Monthly Archives: September 2014

Adventures In Babysitting

This sermon was preached at St Andrew’s 9:30am service on 27th September 2014. The readings were Exodus 17:1-7, Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32.

It’s a hard life, being in charge. To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the idea when God first suggested it – I tried my best to prove I was completely the wrong man for the job, that I wasn’t a great speaker or leader, that my past must be an issue, that nobody would actually listen to me. I was happy with the sheep, you see. I’ve always said “You know where you are with sheep” – except when they wander off & get you talking to burning bushes! So, here I am, here we are, wandering along together in the wilderness trying to work out where we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do.

And the thing is, the thing is, everyone expects me to know. They think I’ve got the inside gen. Truthfully I do hear from God, and try my best to do what he asks, but I’d have thought He must be getting really cheesed off by now with the constant complaining. I know I am. I mean, talk about ungrateful! God’s rescued them from their life of misery, fear and slavery to bring them into the promised land, but all I hear is

“Are we there yet! We’re hungry! You hate us – you wish we were dead!” It’s doing me crust in!

To be fair, our relationship hasn’t been an easy one. From the start, no matter how much I’ve said about the power and possibility we have as a people, all they could think of was bricks to be made without straw and how everything I did, everything God asked me to do, made Pharaoh even more angry and brutal in his treatment of them. “You’ve made us like a proper stink to Pharaoh and his servants,” they cried. “You might as well have just given them swords to kill us with!”

Then, pretty much straight after God parted of the Sea so we could escape, after the dancing, singing and general partying, the grumbling began. The wilderness isn’t a hospitable home, I know, and for three days we traveled without water. And then, when we found some & used the last of our energy to run to that oasis with thickened tongues and dust-filled throats – the water was foul and bitter. So they complained. I cried out to God, and He got me to throw some wood in – and bang, the water was sweet.

Happy days – or so you’d have thought.

After a few days more of travel, their off again. I mean, it’s worse than taking kids. “There’s no food,” they said. “We always had food in Egypt.” And again they murmured and mumbled and fussed and grumbled. So God sent quail in the evening and bread in the morning. God literally starts raining food from the skies. I mean, how cool is that? We don’t have to do anything but collect it and eat it! God could have easily said “You crack on a find some,” or “here’s a large lump of food – now carry it around with you!” but no, wherever we wander it just turns up. And it’s delicious too!!

And then we got here, deep in the wilderness, the middle of nowhere, and set up camp. Trouble is, there’s no water, not even bitter water. And the people – well, let’s just say they weren’t pleased.

“Moses,” they cried, “give us water to drink?” Come on, man, it’s a basic thing. You’re in charge Moses, sort it out!

Thing is, what upset me was there was no thought of asking God.

Despite the fantastic breakout from Egypt and the miracles of the past few weeks, they still don’t think of looking to, or even for, God in this or any other situation. Instead it’s all about me and my leadership. They basically accused me of this whole thing being one huge evil plot! “You brought us out of Egypt for this?” they taunted. “To kill us and our children and our animals with thirst? Thanks a lot, Moses. (Fraser) We’re all doomed!!”

To be fair, their shouting and the handful of rocks being collected got to me. And I could understand, I completely sympathise on one level. All of the promise and the possibility that I told them about in Egypt had turned into desolation and waste. We left a land whose very name means “many waters” and wound up in Nowheresville with no water!

But I wouldn’t have minded so much if they’d just stopped to think about what we’d been through together but no – they just forget all about the escape and the miraculous banquet that keeps showing up and start picking up stones & making threats. Sometimes I wonder if they actually believe in God at all, or just see me as some kind of rebel leader/babysitter combo.

So I lost my rag a bit. “Why are you arguing with me?” I yelled. “Why are you testing God?”

“Testing God?” they said. “We never thought of that! We’re just thirsty. Is that a sin?”

But to me that’s the whole point. They can’t seem to grasp that questioning me out here is really a way of questioning God. Is God really there? Can God really do something?

So I pleaded with God. “Listen, they’re about to stone me – what do I do?!”

And there He was. Not a trace of anger in His voice. No chastising or despair. Just simple orders to be followed and gentle reminders of past deliverance. “Go, Moses,” God said. “Go on ahead of the people with some of the elders. And that staff that you struck the Nile with — do you remember that? Take it with you. And I will be there waiting for you on a rock at a place called Horeb. You remember Horeb don’t you, Moses? I’ll be there. The people may doubt my presence here, but I’ll be there. Strike that rock and water will come out and the people can drink.”

Its interesting God chose to bring up what happened in Egypt while sorting this out. Remember, when I struck the Nile with this staff it caused death and pollution. Now, in the desert, I strike the rock and BANG! Out comes water. It’s amazing how something as ordinary as bread and drink, approached in the right way, can lead to something amazing – an encounter with God Himself!

So I called the place Massah, which means testing, and Meribah, which means quarreling, because for me none of this was about being thirsty and having no water – it was about the people of God questioning God’s very presence among them. Though they never used the words, they were basically asking, “Is God here or not?”

And, if I’m honest, I know that’s a good question to ask in the desert. In the midst of harshness and emptiness, is God really present at all? In the middle of muddles and messes and major disappointments, is God there or not?

Because for me, he world is painfully full of God’s presence. I’ve tried to abandon it, to refuse His calling, because at that moment, as I gazed into the burning bush, I truly couldn’t see how I could bear the sight – the amazing, awesome glory of God. But my eyes were changed forever, and now my job, my task, is to share the vision of what I’ve seen.

So despite the frustrations, the physical struggles and even the threats, I really want to give these people a sense that we live in more than a purely material world. They’re not wrong to be thirsty or hungry or scared or frustrated – and God dealt directly with their physical needs. It’s just what they failed to see was a God-filled world wrought with wonder and wild holiness. They see only emptiness. I see a God who often comes to us in our most troubled moments, a God who comes to provide, not only water, but living water.

I’m starting to think wandering in this wilderness helps us learn more about who we really are – as individuals and as a body of people. It feels very much like all of this is meant to teach us to radically trust in a God for everything.

The thing with the manna seems to say we should be looking to Him all the time, not just for the big things or on special occasions – even asking him for our daily bread! And the rock, well, to make water flow in the desert surely means He can make even the driest and most barren place full of life.

There’s nothing we can do, in our own strength, to save ourselves from the situation we’re in. We need to trust fully in Him who saved us, He who loves us.

I suppose at least by the time this is over we can re-tell our story. That way nobody else has to make the same mistakes we have…

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A God who knows and understands

This sermon was preached at St Andrew’s 8am and St Peter’s 11am services on 27th September 2014. The readings were Exodus 17:1-7, Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32.

Yesterday morning was unseasonably warm but I had decided first thing to go for a run along the seafront. It was glorious but hot and I had put a good pace on and by the time I had got to the Fishermen’s cottages at the Bents my throat was pretty dry. As I rounded the corner I noticed a metal bowl brimming with water. It had a big sign over it with an arrow pointing downwards: “Dogs”, it read. Resisting the urge to get on my hands and knees and lap, I carried on!

Possibly the Israelites wouldn’t have been so picky. Or maybe they would. They did seem to moan an awful lot. I once saw a cartoon postcard of Moses, staff held aloft with the mountainous waters of the Red Sea parted – you know, real Cecil B. DeMille stuff. But with the Israelites – Egyptians, hot on their heels – inexplicably holding back. “What do you mean, it’s a bit muddy?” Moses was roaring.

Anyway, here they are. As we heard just now. Trudging through the wilderness. Throats dry. Raging thirst. Moaning again. “Give us water to drink!” they shrieked at Moses. “And anyway, why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us all with thirst?”.

That’s all the thanks Moses got for saving them from oppressive slavery, you see. How quickly they had forgotten that!

So Moses turns to God in desperation. “What on earth am I to do? This lot is ready to stone me. I’m out of ideas. It’s getting completely out of hand”.

And then God says a curious thing. “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink”.

And as we heard Moses did. He also named the place Massah and Meribah, Hebrew for “testing” and “quarrelling”. A reminder that this was the place where the people of Israel quarrelled and tested God, asking whether he was really there or not.

Now that’s a curious account by any stretch. What on earth is it all about? Some people have tried to explain the physical phenomenon of water coming most unexpectedly from a dry rock by suggesting that the water was secreted in the cracks and Moses knocking against the rock simply released it. Whether or not this was true misses the point, the reason, the purpose of the story. It would also have to account for a heck of a lot of water!

One of the things I like about the Book of Exodus – actually the same could be said of any of the Books in the Bible – but which, at the same time, can make me feel uncomfortable is the sheer realism. Human nature is presented in all its embarrassing authenticity. We recognise ourselves – I certainly recognise myself – in lots of the people in the Bible. Weaknesses, foolish acts, wayward thinking, pride – all that. And here, moans and complaints.

And yet. And yet. In this particular situation God gives an answer. He responds to the moans and the groans and the whining. And in a quite unexpected way. He tells Moses to hit a big, dry boulder in the desert…. and out pours water. We aren’t told details about the quantity but we have to assume it was enough and more than enough to quench the thirst of the many thousands of Israelites gathered there. Men, women, children.

Perhaps a little like the feeding of the 5000 with twelve baskets left over or the abundant amount of fabulous wine, changed from water at the wedding at Cana. A crisis in each instance – moans, verbalised anxieties – by the disciples, by the wine stewards at the wedding – followed by God intervening, responding, and providing – and not just providing but providing in abundance far more than enough for all.

What’s it all about? I think in a word, Grace. The sheer grace of God. And the love and concern of a God who knows and understands. Life is not always easy. Perhaps more often than not, it’s not easy. Sometimes, spiritually, we can feel pretty dry. That the going is tough. Not always, for sure. But sometimes. And it was certainly tough for the Israelites. And I know they did seem to be moaning and complaining a lot of the time. But would many of us have been any different? Traipsing around the desert for years. Far from the relative comforts of Egypt. Sure they were enslaved by the Egyptians. But at least they had known where their next meal was coming from and had a decent roof over their heads. Uncertainly. Anxiety. Discomfort. This was what life was all about now. You’ve got to feel for poor old Moses who had to lead this lot.

I think God knew all about this – although he probably despaired that they didn’t have a little more faith in him. Couldn’t quite trust him completely. And yet, and yet, in his compassion and utter love for them was still ready to meet their need. “You unbelieving and perverse generation” said Jesus, centuries later, to the doubters before him with a young man who was ill. “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” You sense the frustration- yet the compassion – of Jesus. He was never really going to leave them. “Bring the boy here to me”. And that instance too, Jesus meets the need and heals him.

Again and again we see it. The disciples in the boat in the storm on the Lake, terrified they are going to drown, waking Jesus from sleep. “Where is your faith?” he says, almost in disbelief before he calms the wind and the waves.

No, our faith will often be feeble. But – thank God – that doesn’t matter. God will always be faithful and will show us just how faithful, perhaps in ways we can quite clearly recall at moments in our own lives. And he has most certainly shown faithfulness to the whole world in Jesus, most supremely on the cross. God responding, meeting the deepest needs of humanity, for forgiveness, wholeness, peace.

The writer of the hymn, “Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour” brilliantly and poetically puts it: “Life-imparting, heav’nly manna, stricken rock with streaming side”.

Moses, trying to lead God’s people out of slavery to freedom, feared for his life with this angry, fearful, frustrated crowd of Israelites – and yet God graciously met their need, faithless, undeserving as they were, giving them the water they craved, quenching their thirst.

Jesus – leading Israel from slavery to sin to a new life of forgiveness – was actually killed by the angry, jeering, disappointed crowd which turned on him in those final days in Jerusalem. And yet. “Life imparting, heav’nly manna, stricken rock with streaming side….”

Not a rock but his own human flesh. Jesus himself was struck. With nails. With the spear in his side which caused blood – and water – to flow out…. a physical representation if you like – of the living water – as Jesus had described himself. Offering to all who were there, and all who ever would be, however undeserving, however doubting, grace, forgiveness, wholeness, healing.

So many have found that – and still find that – to be true. The hardest of hearts – just off the top of my head John Newton, slave trader whose realisation of what Jesus had done for him transformed him, inspired him to write “Amazing Grace” and many other hymns. Nicky Cruz, gangster of 1950s New York, whose life was utterly changed by God’s grace through the courage of a young pastor called David Wilkerson who told Nicky Cruz that God would never stop loving him, even if Nicky Cruz killed him there and then. Read all about it in “The Cross and the Switchblade” and “Run, baby, run”.

And Paul – formerly Saul – the one who approved of Stephen’s murder. The one who carted off Christians to prison, vowing to stamp out Christianity. Paul, having come to know the reality of the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, who was able to write many years later from a prison cell, the words we heard this morning: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…..for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”.

So many lives – lives that we might have written off as hopeless cases – certainly the sorts of lives which the Pharisees from our Gospel reading – so sure that they had got it right – so disdained: tax-collectors and prostitutes – completely changed by the utter grace of God.

Which gives each one of us hope, daily. Even if we doubt ourselves. That makes not the slightest difference to God. He is always, always faithful. His grace, his love a sure rock. The Living Water which Jesus offers to us quenching our deepest thirst and bringing us life which truly is life.

Amen.

Our Gifts to Offer

This sermon, the next in our “Still Valued and Valuable” series, was preached at all four Sunday morning services on 21st September 2014. The readings were 1 Kings 3: 5-15, Ephesians 4:7-16 and Matthew 9: 32 38.


It is good to be here. It is good as we continue this sermon series, this week entitled “Our Gifts to Offer,”(on this our Harvest Sunday.) Of course you may realise that I am the only one qualified, old enough, to deliver a sermon to those of us who are now in this golden age, even if I do have to spent some of my pension having my hair colour done to keep up appearances.

My 8 year old grandson asked me last month when it was my birthday, “how old are you grandpa?” I replied all excitedly, I’m a teenager today, 6 and 7, and it will be another 9 years before I become a teenager again. I’ll let you do the maths.” You could imagine the look on his face.

Would we really want to go back 50+ years or more to that time in our lives? Well, probably not, even though we would love to have that vitality of youth again. But what is the difference between then and now, what are the positives of life that we have now?

Today I believe in our reading from the book of Kings, Solomon gives us a few clues to our golden age in his dream encounter with God. It was a time when King David was an old man losing his hold on reality, his physical weakness, as well as his hold on his kingship shortly before his death.

As Solomon is rushed to the throne in the midst of political intrigue we are given a picture of a young man out of his depths. To put it mildly he hadn’t a clue what to do, possibly reminiscent of our teenage encounters in life. The major difference for all of us between then and now.

So Solomon turns to God with a heart not for himself but for his people, and asks God for the gifts that would enable him to fulfil his new role as king. As God gazed at his faithfulness he offers him a blank cheque, “Anything you want you can have Solomon.,” he tells him. Solomon asks God for discernment that he can govern wisely a people who, after all, belong to God. A prayer for security for his people that would be granted by walking in the ways of the Lord. It’s a wonderful picture that we are given of Solomon asking for a listening heart and an understanding mind, his sincerity, his simplicity, his prayer to the Lord who loved him.

For Solomon his wisdom became legendary amongst his people not least in that well known story of the two women fighting over who was the real mother of the child who had not died and his wisdom in discerning the truth.

Solomon went on to rule over Israel for over 40 years about the normal lifespan of our working lives. His wisdom gave him insight in to saying the right things, doing the right things, living in that right relationship with God.

You see I believe there is a treasure store of gifts in our golden age years being used or possibly lying dormant. Gifts honed out of the years of earthly living, skills and abilities unique to our life story but common to our humanity. Gifts uniquely given by the Spirit, not least the gifts of wisdom and discernment that God longs us to use on our part in building up his kingdom today.

How much more exciting, more fulfilling, more powerful when individual gifts are put together working for the common good, seamlessly woven together in the harmonious love of Christ Jesus.

What are our gifts? Are we offering ourselves and God’s giftedness within each one of us, prayerfully offered to the glory of God and his kingdom?

I heard the story of a recently retired lady who had a dream. She dreamt that God would give her a long happy retirement. So she went out and spent a fortune on plastic surgery, botox, facelifts, you name it she had it done. Alas one day shortly after all this work she was knocked over and killed by a bus. You can imagine her rage when she got to meet God. “I thought you promised me a long and happy retirement,” she said. God replied I’m sorry, but I did not recognise you, I did not recognise you!!”

God recognises us through the use of our gifts, the exercising of our gifts and praying for the gifts that honour him.

Paul speaks to the Ephesian church and to us about the importance of gifts. The great heritage of our faith is that which we share in common, the common bond of unity in the diversity, the variety of gifts God gives to us. But Paul stresses they are for the benefit of all. This is our privilege to be entrusted by God in our vocation, our special calling in the service of God, bound together by our shared love of Christ, that is empowered by his Spirit.

I was talking to a farmer last week who was busy repairing a dry stone wall. Strewn around him was a collection of stones, all different shapes and sizes being skilfully put together till the stone wall was rebuilt, fulfilling the purpose for which it was intended. So God puts us together, all with different gifts but with the one true purpose of proclaiming his Kingdom.

Paul’s exhortation is for the church to grow up. That is not in a condemnatory tone like, “act your age, not your shoe size,” but a call to a maturity of faith to withstand all the superficiality of a disbelieving society, to withstand all the frailties of age that may come our way. As was once said, “growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional.”

So I believe it is that gift of maturity both in age and in faithfulness that this golden age has to offer. The right use of the gift of time that God has given to us his children. You see each one of us can make a difference irrespective of how active or inactive our physical bodies may be. For a heart overflowing with love, care and compassion can spring from all hearts with that same gift of love that Christ brought to the world.

I frequently visit Glenholme care home and rejoice from the love of Christ that shines through the elderly residents there in the monthly communion service. A love that has not been dampened by the adversity of human frailty.

In our gospel reading today we find Jesus going about his daily work. We find him teaching and healing and proclaiming the good news of his kingdom. In his midst he sees so many harassed, helpless people with worry and stress etched on their faces, no different from today. He sees them as sheep wandering without a shepherd to guide them. His heart filled with love and compassion for them aware of the great harvest of salvation to be won. Jesus aware of the few disciples with him to bring in the harvest.

Imagine there was a power failure in your area. Imagine that all you could see was a flickering light coming from the church so you go to investigate. The flickering light is coming from beside the altar and you see a man sitting in a chair. He is tied and chained to the chair, a prisoner. You then kneel before him because you now realise it is the Lord, but you are puzzled by the chains that hold him.

Jesus replies,”I am stuck here by my people who do not reach out in love, who do not proclaim the good news, for they are my hands and my feet, my eyes and my ears walking on this earth today.”

We are measured by how we live out our lives rooted and anchored in the wonders of a kingdom of love, care, and compassion, the human face of Christ walking along this journey of life. As was once said, “It is not the years in your life that counts, it’s the life in your years.”

When I was working life continued at a hectic pace, living in the fast lane, barely time to take a breath. Now in this golden age it is time to use God’s gift of time wisely, to discern how our lives can be offered on our part in bringing in the harvest. In reflecting the love of God in this place, in this community, in God’s world.

I now describe myself as at the infantile geriatric stage of life, because amongst other things, is the care for grandchildren and elderly mother-in-law that makes up part of one’s life. A situation I believe many of us are in at this stage of our lives. Our vocation, our calling in God’s kingdom.

So when we hear those words at the end of the service, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” how will we be serving God, using our gifts at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning or 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, for example?

It was good to see the harvest gathered in while in The Lakes” last week. But not a time of sitting idly by for those who work the land. Rather of frantic activity of ploughing and muck spreading, of preparing the ground for the next harvest before winter comes and work ceases.

It is like that in our lives whilst our mortal bodies have breath within them until our winter comes. But if we think of ourselves as spiritual beings having human experiences then I believe in our golden age as the body weakens the Spirit rises up within us. The opportunities for growth in faithfulness, in wisdom and discernment, in knowledge and understanding. God’s giftedness growing within us shining out as a beacon of hope to the world before the feet of our great shepherd.

We are part of God’s answer, God’s plan, God’s labourers in the harvest fields, God’s love to a world in need through the gifts we offer.

Recently I came across a rather “tongue in cheek” prayer for our golden age: “Lord, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do and the eyesight to tell the difference.” It is good to rejoice in the gift of laughter and joy.

But now is the time to pray for wisdom, courage, strength and love to do God’s will, with hearts filled with his Spirit. Here I am Lord, send me.

A more appropriate prayer of thankfulness: “For you Lord are all that I have and you give me all that I need. My future is in your hands. How wonderful are your gifts to me. How great thou art.”

Amen.

Mistakes I Have Made

This is the third sermon from our new series “Still Valued and Valuable,” focussing on being a Christian in the later years of life. It was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am & St. Peter’s 11am on Sunday 7th September, and 9:30 at St. Andrew’s on 14th September.

The readings were Exodus 12:1-14, Romans 13:8-14 and John 21:15-19, with supplementary texts of 2 Samuel 11:1-5, 14-17, 26-27 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

A Baptist minister walked across to his church building one day & shook his head. He was supposed to be performing a wedding the next day, and the outside of the church looked a mess. Looking up to the sky, he thought “It’s a nice day – I’ll paint the walls.”

So he popped to the local Maxwell’s & bought paint and brushes. After 4 hours hard graft he had only one section of wall left – but realised he only had enough paint left for half of it. Thinking on his feet, he quickly thinned the paint down & started on the wall. With a few attempts he managed to make just enough to cover the area. He stepped back to admire his handiwork, then walked home for a well-earned sleep.

The next morning, he came back early to set up and was devastated to discover, during a rainstorm overnight, the paint he had watered down had been completely washed away, leaving the wall looking worse than ever. Dropping to his knees he cried “Lord, Lord, what should I do?!”

And a voice like a crack of thunder sayeth unto him “REPAINT – AND THIN NO MORE!!”

Do you have days when no matter what you do, how ever hard you try, you end up getting it wrong? I certainly do.

Big things, little things, day by day, week by week I fail to live up to the standards I’ve set myself,

to be the man I believe God wants me to be. But I don’t think I’m alone in this – and to be fair, I don’t think it’s a particularly Christian problem. Look through popular music, soap operas, magazines, novels & a common theme is the mistakes people make and their response to them. And actually popular culture shows us the two ways we as people try to deal with the things in our past. Frank Sinatra tells us with pride it’s OK ‘cos “I did it my way,” but Cher wants to “Turn Back Time.” Marilyn Monroe thought “Fear is stupid. So are regrets,” and D. H. Lawrence just wanted to live his life “so that my nights are not full of regrets.”

Our Gospel reading today involves the person many of us, at one time or another, find ourselves identifying with the most in the Bible – and possibly for what we see as the wrong reasons. Peter is the epitome of the old saying “God loves a trier” – again and again he wants to be the one Jesus can count on, to show Jesus how much he loves him & believes in him – and again and again he messes it up, says or does the wrong thing, or just lets his human nature, his fear, take over.

Maybe the scene played out like this.

On the beach, waves crashing to the shore, a mystery voice gives the disciples instructions where to put their nets, and they catch the fish they had been looking for without success earlier. Peter sees it is the Lord, he throws himself naked into the water, sprints across the burning sand to where the inviting aromas of fish and toast mingles with charcoal, and his Lord sits waiting for him. The others come over, the eat and chat and slap each other on the back, basking in this wonderful moment with their friend & teacher, alive against all the odds. But Jesus looks at Peter and asks him “Do you love me.” It’s almost part of the chatter, and Peter gives a quick “of course I do” response before reaching for another fish sandwich. Jesus then asks him to feed his sheep, but Peter isn’t really listening. Jesus asks a second time with the same response, but then a third – and suddenly it’s like there’s just the two of them, and Peter can hear “Do you know him” and a cock crowing and those deep, beautiful eyes that saw the forming of the universe looking straight at him, into him, shining a light into every corner of his soul. And Peter almost collapses under the weight of his emotions, his failures, his mistakes and regrets. He can hardly hold Jesus gaze as he quietly says “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And a third time Jesus simply says “Feed my sheep.”

People often talk of wanting to hear just three little words from a special person. We mean the three Peter said to Jesus. But the three little words Jesus says mean so much more – they just don’t sound so hot in a pop song. They mean forgiveness, they mean acceptance, the mean Jesus still believes in Peter, even if at that moment Peter doesn’t believe in Peter.

Adrian Plass writes a story about special man called Donald.

A friend is bemoaning how, despite all he wants to be & how hard he tries all he can see in himself is sin. Despite all his best efforts, he continues to sin. Another friend says “Well, nobody’s perfect,” to which a third pipes up “Well, my friend Donald hasn’t ever committed a sin.”

He’s never done anything wrong,” the others ask. “A perfect Christian?”

He’ll be here in a minute so you can see for yourselves. He’s never stolen, never murdered, never committed adultery, never envied, never lusted, never told a single lie, never been guilty of a cowardly act, never hurt anyone, never hit anyone, never hustled harassed or hated anyone.”

One friend tries to interject. “But surely..” but unabated the one speaking ploughs on.

He’s never been greedy or slothful, dropped litter, disturbed the peace or driven after drinking alcohol. He’s never had a single unkind thought, or held a grudge or gossiped, and he’s never been late. He never complains, blasphemes, gets drunk, overeats, worships false Gods, watches 18 certificate films or condemned those who do, he’s never been judgemental or harsh or unforgiving. He’s never sad, he never swears, he never smokes, he never stares. He has never committed a single sin. But he won’t be going to heaven.”

Why ever not!” The others cry.

Because he’s made of wood.” With this, the man pulls up a wooden mannequin.

But you said he was a perfect Christian,” they complain.

No, you said that. I just told you all the things he’s never done wrong. Trouble is, is never done anything – he’s made of wood.”

You see, even if from this second onward, for the whole rest of our life, we didn’t make a single mistake, did nothing wrong ever, it won’t make us Christians and it won’t get us into heaven.

The more miles we get on the clock, the more we do, the more mistakes we make and the more baggage we accumulate. That’s life. That’s being a person.

But those mistakes and foibles, huge great muck ups and little things that have been long forgotten by everybody except ourselves make us who we are. They can be an essential part of our walk with Jesus – if we let them be. The Bible makes no bones about the imperfection of the people called to serve God in the most dramatic and powerful ways. Noah was a drunk, Abraham had a habitual liar, Moses killed a man, David slept with another man’s wife, then had him killed, Solomon was obsessed with porcupines, sorry, concubines, and that’s just scratching the surface of the Old Testament. The disciples didn’t understand anything Jesus told them & argued over who was the best, Paul held the coats of the mob that stoned Stephen to death, and Peter – well, we’ve talked about him. The point is, despite all they got wrong, all their mistakes, God used each and every one of them for great purposes when they let Him – when they responded to Word and the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Paul reminds us in Christ we are a new creation. We try and change the way we live, and Paul himself is explicit that we are not to go on sinning as if it doesn’t matter. But alongside this is the understanding that we will make mistakes. There will be consequences to these mistakes –

depending on what they are they could range from hurt caused to ourselves & others to financial loss or a prison sentence – but the one consequence that we will never face is losing God’s love for us.

Don’t believe me. Read Romans 8:38-39. Nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. That was the whole point of the cross. As the nails were driven through Jesus battered body, as he was hauled up to bleed to death in agony, he took each and every one of our sins on himself so we could be forgiven. So we could know God. So nothing could separate us from our maker.

I think humanity in general, including many of us here, struggle with the fact that if you say “sorry” to God, He really does just let you off. It’s simply called Grace. So if things you’ve done in the past are preventing you from going all in with Jesus – if you find yourself holding back from truly giving your life to His will and His service because of the mess you see inside yourself or the person you think you are – please stop. Look into His eyes. Let him shine His light into the dark places where the rubbish is stored. Then listen as he says to you: “Feed my sheep…and Follow Me.”

Busting A Myth

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Evensong on 31st August. The readings were 2  Kings 6.24-25; 7.3-20 & Acts 18:1-16.

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The story is told of a farmer in Michigan, USA. While tilling the land he looks up at the sky, and sees the letters “PC” formed by clouds. Taking this as a message from the Almighty, he runs back to the homestead and tells his wife “I am to Preach Christ.” Saddling his trusty horse, he rides from town to town intent on declaring the word of the Lord. However, at each stop he finds a problem – they’re the wrong kind of people, he’s tired from the journey, that kind of thing. He returns home, slowly wanders across to his wife and says, “I think He just wants me to Plant Corn.”

Now, our poor farmer may or may not have been wrong in his first interpretation of the message in the sky. In many ways he had the right idea – he maybe just fell for a lie that has been doing the rounds since year dot. I guess many of us have heard it – maybe some of us even believe it. It goes like this – you have to be special to speak with authority about Jesus. It’s a full time job, a hard task only for those set apart and, as this is the Church of England, with all the right courses and bits of paper under their belt before it can even be thought of. Our readings, however, show this is not the case.

In our Old Testament tale it is four outcasts, suffering from some kind of infectious skin disease, who are tasked indirectly with doing God’s work. Before the section we read, Elisha looks out at the Aramean army camped around the city and sees they themselves are surrounded by the Lord’s own army – horses and chariots of fire. It is with this knowledge he knows he can reassure the king all will be well, and it is this army that prompts the desertion of the attacking force. Of course, the king needs to find out for himself if what he has heard is true, asking trusted people about the rumour, but is soon rejoicing in the great gift he and his people have been given.

Interestingly, at first these four men keep the good news to themselves. They can’t believe their luck to have discovered something so life changing, so rewarding, but they soon realise it must be shared with others – friends, family, strangers…even with those who have mistreated and abused them in the past. The lowest of people, used to deliver a great message from God.

In our second reading we have one of the Christian superheroes – Paul. It’s no surprise to find him mixing it with those who don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, explaining scripture, arguing why he is right, confidently standing up for his Lord and King. Yet this isn’t his actual job. He works six days a week with Aquilla as a tent maker – P & A Tents, maybe, or if it was a modern shop maybe some dodgy pun like Intents Experiences. While he mainly focuses on the synagogues on the Sabbath, Paul saw his “proper” job as vitally important – not just because it meant he was not a financial burden on those who he stayed with, but also as it afforded him opportunities to evangelise to those who he met in everyday life (see 1 Thessalonians 2:9.) And although he seems to be having some success with bringing people to faith in Christ, he still needs reassuring himself in the face of opposition to his message. The Lord comes to him at night and says “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you.” The ultimate evangelist, comforted in prayer as even he finds the going gets tough.

I think these two passages help us to see through the myth that we need to be something special to talk to people about Jesus. All we really need to be is ourselves. If we faithfully listen to God, through reading the Bible, prayer and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit we find that whatever our “real” job is – and by “job” I don’t necessarily mean paid employment but whatever tasks we face on a given day – we will be presented with opportunities to talk about Jesus and share the good news of how He has impacted on our lives.

Now you may be thinking – that’s easy to say, but in this day and age with rampant atheism or, worse, apathy to all things Christian, we haven’t got a chance. We all know the Church is in decline so what hope is there for normal people like us, however faithful?

Well, today we remember Aidan of Lindisfarne, who died on this day in the year 651. Historians note that in the years prior to Aidan’s mission, Christianity was being largely replaced by Anglo-Saxon paganism. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Britain was returning to it’s pagan ways, but King Oswald of Northumbria was determined to bring Christianity back to the people, and asked for missionaries to be sent to him. Aidan arrived from Iona to replace a chap called Cormán, who reported that the Northumbrians were “too stubborn” to be converted, and set about his task in an inspired fashion that may strike a chord with us today. He would simply walk from one village to another, politely chatting with the people he saw and slowly interesting them in Christianity. By patiently talking to the people on their own level (and by taking an active interest in their lives and communities), Aidan and his monks slowly restored Christianity to the Northumbrian countryside, and went on to build churches, monasteries and schools as well as gaining a reputation for being charitable to those less fortunate, especially orphans and slaves.

His example, alongside our readings, gives me great hope for our Parish, our region, our country. It’s not rocket science. People are happier to meet the friend of a friend than a complete stranger, as they trust their friend’s judgement & know they have common ground. We are not talking to people about a club or social gathering, or some vauge historical figure to look up to – we are introducing them to a living person, who wants to know them, help them, even love them – just as He loves us.

For extra encouragement, why not come along to the Alpha course starting soon – maybe even bring a friend? We are all perfectly equipped to follow Jesus great commission found in Matthew 28:19. We may not all have the same gifts as a Paul or an Aidan, but we have the exact right gifts for the task God has given each and every one of us. We just have to have the courage to use them.

“Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you.”

Amen

When The Good Seems Gone

This is the second sermon from our new series “Still Valued and Valuable,” focussing on being a Christian in the later years of life. It was preached at all four services on Sunday 31st August.

The readings were Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28.

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Who are you? If I were to invite you to turn to a person nearby and introduce yourself, what would you say to them? You’d, most likely, say some of the following. You’d give your name. You might say where you were born or how long you’ve lived in the area. You would, if you have one, talk about your spouse. You might talk about what you do or did for a job. You would, if you have them, probably talk about your children and possibly grandchildren too. You might talk about your interests or hobbies. You might even say how long you’ve been coming to this church.

Now, of course there’s nothing wrong with any of that. We all have our own unique and personal life stories. Yet, for the majority of people in this church it probably feels like their biographies are pretty near completed and only the last chapter remains to be written. And if you were looking for a title for this last chapter, I wonder, might it be: When the good seems gone? After all, what is there to look forward too? Much of old age can seem to be experiences of loss. I was fit, full of vigour and vitality. Now, I’m sluggish, weak and lethargic. I had roles, responsibilities and reasons to live each day. Now, I have few, if any. I had all my faculties and enjoyed my independence. Now, I’m afraid of losing both.

Of course, I wouldn’t ever want to underestimate the frustration, sadness and struggles associated with some of those losses. Nor do I want to minimise the impact they can have on our frail humanity. But for a moment let’s return to that question of: Who are you? In the course of introducing yourself, I really do wonder, even in church, if any of us would’ve said anything about the claim that Jesus Christ has upon our lives. Nevertheless, this morning, however young or old you might be. I want to urge you to begin to believe that if we believe the Christian Gospel, then this is the truest, in fact, it’s the most significant thing about us.

The whole of what the New Testament has to say about, who we are, and what Jesus Christ is all about can be cut down to two words. Two words so small and so easily overlooked that they’re just missed. The two words are: in Christ. If we believe in Jesus Christ, if we place our trust in him, then according to the New Testament. It is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. We have a new life, Christ’s life in ours and we in the life of Christ. You see, when we say we believe in Jesus Christ as we do when we recite the Creed every Sunday. We’re saying that he is the centre of all things. It may seem to us as if it’s our life that’s central, that our concerns should be at the centre of things. Our lives, our health, our families, our roles, our activities and our priorities.

But the task of the Christian faith is to allow the truth that we are, in Christ, to affect the whole of our living and the whole of our lives. So that, over a life time we learn to see things, not from our perspective but from Christ’s perspective because it is his life we now lead. Every day, we probably make decisions, choices, priorities and the like about countless things. From families to finances, holidays to health, the use of our time and so on so forth and we do that, more often than not, assuming that we’re at the centre of all things. Whereas, Christian faith invites us to recognise that, we live our lives within the life of Christ. If we believe in Jesus Christ, we are called to live his life, within us. As such, growing as a Christian is in fact a call to become what we are, to become Christ for the sake of the whole world.

From the very moment of birth every human being is growing chronologically older but for Christians, the difference is, we’re growing old in Christ. Regrettably, some seniors have a phobia about aging. They see their retirement years as a curse of boredom and uselessness. Whilst others see them as simply an opportunity for of all kinds of leisure activities. But the church is the kind of community that insists that those who are senior in years are not relieved of spiritual responsibilities.

It’s interesting that aging wasn’t seen by the early Christians as a problem. In the entire New Testament, and particularly in the Pastoral Epistles, the respect due to older members of the community is emphasised. The exhortations imply and speak clearly of dutifully caring for widows, honouring the elderly and imitating their faith and faithfulness. We find specific instructions that the community should provide assistance to widows over the age of sixty and that women recognised by the church as widows, should devote their energies to prayer, hospitality and to service to the sick. But by contrast, in our youth obsessed culture, seniors can be strongly tempted to try looking and acting youthful. But, should seniors long to be young again? Well, I don’t think so, because for Christians old age is not a dead-end street. As we age, we can still grow spiritually and the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. He said to the Ephesians that we can progressively succeed in putting off the old self and putting on the new self and, be made new in the attitude of our minds. This renewal through the Holy Spirit impacts our mental attitude, our state of mind and disposition with regard to God and his world throughout our lives. In other words, we continue to develop our walk with God and we’re never ever too old to serve the Lord.

It was Saint Augustine who referred to memory as a ‘great receptacle’. So, in those now completed chapters of their biographies seniors have a rich storehouse of memories. Times lost in idleness. Opportunities well used. A fulfilling career. Children grown up. And no doubt suffering gone through with dignity and courage. So what an opportunity there is for the young to tap into these memories. Can I suggest that, none of the ‘good that seems gone’ is ever wasted with God. The Christian faith is passed on from one generation to the next. It depends on that very transmission. There must always be a most intimate relationship between the present and the coming generation, that is, if there is to be a future generation of Christians. The church cannot be the church without the seniors. They’re the very embodiment of the church’s story.

Understandably, as we age, we become more aware of the swift passing of years. And we can either let the fear of death put a mental stranglehold on us or look to the future with hope. And as such, can retitle that last chapter of our biography as, the best is yet to come. Jesus Christ, the risen and ascended Lord is the ground of our hope. The hope of the resurrection lies at the very heart of the way in which Christians embody the practices of growing old in Christ. Jesus Christ wants you to trust him with your life, for your future, for the rest of this day and for the rest of your days. No, it’s not easy and it’s certainly not something learned overnight, but it is possible, because Jesus promises it will be so. If we place our lives in his hands, if we commit ourselves to loving and trusting in his promises and in what he has done for us.

As we live out what today’s Gospel reading calls us to: Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus sake will find it. We find our lives given back to us as a gift. To live no longer for ourselves but for others, and of course chiefly for him. And then we find, alongside our life given back to us, the very life of God present in our lives. Giving us a new joy, a new hope and a new strength in which to live. My brothers and sisters, this is the only future worth having, it’s the only future the Christian faith invests in. Give Jesus your life. He treasures it already and in return, you will find his life in yours.

Who are you? Above and beyond all things, you are, in Christ.