularly the sort that excludes people. How worryingly good the Church has been historically at doing just this – manipulating the Gospel message to decide who’s in and who’s out, and pointing the finger of judgment at others. Philip doesn’t allow himself to be encumbered by that sort of baggage – he throws it off and reaches out to and includes this man who would ordinarily be considered utterly beyond the pail simply because of who he is.
The story of Philip is about an ordinary person who shared his faith with a stranger, and just like him, we are called to get up and go to others and share our faith in Christ, what we know and have experienced with Jesus, one on one. The call to do this is nothing to with growth targets set us by the Church bigwigs, but simply because we have something we sincerely believe is worth sharing. So, join Philip – take him as your model – and ‘go forth and tell’ as the hymn tells us to do. Become the story-teller of your faith and journey, and become part of that seed-planting work which lies at the heart of being a follower of Jesus. Or better still – be that person who plants the seed of a Gospel-tree in whose shade you may never sit, praying that rooted in God it can bear fruit in our own lives and the
lives of others – all in God’s own good time. And, of course, everything I’ve said in the last 10 minutes comes with the proviso given by St Francis to his disciples – “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if you have to”. Amen.
Palm Sunday 2018
(preached by the Rev’d David Higgon – Associate Priest)
On Easter Eve in the foyer of the Chapel of Christ the Pilgrim at Ranby Prison I would gather together the prisoners who regularly attended church to read the Passion Narrative just as we read it today on Palm Sunday.
There were always plenty of volunteers to read the parts but there was one part that no one wanted to read, that was always left to me to read.
Which part do you think it was – the part of Jesus or the part of the narrator? No, the part I always read was that of Judas.
No one wants to be Judas.
Judas was a grass, a snitch, a police informer. Judas was beyond the bounds of forgiveness or the possibility of redemption.
Well let us walk a little while with Judas through this account of the Passion.
The drama of the Passion Narrative begins two days before the Passover.
At an ordinary meal a woman approaches Jesus and does an extraordinary thing.
Perhaps intuition tells her that Jesus will not be with them long, and she wants to show her great love for him.
Perhaps intuition tells Judas the same thing, but his reaction is very different. The ship he has jumped aboard is not bound for glory to a land laden with treasure and triumph, it appears instead to be sinking and must be abandoned.
When we face the prospect of failure in our lives or in our world, do we jump ship with Judas or like the woman do we stay.
The drama moves on and we are with Jesus and his disciples at the last Supper,
Jesus knows that the one who will betray him is seated with him sharing his table.
But this does not stop him washing Judas’ feet. It does not stop him offering Judas the bread that is his body or the wine that is his blood. Again and again Judas is offered another chance, an opportunity to change his mind.
So too is forgiveness held out to us constantly; it is always available for us.
It is up to us to decide whether we will accept it or not.
Now we are In the place called Gethsemane, in the garden.
Here the Son of Man is betrayed, betrayed by his friend and companion Judas.
It is within Jesus, power to annihilate those who betrayed him and those who will arrest him, but he does not do so.
In this moment of high tension and confrontation -Jesus does not condemn or punish Judas.
With a determined act, Jesus breaks the cycle of vengeance: - - the Scriptures must be fulfilled.
And Judas’ is the unwitting agent of their fulfilment.
In the darkness of the garden, Jesus turns towards the light of God and finds there the strength to fulfil his purpose.
We, too, must not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by darkness, but instead to turn always towards the light, trusting in God’s loving purpose for us. Amen
Epiphany 2 – 14th January 2018
(preached by the Rev’d David Higgon – Associate Priest)
Did you notice how economic Jesus was in the use of his language? He found Philip and said to him ‘follow me’ and Philip in turn says to Nathaniel ‘come and see’. These short soundbites – come and see, follow me – are a gift in our texting, tweeting, messaging, emailing, Facebooking Instagram culture.
Now I am ambiguous about social media and am often confused by it. What is the point of Twitter?
Social media is a two edged sword capable of great benefits and but which also can have negative effects especially on young lives where it can expose them to significant emotional risk.
It has a negative effect on me at times. I find myself checking my phone for messages and emails, and I should know better, as my formative years were lived well before the advent of social media and mobile phones, in what my children quaintly refer to as the olden days.
I too have been conditioned to expect an instant response to my communications – I find myself getting annoyed when I am trying to get hold of someone and I receive the response I am sorry that the person you are calling is unavailable please leave a message after the tone, or when people don’t phone me back after I leave a message. I also get annoyed when I get calls I didn’t expect from people calling me or trying to scam me.
Can I ask you, when did you last get an unexpected call from God? Perhaps you have but haven’t recognised it or acted on it. Samuel hears God ‘s call but doesn’t recognise it because as it says, the word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were not widespread. So perhaps like Samuel, we are not expecting a call from God. Well that maybe a little surprising given the commitment we made together last week.
Who remembers the prayer that Nicholas led us in last week, the Methodist Covenant Prayer?
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,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have 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
The focus of the prayer was to open our lives to God’s calling. In the Methodist Church the payer is the focal point of the annual covenant service which is held specifically to help people hear God’s offer and God’s challenge to us both individually and as a community of faith together.
What God offers through the Covenant is a loving relationship. It is not like a business contract for the provision of goods and services, with scripture as the contractual small print, containing penalties for non compliance of our contractual obligations. Rather, it is the means of grace by which we accept the relationship God offers and then seek to sustain it by how we live our lives.
You could say that the Methodist Covenant prayer is bit like a set of New Year Resolutions, but ones which emphasise the importance of doing and being as much as believing. Yet more than that, the prayer represents a commitment to being a disciple and putting God first in our lives in what we do, what we say and who we are as I have said both individually and together as Church.
Last year we registered as an Eco Congregation which means the church will focus more on environmental issues. And at our vestry meeting when we agreed to follow this initiative, it was seen as a vestry as being part of our mission for outreach into our community.
John’s Gospel opens with the words, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ – and it is our language ability, our words and especially our intention to communicate that makes us unique amongst God’s creatures. We can use words to spread the gospel and but we can also bring the kingdom closer through our actions in our care for this world.
The start of our eco congregation journey begins with words. When you navigate you need to know where you are starting from to work out how to get to your destination and in the same way we will begin our environmental journey by identifying and affirming the environmental work we are already doing, and to identify our further priorities. We need to do this together and I have an environmental checkup to help us with this. This covers practical things like making our church building move environmentally friendly: how we can support our community in caring for our immediate environment. It covers worship and our theology to assess how it connects with God’s gift of creation. It asks how we engage with issues of climate change in what we can do in our daily lives to reduce our carbon foot print and what we can do as a church to benefit the environment and people across the world. We are setting up a small group to work through this check up and draw up an action plan for the next year.
It’s important that we recognise that it is not just what we say, or how we say it, but whether our values and actions match our message. Do we ‘walk the talk?’ How can we ‘speak truth to power’? We have an opportunity together to respond to God’s offer of a loving relationship by our response to his call through our own demonstration of love and care for his creation. And the good news is that we don’t do this just in our own strength – but in God’s.