Tag Archives: Sermon Series

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.

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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

God Is Love

This sermon was the final in our “Still Valued and Valuable” series, preached on the Last Sunday after Trinity, 26th October 2014, at St Andrew’s 8am & 9.30am and All Saints’ 10.30am. The readings were Deuteronomy 34: 1-12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8 and Matthew 22: 34-46.

Love. It seems to be right at the heart of so many things. Pop songs, romantic story lines on the television, films and books. (In 2011 the novel, Fifty Shades of Grey was the best seller in the UK – outstripping even Harry Potter. In it the writer was trying to demonstrate that it had, at its heart – for all its controversy – love relationship between a man and a woman). I did actually try to read it, to see what all the fuss was about, but couldn’t get beyond the first fifteen pages. Just not my sort of book I guess.

Love is seen as something valuable by most people. Something almost everyone wants. Something most people miss when for whatever reason it seems not to be there. Something which is fundamental to who we are as human beings.

Which is why it’s at the very heart of the message which God gives us through Jesus. Our own human attempts through music, books, films and so on – even though they are often sort of on the right lines – always fall short of what love truly is. We probably know much more about love from our own personal experiences – family, friendships, marriages. Maybe particularly when tough experiences are shared or the realities of hurt or our different personalities, view points, self-centredness and so on require lots of patience, compromise and forgiveness.

Love – real love – it seems, can be hard work. Requiring a lot of giving, sacrifice, selflessness, costly service. It can be really, really demanding, really draining.

We know this from our own experience.

St Paul in his famous first letter to the Church in Corinth – still a standard reading for weddings, and I think for good reason – wrote: “love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. Keeping all of that going all the time… it’s blooming hard work!

If we needed reminding a good test at home is, perhaps to read that passage from 1 Corinthians 13, replacing the words “love is” with “I am” and see how it sounds! How hard we do need to work!

In the reading we had this morning from another of Paul’s letters – one of the very early ones he wrote, to the Church at Thessalonika – it’s clear that it was really, really hard work. Paul and his companions, as they shared the good news of the love of God in as many places in the known world they could get to, were opposed almost at every step of the way.

Misunderstood, ill-treated, imprisoned, beaten up. Making it clear that they themselves had no ulterior motives, had nothing to gain, but relied wholly on the strength provided by God, “we were”, Paul writes, “gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that that we are determined to share with you not only the good news of Jesus but also our very selves, because you have become very dear to us”.

There is something about real love which persists, through the hard work, the let-downs, the disappointments, the sense that we may be getting nowhere.

In our first reading, from the Old Testament, we heard about Moses. Now there’s someone who was stretched to the very limit. Put by God in charge of a huge group of people – the Israelites – to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, through all the discomforts of the desert of Sinai towards a “Promised Land” – a trip which, ultimately, took forty years. “Will we ever get there?” must have been a prevailing emotion. Moses, as we heard, didn’t actually make it in his lifetime. The people were unruly, complaining, moaning, bickering from the first and throughout.

The people were demanding, blaming Moses for their discomfort, driving him almost to distraction: “Why have you given me this lot to have to deal with?” Moses implored God, in the Book of Numbers, chapter 11. In one translation Moses says to God, “I can’t carry all these people by myself! The load is far too heavy! Do me a favour and spare me this misery!”

And yet he carries on. In one sense he had no choice. As we don’t, really, in caring for those committed to us – because of a promise we have made in marriage perhaps, or because they are members of our family, or because we are compelled by compassion or because we simply love them. Moses carried on. Loving God’s people. Serving them. Guiding and caring for them literally to the end of his days.

Loving is “doing”. And loving God – in doing what he asked in carrying on loving, serving his people – even though sometimes it was a right royal pain! – was what Moses was simply getting on with. While he was doing it, it probably felt far from the noble, gracious thing it actually was. No doubt he wanted to throw in the towel and run away a dozen times. But he didn’t. He kept on going.

When, in this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminds the Pharisee lawyer of the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind – this is the first and greatest commandment – and the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself”, he is telling us what it is all about. That we must go on loving and serving others, even when it is hard. Even when we get nothing in return. Even when it seems not to be appreciated or even noticed. Even when we don’t like the person we are called to love. We must treat them with the same consideration, gentleness and dignity as we need ourselves.

But how? How on earth do we do this? How, when we think it is beyond our strength? Our endurance?

Well, there is only one way. But it is a sure way. To know that we ourselves are loved by God. “We love God”, writes John in his first letter, chapter four, “because he first loved us”. There is no doubt about that. It is a fact. God loves us, each one of us, so profoundly, so passionately that he gave himself, in his Son Jesus, to die for us. If any of us was the last person in the world he would still have died for us.

So when loving is hard in our own lives we have the knowledge, the simple, wonderful reality of God’s love for us (and maybe the knowledge of what he has had to put up with from us, maybe over many years!). A love which will keep on going. A serving, patient, giving love (for that is what love is all about).

So when it is hard we need to remember that God loved us first. Always will. Actually through Moses, we see God. Bearing with, caring for, loving and guiding his people to freedom. So much more through Jesus. And not only does he give us an example to follow, it gives us a strength which nothing else can. To know that we are loved – that we are, each one of us, the apple of God’s eye.

I know it doesn’t make sense but it is as if each of one us is his favourite child! He delights, utterly, in each one of us. Loves us with a passion. And to know that. To rest secure in that knowledge, just as Jesus, himself, did when he was on earth makes all the difference when the love we offer to others and the world seems to be rejected, not appreciated or to make any difference. To know that renews our strength to go on loving.

Today is known as “Bible Sunday”. Hence, the special collect we had today. “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning; help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The God who loves us is there, shown throughout the Bible. Through the lives of ordinary people, like you and me. It is true that some people think that the Old Testament shows an altogether different God: a God of anger, of coldness, of distance. A fearsome God. But if you look more closely, whether at Moses, David, Ruth, Esther or countless others your will see, yes, a God of strength and purpose and holiness but also a God of tenderness, of grace, of patience and of love. And in the New Testament all of this brought together in one person, Jesus.

If the Bible was a stick of rock we would find the words running all the way through the centre: “God loves you”. God is love.

And Jesus calls us to follow him.

Amen.

Handing On The Baton

This sermon was preached at all four morning services on Sunday 19th October. The readings were Exodus 33:12-23, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 and Matthew 22:15-22.

As some of you will know I came to faith in my late teens. I used to play football on a Monday night, and a few of the lads there asked if I’d like to join the team they were forming to play in the Norfolk Christian League. Little did I know it was a dastardly evangelism plot! I used to enjoy the matches, and didn’t mind the little prayer at the start – in fact, it seemed a good idea to pray for protection given the temperament of some of the players we came across! But, what struck me after a while was the Christian players on my team seemed… different. They wanted to win just as much as I did, were passionate and hardworking, didn’t back out of challenges; but they conducted themselves with restraint, respect and dignity. They didn’t seem to need to shout & swear at the ref or opposition, to try & con the ref into a decision or leave a boot in on a tackle – things I had no problem with doing. So what made them different?

Well, I guess most of us here know the answer to that. Hopefully we have all, at some point in our lives, realised the amazing, transformative power of our relationship with Jesus –
a relationship that changes us, shapes us and shines out from us like a candle in a darkened room.

Today in our “Still Valued and Valuable” series, we’re looking at what we leave behind – our legacy, if you like. But with that passage from Matthew’s Gospel ringing in our ears it would be easy to think this was going to be about giving more money to the Church (though feel free to – plate’s around in a bit) or, as some may fear when they heard the title, “we’re going to die soon, so sort it out!”

But I would like to think all of us here, however old or young we are or feel, thinks about our impact on those around us, about our place in our community as a Christian, about how we spread the Good News of Christ and point people towards His kingdom.

Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians speaks of the light we just mentioned and its effect on those around him “You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord…And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia”

They saw what he did & lived it out. And more than that, in copying him they got others interested – “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

I doubt it will be surprise to any of you that I’m going to stand up here and say how we live our lives, how we deal with others, is hugely important. The way we act reveals a great deal about our character, and with one of the biggest charges levelled against Christians being hypocrisy, it’s essential to our spreading of the Gospel – our key task as members of Christ’s family.

And I’m sure we’ve all heard the great St. Francis of Assisi quote: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

But something about that quote bothers me – aside from it not actually being said by St. Francis (sorry). There seems to be a school of thought that, by living a good life, by trying to do the right things, treating people fairly and keeping out of trouble, we’ve done enough. Yes, it’s an important part of our calling, but alone it’s not enough. Faith without works is dead, says James, and that’s true, but works without faith are equally flawed, as Paul points out in many of his letters.

St. Francis himself preached extensively, and wrote and dictated many works and letters. Paul would famously go to the synagogues and preach, debate and argue the legitimacy of Jesus place as the Christ.

Now, this is all well and good for Christian superheroes like Paul or Francis, or early Christians like the Thessalonians, but what about you or I? I mean, they didn’t live in a society where they were surrounded by people who have no Christian upbringing, or who believed in different religions, where they felt in the minority because of their faith in Jesus… oh, wait…!

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is regarded as the earliest document in the New Testament, written within 20 years of Christ’s crucifixion.

This was not an easy time to be a convert to the new Jesus movement – society was structured around cult worship, which played a key part in social and economic transactions. To stand apart from that could lead to at best social separation, but also the possibility of stoning as an atheist.

So for the people of Thessalonica to be known far and wide for their faith, in a place where to be a Christian was not seen as being a good, well behaved person but as a radical counter-cultural renegade shows a great deal of belief and courage on their part.

If the people I had played football with had kept quiet about their faith, my life would probably have been very different. I wasn’t going to ask- I suspected it had something to do with the Bible probably saying something about being nice to people – but as an unchurched person I would have happily just left it that they were doing good, or do-gooders, about whom my opinion would have probably veered from holier than thou to genuinely good guys.

But they took the time to make sure those around them knew their motivation was because of Jesus love for each and every person, including me – not just some wishy-washy philosophical ideal, like “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice,” not even a traditionalist “we’d like you to join our church because we do it properly” style of evangelism, but a genuine relationship with our creator. Walking the walk, certainly, but also talking the talk. As a result, here I am. And as St. Francis probably did say, “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.”

As I look around this room today, I see a wealth of experience – life experience, faith experience. Many of us have years of prayer, years of trying, even years of faithfully turning up! And yet I suspect most of us would look at ourselves and feel under-qualified to tell people about Jesus at any great depth. We could discuss the tradition of our church, our favourite hymns, the ritual that makes up the service – but some of us would be worried about how to answer if somebody asked us any serious questions about our faith, about how we can believe in God when there is so much suffering, when it all seems so far-fetched, when science has disproved it all, etc, etc. So it’s easier to do the good works, be remembered as a nice person and hope that by some miraculous means the person will understand that it is Christ’s unfailing love for His people that drives us and drop to their knees in faith and repentance.

But I think we do ourselves an injustice. These years of faithful service have taught us more than we think.

Some years back a letter was published in a national newspaper. “Dear Sir, I have attended my local church weekly for the last 57 years. Every week a vicar has given a sermon, and I have come to realise I can recall hardly anything that has been said during them. Surely the church should do away with such an antiquated system of speaking to the congregation. Yours, etc…”

A few days later, this was published. “Dear Sir, in response to the letter from Mr. X regarding church. I have been married for 62 years, and my wife has cooked my evening meal without fail every day of our married life. I could not tell you what she has made for me on each of these occasions, but I do know I have been well fed.”

It all goes back to what Paul was saying to the Thessalonians. If you hang around with somebody long enough, and are inspired by them, you begin to replicate what they do – after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

And if we just go about doing good deeds without explanation, or just allow people to see our church attendance as a pastime or hobby we enjoy – like going to the match or playing an instrument – then we miss the chance to bring something amazing to their lives.

I know it doesn’t always seem like it’s worth the effort. I know many of us here will have friends and loved ones who we have witnessed to in word and deed for many years who seem to show no interest in going to church,something particularly hard to take if they are our children, brought up in the church yet finding other things to do with their Sundays. But, and this is what makes it such a hard task, many of us will not see the fruits of our labour. Many of us will be just a step along the road to faith for people who we meet. The trick is to allow ourselves to be that step, to let the Holy Spirit work through us to make the journey of each person we meet that bit smoother, to make straight the paths and go before the Lord to prepare His way, to help the dawn from on high to break upon them, to let that light shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to help guide their feet into the way of peace.

If you’re worried you haven’t spent enough time hanging around Jesus, allowing His relationship with you to grow – well start today. Take a chance on letting the words you hear in this service feed you. Re-read the Bible, find time to pray, risk coming along to Alpha – even if you’ve missed the start you can still join us. Paul wrote in expectation of Christ’s immanent return.

Without wanting to return to the dreaded “We’re all on our last legs” scenario I mentioned at the start, it is true we don’t know the hour Jesus will return, but we do know He is coming. We don’t know if it will be before or after we die, so maybe it’s best to be prepared. Remember, in more words of St. Francis: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

So do strive to live a good life. Help old ladies across the road, be sympathetic to those younger and less experienced, hug a Sunderland fan after their result yesterday. But always be ready to tell them why you do it – out of love for the living God, who loved us all so much that he sent his only Son to die for us, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Or as somebody who most likely wasn’t St. Francis once put it, “Jesus is coming – try to look busy.”

 

 

Maturing In Christ

This sermon is part of the “Still Valued and Valuable” series, and was preached at all three churches on 5th October.

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.  Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.

This poem tells of a cat going to London to visit the famous Buckingham Palace. But when the cat returns home he never tells his friends about the changing of the guard in all its spectacle. He doesn’t mention the dazzling crown, the rare and prized works of art, nor does he even mention the Queen he actually went to visit. The only thing the cat can remember is – terrifying a tasty looking mouse under the Queen’s chair. Now, the point of this rather peculiar poem is simply this. What you are, generally determines what you see.

True? For instance, the vulture flying over a field of flowers never sees the flowers but immediately spots the body of a dead rabbit. The man who says that, ‘there isn’t an honest man in the world’, usually has a character problem himself. And so, similarly, the mature disciple of Jesus because of – what they are – sees the world in ways others don’t see it. When a mature disciple looks at life their vision is coloured by their relationship to the Lord and their fellow human beings. This is, I hope, the kind of disciple that you and I want to be. We must understand that we can’t view the experiences of life in the way people who aren’t disciples of Jesus do because of – what we are. We must further understand that becoming a mature disciple demands more than a casual and easy going approach to the Christian life.


I’m sure we’re all aware that spiritual maturity is achieved, quite simply, by becoming more like Jesus. If only it were – simple. Nevertheless, after entering into that new relationship with Jesus every disciple begins the process of spiritual growth with the intention of growing spiritually mature. And according to the Apostle Paul that’s a continuous and ongoing process that will never end in this life. In Philippians chapter 3 verses 12 to14, speaking of a full knowledge of Christ. He tells his readers that he himself hasn’t – already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Now, we all know that babies grow at their own pace. But they do grow. When they stop growing, stop maturing, stop stretching out for new challenges and new skills. Then we worry don’t we because something isn’t right, something isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. And so, it’s the same way with those who begin as babes in Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is concerned that the Corinthian believers have stopped growing that they aren’t growing up as they should. Saying to them: Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Corinthians 14:20)

It’s the hope and expectation that every member of a family, whether that’s a personal family or a church family, will grow towards maturity. And like I’ve said, in the case of disciples of Jesus, full maturity is never reached in this life. Nevertheless, the expectation of continued growth never goes away. Ours is a life-long journey of stretching and growing and maturing.

Yes, I know that’s a tall order and what’s more spiritual maturity isn’t just a matter of age either. Although I should issue a caution here and say that spiritual maturity does and will take time. It also takes energy and it takes effort. No one becomes spiritually mature overnight. Even Jesus grew as he grew up. Look at what Luke says in chapter 2 a few verses on from our gospel reading. Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men. (Luke 2:52) But, and here’s the spiritual health warning, you can get older and not grow to spiritual maturity. It’s like the T shirt slogan that says, I may be getting older but I refuse to grow up. Similarly, some Christians refuse to grow up. Sadly, I’ve known 60, 70 and 80 year old spiritual babies because spiritual maturity involves much more than just the passing of time.

So, if in fact, spiritual maturity isn’t just a matter of age then what might it look like when we encounter it? Well, in the course of reading, thinking and praying about this talk, I came up with what we might consider to be five marks of spiritual maturity.

A spiritually mature person is positive under pressure. A spiritually mature person is sensitive to the needs of other people. A spiritually mature person is a peacemaker not a troublemaker. A spiritually mature person is patient and prayerful

Now, I imagine we could add more to that list and also that these are some of the qualities we might expect to discover in a spiritually mature disciple. This then made me think of two characters featured in our gospel reading – Simeon and Anna. So many of those five qualities, seem to me, to simply ooze out of that pair of saints in spite of relatively few words being recorded on the page. And I think that’s because they both demonstrate the very essence of spiritual maturity. This for me can be summed up in one word – character. Character makes a difference. It’s character that counts.

American preacher, evangelist and writer D. L. Moody said: Character is – what you are – in the dark. Recognition is what people say about you. Character is what God knows about you. God says it’s your character that determines – who you are.

Now, despite what you might be tempted to think at times, Christ-like character is the central aim of all Christian teaching and preaching because to settle for anything less is to miss the point of spiritual growth. Again as Pauls says we’re to – become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). Developing the character of Christ is the disciple’s most important task because it’s the only thing we’ll take with us into eternity. Jesus made it quite clear in his Sermon on the Mount that eternal rewards will be based on the character we develop and demonstrate in this life. What’s more, character is never built in a classroom setting. Character is built in the circumstances of life. The classroom or home group Bible study is simply the place to identify character qualities and to learn how character is developed. When we understand how God uses circumstances to develop character, we’re able to respond correctly when God places us in character-building situations.

 And if you want to know what Christ-like character looks like then a good place to start is the list of nine character qualities Paul lists in Galatians chapter 5. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Which, if you’ve made the connection then you’ll see mirror the five marks of a spiritually mature person I mentioned earlier. The fruit of the Spirit is a perfect picture of Christ. He embodied all nine qualities. If you’re going to develop Christ-like character, you too, must have these qualities in your life. Whenever we choose to respond to a situation in God’s way instead of following our natural inclination then we develop – character. For this reason God allows all kinds of character building circumstances. Conflict, disappointment, difficulty, temptation, times of dryness and delays.

So, thinking of the cat in the poem I began with. You’ll not be purrrrrr-fect in this life. Nevertheless, that cat was being – what he was – by frightening a little mouse. Likewise, our Father God calls you to be – what you are – and see that just because you might have a few more miles on the clock than you’d really like. It doesn’t, for a single moment mean you’re consigned to the scrap heap because that’s letting the world colour your vision. Instead, see your life through the eyes of a mature disciple that the Lord desires you to grow up to be. Neither will your experience of life be a purrrrrr-fect one. But you must understand that you can’t view the experiences of life in the way people who aren’t disciples of Jesus do. Instead, see your life through the eyes of a mature disciple and that the Lord seeks to create in you a Christ-like character.

♪ ♫ When I’m 64 ♪ ♫

 

I appreciate that 60’s pop music may not suit everyone’s musical tastes but I hope you’ll understand when I say it is the sentiment expressed in this song that set me thinking; it voices in a way that we can all recognise, a way that makes it ‘safe’ to handle, the fear that lurks in the back of our minds –

‘will you still need me,

will you still feed me when I’m 64′

What happens to me when I get old?
Will I still be useful?
Will I still matter?
Do I just fade away into the background to be forgotten about?

Virtually everything we see or hear puts the emphasis on youth, vitality, physical beauty & attraction.

From job adverts (though discrimination laws prevent them from actually saying it) to cosmetics marketing claiming to ‘visibly reduce the signs of ageing’, drive home the message that old age is something to be put off for as long as we possibly can.

And don’t be fooled into thinking this is something that just affects the ladies; we men are as likely to be influenced in this way; do you buy into the ‘Dove men plus care’ fiction? What are we like when we catch a glimpse of the first grey hairs in the mirror? ‘Grecian 2000’ has a lot to answer for!

Songs like this from the 1933 Broadway musical ‘Roman Scandals’ are a product of Western society’s misguided thinking and go a very long way to making us believe the lie.

Time for a confession I think.

No, I don’t use Grecian 2000, but I must admit to a certain amount of personal gratification when someone took me for being forty – and this when I was already some way into my fifties.

They obviously hadn’t seen me when I get out of bed of a morning.

We can all fall victim to flattery of this kind from time to time and little harm is done by it…

However the fact remains, western culture spends an inordinate amount of time, money and energy telling us youth is good, old age is bad.

Did you here about the man arrested for selling anti ageing pills? He was a repeat offender, arrested three times before, in 1296, then in 1784 and again in 1923!

O K, it wasn’t such a good joke but again it points to our obsession with youthfulness at any price. You only have to look at the celebs who spend thousands on face lifts or rejuvenation treatments every year.

We can go on believing the cultural falsehood that youth is everything, old age is something to be endured – but not yet!

Or we can attempt to inject a little realism into our thinking.

As we are urged in Romans (12:2)

‘Do not be conform any longer to The pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind.
Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.’

We are known by God our Father, we matter to Him whatever our age, ‘even the hairs on your head are numbered’ (no matter how far apart they have grown over the years) (Matt. 10:30).

This is how important we are; God has had his hand on our very being even before we were born and promises to be with us through old age and beyond;

‘Even to your old age and grey hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you, I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will save you.’ (Isaiah 46:4)

The writer of Hebrews (13:5) echoes the OT in affirming God’s word in this;

‘never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’

We can take some comfort from these words God is in it for the long haul – so should we be.

Active Christian faithfulness doesn’t stop when we get our old age pension, though we may need to make some allowances for our aching joints – perhaps not being the first out of the plane in ‘skydivers for Christ’!

Christian faithfulness is for living lifelong.

What do we have to offer in our latter years?

Our maturity and wisdom born of the experience of living the Christian life.

However we must be clear that this does not then give us the right to block the enthusiasm and dampen the energy of the young.

We need their gifting from God and they yours.

We are called to model steadfast love, to pass on by word and example what we ourselves have received; chiefly the love and mercy of God our Father and The Lord Jesus Christ imparted to us through God’s ever present Holy Spirit.

Paul was quick to realise this and encourage those he had evangelised.

This, I think is something of what he was alluding to in Ephesians when he speaks from his prison cell of the various ministries gifted to us by God:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.’

Note here he says, ‘all of us,’ not just the young, or the beautiful, or the healthy.

We cannot just choose to ignore an appeal like this, we are being called to maturity of life, maturity of discipleship, Paul goes on to say;

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, (Ephesians 4)

We all have to ‘grow up’, we are none of us born mature. None of us come to Christ fully mature in the faith, we have to learn Christ, it may only take an instant for each of us to be saved, it takes a lifetime and perhaps then some to be sanctified; to be made ever more like Christ.

A prayer to close

Faithful Lord, living Saviour,
in youth and in old age,
from the womb to the grave,
may we know your protection
and proclaim your great salvation
to the glory of God the Father. 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.