A Birthday to Remember

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist on 24th May 2015 – Pentecost Sunday. The readings were Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27 & John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Tomorrow is a big day in our house. No, I’m not just talking about the events that will unfold at Wembley Stadium as my beloved Canaries seek to re-join the great escape artists of Sunderland in the Premier League – it’s also my middle daughter’s 7th birthday! Where does the time go?!

Birthdays are a funny thing really, aren’t they? We long for them as a child, maybe squashing down a bit of jealousy when a friend or sibling has theirs but anticipating the gifts and celebrations to come on our special day. Then as we get older, we maybe don’t relish them as much as we used to – possibly they’re just a reminder of another mile on the clock, another year older and hopefully, but not necessarily wiser. But if we allow ourselves, birthdays can afford us a good opportunity to look back over the life of ourselves or a loved one and see how far we’ve come, how we’ve grown, what made us who we are today.

I guess this fits in nicely with our Pentecost celebration today, as we read once again Luke’s account of the birth of the Church as recorded in Acts.

But his account also serves to help us look back at the real birth of Christianity – the birth of Jesus Himself. Luke spends more time describing the beginning of the Incarnation, the word becoming flesh, than any of the other Gospel writers – he wants us to see that in the origins of a person there is an indication of the direction that person’s life will take. With this in mind, there are parallels between the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel and the opening of Acts. Both stories begin with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, though in both the Spirit seems to be at work in the period before. In both the promise given is contrasted with John the Baptist. Knowing Theophilus and any other readers will have seen his original Gospel, Luke is indicating to us we can expect to learn much from this second infancy narrative – that of the first community of believers, our Christian ancestors.

It’s important to hold this in our minds as we explore Pentecost – Acts is very much rooted in what is written in Luke, and the dramatic events of Pentecost are bound up with the events recorded in Luke 24. Pentecost follows hot on the heels of our Ascension celebrations, and inside the Easter season, because all three are inextricably linked to one another. At the Emmaus road encounter, Cleopas and his colleague reported Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread,” and that he “opened their eyes to understand the scriptures.” Afterwards he told his disciples to “stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” At Pentecost we remember that same power of God, made known at the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, is given to the people of God – his closest disciples, the Jews from every nation who hear them preach the Good News and listen to the message, even to the Gentiles. Yes, even to the gentiles, us, allowing us to also have an encounter, to be strengthened, healed and empowered by the Holy Spirit of the living God.

Because a good birthday celebration is not just about looking back, living in the past. We need to also look forward, to our future, to what is to come, what we feel God is calling us to do next, how we can develop to be the person or people God has created us to be – how we can be the Church, the Body of Christ, that God has called us to be. And this part of Acts shows us that anything is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke highlights this in a very subtle way, a way that even those of us who are long in the faith can miss. The story of Peter in this chapter shows that wherever we feel we are with God, however powerful or insubstantial we feel our faith to be, a relationship with Jesus and the awesome power of the Holy Spirit can truly transform us into the person the Father sees as He looks at us. This same Peter, who could only follow at a distance as His great friend was taken away, who denied even knowing him to the maid who insisted he must, and who left the courtyard weeping, broken and in the full knowledge of his betrayal – this same Peter is the first to raise his voice, to confront those who wish to pour scorn and derision on the amazing display of God’s grace and love occurring in front of them, and to boldly proclaim those word which only weeks before he could not bring himself to quietly say to a lowly serving woman in the dark of night.

In the beginning, Genesis 2:7 tells us the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and made a human being. In Acts 2:1-4 this same Spirit breathes life into a broken and cowardly disciple and creates a new, emboldened and empowered man, who cannot restrain himself from sharing the Good News that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that Jesus is the Christ who takes away the sins of the world and has set us, each one of us here free – free to live, free to know God, free to be loved.

Anything is possible in the power of the Spirit – and we have access to that same Spirit right here, right now. And that can seem a bit, I don’t know, a bit scary. Because in Acts we see the Spirit move by wind and fire, making the church visible and public, reaching out, changing lives, provoking wrath and confusion in some and bringing hope and empowerment to others. The crowd respond to Peter’s words, crying out “what must we do to be saved?” And everything changes. Their little group suddenly expanded massively. But, if we look further into this chapter of Acts, people set aside their differences and unite for the common good, living as those who love Jesus above all else. As I’ve said before, John reminds us perfect love casts out all fear. If we faithfully call on the Spirit He will move afresh in us, in our church and our parish, and He will help us once again to bring people to that knowledge of the love of Jesus Christ that will make their lives complete.

So let’s make this birthday our best birthday ever – our re-birthday. Let’s unite in calling on the Holy Spirit to once again fill our hearts, fill our lives, fill our brothers and sisters who we are with here today – and ultimately fill our Church with our brothers and sisters who do not yet know the risen Lord. We, like Peter, can be changed, strengthened and empowered to carry that amazing Good News out with us and proclaim it to all – today, tomorrow and forevermore.

Amen.

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More Questions than Answers?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 6pm Evensong service on 17th May 2015, the Sunday after the Ascension. The readings were Acts 1.1-11, Ephesians 1.15-23 & Luke 24.44-53.

I was once told there is no such thing as a stupid question – only a stupid person. I don’t subscribe to the latter part, but I think one of the great things about our Christian faith is we have the ability to – are hopefully encouraged to – ask questions about it.

You may not be surprised to hear I often end up chatting to people – in the street or at the school gates or wherever, and something that has been asked a couple of times is how I as a Christian avoid doubt, or can have “blind faith.” But I don’t think doubt is the opposite of faith – fear is the opposite of faith, just as it is the opposite of love. And as we explored a few weeks ago, perfect love – agape, God’s divine, self-giving love – casts out fear. But questions are healthy, as they hold us to account and stop us getting too blasé about our faith, too comfortable in our small Christian bubble, and encourage us to explore God’s understanding and perspective of things instead of just ours and our friends.

So there’s a part of me that loves the confusion in the ascension story. The disciples, the people who have been closest to Jesus throughout his ministry, the guys who have listened to all he’s had to say, seen the miracles he has performed, grieved for his death and celebrated his resurrection and have now been taught by Him for an extra forty days still have questions – still don’t seem to really understand. After all He’s said and done, they can’t quite believe He’s leaving without doing the big Messiah thing they had expected right from the start.

“Lord,” they say, “all the other stuff sounds brilliant, but is this the part where we start the revolution & overthrow the Romans? After all, what have the Romans ever done for us?!”

It’s quite comforting really – to think that 2000 years ago those who were the first to hang around with Jesus were still left scratching their heads in a similar way to us as he rose into the clouds, dust trickling from his feet and his final instructions ringing in their ears.

And there a chance that, in our enlightened times and with the benefit of hindsight, we could think it was a bit of an odd, even a daft question. But I’m wondering – if it would have been us standing there, listening to Jesus and contemplating His impending departure, what would we have asked Him? I’m not going to put anybody on the spot, but what springs to mind?

“Lord, how do we respond to so much need in this world?”

“Lord, did you really mean that love your enemy thing?”

“Lord, are Sunderland going to stay up?!?”

Because, if we’re honest, there is a fair chance we would find ourselves asking about things that are more specific to our lives, our immediate concerns.

“What is the future for our church?”

“Why didn’t you heal my friend, loved one…”

“If this Church grows again will it change – will I feel a stranger in my own pew?”

These are all perfectly good questions – I’m sure that the many, many more flitting around your heads like butterflies right now are equally as good. And the example of the disciples shows we are justified in asking them. The amazing thing about our relationship with God our Father through Jesus His son in the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us is we are allowed to come to Him with whatever is on our hearts – whatever troubles us, excites us, builds us up or destroys us and lay it at the foot of His cross in prayer.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord.

The trick, as they say, is then to stay around and listen for the answer. Because one thing I think many of us have experienced is that prayer is not always answered in the way we expect, or the way we would have planned or chosen. In this instance, Jesus answers the disciples question with what appears to be a frustrating vagueness – but notice He does not deny that the kingdom will be restored, and backs up His earlier promise of help. What He does ask them to do is wait…

Luke uses two languages in Acts to describe what has happened to the world in and through the incarnation, God becoming man, word becoming flesh. One is the language of resurrection, of victory over death; the other is ascension, of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. Next week, when we celebrate Pentecost, we see these two motifs meet in the life and power given to the disciples in the Holy Spirit. But for now, the disciples had to be patient – and as we wait with them to mark the outpouring of the Spirit, let us give thanks that we have a God so mind-blowingly awesome that He can transcend life & death, time and space, yet merciful and gracious enough to listen to us, to walk amongst us, die a cruel, torturous death for us, and reside with us in our hearts this day and always.

Amen.

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Surprises in the familiar

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am Eucharist on 10th May 2015. The readings were Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6 & John 15:9-17

“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”

One of the things I find exciting about being a Christian is spotting things I haven’t seen properly before – a verse or a phrase that stands out all of a sudden in a book or letter that I’ve read countless times, that moment when it seems God is speaking afresh to me through the scriptures. Some of us may find this when we try Lectio Divina, the Benedictine method of prayerfully meditating on the Bible. Some of us may just be flicking through scripture & be drawn to a certain section, or be reminded of a passage we once read by a hymn, song, piece of music or just in everyday conversation.

That enigmatic verse, the beginning of the end of John’s First Epistle, caught my eye as I was looking through today’s reading during the week. It may sound a bit like a riddle at first glance, but I find it gives an intriguing snapshot of the importance of two of the great sacraments we have been gifted by God – Baptism and the Eucharist.

The author seems to presuppose an understanding of Jesus life, and as some see this Epistle as almost a commentary on the Gospel of John that is understandable. So think of the two bookends of Jesus earthly ministry. His baptism in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, witnessed by and testified to by John the Baptist in John 1:29-33. His crucifixion and death, his side pierced so water and blood poured out, witnessed by and testified to by an unnamed man in John 19:31-35. These two hugely significant events in Jesus life, given extra credence by John recording witness statements to ensure people saw their truth, and now handed on to us as Christ’s body on earth. And they are now hugely significant moments of our earthly walk with Jesus – but like so many things, repetition and familiarity can make their significance, I don’t know, fade or seem diminished. I need, and I think we all need, to remind ourselves of the importance of Jesus life and death on a daily basis.

To recall our own baptism, or our first communion, may not be easy in the literal sense – most of us will have been a mere bairn when we got ‘done,’ and with weekly Eucharist’s our first becomes one of many, especially if it wasn’t given the same prominence it would receive in the Catholic Church. But every time we reaffirm our faith in the words of the creed we remember our participation in the death and resurrection of our Lord through our baptism. Every time we drink the cup we remember his torturous, agonizing, life-giving death for each one of us. And each time we gather together, each time we spend time in prayer, each time we open the Bible, we can call upon the Holy Spirit to testify that this is the truth – that Jesus lived and died and rose again to bring us life in all its fullness, to the glory of God the Father.

As we gather around the table this morning, let’s ask the Sprit to move afresh in us, in our Church, to encourage and excite us by His presence once more. He will speak to us in the liturgy, in the scriptures, this day and every day, if we have ears to listen and a heart to love.

And through us He can, and will, restore our faith and revitalise this Church, this city, this fallen world. Yes, through each one of us. After all, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Amen

 

Do You Know This Man?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist on 22nd March 2015. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book. With this in mind, the readings were Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10 and Mark 11:12-25.

The Angry Christ

As you came in, each of you should have received a picture – one free in every pack! It looks a bit like an old cigarette card, doesn’t it. Take a good look at it now. Do you know this man? The flashing eyes, the pointing finger, the snarl, the teeth – this surely can’t be Jesus? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, strolling around in his socks and sandals, stroking his beard, tossing his long flowing hair like he’s in a L’Oreal advert – that’s how He looked, surely. Not this maniac who looks like He’s about to reach through the card & black our eyes!

Personally, I’ve liked this picture ever since I saw it. It challenges me. Because it is so easy to, in effect, dehumanise Jesus by focusing solely on His kindness, His compassion, even His wisdom, but avoiding some of His emotion, His passion. The ‘nice’ bits of his personality are certainly important – the fact He loves us is undeniable to anybody who has read even just one of the Gospels – but Jesus was fully God and FULLY man.

But does that excuse His behaviour in this Gospel reading?

Because, on the surface, He’s being a bit irrational. In the first part of chapter 11, He’s welcomed into Jerusalem like a returning hero, with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Palm branches and cloaks were laid in His path – all the stuff we’ll think on next Sunday. But maybe the power has gone to His head? Sent Him a bit off track. This is the following day, the morning after the night before, and Jesus is hungry, but as the fig tree has no fruit He curses it. The following day they find it withered. Quite harsh when you think it wasn’t even fig season! Maybe Angry Christ has lost the plot a bit?

But Mark doesn’t waste words – or show Jesus as anything other than the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies. This is another classic Markan sandwich, where Mark places a similar story either side of a passage to help us understand what is going on.

Jesus has gone to the Temple to find fruit – you could say the fruits of the Spirit – but instead has found the rich exploiting the poor, those with power oppressing those with none, those on the fringes of society, the marginalised, being excluded from any chance of offering proper, lawful homage to their God in His House. After all, it should be a house of prayer “for all the nations” – not just those who can afford the money changers charges.

So Jesus decides to teach the people a lesson – no, not in that way, but in the manner of one of the prophets of old. He enacts God’s word, driving out those who are exploiting the people – then, it says, He teaches them by using words of scripture. No wonder the chief priests and scribes were so angry when they heard what had happened – all of those who found out about the days events, especially in the light of the triumphal entry the day before, would see Jesus as at the very least acting like a messenger from God – and would be aghast to hear the prophecy was, in effect, accusing them of the same failings of their ancestors. Best get Him out of the way before He does much more damage.

So when we, His modern disciples, alongside those followers with Him at the time, see the fig tree, it seems to tell us that Jesus wasn’t some maniac who was eager for figs to be available all year round – a kind of prophetic nod to our modern selection of goods in the supermarkets – but an indication of His point. If the tree does not produce good fruit, it is no use. If the tree is sick at its roots, the whole thing ceases to function. If the worship of the Jewish people was rooted in the temple, and the temple and its keepers were rotten, then God’s Kingdom was under threat.

So this passage isn’t justifying all anger – I am as guilty as anyone at losing my temper inappropriately. When hurt or challenged, even if the other person is right, it can be hard to hold back, not to react & let rip in their direction. But being angry about some things is entirely appropriate.

See how Mark cleverly plays off the unjustified anger of the authorities at being told, entirely correctly, they were not fulfilling their duty to the kingdom, against Jesus righteous anger on behalf of God’s people, oppressed, downtrodden & put upon by those claiming to do it in the name of God.

There are many situations today we, as Jesus disciples, as God’s people on earth, should be rightfully angry about. Oxfam reported that by next year 1% of the world’s population will own more than half the world’s wealth – they will own more of the world’s wealth than the whole other 99% added together! While people across the globe, including in our own country, struggle to afford shelter, warmth, even food – 1 in 9 people go to bed hungry each night, and more people die from hunger than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined each year – just a fraction sit on the means to stop hunger forever. And on the subject of malaria, anyone who watched Comic Relief a week last Friday will now know mosquito nets, which can prevent thousands of children dying from malaria, are two for a fiver. Yet thousands die from malaria each year, as they can’t get the nets. I think that should make us angry.

Closer to home, big corporations, rich individuals, are evading tax – sometimes assisted by our own financial institutions, if the allegations in the press were true a few weeks ago, which takes away valuable income which could elevate austerity measures in this country. I think that should make us angry.

Child sexual exploitation, ethnic cleansing, FGM, people trafficking, executions, racism, sexism, homophobia – we are right to get angry about these things – especially when supposedly carried out in the name of ‘god’ – as each one of them, just as was the case in the temple, are ways that those who have authority, who hold the power, abuse and oppress others – which is the complete opposite of God’s kingdom, of His plan for each and every one of us.

Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away recently, wrote something helpful in his novel Carpe Jugulum. Granny Weatherwax is arguing with a member of a religious sect:

“sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—” he argues

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

The money changers were treating God’s children, coming to His house to worship, as a revenue stream, as a conveyer belt of profit. The authorities were allowing this to happen. Jesus anger was directed at those who were treating their brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters, created each one in the image of God, as things.

As we approach Good Friday, when Jesus was beaten, mocked, abused and killed for each one of us – and Easter Day when He rose again to lead us to eternal life – we need to hold on to the fact he did it for each member of this world’s population, however rich or poor, strong or weak. We are called to be angry on behalf of those who are powerless, however close to home or far away they are, and use that anger to try and make a difference.

The House of Bishops letter that dared to suggest politicians may want to seek “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be,” caused anger and derision from many people, a lot of whom it seems have a vested interest in the current system. “Christians should stay out of politics,” was the accusation. “Religion and politics don’t mix.” It was up to the comedian David Mitchell to point out “If church leaders can’t complain about poverty who on Earth can?”

Through prayer, through our buying choices, through our votes & our willingness to hold to account those elected into authority over us, by our relationships with friends, neighbours and strangers, we can help further God’s kingdom on earth. Let’s take the time to look into issues that affect the poorest in our society, locally and globally, let’s allow ourselves to be moved, upset, challenged and become righteously angry this Lent and beyond, and to ask God our Father, through His incarnate Son Jesus Christ who knew and experienced every range of human emotions, to fill us with His Spirit and guide us to radically love our neighbour, and our perceived enemy, and seek to change things for good.

It seems a huge ask – it may seem like I can’t possibly mean us here. But I do, and we can.

We are all blessed by God, loved by God, empowered by his Spirit. Look around you – We are the body of Christ. Together we can make a huge difference. How??

“Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’”

Amen.

The Greatest Mam?

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s 11am Eucharist on 15th March 2015 – Mothering Sunday. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book. With this in mind, the readings were Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 & Mark 9:33-41.

So, Mothering Sunday is upon us, and up and down the country we are celebrating the truly remarkable people who we have the privilege to call Mam – whether they are with us or not, their love & care helped make us who we are today. I’m fortunate to have a good relationship with my Mam – or Mum as I should call her or if she reads this she’ll tell me off for talking funny – and truly blessed to have such an amazing wife and unbelievably good mother to our children. Then, take my mother-in-law – somebody, please, take her… no, I’m joking. Since moving to this part of the world she’s looked out for me like her own son.

But for some, it is a day to quietly acknowledging the pain, the difficulty, even the anger that came out of our maternal relationship, or our relationship with our own bairns, or the children we never got to meet. I think, just as for some the image of God the Father is wrapped up in the mess that was their relationship with their own earthly dad, days like today are, for some, a reminder of what never was, or what might have been.

Of course, many of us here know Mothering Sunday originated during the sixteenth century, when people went “a-mothering” – that is, they returned to their mother church, the main church or cathedral of the area, for a service. In later years, it became a day when domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. Children would pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers, something which eventually evolved into the Mother’s Day tradition of boosting Hallmark & Thornton’s profits – sorry, of giving gifts to mothers.

Many of these cards run along the same lines – “World’s Greatest Mum,” “You’re The Best,” “If Mam’s Were Flowers, I’d Pick You,” that kind of thing. And they sell like hot cakes because that’s how we like to think of, or remember, our Mam – as the greatest. To affirm their role in our lives, to show them we value them and possibly disguise the fact that for the other 364 days of the year we kind of take them for granted. Those Mam’s here today – when you receive a card like this, how does it make you feel? What does the sentiment mean? Because what I think we’re saying, and hopefully hearing, in these cards isn’t the world’s usual definition of being the greatest. Some say their Mam is great because of the way she is or was always there when needed, a constant presence to talk to, confide in, sooth hurts or give encouragement and praise. Some say it’s because of her cooking ability, or at least the provision of food, comfort, warmth, shelter – ♪ ♫ the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities ♫ ♪ – but done in her special way with love & care. For some it’s the sense of protection, sticking up for us when we need it – and then, shall we be diplomatic and say encourage us to re-evaluate our behaviour, but always done to help us learn from our mistakes and to inspire us to be the best version of ourselves we can be.

Interesting, isn’t it. Especially when we look at these ideas alongside our Gospel passage – not thrown up as a suitable reading by the lectionary but here as it’s the next in our Lenten journey together through Tom Wright’s book. The disciples are having an argument about who is the greatest. Ironically, given what is about to be said, it’s a bit like one of those arguments kids have – “my Dad’s bigger than your Dad,” “Sunderland are better than Newcastle,(though not Aston Villa, obviously)” “I bet I can spit the furthest,” you know the kind of thing. The wonderful Sir Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away this week, wrote in his novel Hogfather

“It was nice to hear the voices of little children at play, provided you took care to be far enough away not to hear what they were actually saying.”

So Jesus, assuming the role of parent, sits them down & explains how the world is supposed to work. Being the greatest isn’t about how much power we wield, what we possess, our status or how many people bow to us. It’s not even about how many years we’ve come to church. It’s about how we are with each other. It’s about putting others first. It’s about love.

He then uses a child to drive home his point. What can be seen as less powerful, less important in a worldly, material sense, than a child? They don’t provide anything of material worth, they just consume. They don’t cook or clean or bring reasoned, rational debate – but they do bring laughter, comfort, tears, heartbreak and love. Bairns, our own and other peoples, keep us grounded and realistic by the way they wear their hearts on their sleeves and ask the awkward questions that we as adults are too tactful, or too scared to ask. Why do we do it that way? Why can’t I eat the sweet things before the main meal? Why do you tell me I need to love my neighbour when you just called Mr Smith at 23 that word I’m not supposed to say…

It has been a real privilege to be here when children come round to visit this church with their schools, and the work the education group has put in so far has been amazing. The children feel welcomed, at home & remark with wonder on the building and the history and ask questions about God & Christianity. Sometimes they are noisy, sometimes the questions seem a bit silly, but they are usually asked with honesty and a desire to understand.

I wonder if today, when we walked in here for the service, we felt a sense of wonder, excitement, anticipation about being in this place, coming to worship, speak to and hear from the living God?

If not, can we remember the last time we did? Did we come here to give as well as receive – not just financially, but our hearts, our attention, our praise & thanks? Did we come here to serve as well as to be served?

The Church as an institution, the church as us, the body of Christ, has a great deal in common with a Mother. It is, or should be, always there when needed, with not just the clergy but also fellow members of our church family a constant presence to talk to, confide in, sooth hurts or give encouragement and praise. It provides food – spiritually, metaphorically and physically – as well as comfort, warmth and shelter – with love & care. It gives a sense of protection, sticking up for us when we need it – occasionally encouraging us to re-evaluate our behaviour, but always in a way to help us learn from our mistakes and to inspire us to be the best version of ourselves we can be, through the love of Jesus and the presence of His Holy Spirit with us, as well as the through the accountability of our loving, non-judgmental relationships with each other and all who come to us. At least, it should.

And I think, a lot of the time, it does. But just as some of us here may struggle with difficult, even painful memories on Mothering Sunday, some have been hurt by fellow Christians, or by the Church itself. Perhaps some of us fear we have hurt others somewhere down the line? Maybe it was done with the best of intentions, but nonetheless have made them feel they are not welcome – possibly in this church, possibly in God’s family.

And if we recognize any of that, today is as good as any to ask God to help us forgive that hurt, to seek reconciliation and set right those things that have gone wrong, and begin to seek again that sense of loving relationship that a church family can bring, that blessing we as St. Peter’s can be to the whole community.

So today, I want to finish with two things. Firstly, we should give thanks for mothers everywhere – especially our own – and pray for those who find today hard for so many reasons. And secondly, a bit of a challenge. Are we ready and willing to be parented – to be loved and valued as much as the greatest mother loves her children, to come with childlike awe & wonder into God’s presence again? And are we ready to parent all those whom Christ puts in our path to care for, both inside & outside of this Church?

Lent is a pretty good time to think about this kind of stuff. And, although it seems really tough, I truly believe we can do this together. Don’t just take my word for it – as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, we can do this because

“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace we have been saved. He raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Amen

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Seeing Past The Pigs

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am & All Saints 10:30am Eucharist on 1st March 2015. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book.  With this in mind, the readings were Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Romans 4:13-25 & Mark 5:1-20.

I’ve mentioned to some of you before that I see it as a one of the highlights of my role to be involved with one of our best local primary schools, Seaburn Dene. It’s a great privilege to be able to work alongside the dedicated staff & hard working students, and to chat to parents, grandparents and carers at the school gates. But something I find interesting is how people view me and my role there.

To some I’m sure I’m still just ‘some vicar’ who they see wandering in and out, turning up at the odd event & maybe shuffling kids around, not really paying me much attention. To some I’m Reverend Child, as that’s what the head calls me – or Mr Reverend Child, as a delightful lass called Amy called me when she wanted to get my attention – who they know is there & may be on nodding or smiling terms, but not much more. And to some I’m just the dad of my children – or Paul – as we’ve talked, built a relationship, broken down some barriers. Three different ideas about me, all accurate parts of who I am, each of which I’m sure affects how those who hold the view relate to me.

As we explore this part of Mark’s Gospel we find Mark, in a short space, manages to paint three pictures of Jesus – show three impressions people held of him, as he turns up & performs an exorcism on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.

The first reaction is that of the man with the unclean spirit, who describes Jesus as a tormentor – Tom Wright even translates this as “torturer.”

Shocking words, and probably for us here something we can’t relate to, but bear with me.

I don’t know about you, but I find the treatment of this poor man to be a sad, scandalous tale. He lives in the graveyard, shunned by a society who don’t know what to do with him so try to restrain, to hide, to trap him and keep him well away. No wonder he is so distrustful of strangers, as he shows when Jesus arrives. When you read through Tom Wright’s observations tomorrow you’ll find out some of his interpretation of how the man came to be in such a state. But however he has come to this point, when He first encounters Jesus the possessed man is frightened. The voices in His head recognise Jesus as a game changer, and play on their hosts’ natural wariness of other people, born out of long experience of mistreatment and abuse of him as people struggle to cope with his ‘condition.’ Hence why he accuses Jesus in such strong terms.

But maybe this view isn’t overly different to that some still hold in society today. How many times do we hear people say they can’t go to church because they’re “not good enough?” At various events, baptisms, weddings, even funerals, you may overhear people joking about watching out for lightning bolts as they cross the threshold.

Many a true word is spoken in jest, and what we see is people who fear judgement, who fear not just that those in church will be holier than thou or too nice, but that their lives will not be as ‘good’ as they hope them to be & they will be cast out, or punished, for their wrongs, the things they hear the church call ‘sins.’

Maybe some of us here can relate to that feeling. It’s not an unnatural reaction, given how some portray Christianity as a list of things you can’t do, or as they look in the press at the latest division in the church over women or homosexuality. Some have even experienced that sense of judgement from other churchgoers, or even clergy. But look at how Jesus reacts. Instead of attacking the man, or trying to defend himself, put the shutters up & cast him aside, Jesus listens, Jesus asks questions, and Jesus seeks to help.

He doesn’t point out how the man has got himself into this situation, or lecture him on the dangers of consorting with demons or his lifestyle before they met. He just seeks to make his life better, to help him to be restored to the man God created him to be.

And that leads us on to Mark’s next image – Jesus as liberator. We know Jesus lived and died and rose again to free us from the sin that stopped us being in a relationship with God – at least we talk about it and acknowledge it.

Do we really know it – do we really believe that we, I, am saved from death and granted eternal life through the blood of Jesus Christ. That I can rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide me in my walk with the Father?

This man’s life was completely transformed by his encounter with Jesus – who then commissioned him to tell ‘his people’ what the Lord had done for him. When we allow Jesus into our lives, when we accept Him as saviour it really is a game changer – and part of that change is to share the miracle of our rebirth with those around us, and help them to discover this amazing, loving Lord for themselves.

For this to happen we need to maintain our relationship with God, to rely on His love for us & daily be renewed by Him, by spending time with Him in prayer & the scriptures, and allowing Him to work in our lives.

But this is challenging, as we see in Mark’s final image – Jesus as disruptor, as a disturber, as somebody who rocks the boat. The Gerasenes would probably not have been so keen for Jesus to leave if He had just come in and metaphorically patted them on the head and affirmed everything they were doing. Instead he challenged them by performing the exorcism, and by allowing the Legion to destroy the heard of pigs.

Tom Wright picks up on this, and it’s a good point to raise – why would a Jewish community have a heard of pigs? What other use would they have other than for food – something that any good, law-abiding Jewish person wouldn’t eat. So maybe the removal of the pigs reminded them that actually some of the things that they had convinced themselves were ok were really not. Maybe they simply looked past the healed man and saw the dead pigs – after all, it seems a peculiar quirk of human nature that we can value things over our brothers and sisters, profit over people, status and power over justice and mercy. Just look at the reaction in some quarters over the House of Bishops letter that dared to suggest politicians may want to seek “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be,” ranging from telling them to keep their noses out to accusations of them taking political sides, instead of pausing an thinking they may have a point – surely 913,138 people receiving 3 days emergency food and support from foodbanks in between April 2013- March 2014 was 913,138 people too many.

We know only too well that a relationship with Jesus changes us. As we allow His Spirit to move in us it changes the way we see things, the way we see people, helps us to love more and judge less – or at least, it should. Maybe we need to let Jesus disrupt as afresh once in a while, let Him illuminate the things we hide in the dark bits of ourselves and look to readjust our thinking a bit – after all, that’s what we do in lent, isn’t it?

So just as I am seen in different ways when I’m at the school, Jesus means different things to different people.

And we, as His disciples, face the challenge of showing who he really is to those we know and meet. We can reassure through our words and actions those who fear Him – not in the healthy, respectful way those who believe in Him are called to “Fear the Lord” but in a misunderstanding, judgemental way – that Jesus comes to bring healing, mercy and love, to help us to be the best version of ourselves we can be. We can show the great liberation a relationship with Christ brings – freedom from fear, freedom from death, freedom from that which stops us being fully alive. And we can show that although change does come, it is change for the better, change that comes from a loving relationship and a desire to heal us and make us whole.

As we continue our journey together through Lent, towards the pain and darkness of Good Friday and the glorious healing and light of Easter Day, maybe we should ask our loving Lord and Saviour to renew and refresh us again today – that as we remember His sacrifice made once upon the cross for each one of us, we find the strength and courage to see each other, and ourselves, through His eyes, to see who He calls us to be and allow Him to help us be it. To allow Him to free us, to heal us and to love us.

Amen.

Gerasene demoniac saved

0 Shades of Grey

This sermon was preached at All Saints 10:30am Eucharist and St. Andrew’s 6pm Evensong on 15th February 2015. The readings were 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9.

Over the past couple of weeks a certain book, which has also been made into a movie, has made headlines across the country. This has been great for me, as the book in question is one of my all-time favourites, and the media talk has put me in mind of some of my favourite moments, inspiring me to watch the movie last night.

I am of course talking about “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and the shock announcement that the ‘lost’ manuscript for the sequel has been found and will be published in July.

I’m sure many of you here are familiar with the tale, if only from the film version starring the amazing Gregory Peck, but in case you are not it’s the story of a small town lawyer called Atticus Finch, his young son Jem and daughter Scout. Set in the rural south of the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Atticus is raising his children aided only by his black housekeeper. To begin with, the children just see Atticus as a normal father, enjoying a close relationship despite referring to him by his first name, and vaguely aware of how some of his eccentricities affect their lives (not playing in the local Methodist baseball team and his respect for the black community, for example). But one day, their understanding of Atticus is changed, altered, by the arrival of a mad dog, which is spotted foaming at the mouth in the street near the Finch home. Sheriff Tate arrives with his rifle, but when he sees Atticus, he gives the weapon to him and asks him to shoot. The children are very surprised at this. Atticus calmly takes aim and fires. The dog falls in its tracks. The children are amazed, especially when the sheriff tells him that their father is regarded as the best shot in the county.

Atticus is so quiet and unassuming that his children are not aware of what a special man their father is. Only after dispatching the dog, and later through the main crux of the book which deals with deeply-ingrained Southern state racism, do Scout and Jem come to see him for who he really is. He is, in effect, transfigured in their eyes, no longer just their old dad.

Mark’s version of the transfiguration of Jesus is the hinge point of the Gospel, marking the transition from Jesus life & ministry to His death and resurrection. Just after Peter has hit the nail on the head by declaring Jesus to be the Christ, then been hugely chastised for suggesting the passion could be avoided, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, away from the others.

We as readers know a key incident is about to take place – the “high mountain” is the place nearest to heaven, and throughout scripture Godly incidents happen on mountains. So it is here when, suddenly, Jesus is transfigured and his clothes shine so bright, become so dazzling, that it can only be the glory of God shining out from Him – there’s no shades of grey here! Think of the light that blinded Paul on the Damascus Road, or of Moses receiving the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved, also on a mountain, & the way his face shone with the reflected glory of God when he descended. And speaking of Moses, there he is with Elijah chatting to Jesus.

Of course, Elijah himself as no stranger to meeting with God on a mountain – his experience of the “still small voice” on Mount Sinai was arguably less dramatic, but no less profound.

So with all this going on is it any wonder the three disciples don’t know what to do! Then Peter, dear Peter, tries his best to grasp the situation & offers to make shelters for the three Holy men – maybe to keep their glory safely in one place, maybe because the only way he could deal with such an amazing, intense experience of God was to safely box it up separately from the rest of his life, to try to do something practical with it.

Then the voice from the cloud – the revelation to those there of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah who has come in Glory and Power; not in battle dress to crush the Romans but, as Jesus will allude to shortly after they come down from the mountain, as the suffering servant who will give His life as a ransom for many.

This is what I mean by the hinge – this is the second of three instances where Jesus is declared “Son of God” in Mark.

The first is by the Father to Jesus Himself when He is baptized, as He begins His earthly ministry and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The third is at His crucifixion – itself almost a reverse transfiguration as Jesus hangs abandoned, beaten, bloodied and dying right at the end of the Gospel, leading a Roman soldier to cry out “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

So here God almost parallels and affirms Peter’s confession from the previous chapter, while also showing the reality of that which Peter tried to deny – Jesus upcoming passion. When read as a whole with verses 9-13, this middle section of Mark shows glory and suffering, lowliness and majesty.

Obviously things can never be the same again for these three disciples. They have witnessed something that will only make true sense after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but even before that such an encounter changes a person – just like our encounters with God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit should change, have changed, us.

Some of us will be able to put our fingers on moments when we have had such encounters with God – some of us may find that more difficult.

So I guess the question is… where on the mountain do you feel you are today? It’s possible some of us are still summoning up the courage to take a few steps higher, knowing that folk say there are great things to be seen and experienced but hesitant of what it might mean, how it might change things. Some of us carry the experience of seeing the blinding light of the transfigured Lord at some point, or at least have the conviction to keep seeking it. It’s possible though, that this in itself complicates things – because like Peter we’re not sure what to do with what we’ve found, and are not convinced anyone would even believe us if we told them! So in our confusion we find ourselves looking to build shelters, trying to find a way to package up, to keep inside this revelation as our special thing, in our special place.

Because it can be a difficult thing, sustaining the reality of God’s love for us in our lives.

Despite all we’ve seen over the years, all we have experienced, we still forget, or lose focus, especially in a world so damaged by fear, greed and oppression. But take heart. As I said earlier, just before the transfiguration Peter had made his profession of Jesus as Christ – rapidly followed by the “get behind me Satan” incident. Not long after today’s Gospel passage the disciples, including James and John, argue over who the greatest. Mark is not afraid to show those closest to Jesus were constantly messing up – yet He corrects them, helps them move on – and moves on with them. As he does with us. We can’t earn our salvation any more than we can put Jesus in a booth, shelter or box, however church-shaped and beautiful it may be.

So I hope I can encourage all of us here to make the full journey up the mountain with me this morning. Let us step out truly believing that, as we celebrate the Eucharist in a few minutes time Christ will come and meet with us again.

That we can glimpse the light of His glory if only fleetingly, then go out into the world with our faces shining as a light to all we meet. That the experience we have this Sunday, and every day we take the time to consciously come into God’s presence, will reawaken our knowledge of who Jesus is and the amazing gift He has given us – the gift of eternal life, of forgiveness from sins and a relationship with He who created us. That through the gift of His Spirit we are renewed and refreshed to further His kingdom on earth, made fully alive by His presence with us.

This all sounds very grand – well, the view from the top of a mountain usually is. But just as Scout & Jem could never look at Atticus the same way again, once we allow Jesus to reveal Himself to us our lives take on a new meaning. So today I want to encourage all of us to keep climbing up the mountain, keep coming close to Jesus & marvelling at his glory, looking for transformation, healing, refreshment & renewal – but then to remember the world around us is crying out for the same light. Let’s have the courage to take all we’ve found out with us, because as Paul so excellently put it,

“the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Amen

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