10am Mass – Pentecost 10 – Year B – 29th July 2018
Text: Then Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks, He distributed them to those who were seated.
A few weeks ago, Gilly and I settled down for the evening to watch – for the second time – a film called Julie & Julia. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see it – and it is on TV from time to time – I commend it to you. It’s what you might call a real-life foodie film, focusing on the contents of a cook-book written by the legendary chef Julia Child, and it has some marvellous one-liners, such as ‘People who love to eat are the best people’. Well, as someone who has a tendency to put on the pounds, I don’t think it would be delicate of me to comment! But one of the first things the world knew about Christians – from the earliest of times - was that when they met together for worship, they also ate together. At the beginning of every week, they gathered – rich and poor, slaves and free, Jew and Gentile, women and men, to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And here at this Church, at the heart of our principal service every week, we have food - we share the Eucharist.
Jesus feeding 5000 people is one of those miracles we hear about a lot. It defies comprehension and it presents to us something inexplicable and - in the normal course of events – impossible. Many through the centuries have tried to explain it away, but the nature of the miracle is not the aspect of the story that I want to look at this morning as we had a glance at it in last Sunday’s sermon; rather I want to look at the disciples and what it tells us about being a follower of Jesus today; because it leaves me wondering what the disciples might have learned from that experience – namely that there was more available to them than what they themselves were bringing to the meal. 5000 people is a lot of people. It’s hardly surprising that the disciples wanted them to go away and fend for themselves. All they have to offer – and not even them, but this young lad - is nothing but five loaves and a couple of fish. But Jesus says ‘I can work with that’; and He has the people sit down and He takes the bread and takes the fish and gives thanks for them, and we know how the rest of the story goes – we studied it exhaustively in the Lent study group earlier this year. There’s not only enough to feed all of them. Like the miracle that takes place in John’s Gospel when the wine runs out at the wedding feast at Cana, the result is that there’s way, way more than enough.
I know for myself, and perhaps you know it too, how easy it is to look at the smallness of our own offering, and the seeming insignificance of our abilities, the inadequacy of what we have to offer, right up against the greatness of whatever need we face, and how tempting it is to feel like giving up before we’ve started. Or we act as if smallness, inadequacy and insignificance are things that would never be worthy to be brought before God. And yet every parable about God’s kingdom, every teaching Jesus ever gave about how God creates something glorious, starts with something small. Never once did Jesus begin one of His parables or a saying with the likes of: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a FTSE 100 company full of shiny happy shareholders’; nor even – ‘There was once a president of the most powerful country in the world who liked to play golf’! It’s almost always something small, easy to overlook, insignificant, organic – these are the things, Jesus tells us, that – in the right hands and with the right attitude - so often reveal the glory of God.
The telling of the Feeding of the 5000 is a story that started with two things – need and inadequacy. We hear the story of the little boy who shared his lunch. But within this story, others of Jesus’ parables or interactions with other people are reflected – there’s the woman caught red-handed, the conceited tax collector, the despised Samaritan, the struggling widow, the disdained prostitute, the wealthy father, the angry zealot, the banished leper, the suffering slave, the repentant sinner, and ultimately the story of you and me. Yes - it’s also the story of a crowd of people who had little in common except that they were hungry – hungry for food, for healing, and for Jesus. And it’s the story of a crowd of people who were fed. No questions asked, no prerequisites demanded, no standards of holiness to meet first. It’s a story of people who were shown that what they have is not the end of the story. It’s the story of us. In this story we see Jesus breaking down every social constructed barrier that keeps us from eating with one another – in every sense of that idea.
He did the same thing, when much to the chagrin of the religious leaders, He dined with tax collectors and prostitutes and told His more well-to-do hosts that when you give a banquet, don’t invite people like you in the hope of a return invitation – instead invite the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed. His critics repeatedly drew attention to the fact that He dined with the wrong people, and by eating with the sinners, the outcasts, the unclean, Jesus was repeatedly saying ‘These are my companions, these are my friends.’ And, of course, it was just this sort of thing that – in the end - got Him killed. And we come together week by week to eat with, and feed upon, Jesus. The Eucharist is an image of the kingdom, all of us here gathered together, not because we are worthy or good, but because we are hungry, and because we long for more. I believe that this is what it is to be a disciple.
Whatever the nature of this miracle, it’s there in the everyday. We talk about the sacraments of the Church as things that help us to see God more clearly – not jus the bread and the wine, but even the flowers, the welcomers, readers, cake-bakers, and visitors of the sick and housebound. This stuff matters, these things are what makes a family holy. Sacrament means to make holy. Sometimes in the Church we’re tempted to hide God behind beautiful things and we can become hung up on these objects rather than what they point to. Learning to see God - where we may not have looked for Him before - is learning to see with new eyes. When we have eyes to see, even ordinary things can become holy. And when received with open hands and with hungry hearts, the signs and wonders of Jesus have no boundaries or borders. After all, this is God - who never runs out of holy things.
We have the choice, every day, to join in the surprise, to share the picnic, and to drink the wine of underserved grace. All we need to do, is we need to know our hunger, our inadequacy, and that we cannot do it by ourselves. We need one another, and we need God. History has shown that there have always been people who fancy themselves as being bouncers to the heavenly banquet - people who take on the duties of keeping the ‘wrong’ sorts of people away from the table and out of Church. But the Gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, committed to throwing open the doors and welcoming all to bread and wine, to companionship made holy by their participation. The Chruch isn’t a kingdom for the worthy, it’s a kingdom for the hungry.
Jesus seems to say: “Wherever you picture yourself in this story, this feeding of the multitudes, if you are hungry, come and eat. You don’t need to earn a spot in the queue. It is given. Our God is in the business of transforming the most ordinary things into holy thing, scraps of food into feasts.” And if God says to us ‘What do you have to offer?” and all we can say is ‘Nothing’, then God replies, ‘I can work with that. Bring it with you, offer it up, and let’s see what we can do with this to change lives and give new hope – change and hope which is truly ‘out of the this world’.
10am Sunday Mass – Pentecost 8 – 15th July 2018
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court, Rector)
However frequently (or otherwise) you come to Church, you can't fail to notice that a centrepiece of every act of worship is the reading of chunks of the Bible. Now it's possible that some of you think: why on earth has the preacher chosen that passage? But by and large that choice hasn't been made by anyone here at St Mary’s, rather by whoever constructed the rota of readings we call the Revised Common Lectionary – the selection of readings designated for each Sunday of the year, and run in a three-year cycle. Where does is come from? From a committee, or probably committees, who will have done so according to a number of principles, such as exposing congregations to the greatest possible range of the vast body of biblical texts, whilst honouring the big seasons of the Church - Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas, and so on - and marking the particular festivals such as saints’ days. And I say all that by way of a sort of disclaimer. In case you were wondering whom you should blame when you hear something a little unnerving or seemingly a bit out-of-place from this reading-desk or pulpit, clergy and preachers can fall back on blaming some faceless bureaucrats out there. It's in the nature of lectionaries – that is, the list of appointed readings - as with all compromises, that they can always be queried, challenged, and complained about - as indeed they are, and probably by the clergy more than by anyone else.
And that is of course because it falls to us to try to explain what we’re hearing or have been forced to listen to. Occasionally that's easy, because there is usually a thematic unity between the passages – you can see a clear link. But no-one could say there's an obvious overt bond of any sort between the second reading and the Gospel passage we've just heard. Have a look at the way Paul begins his letter to the Ephesian Christians: it exudes a sense of the cosmic power of God in Jesus Christ, and of the determination and purpose of God in relation to His purposes for the world. Words like 'destined', 'will', 'plan', 'pledge', are scattered throughout these two paragraphs, as are what I would call ‘churchy words’ - like 'grace' and 'salvation', which convey the goodness of God’s purposes.
When held up next to that rather gushy tone Paul adopts, it’s hard think of many passages less appropriate in the Gospels with which to follow it than the one we’re given today – the rather extended account Mark gives of the bloody demise of the one who launched Jesus's ministry - John the Baptist. This is a lurid, sordid story about people, most of whom make no other appearance in the Gospel narrative. It seems to me, in fact, that Mark has wallowed uncharacteristically in the detail of this episode, for example by telling us what Herod's inner motivations were and by centring the story on the highly unlikely circumstances of a princess dancing before an audience gathered for a state banquet. Whatever, we are left in no doubt that Herod and his court are corrupt, debauched, and abusive. When the one sent by God comes in contact with this centre of petty power – that is, John the Baptist - he is imprisoned in a dungeon and then violently destroyed. In this tale of a feeble princeling who finds himself strangely sandwiched between what this trapped prophet has to say, and the honey-trap set by the girl’s mother – even when the force of what John has to say is directed towards and against him - there seems little to elevate the soul, to lift the vision towards the cosmic realm. In this rather sad and sorry tale, there is nothing in common with the vision with which Paul addresses his readers in Ephesus.
Well, lectionaries are constructed in part upon the conventional Christian belief in the unity of scripture. In other words, the whole canon of the Bible – the Old Testament, the Apocrypha and the New Testament, the histories and the diverse narratives, the laws, the poems and prophets, the personal letters, the visions and the fantasies: all of this is to be read, marked, learned and inwardly digested (as the words of that lovely prayer reminds us), and then puzzled over; in the hope that all of it in some way will interact with and light up the other parts. We see this reflected in Paul's description of the Christian community as a body whose parts all need each other. The Bible is grasped better when you see it all, and however convenient or theologically tempting it may be, I think we diminish our understanding when we ignore things which are strange or unpleasant.
Whatever the combination of reasoning which led to pairing today's second reading and the Gospel reading, I'm glad it was done; because to live as a Christian is to hold together the facts of the world and of human nature as it really is, with the experience of the love of God and the vision of perfection that comes with it. The pettiness and abusiveness of human life, the selfishness and corruption of so many motivations, the randomness and unfairness of so much that happens to people – as Christians we believe that all this is somehow held together with God's presence and purposes - just as the outer covers of any Bible would bind these two texts together with all the others. Whether we read about it in our Bibles or experience it in the world beyond the doors of this Church, all the messiness (as well as the triumphs of human life) happens within the good will of God. All that you and I say or do or think today will form part of the overview of God and of a love which is beyond understanding. As I said at the beginning, ours is a faith based on the Incarnation – faith in a God who longs to join our life to His. We see this in Holy Communion - God's desire for us is so powerful that He comes right into the midst of all this: it is a love which cannot be stopped, and we will meet it very often where we least expect it – or at least, in the way we least expect it. Or, as Pope Francis put it just the other day in Rome: “Difficulties and tribulations are part and parcel of being the people of God”. He went on to remind people of Jesus’s repeated instruction to the disciples not to be afraid. It is to this that all Christian people are called through their baptism – something to which we too, here in Ullapool, are also called to claim and make our own. May He bless us as we try to make this our starting and our finishing point of each and every day.
10am Sunday 1st July 2018 – Pentecost 6
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court - Rector)
Text: , ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’
Thirty years ago tomorrow I was ordained a Deacon in the Church. For the first time in my life I put on one of these uncomfortable collars, and as the Bishop of Edmonton placed his hands upon my head and said those terrifying words: “Send down your Holy Spirit, Lord, upon your servant Nicholas for the office and work of a Deacon in your Church”, it was almost like watching it happening to someone else. Could it really be – after all those years of questions, of doubts, of sheer hard work and above all of wondering – could it really be that God was indeed calling me to serve Him in this way of life? I knew then that it would never make me rich; I knew then that it would make me the butt of jokes of my friends and would place me on the receiving end of the bullies who inhabit some congregations – though not this one, thank God. The answer to these questions was ‘Yes’ – not ‘yes’ because I knew where I was going, or that I felt equal to the task, but ‘yes’ because I felt powerfully that God had grabbed me by the hand and said: “Let’s set off on this adventure together as see where it leads us”. Well, it’s led me and Him into some completely unexpected places and situations; it’s been easy and it’s been tough; it’s been joy-filled and it’s taken me to the brink of despair; it’s been glorious and it’s been mundane; but it has all been privilege because it’s all been gift. It’s also made me realise that God keeps His most surprising gifts for the least promising of His children – but that only serves to underline the particular nature of grace – that it’s entirely undeserved.
And that’s a theme that seems to feature prominently in the first part of today’s Gospel reading. It may seem commonplace today, but the prominence of women in the Gospels would have been revolutionary in the first Christian century. The place of women in Jewish society was always ambiguous. Traditionally, Eve was blamed for all the evils in the world, and those books of the Old Testament known as the Wisdom literature, such as the Book of Proverbs, are full of warnings of woman’s capacity to tempt God-fearing men to sin. No woman was ever anointed a priest within Judaism or even allowed to enter the Temple’s holiest courts. In the town and village synagogues women were segregated from men (as in Orthodox Judaism as well as in Islam they still are). There is even an Orthodox prayer for pious Jewish men to use daily, which begins with a thanksgiving to God that he has not been born a woman. Even today, an Orthodox Jewish man will not shake hands with another woman – nor would he speak in public to his wife or his daughters.
We might find this strange and alien to our way of thinking, but St Mark, and a little later St Luke, were keenly aware of the great difference in the position of women made by Jesus, and that is why they feature prominently in both their Gospels. The pages of Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, are crowded with women who find in Jesus’ teaching a new dignity, worth and value. And the revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women is underlined by today’s story of the ritually unclean woman with the constant haemorrhages. According to Jewish custom at the time, she should have been totally ignored by any Orthodox male Jew – unacknowledged in public even by her husband, so great was her shame. Her haemorrhages – by which we are meant to understand constant, unrelenting menstruation – would have rendered her an outcast even in her own family, unable to cook for them, sleep with her husband or even cuddle her children. But Jesus notices her. And He does much more than that. In front of everyone, openly and publicly, He raises her up and affirms her, meaning that she can now resume her rightful place in her family.
The incident in the text which frames the healing of this woman is equally powerful. At a time when the death of a daughter was not considered to be a huge loss (because she wasn’t a son), the restoration to life of the young daughter of Jairus also receives prominent treatment. And as we read the Gospels we discover many other incidents with the same seditious power, which would have caused outrage at the time. You’ll remember the poor widow, one of the lowest of the low, who surreptitiously casts into the offertory box all that she has, earns Jesus’ highest praise and commendation. Then there’s the old woman in Luke 13, bent over and unable to raise herself to a full standing position. For eighteen years she has stumbled through life with her head down, no doubt with some kind of deformity of the spine. Jesus sees her handicap as an opportunity not just to heal her, but to open closed minds and set free not just this woman but those who witness what happens to her. He releases her from her deformity, lifts her up and sets her walking upright in the world, able once again to look the rest of society in the face.
Luke’s implication is clear: in doing it for one, Jesus has done this for all women. The once-crippled old lady praises God, but the male ruler of the synagogue objects – for which he catches the sharp edge of Jesus’ tongue in consequence, and is labelled a hypocrite for all to hear. No wonder Luke records that ‘All Christ’s opponents were covered with confusion, while the mass of the people were delighted at all the wonderful things He was doing.’ And perhaps most poignantly of all, in a passage which the early Church tried again and again to delete from the Canon of scripture, Jesus in the story of the woman taken in adultery blazes with indignation at seeing any woman treated with contempt by hypocritical men.
Thirty years ago I hoped I would change the world, because that’s what we’re like when we’re young – that somehow, through this undeserved gift of Ordination that I had been given, God would bring about something of life-shattering importance both for me and for others. Another example perhaps of the conceit which only men can carry off. But in a sense, I have not been completely disappointed or frustrated in those aspirations; because what I have discovered since is that the change that most needed to take place was not in the world, but much closer to home – change needed to happen in me! I didn’t want it, I didn’t seek it – and although it took years, God will have His way. Those changes are too personal – and many of them too shameful – to share in a public space, but I now see that it was change that lay at the heart of that gift from God, and that during the last 30 years I have been immersed in a long game of pass the parcel, in which each successive layer that God has managed to peel away, has helped reveal the gift for what it was and had been all the time. I wonder if any of you have had this experience – one you can only understand or appreciate with the benefit of hindsight.
But what’s that got to do with our Gospel reading today? It’s easy to miss, but it’s there if you look more closely. There’s a twelve year old girl, and a woman who has been sick for as long as the little girl has lived. A coincidence? No – I don’t think so. Jesus’ touch can have instant results, or it can take years to come into full flower. But the more important thing that we can so easily miss is that they are both non-people in their society, and both made impure – one by disease and the other by being dead. It’s hard to see where the gift is in this. But Jesus brushes aside the rules and strictures which were expected of Him, and touches them both. And the people are shocked and offended. They are shocked and offended by change; they are shocked and offended by Jesus’s compassion. If it’s not yet happened to you, I hope that you will be shocked and offended by God’s love which has the audacity to break through and disturb us. This woman had endured twelve years for finger-pointing – and how humanity enjoys joining in that – and how the Church has loved it too! Perhaps the message for myself and for those who read this Gospel is encapsulated in something Billy Graham once said: “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, it’s God’s job to judge, and it is my job to love.”
Pentecost 5 – 24th June 2018
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court – Rector)
Text: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mark 4.40)
They say you can tell an awful lot about a person by their record collection – or at least you could in the days before cassette tapes, then CDs, and now it’s to do with what people have on their i-pods and smart phones. But some people still have collections of vinyl, which has had something of a resurgence in recent years. As the Radio 4 program Desert Island Discs has shown us, to delve into someone’s taste in music is to discover something about them that’s not perhaps evident in our day-to-day interactions. So, what’s on my i-pod? Well, there’s an awful lot of Elton John and a hefty dose of Phil Collins and Rod Stewart, even a bit of Status Quo, finished of with a dose of Christian worship songs. So, what does that say about me? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions! In amongst that mix, there’s also a smattering of what I listened to as a teenager – Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Carol King and Supertramp. If your response to any of these names is “Who?” then I can only feel sorry for you!
In 1971, when I was a spotty teenager, I clubbed together with my brother and sister, and we bought Carol King’s album Tapestry. It is still hailed – as it was then – as a milestone in the music of its time. One of the tracks is You’ve Got a Friend. It spoke deeply to a lot of people then, when the world seemed to be adrift, and people were voicing their opposition to things like the Vietnam War and corruption in the highest places. You’ve Got a Friend reminded a generation of the preciousness of true and committed friendship. They are the words everyone probably wants to hear, in one form or another, from someone else at some point in their lives; the assurance that someone will be there for you no matter what. But the song also addresses what happens if the day comes when that support is taken away or comes to an end - what do we do then?
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus and the disciples are caught at sea in a violent storm. Unbelievably, although Jesus is with them in the boat, He’s asleep – which seems hard to believe. I mean – if you can sleep in an open boat during a raging storm, that’s quite an accomplishment! Anyway, they gather round Jesus and once they have awoken Him, they accuse Him of not caring about them, implicitly demanding that He do something. Are they asking – and expecting – Him to do something about the weather, or are they suggesting that He’s only a fair-weather friend?! Why do they wake Him? Are they expecting Him to do anything? While He does still the storm to a calm, Jesus doesn’t seem terribly willing or cheery about doing so – perhaps because He has, after all, just been woken up.
We have to remember that the disciples had been with Jesus for some time by now, and seeing Him perform miracles had become part of the bread-and-butter of their companionship with Him. If this was the Man who could walk on water and even raise people from the dead, then surely changing the weather would be a doddle. And after He does for them what they most hoped for, there’s a time of reckoning - Jesus has a bit of a go at them. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” It’s like when a friend turns to you and says: “What’s wrong - don’t you trust me?”
Among the most difficult of things to wrestle with as we spend a lifetime trying to grow into our faith, is to hold onto the assurance that God will fix things, but that’s not necessarily what He’s actually for. Let me try to unpack that a bit. Carol King’s song speaks of the fragility into which we’re beckoned when we commit to a friendship or relationship. Some of the most precious things in life are – by their nature – fragile. When Jesus has them gathered round the table at the Last Super, He will tell these shipmates of His that He calls them friends, not servants. But the friendship to which God invites them (and us) doesn’t mean that we can treat God as some sort of genie who makes difficulties disappear in a puff of smoke whenever we rub the lamp of prayer. As with other friendships, what God would far prefer us to do – and what He frequently requires us to do – is to use our own initiative and dig deeply into our own reserves of courage and commitment to find a way for ourselves through hard times and difficulties. To run to Jesus and expect instant, miraculous change, and then fall into despair when the change we pray for doesn’t immediately materialize, can be rather dis-spiriting.
Perhaps you’ve known what it’s been like to be part of a relationship or friendship that gradually becomes ever more one-sided, resulting in only ever hear from that person when there’s a calamity or personal issue in their lives, and there’s a resounding silence the rest of the time. I think this is often why people give up praying. I often hear people say things like: “Oh, I used to pray, but I never got what I asked for or wanted, so I gave up.” But prayer isn’t, some heavenly version of Amazon.com – just one click from our heart’s desire; hoping all will be delivered just as was hoped for – preferably with a pretty ribbon around it. Prayer isn’t to do with asking, it’s to do with relationship – and any relationship (as we know) requires building.
Faith invites us to build on the faith we have (be it even as small as a mustard-seed), and in the strength that God can give us through prayer and trust, to work alongside Him in the world. I’d say to those who give up – or are tempted to give up on their faith or on praying, to consider this – that God always answers our prayers. It’s just that sometimes the answer is “No” or “Not yet” or “Not quite in that way”. Sometimes the answers to prayer aren’t the ones we want to hear; but there’s a certain arrogance about thinking that we know better than God. God has the overall view of our personal histories – both of our pasts and of our futures. All we have is a tiny piece of the jigsaw.
Carol King’s lyrics to You’ve Got a Friend provide a parallel to our relationship in prayer with God: “Winter, spring, summer or fall; all you gotta do is call, and I’ll be there.” All the Christian needs is to know that God is there for us, even when – and most powerfully when - everything else seems to indicate the contrary. This isn’t blind optimism – but it is an attitude that sits uncomfortably with the general aspirations of the society of which we are part – a society which has by and large lost the joy of expectation and the sort of reward that comes from waiting. All friendship requires both these elements – in our friendship with each other, or in our relationship with the world – and most especially in that most precious of all friendships into which we are gathered and valued above all else – the one into which God calls us as friends, even to the point of even kneeling before us and washing our feet.
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.