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I THIRST

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nicolkinrade

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

(Romans 8.12-17 & Matthew 7.15-21 – BCP Lectionary)

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

I’m not going to lie, I think that today’s gospel reading has some of the most gut-punching words we hear from Jesus: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.”  There is something pleading about the repetition of the word ‘Lord’, and it is being said to Jesus as the Judge of the world at the end of time.  

It is a passage which places before us two theories of salvation, and the options are on very different sides of the fence.  The first is known as Christian universalism, that in the end, through God’s mercy and love, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that is through grace, all people will receive salvation.  The good news of universalism is that everyone will enter God’s kingdom in heaven.  

And there is plenty of scripture to give rise to this hope.  For example in Romans 5:18: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” 

On the other side of the fence we have pretty much the opposite – that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone.  Again, plenty of scripture to back this up, most famous of all, John 14.6, which quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. 

And of course we can add the words from Jesus that we’ve heard today. It certainly suggests that not everyone will enter God’s kingdom.  And that is rather frightening.

Yet we are not called to be scared into submission to our God, but to respond to his love.  As always it is worth looking at the context in which Jesus was speaking.  In the passage from Matthew, he begins by telling his disciples to be alert to the danger of false prophets and teachers.  However, by the end of the passage he is speaking to the wider community, and the fate of the false prophets (to be cut down like unfruitful trees, and burned in the fire) is, perhaps, the frightening example which will spur the rest of the community out of their lukewarm apathy.

And this leads us to the second fence on which we cannot sit.  Is salvation through faith alone, or are works required?

Sole fide, or justification by faith alone, is one of the traditions of Reformed Protestantism.  Good works are the evidence of faith, but do not themselves ensure salvation.

Catholic tradition teaches that grace is essential as the gateway to salvation, but it is not the only element needed.  Our whole lives are a process of sanctification, which includes good works.  In the Epistle of James, chapter 2 he writes, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?” and  “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2.14, 17)

And we heard today that Paul in his letter to the Romans reminded the Church that having received the spirit of sonship they are not to continue living in the ways of the world.  

Now obviously these are two enormous areas of theology  summed up extremely briefly, and you may be wondering where the Good News is in all this.  Well, of course it is there when you read the passages in their entirety, and even more so when you read them within the context of the whole of the Bible.

We are children of God, and if children then heirs of the promise of God in Christ.  We might not know what will happen after we die, or the exact mechanics of the end of days, but Jesus has shown us the way to the Kingdom, and has told us how to live.  Whether we do so is, through the gift of free will, entirely down to us.

But it is not a chore to live life in the Spirit.  It is a gift and an honour.

It is not a burden to act in such ways that we produce the fruits of the Spirit in our lives (that is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.) It is the flourishing of our souls.

It is not slavery to do the will of the Father who is in heaven.  It is joyful perfect freedom.  

Why wouldn’t we want to listen to Jesus and walk in his footsteps?    

Amen.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity

(Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14; 2.18-23, Psalm 49.1-12, Colossians 3.1-11 & Luke 12.13-21) – Year C, 2022

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

As we work our way through Luke’s gospel, we have reached a patch of Jesus’ teaching on money, and specifically our attitude towards it.  We shouldn’t be surprised that it comes up regularly.  It’s often said that Jesus preached about money more than any other subject.  Well, that’s sort of true.  Actually Jesus preached about the kingdom of God the most; however he very often used money or finances either as a metaphor (think of the parable of the lost coin, for example), or to examine our attitudes.  And we see this in today’s gospel.

Rather than jumping ahead to the parable, it’s worth taking a moment to note the context in which this story is told.  Jesus had been asked by someone in the crowd to intervene in an argument about an inheritance.  It is a shame that money can give rise to such arguments within families, and it’s the root cause of this that Jesus focused on.  He replied: “be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

Ah, greed – one of the seven deadly sins. Remember it is not money which is the root of all evil, but the ‘love of money’ (1 Timothy 6:10).  It’s an old, old problem – greed for money and possessions is prohibited in the last of the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s” (Exodus 20.17). Greed and covetousness go together – I want…

And so we begin to arrive at why money is a gospel issue.   Because when our relationship with money is out of sync with God’s will, we become greedy.  And greed is like bindweed, with its tendrils creeping into and taking a hold in different parts of our lives. We start arguing over money, as greed gets into our emotions.  Fearful we don’t have enough, we become angry, resentful and secretive.  It is greed that can fracture relationships, as we start prioritising money and possessions over other things, including relationships with family, friends and neighbours, and above all our relationship with God.  Greed is, therefore, one expression of the sin of idolatry, just as the author of Colossians states (Col 3.5).

Jesus countered this by saying: “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12.15).  This was a countercultural statement in the 1st century, and it remains so today.  Look at the news, social media, politics and business.  Rich people are considered more successful and more important than poor people.  Do community committees, civic boards and government advisory groups seek out those living in poverty to join them?  Or do they assume it’s wealthy people who have more wisdom?  And how often does a film touch on a truth when a powerful, wealthy person in dispute with someone with little status says, ‘Who will believe you?’  Does money make you more truthful or believable?  Of course not, but that doesn’t stop it being assumed subconsciously.

However, if we look a little closer, the parable itself isn’t simply about forward planning or being wealthy.  The farmer has had a fruitful year, and has run out of room to store his grain.  He had options.  He could have built another barn, though this would have used up some of his clearly fertile land.  He could have sold his spare grain, but perhaps everyone was having a good year (the growth not being dependent on the farmer but on God).  So rather than sell his grain when there is plenty of it, and therefore would fetch a lower price, he plans to store it and sell it at a later date when he could get a better price for it.  One might say he was being a good businessman, a good steward.  

What we are being invited to examine is his motives, and the way it impacts his choices, his actions.  What does the farmer do?  He pulls down his perfectly good barns and builds bigger ones.

The farmer has but one aim in life, and that is to acquire wealth.  Furthermore he felt he was in control of everything.  Count how many times he uses the words ‘I’ or ‘my’.  “What should I do?” “I will do this…I will pull down my barns…I will store all my grain and my goods.”  There is no sense of gratitude to God, or understanding of where his wealth and privilege has come from. He may appear to be a wise and sensible business man, but Jesus calls him a fool, for he is not rich towards God.  

As the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, to focus on money and possessions, status and power that is ’Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” And in psalm 49 we are reminded that we cannot take our money and possessions with us when we die.  As followers of Christ we are to seek the things that are above.  We are to strive for the treasure in heaven. 

When we have an abundance, let us remember and give thanks to the one from whom all good things come, and use those blessings for the good of others.  We can’t divorce our thinking about money from our Christian faith.  They are intricately linked, because how we approach money impacts our relationships, the way we live our lives, and how we approach our faith and our God.

So this week I encourage you to spend a little time thinking about your attitude towards money and possessions.  A few questions to ponder:

  • What is your greatest possession? And what are your priorities in life? How do they relate to each other and how close to your heart and your faith are they?
  • How much is enough for you?
  • How as a community can we shift our thinking from me/I to God/others?
  • And given that this Gospel passage started with a question about inheritance, ask yourself ‘does my Last Will and Testament reflect my Christian faith?’  Even its title tells us that we ought to take it seriously – my Last Testament.  This will be your final act on earth – what message do you want to give with it?

There’s a lot to reflect upon, so let us ask God for his guidance and wisdom.

Let us pray:

Father, sometimes we find it easier to put our trust in our own planning rather than to depend on your provision and faithfulness.  Sometimes we find it easier to accumulate things for ourselves than to be generous to those in need.  Help us to throw off the shackles of greed and set us free from the sin of idolatry.  Show us how to keep money in its proper place, in a godly balance in our lives.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.   Amen

(Artwork: ‘The Man Who Hoards’ by James Tissot (1836-1902))

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity

(Genesis 18.20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2.6-15 & Luke 11.1-13) – Year C, 2022

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

There is something very moving about the request of one of Christ’s disciples in today’s Gospel reading.  “Lord, teach us to pray…”. It reminds us that we all, at some point, are taught how to pray.  It might have been your parents, or at school.  Or perhaps when you were older you searched out a church and learnt to pray through what you saw and heard, or you approached someone you felt had a sense of holiness about them and asked them how to pray.  

And in the Lord’s Prayer we are taught by Jesus how simple prayer is.  The acronym ACTS sums it up: A for adoration, C for confession, T for thanksgiving, and S for supplication (when we humbly ask for something for ourselves or for others).

It is an active engagement with God, not passive.  ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find.’  These words really had an impact on me during my recent pilgrimage.  I’ve had the opportunity to go on pilgrimage to a few places – the Holy Land, Rome and Assisi, Lourdes and Walsingham.  Each was special in is own way, but there was something very different about cycling to Santiago de Compostela, the site of the tomb of the apostle St James.  It is known as the Camino, which simply means The Way.  This pilgrimage was just as much about the journey as the destination.    In and of itself the Camino is an act of searching and asking.  The Way is the path, but The Way is also the how.  How do you live your journey through life?

On the way, Paul and I spoke to many pilgrims.  Many were Christians, but not all.  Some had decided to walk The Way after losing a job, or coming out of a long term relationship.  Some had just had major illnesses or operations.  And they came from all over the world – Ireland, Puerto Rico, America, Canada, South Korea and Australia.  One girl I spoke to had started walking not from St Pied de Port, a common entry point to the Camino just over the border with France and the other side of the Pyrenees, but all the way from her home in Denmark, her feet blistered and strapped up.

And why?  For what purpose?  For many there was a sense of persistence, a challenge in a world where instant gratification is the norm.  The Camino cannot be rushed.  Day after day it is a gift of time given back to God.   It is time alone with God, on the road, resting in the churches.  It is time shared with other people, with strangers (not something we normally do), talking about life and faith.  People are generous on The Way – offering plasters, suntan lotion and food, extending invitations to card games.  When life is stripped back to basics, that all your possessions are what you can carry and even your sleep is shared in dormitories, it is a reminder that everything we have comes from God, and somehow rather than hoarding, pilgrims become more generous.  “For everyone who asks receives…”

And what did I find on this long journey?  I found that it was an exercise in persistence, just like the man at the door in today’s Gospel.  A reminder that sometimes the journey is joyful and easy, sometimes it becomes hard, just grinding our way through it.  Life can be like that.  Being a Christian can be like that.  There were definitely moments, faced with another hill, when I had to grit my teeth, saying to myself over and over, ‘For Jesus’.  

And in return I can honestly say that I felt God’s presence with me more strongly than on any other pilgrimage.  And I’d like to share just a couple of those moments with you.

To make sense of the first, I need to explain that I never learnt to ride a bicycle when I was a child.  For whatever reason the stabilisers never came off my bike, and so at some point I just became a non-cyclist. In my 30s I finally plucked up the courage and learnt to ride a bike, but I’ve never become hugely confident.  When we arrived in Spain I discovered the bike I was to ride was very heavy, and just a bit too tall for me.  Whilst riding along there was no problem, but when it came to stopping, I struggled to get my feet anywhere near the ground.  It meant that, especially after a long and tiring ride, unless there was a handy kerb nearby I had a tendency to simply fall over!  Things got a better over the course of the pilgrimage, but in the first few days it has hard to tell what was grease and what were bruises on my poor legs.  

On day 3 we arrived in a small town called Villacazar de Sirgia.  I went into the church of Santa Maria la Blanca and sat in the cool sanctuary of peace, feeling a bit battered and sorry for myself, and wondering if I was actually going to be able to finish.  And as I sat there God gave me a vision of Christ falling on the Way of Sorrows to the Cross, and fully formed into my head came the words, ‘no-one means to fall.’  It was a vision of comfort and encouragement.  The journey can be hard, but God knows what that feels like, knows what it is to fall, and with him somehow we can pick ourselves up and carry on.  We learn through failure, and indeed what the world thinks is failure may well be victory.  Do not fear falling.  I needed comfort and it came.   “Ask, and it will be given to you.”

The second moment was at the end of the Pilgrims’ Mass at a place called O Cebreiro, way up in the hills of Galicia, at the end of the highest climb.  The church was full of tired pilgrims from all over the world, and the local parish priest did everything he could to make every single person feel included.  He found out where people had come from, and had the readings prepared in each of the languages.  When we said the Lord’s Prayer, we all said it in our own language, a cacophony of joyful worldwide prayer. At the end he gathered us around the altar, and gave each pilgrim a pebble with a yellow arrow on it. The yellow arrow is the most common marker of the Camino, painted on the roads and the sides of houses, all pointing the way to go.  And pebbles are important on the Camino; they’re left at certain points as a sign of pilgrimage.  And he gave us one to remind us that our journey does not end at Santiago de Compostela.  It is a lifelong journey to heaven.  And he did this freely – they didn’t even put the collection plate out.  I had to go and find someone to give my offering to.  Such generosity, such hospitality, such love.  “Search, and you will find.”

These are just two of many more experiences I had on pilgrimage, where I realised that I was searching for God afresh in my life, only to find He was with me every step of the way.  Both the Camino and today’s Gospel passageI believe are summed in the words on a card which I found left at a shrine along the Way.  It read: “I asked to be rich to achieve happiness and was given poverty to become wise.  I asked for all things in order to enjoy life and was given life in order to enjoy all things.  I received nothing of what I asked for but I was given everything I dreamed of.”

May your journey with Christ be a journey of love, for and with God.  “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  

Amen

(Artwork: photo of the pebble I received at the Pilgrims’ Mass at O Cebreiro, June 2022)

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

(Genesis 18.1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1.15-28 & Luke 10.38-end) – Year C, 2022)

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

Today’s readings are wonderfully rich, with so many ways to explore them. We have Abraham’s meeting with the three angels (you may remember that we explored this reading a little through Rublev’s icon on Trinity Sunday), and the comparison of Mary and Martha (the Gospel passage where all activists yearn to point out that you do need people to get on with stuff!)

They are also readings suffused with generosity, a reflection of God’s generous nature, and that is what I wish to explore today.

Generosity can often be seen in meals and gatherings. We see it with Abraham – as soon as he sees the three men, he runs to them and offers them hospitality (Jesus echoes this movement in the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, when he sees his son returning home). Remember that Abraham was a nomad, and so he is sitting out of the heat of the day, and invites the men to partake in his oasis of refreshment. He initially offers them a ‘little bread’, but in fact he prepares a huge amount of food. There was a lot of rushing around and doing stuff to get this meal ready. Abraham had to prepare the veal, Sarah to knead flour and make cakes, and prepare curds and milk.

But then they stopped working, and over a leisurely meal they shared in companionship, Abraham not knowing that he was conversing with angels. In return the angel, or one of the three persons of the Trinity, promised a generous gift to the elderly couple – a much yearned for son.

In our Gospel passage we have another gathering, another meal. We also have another busy bee, Martha dashing about getting things ready for her friend and teacher, Jesus. However, unlike Abraham and Sarah, she doesn’t seem to know when to stop. When Jesus says of Mary ‘she has chosen the better part’, it could make it sound like Jesus is all for studying and listening alone, and that Martha’s work wasn’t important. But I don’t believe that that is what Jesus is saying. Of course a household needs doers. We can’t all sit around all day reflecting on things, otherwise nothing else would get done. A popular phrase in the church is that we often need to be reminded that we are ‘human beings’ not ‘human doings’. But we also need to get on with the day to day tasks that any house, including this glorious house of God, needs doing.

In Martha’s behaviour we see a very realistic depiction of how many of us respond when we come into the presence of God, finding ourselves distracted, busy, and unable to focus. As we are thinking about generosity, perhaps Martha’s issue is that she isn’t being very generous. Think how she goes to Jesus, and in one sentence manages to accuse him of both not caring, and of her sister of neglecting her duties: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?’ (Luke 10.40) That’s harsh.

It is not that her tasks weren’t important. It’s just that Martha was way too busy thinking about Mary, about what Mary was doing, and in wanting Mary to stop and come and join her, even though that might not have been what was best for Mary at that time, or indeed for Martha.

Was Martha fulfilling her tasks out of love, or solely out of duty or perceived expectation? This is when there is a risk of the person becoming resentful.

Did she do it to receive praise? We all like to thanked – that’s a very human response. However, if it our sole motivation, then the act itself is empty of deeper meaning.

Generosity is, at its heart, about relationships, about how we treat other people, and how we treat God.
It’s there in our other readings today as well. Psalm 15 is focused on answering the question, ‘Who may dwell in God’s holy place?’ And the answer is all about generous and loving relationships – who does the thing that is right, who keeps their word, who helps out others without thought of gain? Or in the words of our Mission Action Plan statement, those who ‘do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6.8).

This week I learnt about a micro-loan charity called ‘Lendwithcare’, from the National Giving Ministry Advisor, Trevor Marshall, who is also the priest at Tangmere and Oving, near Chichester.
He described how his family once gave him a gift of an account with ‘Lendwithcare’, with £25 in it. Trevor explained that it allows him to lend money without the hope of gain. He said, “The money that I have loaned out has been used to buy land for a subsistence farmer to expand his farm, meaning that he can afford to send his children to school. A relatively small thing on my part has been life changing for his family. If I don’t get the money back, I can ask myself if losing the money has had a negative impact on my life. And the answer is “no”. God gives without hope of gain. He sets us an example to follow.”

And this takes us to our final reading, the letter to the Colossians. In it St Paul reminds us of all that we have been given by our most generous and loving God. For not only did God created this beautiful and wonderful world for us to live in, he gave us breath and life, and he gave himself in Jesus Christ. And God didn’t given himself sparingly, but generously: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1.20)

Being generous is a reflection of God, and thus part of our calling as followers of Jesus. It frees us from the grip of fear that we aren’t enough – that we need more money, more stuff, more praise, more things to do in the hope that it will prevent us from thinking about what’s really important.

Let’s live generously – with the work we do, the way we use our money and possessions, the time we give to other people, and in the way we respond to our most loving and generous God.
Amen.

(Artwork: ‘In the House of Martha and Mary’ by Eileen Kennedy)

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity

(Deuteronomy 30.9-14, Psalm 25.1-10, Colossians 1.1-14 & Luke 10.25-37) – Year C, 2022

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

Earlier this year I read an excellent book by Brian Klass, a professor of global politics.  It’s entitled ‘Corruptible: who gets power and how it changes us.’  Our minds might automatically go to politics, and rightly so, but this book looks at many different areas where people have authority – so yes, politics but also business, local government and in places such as the Church.  It explores why holding power seems to be a corrupting influence, and whether it’s actually that corruptible people are more likely to reach for positions of power, and whether the systems of society encourage this.  It’s a really good book, and I heartily recommend it.

In a section, which is depressingly appropriate for the events of this week, Professor Klass examined whether it is possible to create better behaviour by people in positions of power.    He looked at a Princeton University study back in 1973 (p205-6, ‘Corruptible’ by Brian Klass (2021, John Murray (Publishers)), focused on students who were studying to become priests.  The students were invited to explain to the researchers why they felt called to be priests, and then they were asked to prepare a short talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.  As you would expect, this type of activity is fairly common in theological college, so the students readily got on with the task.  Once they had finished. they were then instructed to go and give their talk in the building next door.

As each individual made their way to the adjacent building they had to walk along a narrow alleyway, and as they did so each encountered a stranger lying on the ground in agony.  Due to the narrow width of the  alleyway in order to get past they had to literally step over the person.

Of course and obviously, the stranger was also part of the experiment, but the students didn’t know that.  A third of the students had been told they had plenty of time to get to the other building, and 60% of them stopped to help the stranger. Another third had been told if they went immediately they would just make it in time to give their talk, and 50% of them stopped.  The final third were told they were running late and had to hurry – and only 10% of them stopped to help the man in agony.

This is a bit depressing isn’t it, because they all knew the teaching of Christ – they were about to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan!  They were men who wanted to give their lives to serve God and his people.  And yet – still other factors tripped the override switch in their brains, and they walked on by.

This is a powerful lens through which to examine today’s parable.  The story was told in response to a question from a lawyer about how to gain eternal life, and it specifically mentions a priest and a Levite, respected, even powerful men.  The groups they belonged to would certainly have been considered by others to be good, religious and law-abiding people.

And yet they walked on by.

There are plenty of reasonable arguments for why the Priest and the Levite didn’t stop.  They thought the man was dead, and to touch a dead body would have made them ritually unclean and unable to complete their temple functions.  Why stop when there is nothing to be done?

Or perhaps they were genuinely afraid.  They didn’t want to get involved.  This is very common.  It’s sometimes reported about incidents in a crowded train carriage or bus, when someone was verbally attacked, but no-one intervened. Fear is a powerful and paralysing emotion.

Or perhaps, like the hapless trainee priests from the Princeton research project, they felt under an external pressure such as being late.  Stopping would have meant losing time, letting other people down, or getting into trouble for not turning up.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem matter to Jesus.  What matters, he makes clear, is that whatever the reason, they didn’t stop.

And the reason for this is that the priest and the Levite had a different understanding of who God was than the Samaritan did.  The Priest and the Levite weren’t able to see that the inherent value of this dying man to God was more worthy of their time and attention than whatever their “good reason” was.

In comparison it was the Samaritan who showed by his actions what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.” (Lk 10.27).  The reason this parable was considered so shocking to the contemporary listeners of Jesus was that the people of Samaria were considered ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, and religiously heretical.  But it was the Samaritan who saw with eyes of love and compassion.  He stopped, he got involved.  “He was moved with pity” which meant getting down into the gutter of the road and tending to this bloodied naked man.  He didn’t just utter soothing words – he would have got himself dirty bandaging the wounds, using what he had to ease the pain, using his own resources without complaining or counting the cost.  He even went out of his way, slowing his own journey to take the man to an inn.  And finally, he commissioned someone to look after the man, and paid for the ongoing care.

The lawyer said that the Law told him to “love your neighbour as yourself”; the Samaritan fulfilled this.  If you were hurt, had been attacked, were lost or fleeing from conflict, how much would you want someone to stop and help you?  The Good Samaritan is the example of one who put that in practice, by giving to the man what anyone would need in that situation.

The purpose of the parable was to challenge the lawyer into thinking deeper about his faith and how it impacted his life every day, about what it truly means to love God and love our neighbours.  And it worked, because when the lawyer was asked which man he thought acted as a neighbour, he replied, “the one who showed him mercy.”  

And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

It is so easy for the “good reasons” to not get involved to override what we know to be right.  This isn’t about judgement, but about acknowledging that life throws us challenges all the time.  So it’s good to be reminded what good behaviour looks like, and why it matters, for by keeping it fresh in our minds we are more likely to hold fast to the right way to live and be.  We need help though – which is it’s important to encourage one another and spend time letting Jesus’ words sink in. We also need to pray for one another, just as Paul prayed for the Colossians, that we ”may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1.10)

Let us take this parable afresh into our lives, and be merciful, be good neighbours, be good samaritans.  Love God with all your heart, and soul, and strength and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.

When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ let us take him at his word.  

Amen.

(Artwork: “The Good Samaritan”, by Dominicus Gent)

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity

(1 Samuel 3 & Matthew 4.23-5.16 – BCP Evening Prayer)

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

One of the great benefits of having a lectionary (that is set readings for every day) is that it prevents us from cherry picking texts, choosing only those bits from the Bible that we find comfortable and palatable. 

Take for example the readings from today.  You’ve probably heard both of them on various occasions, but possibly only in their shortened forms.  The call of Samuel is one that is often used when discussing vocations or evangelism.  It is an example of God calling someone by name, even before they truly know the Lord.  That’s a powerful thing to realise that God knows us and calls us into relationship with him.  

However, it is easy to stop the passage at Samuel’s response, “Speak, for thy servant hears” and then jump ahead in the story.  Samuel would go on to become a powerful prophet.  He was one of the great Judges of Israel, someone people would go to for advice and justice.  In addition by command of God, Samuel was a kingmaker, anointing both Saul and David.  To be called by God looks like it is a call to be a powerful person.

And yet – the first thing God told Samuel to do was speak unpleasant truths to his mentor Eli.    Eli seems to have been a perfectly good and kind man, but he had not restrained the behaviour of his sons.  Eli knew that they had been taking the best cuts of meat from the sacrifices and committing adultery with the women who served at the sanctuary entrance, and he had not rebuked them enough.  God told Samuel that Eli and his sons would be punished by the destruction of their dynasty, and unsurprisingly Samuel, who was only 12 years old at the time, was rather afraid to tell Eli this news.  His first act as a prophet was to speak truth to power, and Eli encouraged him to  fulfil the task.

Likewise in our second reading the Beatitudes are so wonderful and glorious that we often focus solely on them.  They are words of comfort, giving strength and courage in times of adversity.  Each one could be the focus of a sermon series on its own, but there is more to Jesus’ teaching, and it would be easy to let his words on salt and light drop off the end of the passage.

Having been told what blessing looks like, Jesus gives a clear indication of what it means to be his follower, to live closely to the Holy Spirit.  And, as with Samuel, we are not to remain in the warmth of being blessed for being meek or pure in heart or a peacemaker.  We are to be the salt of the earth.  What does that mean?  It means speaking truth to power, speaking out in the face of injustice and wrong.  

This week when I heard ‘salt of the earth’ I thought of Martin Luther King Jnr, Baptist minister and great civil rights activist.  It was his strength of faith that helped him answer God’s call, and he had a prophetic vision that the world was not as God had made it nor how it should be.  Amongst many activities he oversaw the Montgomery bus boycott, and during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom he delivered perhaps one of the greatest ‘truth to power’ speeches of all time.  ‘I have a dream’ he said, as he described a world of freedom and equality.

King also knew he could not hide.  His faith was that of the light of the world, and it had to be set up high to give others light.  In his final speech he spoke of having been to the mountaintop, and echoing the Exodus and Moses he said he had seen the promised land, but that he might not reach it with his people.  Despite this he feared nothing for, he said, “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  The next day King was shot and killed for being salt and light, for speaking truth to power.

There is a huge amount of comfort in our faith, and when things are hard we can turn to the Lord and ask for help.  However, like Samuel and like Martin Luther King Jnr, we are called by God not to be wrapped in cotton wool, but to answer whatever calling God sets in front of us, including dealing with issues of justice and mercy.  When we answer those callings, we may well discover what it truly means to be blessed.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Samuel Reading to Eli the Judgments of God Upon Eli’s House’ by John Singleton Copley (1780))

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

(Revelation 4.1-end & John 3.1-15 – Year C, 2022)

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

It’s good to start a sermon with those words.  It is a reminder that we are rooted in the faith of the Triune God.  If we deny or ignore any person of the Trinity, our faith is impoverished.  

On this feast day, Trinity Sunday, we often try to explain the Trinity, as if God is a piece of algebra to be solved.  It’s a very natural response to what is a mystery, and sometimes the only way we can do that is to try to simplify what is complex.  We try to use metaphors to explain what it is a relationship, and in doing so sometimes we drift into good old fashioned heresy.  My personal favourite this week was how the Trinity, God in his infinite majesty, is like a marmalade sandwich.  Thank you Paddington for that one!

Of course our feeble attempts to explain and understand God are merely like seeing in a mirror dimly.  That doesn’t mean we should stop trying; simply that we shouldn’t think we can solve the Trinity like a particularly tricky Sudoku puzzle.  

It can be heartening therefore to realise that this struggle is not something new.  Early in John’s Gospel a learned Pharisee called Nicodemus came to Jesus to learn more about God, and very quickly he found himself struggling with his teachings.  ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ he asks.  He’s being too literal about it.  He scoffs, he questions.  Jesus even at one points gently teases him, saying ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?’

Yet this is an opportunity for doubt and confusion to lead to greater faith. Jesus invites Nicodemus to grapple with challenging theological ideas, and it shakes the Pharisee’s world to its core.  Don’t forget that this man who came to Jesus secretly and at night, would be one of his followers who provided care for Christ’s body after the Crucifixion.  This passage was just part of his journey in coming to know Jesus and the Father better.

So perhaps we should take a lesson from Nicodemus, and rather than focusing on the Trinitarian maths of 1 + 1 +1 = 1, let’s focus on the idea that we encounter the Trinity in this text through a series of divine actions.  

Nicodemus acknowledges straight away that Jesus comes from God.  The Father sends the Son.  So we know God is missional (he sends) and relational (both within the godhead and with us).  God desires to be near to us, engaging with and shaping us to be a holy people.

Secondly, when Jesus speaks of being born again by water and the Spirit, we are being shown that the Holy Spirit is an active agent in the world.  We have a tendency to assume that coming to faith is something entirely down to ourselves, rather than thinking of faith as a gift from God.  To put it in the terms of this passage, does a baby decide to be born?  More than a few theologians have made the link between this passage and the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, but rather than focusing on the physical, incarnational birth of Christ, this is about the spiritual birth of a new Christian.

This birth will look differently in each person’s life, and we can’t predict how the Spirit will move in each of our lives.  Jesus says the Spirit is like the wind blowing over the treetops – we might see the movement and discern the Spirit’s presence, but that doesn’t mean we can nail it down, just as we can’t nail down the perfect definition of the Triune God.

Sometimes we have to just sit in the mystery, and glorify in God’s greatness, delighting with wonder and awe that God wants to love us and be a part of our lives. 

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

(Artwork: ‘The Trinity’ otherwise known as ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’, written by Andrei Rublev, 15th century)

Sermon for Pentecost

(Acts 2.1-11 & John 14.15-end – BCP Holy Communion)

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

God always calls people.  Sometimes they respond joyfully, like Mary.  Others are more reticent, worried that they won’t be up to the task, like Moses.  If we look through the Bible there are many, many examples of God calling people to follow and serve.  

In the Old Testament God nearly always called individuals.  It was upon specific people that he sent his Holy Spirit to empower and enable them for a particular calling – Abraham, Samuel, Saul, David and so on.  We might say that God called the whole people of Israel to be his people, but even then it was through the leadership of specific individuals, such as Moses, that the rest of the people followed.

At Whitsun, otherwise known as Pentecost, God did something rather different.  

He sent his Holy Spirit onto a whole community.  The disciples were together, waiting as they had been told, and the Spirit came upon them, like a rushing mighty wind, like tongues of fire.  The Holy Spirit didn’t come down on one individual who then led the rest, but upon them all.

Being blessed by the Holy Spirit is not a calm or passive experience.  The Spirit moves us – it lifts us up, shakes us, and draws out from us new gifts.  And this is a gift for the whole community, from the greatest to the least.  The Spirit is sent upon old and young, slave and free, male and female.

As we celebrate Pentecost we rejoice that every single Christian has received the Holy Spirit, given to us at our baptism.  Jesus tells us that because he is in the Father, and the Father dwells in him, when we believe and become part of the Body of Christ, then from the Father and through Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, will abide with us for ever.  What the Spirit does is draw Christ’s followers into the godhead, makes us all one.  

There are no bystanders in the Church, and we don’t get to retire as active members of the Body of Christ.  There are plenty of physically active ministries, and there is also the vitally important ministry of prayer.  We have all been commissioned and empowered to respond to Jesus, who tells us to proclaim the good news to the whole creation.  Men and women will prophesy, the young receive visions, the old dream dreams.  

It can sound rather overwhelming.  People thought the disciples on the day of Pentecost were drunk and sneered at them, which gives us a pretty clear idea of how they were behaving, over-flowing with joy and excitement.  And they found themselves able to do things that they weren’t able to do  before, which must have seemed surreal, like an out of body experience. 

Whatever the disciples were waiting for after the Ascension of Jesus, I’m sure the events of Pentecost wasn’t what they had in mind. As a rule, people don’t like change and they don’t like being out of control.  And Pentecost has a definite whiff of being out of control.  So it helps to be reminded that actually control is an illusion.  We are never really in control.  

When things are going well, we can build the illusion up, but as soon as something de-rails our plans, whether it is illness or an unforeseen circumstance, we can see how false that reality is.  In fact the last two years have shown us how paper thin the illusion is, but as things have returned to normal, we’ll have to work hard to prevent that veneer of believing we have control harden once more.  Remember it’s through the cracks that the light shines through.  So let go of any ideas about how you were planning to serve God, and instead let us be guided by the Holy Spirit.  

We don’t know what plans God has for each one of us this Whitsun – but we know that we don’t have to worry about it.  Jesus told us to not let our hearts be troubled, for his peace rests upon us.  Whatever God wants to give us, it’s okay.  Wherever God is calling us to be, there is nothing to fear.  Let God be in control – you can trust in God.

Amen.

(Artwork: Pentecost by Rene de Cramer)

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Easter

(Acts 16.16-34, Ps97, Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-end, 22 – 22.5 & John 17.20-end – Year C)

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

 As followers of Jesus we have the enormous benefit that by the power of the Holy Spirit we can pray to the Father through Jesus Christ the Son. He prayed for us at the Last Supper that we would be one.  It is a real sense of abiding in Jesus, and because the Son and the Father are One, we can trust in a deep sense of peace.  It doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen, rather than if and when they do, we will not be alone.  

We get a sense of what this means in our reading from Acts, a passage which tells of the saving of four people.  In the middle there is the miraculous physical saving of Paul and Silas, which is book-ended by the spiritual saving of the slave-girl, and the jailer.

Let’s begin with the exorcism of the slave-girl, described as having a spirit of divination.  She was being used by her owners to deliver pronouncements, to read the future, using a supernatural  ability for cash.  Although Paul initially tried to ignore her, eventually he decided to take action, and invoking the name of Jesus, he is shown to have greater spiritual power.  

In his writings Luke often showed, side by side, in the healings of Christ and the Apostles, both physical and spiritual salvation, linking them as part of the same liberation; and we see this pattern again today.  All involved are imprisoned in some way.

The girl’s healing was not just about her spiritual and mental state.  It was also about her abuse, treated as nothing more than a commodity by those who owned her.  The response of her masters is one that is often displayed by those who feel enraged when they lose power, status or control.  As the saying goes “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

They dragged Paul and Silas to the magistrates and rather than explain what they had actually done, they accused them of being mischief-makers and of disturbing the peace by bringing in new ways of doing things (i.e. Christianity).  The result was that they were beaten and thrown into jail.  And it is into this place of darkness that Paul and Silas take the light of Christ, as we hear of the saving of the jailer and his household.

We can only guess at what happened the night before the earthquake.  There is more to the jailer’s reaction than simply seeing two prisoners not making an opportunistic escape. The actions that Luke described before the earthquake are just as important to this story.

Despite the brutal treatment, Paul and Silas sang praises to the Lord, demonstrating great trust in the Lord, a spiritual triumph over adversity.  Their evangelism was heard throughout the prison, no doubt by the jailer himself. Their witness to God may already have started to sink in…

Then the dramatic moment of the earthquake…and the jailer, fearing shame and punishment prepared to commit suicide.  But Paul prevented harm even against his opponent, the man who had been holding him prisoner.

Paul and Silas showed general witness to God, and individual, personal acts of Christian love – and it lead to the man trembling, on his knees asking for salvation.

Sometimes we are like the slave-girl, bound by chains, held in submission, or possessed by thoughts and feelings which we do not want.

Sometimes we are like the jailer, thinking that we are in control until the moment we know our need for God.

Either way, we can be like Paul and Silas and trust in God.  Sing praises when you can, or be open to ask ‘what must I do to be saved?’  God already holds you in the palm of his hand, and has already given given you perfect freedom.

Jesus loves you, and even in the depths of difficulties, when the ground is shaking beneath your feet, His grace and love is there, holding and supporting you.

I want to end today with a meditation by St Teresa of Avila, words which I think sum up the great trust that Paul and Silas showed in the prison, words which I hope will inspire you:

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things pass;
God does not change.
Patience wins all it seeks.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone is enough.

Amen.

(Artwork: Paul and Peter in Prison, Baptizing Other Prisoners. Artist unknown, source: Benziger Brothers, 1904)

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