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I THIRST

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nicolkinrade

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity

(Zechariah 9.9-12, Psalm 145.8-15 , Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Anyone involved with farming, and traditional agricultural tools, as many of Christ’s original audience would have been, would know yokes are not particularly easy or light for the creatures that bear them.  

So what is Jesus talking about?  

I think that in this Gospel we see two facets of Jesus at the same time; the living Word of God, otherwise known as Wisdom, and Jesus the carpenter.  

When we read the Gospels often we find ourselves focusing on one aspect of Jesus – God or man.  But today we have a parable of wisdom, about the spirit of God’s law, in the form of a piece of wood, in the hands of a craftsman who made such items.

Imagine this yoke – this is not an abstract concept to Jesus.  He knew how to make this important piece of equipment.  His hands carved such items, smoothing raw materials into something with purpose. He spoke as one who knew its true weight.  That always takes my breath away, when the Gospel speaks of Jesus in this way, and you realise that this was his life.  

Before those years of preaching and teaching, this was the man, hands on pieces of wood, carving, moulding, working.  And then he took all that knowledge and experience, and he used to it explain the mystery and glory of God to the ordinary people he met.

And this easy yoke?  Well, the word ‘easy’ in Greek is chrestos, which can mean well-fitting.  Imagine Jesus standing in the carpenter’s workshop.  The ox has been brought to the yard to be measured, and the owner and animal went away whilst the yoke was roughly carved.  The ox was then brought back to have the yoke carefully adjusted so that it would fit well, and not chafe the neck of the animal.  The yoke was tailor-made to fit the ox.

So Jesus is was saying that God approaches us with a life and way of being that is custom made for us. 

Another way of thinking about this is that the yoke often connected two animals.  They would then work better as a team, keeping pace with one another, which would mean the ploughing  or pulling would be even.

Sometimes when life is being particularly tough and people don’t know what to say, one the phrases that can get trotted out is that ‘God never gives us more than we can take’.  A phrase often meant well, but not terribly helpful at the time.  

But actually this easy yoke is what lies at the heart of that sentiment.  There is nothing in the scriptures that says believing in God will make life become some fluffy utopia.  There will be difficult times, not because God uses difficulties to test us but because that is the nature of being alive.  God doesn’t give us life to cause us pain.  But life is easier when we don’t try to carry the weight on our own, and Jesus shows us that when we learn from him, the burden is given and carried in love, and is always light.

What if we were to imagine ourselves yoked to Jesus?  

What if we had to conform to and be shaped by his pace, his life?

What if we worked as a team with Jesus, and didn’t try to go it alone?

Not only might we be radically transformed, we might also realise that Jesus is there with us all the time, helping to take the weight of the yoke for us, and that is the moment when we know we have found rest for our souls.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Yoke of Oxen’ by Joseph E Crawhall)

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity

Romans 6.12-end, Matthew 10.40-end   (Year A, 2020)

Back in 2008 a Methodist minster, the Reverend Derek Rigby, made the national news when he turned up at the church where he ministered, convincingly dressed as a homeless man.  He hadn’t shaved, wore a wig and ripped and dirty clothes, and carried a can of lager and a couple of syringes, without the needles.  Most of the congregation ignored him, and some members told him to stay away from their cars.  After the children had left for their Sunday school, he walked to the front of the church and revealed his identity.
(For details see news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/north_east/7497411.stm)

There’s a lot to unpack in that story, not least of all the difficulty we have in being gracious when a prophetic mirror is held up to our behaviour, when we are shown the difference between what we like to think of ourselves and the reality of how we truly act.

This is also about how we welcome people.  As we begin to plan for the churches to open for services again, how we welcome people is important because we won’t be they way it was before Covid-19.  We can’t gather chatting; we might have to wear masks and we’ll definitely have to sit distanced from one another.  So how do we give that warm welcome.

And let’s think wider: how do we continue to welcome those who cannot yet join us, because they are still shielding.  Can we pay attention to how we can make our welcome even more inclusive than it was before, for people for whom these beautiful, old buildings have been accessible, or feel uncomfortable because they look around and think, ‘There is no-one here like me’.

Because people remember how they have been welcomed at church.  

The welcome is not just about making people feel good.  It’s a theological reflection of the welcome of God.

The theme of welcome often appears in Christ’s parables – think of the forgiving father running towards his prodigal son.  Or on one occasion when the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus compared her behaviour with that of the Pharisee who had not welcomed him properly.

And here in today’s Gospel Jesus explains why that welcome is so important. As the disciples were being sent out on their mission, Jesus told them that the people who would welcome them, were actually welcoming Jesus, and not only the Son but the Father as well, the one who sent Jesus to the world.  

Sometimes we get passages in the New Testament where Jesus tried to explain to the disciples about how they are all one.  And here we have a practical example.  God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all one.  And we, the Body of Christ on earth, are part of that relationship.  We are one, because God is one – something worth keeping mind when we say the Creed, and repeat that ‘I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’.  God is present with us wherever we go, because we are one with Him.

And so how we welcome others should be the welcome we think God would give them.

Jesus expanded on this by telling the disciples that the welcome they will receive with be like that of the prophets and the righteous ones.  The implication is that the reward for those who welcome such holy people will be wonderful, some heavenly promise.

But then he threw aside this special status, by saying that the same reward will be given to those who welcome ‘one of these little ones’.  We might think we’re pretty sophisticated when it comes to symbolism, but actually we often read things literally.  In this case it seems straightforward that Jesus is talking about children.  After all, who wouldn’t give a child a glass of cold water if they were hot or thirsty?

But, in Christ’s time, in Judaism the term ‘little ones’ was used to describe the socially weak, the childish and immature, even the pious.  Both Matthew and Mark use the term to refer to ordinary, insignificant Christians, and Jesus is saying that they are just as important as the prophets and righteous people.

That cup of cold water is to be offered in the name of God to anyone in need, the poor, the destitute, the prisoner, the sick and dying.  That’s why I took for this week’s artwork ‘Christ of the Breadlines’ by Fritz Eichenberg, a powerful image of Christ standing in line at a soup kitchen along with those in need of food.  Christ’s halo radiates the light on to those around him, and we’re reminded of the words of Matthew 25, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

These passages together remind me of the 1959 film ‘Ben Hur’, and the moment when the unseen Jesus gives the newly enslaved, beaten and desperate Judah Ben Hur the relief of a cup of water; and how many years later Judah sees Christ carrying the cross on the way to Calvary, and tries to return this small act of kindness.  His heavenly reward is a gift of grace, completely out of proportion to the act, no matter how kindly meant. 

Likewise, we welcome people not for the reward but because we try to live Christ-like lives; and we offer it to everyone, rich or poor, friend or stranger, because when we welcome in the name of God, we partake in God’s own blessings.

This Gospel challenges us to think about our welcome, here at church, at work and at home.

Be the welcome you long for – God shows us the way.  Let’s follow it.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Christ of the Breadlines’ (1950) by Fritz Eichenberg)

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Trinity

(Romans 6.1-11, Psalm 69.8-11, 18-20, Matthew 10.24-39)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

How much is a human life worth?  

No – wait.  That’s too generic.  

How much is your life worth?

Take a moment to think about it; how would you go about putting a value on it?

Would you tally up your assets?  Your mortgage, your car, your possessions?  If you’ve got children, does that make a difference?  If you’re a professional – a doctor, an accountant, a lawyer – does that increase your value?

What are you worth?

Today’s Gospel is a series of loosely connected sayings of Jesus, on the subjects of mission and suffering.  Some are pretty challenging, and each could be the focus of a separate sermon, but one particular section jumped out at me this week, especially in the light of the current public debates about colonialism and the UK’s links to slavery.

 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10.29-31)

In 2006 the Church of England apologised for its role in benefitting from slavery.  Slavery in the colonies of the British Empire was abolished in 1833, but when Parliament voted on compensation, it was to former slave owners to whom the money went, rather than those who had been  so cruelly and unjustly enslaved.  

The Church of England received over £8,000, that’s about £500,000 in today’s money, for the loss of slave labour on its Codrington plantation in Barbados, and the contemporary Bishop of Exeter received even more, nearly £13,000. (Click here for the reference)

It’s shocking today, but the reasoning behind Christians owning slaves, at that time, had been thought sound for centuries.  Of course, not everyone agreed, but many had no problem with slavery, based on scripture (because the Bible doesn’t ban slavery, therefore, the thinking goes, it must be okay) and traditional teachings (both St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas wrote how slavery was inevitable due to the Fall, and even part of the natural order of things).  It took a long time to get people to stop reasoning away what is, in hindsight, clearly an absolute wrong.

At some point in our history individuals and society made decisions, and in the end people were abused and lives were lost having been weighed in the scales against such small amounts of money.  How could anyone treat life so cheaply?

Now here in the UK and other nations where slavery is outlawed, in law the human life is considered literally priceless – humans cannot be bought at any cost, unlike the sparrows in the Gospel.  

Jesus began by talking about these tiny birds, which were commonly sold in the market, the cheapest meat for the poorest people.  The coin Jesus values two sparrows at is often called a penny or a cent, but in the original Greek Jesus called it an as, a Roman copper coin worth 1/16th of a denarius.  Two of these coins would buy you a daily ration of bread, so you have an idea of just how small an amount of money we are talking about here.

And yet, Jesus says, when one of these tiny insignificant birds dies, when it falls to the floor in its last flight, God notices.  

So a question: how often do we think about God’s care for this planet?  

Humans can be a bit like toddlers, rather me-centric, thinking only about how God loves us and not really thinking about sharing that love elsewhere.  But Jesus is clear.  We have something to learn from God about our care for the planet.

Then in a massive leap of scale Jesus turns his teaching to people.  He points out that God knows us on a hugely intimate level.  He counts every hair on our heads; it’s the smallest level of detail, as tiny and as insignificant as the sparrow.  God’s care for us goes beyond even what we notice about ourselves.

Jesus finishes by stressing our importance, our value to God: “you are of more value than many sparrows.”  

Jesus is telling his disciples this because he knows there will be times of suffering.  He wants to give them an assurance of God’s faithfulness in times of crisis.  “So do not be afraid,” he says.  There will be conflict and sacrifice, Jesus doesn’t deny that.  But God is watching over you and supporting you. 

What if we were to view ourselves as God sees us, with His infinite care and compassion? 

How often do you think ‘God really, really loves me’?  

Too often we build up a picture of a God who withholds His love, who is conditional with His care for us.  Too often we don’t love ourselves, and so we become convinced that God can’t or won’t love us either.  

And it’s just not true.  

God loves you, every hair on your head, every fibre of your being, heart and soul.  

And once we begin to accept just how much we are loved by God, we can adjust how we view others.  Because God loves them just as much.  In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “God must love the common man: he made so many of them.”

As Christians we bring that view of other people to our society, to be prophetic about the value that is placed on human beings.  We are to challenge when language is used which questions a person’s “value” to society as being somehow less, whether because of disability, age or skin colour, for example, or the demonization of the poor, the homeless, the refugee.  Because once we understand the infinite care and compassion that God has for each person, as followers of Christ we are called to model that same love to others.

As Christians we should be inspired by abolitionists like William Wilberforce, Harriet Tubman and Johns Hopkins, who in the face of enormous opposition fought for the ideal that humans are priceless because they are made in the image of, and loved by, God.

So what are you worth?  

To God – you are worth everything beyond measure.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius, 1654)

Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity

(Romans 5.1-8, Psalm 100, Matthew 9.35-10.8 – Proper 6, Year A)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Who is the harvest?  Who are the labourers?  Today we have Jesus working amongst the people, and they are ‘harassed and helpless’, and he has compassion for them.  This leads him to talk to his disciples about the work, the mission, that needs be done, which he describes as the harvest, and the need for labourers.

Trinity Sunday and the month that follows are traditionally times when the Church holds her ordination services for new deacons and priests, though this year they have been postponed until Michaelmas  – but when you hear readings like today’s, you can easily  understand why the Church has chosen this time of year to send out new deacons and priests.  At Pentecost we have the empowering and equipping of the people by the Holy Spirit, and here we have talk of shepherds and harvests.  Does this mean, then, that the labourers are the clergy?

Well, that makes it easy to ignore the fact that God calls everybody.  Maybe not to ordained orders, but God definitely calls you.

First and foremost God calls you to a godly life, a life lived in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  It’s the most important call to answer, for it reminds us that who we are does not start with us – it starts with God.

We are who we are because God created us, breathed life into us, sent Christ to save us, and then called us to carry on that new life as Christians.  

Secondly, we are all unique and individual, and God knows us intimately, and knows our individual gifts, talents and our very being.  So God calls us to something specific, specifically me, specifically you.  For me, it is the priesthood, and every day I wake up and know I couldn’t do anything else.  I’m not a priest because of the tasks I do.  I’m a priest because I am, because that is who God made me.

For each of you God will have a call – it may be as a teacher, a nurse, gardener, expert in finance, musician, and so on.  Each call is from God, but it speaks into who you are, and that call will be part of your very soul.  The author Catherine Fox caught the essence of this when she described cathedral choristers: ‘cut them’, she said, ‘and they bleed psalms’.  What runs through your veins?

The key thing is to combine these two calls.  For example, you can be a gardener and not be a Christian.  You can be a gardener and say you are a Christian but never let the two areas ever meet, but that’s not living fully in Christ.  No, in this case God would be calling you to be a Christian gardener. 

What do I mean by that?  Well, your garden becomes not just your hobby or place of work, but the expression of your faith.  It’s where you show glory to God, you act as a steward of God’s creation and perhaps that changes what technology or pesticides you use, and perhaps the produce is used in church or to help those in need.   See how it becomes interlinked?

Our faith isn’t above, below or around our work.  It is in it.  After talking about the harvest, Jesus sent his disciples out with specific tasks.  He told them ‘As you go, proclaim the good news’.   As you go – the other tasks are to be undertaken, but as you walk through your life, proclaim Jesus.  That’s your calling as a Christian.  You are the harvest, and the labourer.

You may be feeling that’s a fiercesome responsibility, but all you need to do is be the person God is calling you to be, in every way, in every part of your life.  

You are already responding.  Sometimes we don’t see how, but it’s true.

Think of a tree.  Each day you walk past the same tree, and in spring the leaves are green.  But come autumn, and the leaves will be gold and red.  You don’t notice on a day by day basis, but change happens.  The changes are tiny, but the effect over time is huge.  This is exactly the effect that living a Christian life, on a daily basis, of prayer, reading the Bible, imitating Christ and making choices based on Christian ethical values will have.  

We might not notice but the world will.  Change happens without us noticing.  And God is at work in us and in the world, and sometimes we don’t notice.

The world at the moment seems to be on fire – coronavirus and its impact on health, economy, education and isolation; the Black Lives Matter movement drawing attention to racism and brutality, and the on-going issues around climate change and environmental damage.

We could see such moments as the death of George Floyd and the death of so many people due to Covid-19 as where the darkness wins.  OR we could see these moments as where the Holy Spirit is at work.  Think of the responses: people are using the skills and gifts they have, as doctors, nurses, care-workers, giving to food banks, making PPE, checking on neighbours in love, and long over-due injustices are being challenged, because love without justice is sentimentality.  You need both.

When people respond in love, they are beacons of light in the darkness. It might not be what we were expecting, but in all those responses I see God at work, in the harvest, amongst the labourers, people just like you and me.

That’s why you are so important – your prayers, your choices day by day, your relationship with God.  It is you, living in Christ, who can make a difference in this world.  

When you see suffering, be the hope this world needs, and as you go, in doing so, you’ll proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Tying the Sheaves’ by Sir George Clausen)

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

(2 Corinthians 13.11-end, Psalm 8, Matthew 28.16-20)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

What do you do with the bits of your faith that you don’t understand?  We all have ideas and situations that we struggle to face in terms of our personal faith.  No person, not even the highest of bishops knows all the answers in their fullest.  That is the reserve of God, infinite wisdom and love.

So – do you tuck the difficult bits away and ignore them?  For some people they become the stumbling block on which their faith survives or falls.  For others, it is a case of living with mystery.

The Holy Trinity is one such concept.  Except God is not a concept, but how else do we begin to understand?

In Anglicanism, we often use three strands to help us explore our faith – scripture, tradition and reason.

We can only begin to scratch the surface, but let us go first to scripture.  

The Bible tells us that “the Lord is our God, the Lord our one God.” (Deuteronomy 6.4), and Jesus doesn’t dispute this.  When he was asked which is the greatest commandment he began, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is the one Lord…’” (Mark 12.29)

But there is more.  At the Great Commission, as we heard in our Gospel reading, Jesus told the disciples, “baptise them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28.19), and St Paul signed off his second letter to the Corinthians with a Trinitarian formula.

Not three gods, but one God.

Next let’s look to tradition.  This is important, because it reminds us that our faith might be personal but it is never wholly individual.  We belong to a Church, in time and space, and thankfully great minds have been wrestling with these questions for two thousand years.  It takes the weight off us a little.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can  share in their knowledge and insight.

The early years of the church involved much discussion and debate, particularly about Christ’s nature, whether he was purely human or divine or both, until at two church councils in the 4th century the matter was settled and the Nicene Creed was drawn up.  1600 years later we still say the Creed at every main Sunday Eucharist, for what we pray is what we believe.

Or if you prefer something a bit more recent, back in 2005 Archbishop Rowan Williams gave a lecture to the Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan in which he tried to explain the faith to a predominantly Muslim audience.  Sometimes the best way to learn about something of our faith is to imagine explaining it to a non-Christian.

This is a short extract.  Williams said, “We say that the one God, who is both source and outward-flowing life, who is both ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, is also active as the power that draws everything back to God, leading and guiding human beings towards the wisdom and goodness of God.   This is the power we call ‘Holy Spirit’.

So when we speak of ‘the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, we do not at all mean to say that there are three gods – as if there were three divine people in heaven…

Certainly we believe that the three ways in which God eternally exists and acts are distinct – but not in the way that things in the world or even persons in the world are distinct.”

And you have your own reason.  To read and discuss and reflect on the Holy Trinity. 

Some things will always be a mystery to us here on this mortal plane.  As St Paul wrote, “At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13.12)

That’s alright.  Living with mystery is okay, more than okay actually.  For mystery draws us into the eternal God.  However, mystery doesn’t mean God is unknowable, for God has revealed himself to us in Jesus, the Word made flesh, and in sending the Holy Spirit to us. 

In fact that tells us something really important about God’s nature.  The Holy Trinity tells us that God is relational – within the Godhead and with us.

And so our relationships are really important and should be nurtured for they reflect the very nature of God, who is Love.

And it reminds us how great and majestic God is, who made us in their image, to reflect their grace and truth and love.

O Lord our governor, how glorious is your name in all the world! (Psalm 8.1). 

Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost

Acts 2.1-13, Psalm 104.26-37 & John 7.37-39

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

At certain points in Christian history, a small number of believers have given to all Christians a rather rotten reputation.  I’m talking about the impression that some people have received of us as killjoys, miserable dour-faced, grumble-baggages.  

Think of the Puritans, who banned Christmas.  

Or if you like the old black and white films, think of ‘Whisky Galore’ and Mrs Campbell, who refused to meet her son’s fiancée.  And when the Home Guard captain rang the house to speak to him Mrs Campbell told the captain sternly “The telephone was not given to man for him to mock the sabbath with it.”

How far this is from the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit flowed out upon the first Christians, and created such a wonderful, bubbling up of new languages and gifts.  

No wonder that some who knew this group of people, and knew that they had been hiding away behind locked doors, mourning the loss of their friend and teacher, sneered that they were drunk.  

For how else could they explain this huge change in mood and behaviour?

But there it is – Pentecost shows us what the Holy Spirit can do.  It fills us up, enlivens, equips and empowers us.  Fear is cast out, and in its place, real joy.

On this day we are invited to not only imagine, but to partake in, God’s joyful mission to the world.  Recall the moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus tells the people in his synagogue that he has fulfilled scripture:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to announce good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to let the broken victims go free,
    and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
(Luke 4.18-19)

My goodness, think how powerful those words are!

And think what good news that brings to us here today: to the people worried about their future in the face of an economic recession, to those shielding and quarantined, to those who feel broken by the events of the last six months.  

Jesus doesn’t bring bland platitudes, but real hope.  He speaks of eternal life, but that is not enough if the life lived here is oppressed and broken.  Christianity is not opium for the masses.  God does so much more.

To get a handle on this, the Church of England has outlined what are known as the 5 Marks of Mission:

To TELL the Good News of the Kingdom.

To TEACH, baptise and nurture new believers.

To TEND to human need by loving service.

To TRANSFORM unjust structures of society, challenging violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

To TREASURE and safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

At Pentecost every believer is reminded that the flame of the Holy Spirit rests on them.  You are the Church.  We may not be able to gather together physically at the moment, but you have already been sent out to take up your part in God’s mission – to tell, teach, tend, transform and treasure.  

Being a Christian is not a hobby, and this is not a social club. We are part of something so much bigger than that.  For God sends forth his spirit and renews the face of the earth, and so too are we renewed.

The unending joy which led those men and women to be accused of drunkenness on the day of Pentecost comes from a life lived in the Holy Spirit.  

As Jesus explained when preaching at the festival of Booths, the Holy Spirit would flow from him and the Father.  Anyone who comes to Jesus will receive this gift, which he called living water.  Water is the key to all life, and living water the key to the life of  the soul.  

When we drink in Christ, the Spirit fills us and then flows out of our hearts to nourish all around us. 

 This is the gift of Pentecost.  

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Pentecost’ by Estelle Canziani)

Sermon for 7th Sunday of Easter

Acts 1.6-14, Psalm 68.1-10 & John 17.1-11

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Where do you look for God?

Many years ago, and I wish I could remember where, I read that that people in the countryside are more likely to talk about God the Father, the Creator, surrounded as they are by the beauty of creation.  In comparison, people who live in towns are more likely to speak of God the Son, Jesus, reflecting the sheer number of people they come into contact with day by day.  I don’t remember God the Holy Spirit getting much of a look in.

Clearly this is a wild generalisation, but it does prompt us to reflect on how we look for God, becoming more aware of what shapes our search.  It can prevent that search from being inwardly focused, or seeking out only what we agree with.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, after the Ascension of Jesus, the disciples remain rooted to the spot, staring up in the sky.  It took a couple of helpful angels to prompt them to shift their gaze and get moving.  

This is a rather a pattern in the Bible – people looking in the wrong place:

  • Samuel looking at all the wrong brothers before God makes it clear He has chosen David.
  • The Magi heading straight for Herod’s palace (where else would you find a king?), instead of following the star directly to  the humble stable in Bethlehem.
  • Some of the people of Israel looking for the Messiah in the form of a greta political leader, instead of the humble son of a carpenter.

Over and over again we are shown that we have to let go of our assumptions, and wait on the word of God.

By the end of the reading from Acts they’ve got it.  The large circle of disciples, men and women, have gathered together to pray, to open themselves up to listening to God.  And as we know with the benefit of hindsight, they will soon be visited by God the Holy Spirit – but more of that next Sunday.

It must have been hard because the disciples didn’t know how long this period of waiting would be.  Unlike our church calendars, so neatly marked off with the Novena and ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ booklets, they had no idea if they would be there a few days, or indeed if anything was going to happen at all, weeks, months down the line.

For anyone who is an activist, like Peter seems to have been, always ready to jump into action, it might have been difficult to simply sit and pray.  But sometimes leaping to act isn’t the right thing to do.

Sometimes being is more than enough.  

Prayer, offering to God our merry praise and worship, allows us to reconnect with God, and to listen to what God is calling us to be and do; and so when we do act, we will be rooted in God.  We will be closer to the prayer of Jesus, that we may be one, as Jesus and the Father are one.

It also allows the work we do to flow out of our Christian faith.  Even in these days, the charitable acts we make are not just done because others do them, not just because they’re good things to do.  We are answering the commands of Jesus – to provide for the poor, and to share the Good News of Jesus by sharing His light to the world.

If you feel you’ve become stuck looking in one direction, perhaps today is a good day to break your gaze, and spend a little time just being in the presence of God.  Close your eyes and let God wrap you in His love.  Perhaps rather than talking, instead open your heart and let God speak to you.  Trust in God: the rest will follow. 

Amen.

 

 

(Artwork: ‘He Vanished From Their Sight’ by Harold Copping)

Sermon for Ascension Day

Psalm 8, Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14 & Hebrews 1

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Of all the amazing events that took place around Jesus, the Ascension is one that a lot of people struggle to get a grip on.  It’s so difficult to imagine.  

If you visit the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, there are two feet sculpted into the ceiling.  It’s meant to give the feeling of Jesus being lifted up into heaven, but I always think the result is rather like the floor above has given way, and someone has fallen through!  

But how else can an artist depict this moment?  

Many years ago, back in 1993, I was confirmed at Ascension by the then Bishop of Durham, The Right Reverend David Jenkins.  As always he preached memorably, querying whether the Ascension really took place in a physical form, until suddenly his crosier fell over with a loud bang and he quipped, “That’s either the devil trying to prevent me  or God trying to shut me up!”

But it stuck with me, that even a bishop could struggle with the actuality of the Ascension.

Even St Luke, who wrote both Acts and his Gospel, found it hard to put into words.  In one version Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven” (Luke 24.51) and the disciples happily returned to Jerusalem praising God.  In the other “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1.9) and the disciples remained staring up into the sky until a helpful angel prompted them to move on with their mission.

So what are we to make of this event, 2000 years later?

Well, it can be helpful to see the Ascension as the completion of Christmas.  At Christmas Jesus, the Son, came down from heaven.  He had a mission from the Father, which was completed at Easter.  He has risen from the dead.  He is alive.  He has given the disciples their new roles and sent them into the world to continue the spreading of the Good News.  

The Gospel story is one of movement. Jesus came down from heaven.  He was lifted up on the cross.  He descended into the grave.  He was raised to new life.  He ascends to heaven.  The movement for the Son draws to its completion.

There is a purpose to all this.  As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, “When he had brought about purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of God’s majesty on high.” (Hebrews 1.3)

But things do not return to how they were before.  The world is not the same.

Already the Spirit was preparing to come upon the disciples at Pentecost.  

In all of this there is a great sense of abiding in one another – the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father, we in Christ and Christ in us.  Whatever great divide had been created by human sin before the coming of Jesus, that has gone. We may not see Jesus any more, but he is still with us – his final blessing that he gave as he ascended is still pouring out on the world.

It also means that we are already living our life in Christ in heaven.  Jesus draws us into the godhead, into the divine, and so through Christ we can strive to be the people that God is calling us to be.  

That is glorious indeed.  The vision of Daniel in the Old Testament gives us the smallest of hints of what this is like, with the Ancient of Days, seated upon a throne of fire, as the “one like a human being” is presented to him and he is given “an everlasting sovereignty which was not to pass away.”  (Daniel 7.13-14). 

This reunion of Father and Son is supremely important as through it we too are invited to live within that kingdom.

Earlier this year we should have been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but sadly due to the Covid-19 pandemic it was cancelled.  It would have been my third visit to the site of the Ascension.  The first time I remember being rather disappointed as we drove up to the Mount of Olives, near Bethany.  Nowadays it is busy, with clusters of shops, takeaway restaurants and the olive groves have disappeared under concrete.  It is not pretty, and I doubt Jesus would recognise it as the place he used to go to with his disciples on a regular basis.  

I wanted to see it as Jesus had seen it, to imagine the Ascension as it happened.  But the search for the historical Jesus does not necessarily help us in our journey of faith, just as I learned so many years before at my Confirmation.

However, the second time I visited I found myself smiling wildly as the coach dropped us off.  Because however the Ascension happened – whether a physical lifting up, a fading into cloud, or a bursting into light – the key thing is that Jesus came for us.  Ascension Day is one of the most joyful feasts because it underlines all that God has done for us, and is still doing. 

“O Lord our Governor, how excellent is thy Name in all the world: thou hast set thy glory above the heavens!” (Psalm 8.1)

Amen.

 

(Artwork: ‘Christi Himmelfahrt’ by Gebhard Fugel, c. 1893)

Sermon for Rogation Sunday

Ps 66.7-18 & John 14.15-21

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today we celebrate Rogation Sunday, when we ask God for protection from calamities.  The name comes from the Latin ‘rogare’, meaning “to ask”.

Over time the Christian traditions grew into the form of a procession around individual parishes, known as ‘beating the bounds’, as well as prayers for the soil and the growing crops, to ask for God’s blessing on the land, of preserving boundaries and  encouraging fellowship between neighbours by reconciling differences.

The problem is it can all sound a bit quaint.  These agricultural feast days, Rogation, Lammas, and Harvest, have a little bit of a sense of a world gone-by.  Even in this Benefice, where the churches are surrounded by fields with gambling spring lambs, for the majority of people who live here, their biggest contact with the food on their table remains buying it from a supermarket. 

This is not a criticism – it is simply the world we live in.

But I wonder if the coronavirus crisis hasn’t given us the opportunity to re-connect with Rogation Sunday.

If we are to spend this week asking God for things, including protection against the calamity that is Covid-19, then the first thing we have to do is to stop, look around us and reflect on what we need.  And that means noting and giving thanks for all the things we already have.

I caution against drifting into the prosperity gospel here – if someone is well off, it doesn’t mean they are blessed by God and therefore someone who is not well off has not been blessed by God.  But it does mean they have privileges.  

Noting our privileges is really important, because it helps us to say thank you to God for them, and then use them to help others.

For example, we live in a beautiful rural parish.  I can step out of my front door and within a few minutes be walking in bluebell woods.  Covid-19 has taken a lot of my freedom, but what I have is bolstered by access to a garden and nature.  I am privileged compared to a lot of people living in flats without access to an outdoor space, or in urban areas where green spaces are limited or have even been closed.

So I thank God for His creation, and for the blessing of being able to see it every day.  And although I can’t share it easily with people in towns, what I can do is promise God that I will take more seriously my part in the stewardship of creation.

I do not want to return to The Before when the birdsong was drowned out by traffic, and the roads were clogged with pollution.  I want to take this time to imagine a better future – where we can live more harmoniously with nature.

And given this is Rogation Sunday, the same applies to the food on my plate.  I’m not a farmer.  My attempts at growing peas and beans in the garden are a source of constant amusement, so poor are the results.  

But I can certainly take this time to think more carefully about where the food is coming from, and appreciate it more.  We may well become more connected once again to the seasons and locality of food, as we see the impact of coronavirus in what is available in the shops.  And then I can share my privilege by helping others.  Keep giving to the food bank.  People are more in need than ever.

And in all this, I am reflecting that in everything I have spoken about, what I need more than anything else, is God.  I am utterly reliant on God.  He is the source of my being – the breath in my lungs.  It is His Spirit which lives in me.  Without Him, I am nothing.

Rogationtide teaches me to note that need of God afresh, and to ask for God’s blessing upon me.

Because of the coronavirus we might be feeling overwhelmed, but our Gospel passage can really help us.  Remember that Jesus is speaking to his disciples before his death.  We, however, are hearing this in the context of Eastertide, so it’s much easier for us to understand Jesus when he said, ‘I will not leave you bereft; I am coming back to you’ (Jn 14.18) because we know he is speaking of the Resurrection.  Likewise in speaking about the Advocate, this Spirit of truth that will remain with them forever, we recognise a foretelling of what will happen after the Ascension at Pentecost, which we will be celebrating soon.

And so, even in troubling times, we are told that we live in a context of love.  The Father loves us and made us, and so sent the Son.  The Son loves us and saves us, and so sent the Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit loves us and strengthens us, and so draws us to the Father and the Son.  

It is an encircling of love by and into the Trinity, and all that love can bear fruit in our lives if we accept and respond to it.

How does it bear fruit?  ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’  A response of love for Jesus will result in obedience to his commands, and at the same time that obedience will be an indicator of whether genuine love is present.  Obedience isn’t a popular word these days, but the commands we’re obeying are to be loving, gentle, truthful, merciful, compassionate, to help the weak and vulnerable, and overall to be faithful to God.  

So this Rogation Sunday, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on what you want to ask God for; to note what is good in your life and to say thank you to God, and to tell God with an open and honest heart what you really need.  This is God, who listens when we pray in faith, and who “holds our souls in life and suffers not our feet to slip.” (Ps 66.8)

Amen.

 

(Artwork: ‘The Blessing of the Wheat Fields at Artois’ by Jules Breton (1827 – 1906)

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