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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)

Sermon for Rogation Sunday

(James 1.22-end & John 16.23b-end – BCP Lectionary)

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

Today we celebrate Rogation Sunday.  This has traditionally been the day when parishes would ‘beat the bounds’, to make sure everyone knew where the parish boundaries were.  Every seven years the parish markers would literally be beaten with branches – to mark them, but also to create a sort of mental map.  Its purpose was so that everyone knew which parish they lived in, so where they could get married or buried.  Over time this walking the land became linked with prayers for the growing of crops and a day to ask God for protection from calamities.  

The minor rogation days are held on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday, but in the Anglican tradition it became celebrated on this, the 6th Sunday of Easter.  Why?  Well, this is your annual reminder that the word ‘rogation’ comes from the Latin ‘rogare’, meaning “to ask”.  And Rogation Sunday is rooted in the Book of Common Prayer.  This is one of those times when the contemporary church might not realise where the link comes from.  

The Gospel for this Sunday includes these words from John’s Gospel: ‘if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name… ask, and you will receive.’ (John 16.23-24).

We probably all have things we want to ask God for, but truthfully does any of it link to the land any more?   Even here in rural Sussex the majority of us are at least one step away from the land.  But it doesn’t take much for us to realise how much we depend on the land.

In a week when inflation has risen to a 40 year high we are all well aware that the cost of living is going to become painful for many people.  The war in Ukraine will cause pain far beyond its borders.  Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of the world, producing wheat, sunflower oil, barley and potatoes.  Unable to bring in the harvest, where the land has not been decimated by bombs, the resulting shortage will push the cost of food up around the world.   Praying for peace means praying to end world hunger as well as an end to the violence. 

There is also another kind of need.  When Jesus met with people he rarely made assumptions about them, often inviting them to say out loud what was on their hearts.  

This reminds me of a passage in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ by C.S.Lewis.  Digory and Polly are sent on a journey back to the garden of Eden, to retrieve the fruit of tree of life.  When they arrive, Fledge, the talking and flying horse settles down to a nice grassy dinner, but Digory and Polly have nothing, and stared at one another in dismay.

“Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals,” said Digory.

“I’m sure Aslan would have, if you’d asked him,” said Fledge.

“Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly.

“I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse (still with his mouth full). “But I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”

Just as when Jesus met with people with visible disabilities, he never just healed them.  He asked what they wanted.  That’s a good model for the church – we should never being doing mission or evangelism to people.  We walk with them, and together we share in the journey.  So asking God is part of outstanding of our need for God, and an opening up of ourselves to God.

And there is another type of rogare – to ask to join in with God’s work, to ask how we can help.  This is the crux of James’ epistle, that faith without works is dead.  We must be doers of the word, remembering that it is God’s word.  

So this Rogation Sunday, we actually have lots to ask God:

  • for our land, for farmers and their crops and animals, that the harvest would be fruitful.
  • for the the world, especially where life is particularly fragile and reliant on the land, and where war is impacting on food production, that peace would come swiftly.
  • for those in our community who are struggling financially, for support to enable them to put food on the table or to pay the bills.
  • for the wealthy, that they would use their abundance to help those in need.
  • for our churches, that we would be blessed with greater income and people, to enable us to focus on the missionary work of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
  • and for ourselves, that each and every one of us will become more aware of our need for God.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Rogation Sunday’ by Enid Chadwick)

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter

(Acts 11.1-18, Ps148, Revelation 21.1-6 & John 13.31-35)

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

We continue through the season of Eastertide with the theme of transformation.  For the disciples they were still processing everything which had gone before, including the Resurrection.  For them there were still major events ahead, the Ascension and Pentecost, which again they would have to get their heads around.  This was very much a transitional time.

We might not think it is the same for us, however it is worth reflecting that we have, at some point in our lives, gone through a similar experience as we came to faith.  Some of us will have had ‘road to Damascus’ experiences, others a slow and steady deepening of faith from childhood onwards.  There is no right or wrong way to come to Jesus – all that matters is that we do.  But its worth taking time, now and then, to reflect on our journey so far; what we have learned, the key moments, the people who have walked with us.  It’s an opportunity to say thank you to God.  It’s also an opportunity for new growth to begin.  Sometimes in looking backwards we see a new path to go forwards.  Sometimes in looking backwards our whole journey suddenly makes more sense.

The wonderful thing is that God is a faithful God.   He is always there with us, even when we don’t necessarily feel him.  His promises are trustworthy and true, and will last for all time.

However we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that means that God is limited by what has happened in the past.  If the Easter story tells us anything it is that nothing is impossible with God. All three of our readings today remind us that God, the one who does not change, can do still do exciting and new things.

In the reading from Acts at first sight it appears that the purpose of Peter’s vision to change the dietary requirements of the law.  Peter, a faithful Jew, initially refuses to eat anything considered unclean.  It’s worth noting the context though: Peter has been criticised for eating with Gentile followers, and thereby breaking food rituals.  After he receives the vision (3 times – perhaps Peter always has to hear something three times before it truly sinks in, like so many of us) he is immediately called upon to go to Caesarea “and not to make a distinction between them and us.”  

God is doing something new here, for salvation is being offered now beyond the Jewish people to the Gentiles.  It does not diminish or negate what has gone before; rather it broadens the opportunities for eternal life to all people.  As John writes of his vision in the Book of Revelation, God tells him “See, I am making all things new.”  

This is the journey we make from non-Christian to follower of Christ.  We move from the old life to the new one.  And how do we live this new life?

Well, we can certainly look to the Law and the Prophets.  There is a lot of good stuff there about how to treat the weak and the vulnerable, the poor and the alien, the widow and the orphan.  The Ten Commandments remain a pillar of Christian behaviour – recited in the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service (even if only at Advent and Lent), and often churches have them engraved on a stone plaque somewhere near the altar.  Jesus himself said in Matthew 5.17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

And yet at the Last Supper he also said these words: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  This commandment is so important to the Christian life it appears 11 times in the New Testament: 3 times in John, 5 times in John’s letters, twice in Paul’s letters, and once in Peter’s.  

Love is a verb – it is an action.  This is underpinned by the fact that Jesus gives this command after he has washed the disciples’ feet and shared his last meal with them.  Even when we cannot feel it, we are called to do it.  That means when we are confronted by someone we don’t get on with, don’t really like, and we ask God ‘how am I meant to love this person?’, the answer is think about how to do loving acts towards them.  Acts of mercy and kindness will be the route to loving our neighbour, and in loving we will be transformed anew into the imitation of Christ.  

As John said in his epistle, “We love, because he first loved us.”  Once again God does something new and transformative, and the result is life giving.    Amen.

Sermon for Passion Sunday

(Hebrews 9.11-15 & John 8.46-end – BCP Lectionary)

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

Today marks Passion Sunday, beginning the last two weeks of Lent when we become much more focused on the events that led up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s easy to get distracted by all the preparations, inviting family for Easter Sunday lunch, or perhaps planning to go away a holiday.  Passiontide gives us a renewed focus on what truly matters – Jesus.  In our Gospel reading, John makes sure that we are entirely clear about the true nature of Jesus.  Because once we have that in our minds, then the events of Holy Week, leading to the cross and the empty tomb, will have an even greater impact, as the true depth of what happened in those few days becomes clear to us.

Today we listened to how Jesus taught about glory, death and the fate of the prophets.  As is so often the case, with hindsight we know what he is speaking about, but to his contemporary listeners it was much more opaque, and they become stuck in the literal detail.  Jesus told them that his hour was going to come, that the work he would do would save anyone who believed in him, and that Abraham, the great Patriarch, would have known it.  Instead of realising that they are being shown the glory of the cosmic Christ, the one who has always been and always will be, his listeners could only think in terms of linear time.  So they ended up arguing against him, questioning how Abraham and Jesus could possibly know each other? They live hundreds of years apart!  What he says makes no sense!

And then Jesus says something which completely changes the tone of the conversation.  He says ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’  The response of those listening to him was extreme.  They picked up rocks, ready to stone him to death for blasphemy.  

Now it may have become suddenly clear to the crowd what Jesus was talking about, but you may be wondering where this extreme reaction comes from.  

It is the words ‘I am’, in Greek  ego eimi.

In the Gospels of John, there are seven ‘I am’ sayings – I am the bread of life, the vine, the good shepherd, and so on.  In addition, Jesus said it in today’s passage and was threatened with stoning.  And at his arrest, John recorded Jesus asking the guards who they were looking for, and when they said ‘Jesus the Nazarene’, again he replies ‘I am he’.  The Greek is the same, ego eimi, I am.  The guards in response didn’t immediately arrest him, but instead they moved backwards and fell to the ground.  Again, why this strange physical reaction?

Well, the ‘I Am’ sayings that litter the Gospel of John have a resonance with God’s revelation of himself, most often linked to God’s self-identification to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3.13-14).  When Moses asked God what is his name, God replies ‘I am who I am.’

So John’s use of ‘I am’ reminds us that Jesus was not just a good man, and a powerful teacher.  He is the Word of God made flesh.  For the Jews listening to him who were hoping for the Messiah, a great political leader to rise up and save them from the Roman oppressors, it would have a huge shock to hear that God himself had turned up.  The responses are understandable – shock, denial, anger, rejection.

And what happens next leads us to the tradition that from Passion Sunday we veil the crosses and statues in church.  When the people took up stones to throw at him, “Jesus hid himself.” (John 8.59)

This veiling of the cross can jar us, and make us feel uncomfortable.  And that’s partly its purpose.  It can make us think more intentionally about the last special weeks, and prompts us to think about our faith and our relationship with Jesus.  Perhaps over time we have become used to the symbols in our churches, and the Gospel has grown familiar.  Do we no longer truly see what is in front of us?  Do we take the beauty for granted, and even more worryingly, do we take what they represent for granted – the merciful love of God poured out for on the Cross?  

Let us be shocked, unnerved, uncomfortable by what Jesus says and by this momentary veiling of the cross, so that we can look afresh and with more longing.  And perhaps suddenly God will reveal himself in new and surprising ways…

Sermon for Mothering Sunday

(Exodus 2.1-10, Psalm 127.1-4, Colossians 3.12-17 & John 19.25b-27 – 2022)

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

As you listen to my sermon this week, you may think that it does not sound much like a sermon for Mothering Sunday.  However, as we reflect together on the saving of baby Moses, I invite you to pay attention to the women in the story, for they are compassionate, they are courageous, and they are motherly.

So let us begin by setting the scene which led to the extraordinary events of Exodus.

I’m sure many of you have seen or listened to the musical ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’.  Joseph, the son of Jacob (otherwise known as Israel) was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. However, God used this evil act for good, and Joseph rose to be the most important man in Egypt, second only to Pharoah, and from his position of power was able to save his family and many others from famine.

Many years later, Joesph died and so did his protector.  The acts of Joseph were forgotten.  The promises of this Pharoah were forgotten. But the Hebrew descendants of Jacob still lived in Egypt, and over generations they thrived.  They grew in number, until the new Pharaohs became threatened.  They spread rumours, incited fear of the  Hebrews, creating a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ mentality.  They claimed the Hebrews were traitors and would rise up against Pharoah. 

But Pharoah needed the Hebrews for physical labour, so he forced them into exploited slavery.  Pharoah could not do this alone.  Tyrants need willing hearts and hands to help them to oppress others.  Oppression requires social structures and propaganda that reinforces prejudices and prevents equality and justice.

And if you are thinking that this sounds very familiar, if you see shades of the Holocaust, or echoes of the killing fields of Cambodia, or even the language and actions of Putin, then you are right.  Here in the Book of Exodus we see the first recorded example of the Ten Steps to Genocide.

And what comes next?  Pharoah tells the midwives to kill the baby boys when they are born.  This is an act of extermination.  The Hebrew women will have no male counterparts to marry, and so they either have no families or they are forced to marry Egyptian men and assimilate. Pharoah’s words, but requiring governmental structures to enforce.

But God has given us free will.  And God is able to use the righteous acts of human agents to turn the tide against oppression.  Enter the midwives, Shiprah and Puah.  They love and fear God, and want nothing to do with Pharoah’s vile command.  They are compassionate, and they have courage.  So what do they do?  They find a loophole, and claim the babies are being born before they are able to arrive and kill them.

Pharoah then commands that every baby boy is to be thrown into the Nile.  Moses mother, Jochebed, hides her son for as long as possible but then takes an enormous risk to try to preserve his life.  She sends him away, floating in a basket.  She is compassionate, and she is oh so courageous.

Free will exists not only for the oppressed, but also for those on the other side.  There is no way that Pharoah’s daughter does not know the commands of her father, and when she finds the basket floating on the river, she acknowledges that this boy is a Hebrew child.  She had much to lose by defying her father, but she is compassionate and she is courageous, and she rescues baby Moses.  Later she would take him into her home adopting him as her son, thereby creating Moses as an intercessor, one could stand between the Hebrew people and the Egyptians, understanding each side more have lived as both; and so the scene is set for the liberation of the people of God…

Of these women only one was the biological mother, but it took all of them to save Moses.  Each one of them in their own way played their part in God’s story, by using their free will to stand up against evil and act righteously.  I’m sure we all know the proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” and we see that here.  In the big scheme of things, these women were powerless and voiceless, but they were not without choice.  The things they did required compassion and they required courage.  

As Paul wrote  to the Colossians, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3.12), or as our school motto tells our children every day: “be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.” (1 Corinthians 16.13-14).

We are facing the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.  Sadly, there will always be people trying to be new Pharaohs, but I saw such compassion and courage from our communities during the pandemic, making sure that people were cared for and loved, that I have no doubt that in the face of cruelty and war we will once again be inspired by God’s love, and ready to use our free will to be compassionate and courageous.  This Mothering Sunday let us be inspired by Shiprah and Puah, Jochebed and Pharoah’ daughter, and let us together be God’s agents at work, the loving mothers and fathers that this world needs.  

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

(Isaiah 55.1-9, 1 Cor 10.1-13, Luke 13.1-9) – Year C, 2022

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

Lent is a season when we are called to think seriously about sin.  Today’s readings, at first glance, are a little confusing.  We have Isaiah’s warm invitation to a feast ‘Come and eat’, but then Paul’s warnings from history, and the words of Jesus about the barren fig tree that follow sound rather harsh.  

Passages from the Bible take on new meaning in the light of current events, and there are questions being asked in today’s Gospel which we might well be asking God right now.  Why are people in Ukraine suffering and dying in the war?  Why have over 6 million people worldwide died from Covid? What did they do to deserve this?

That’s pretty much what Jesus was responding to when the people told him about a disaster that they had just received news of.    A massacre had taken place in the Temple of Jerusalem, on the orders of Pilate, and this event is recorded in other independent sources, such as the works of a historian called Josephus.  

A massacre in the Temple would have been a heinous crime indeed – think of how we feel when we hear of church shootings in the US or attacks on churches in Nigeria.  The Temple, like our churches, was a place of worship and of sanctuary.  

The unspoken question of blame arises because of the prevailing thought of the day, that sin and suffering are linked.  Therefore, the pilgrims must have been sinners and their fate was brought down upon them by God.  

Jesus halts that train of thought immediately.  As much as it would make life simple, the world isn’t some enormous slot machine where you put in an action and you get out a corresponding result.  The truth is sometimes bad things happen through no fault of our own.  They just do.  Jesus pointed out that no-one is more or less deserving than anyone else.  

However, Jesus doesn’t leave it there.  In the face of this news, rather than focusing on the people who died, he gives his audience a direct challenge: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  This isn’t about death – that comes to us all.  This is about the state of our souls. That is what we are to focus on.

And this is what Paul was trying to get across in his letter to the Corinthians, when he took the warnings of history and presents them to the Church.  He pointed out that the people of Israel were chosen by God, set apart, made special – but that did not make them immune from judgement for their idolatrous behaviour and sexual immorality.

Indeed, as the rather dark parable of the fig tree points out, being special is not without its responsibilities.  Fig trees were often planted in vineyards – they were good for the grapes, but the soil was precious and a fig tree which did not produce any fruit was taking up space and sustenance which could be of use to other plants.  This parable was aimed at the Jewish people – Jesus was pointing out that they had a special position, and as much as God gives chance after chance after chance, at some point, there would be a final reckoning.  

If that goes for Israel, then it also goes for Christianity and Christians. If our lives are not showing the fruits of the spirit, then there are chances to try again – just look at saints Peter, Thomas and Paul – but we mustn’t think that we are safe and secure just because we’re Christian.  

Because what is also clear from the parable is that at some point in the future there will be a final chance.  The invitation is currently open to us, but if we don’t respond, then when that day comes, it will not be that God shuts us out, but we, by our deliberate choice or neglectful apathy, have shut ourselves out.  

So the big Lent question here is – are we bearing fruit for God’s kingdom?  Imagine yourself as that fig-tree – are the fruits of your life ones of the spirit – acts of kindness and compassion, gentleness, fellowship, patience, charity, good works, and above all, love?

God is very patient – but we never know when our time is up.  Towers fall, earthquakes and tsunamis happen, cruel hearts and hands start wars  – not everyone will get a last chance reprieve to have time to think about how their lives should have been lived and make changes; not everyone gets the chance for deathbed confessions and reconciliations.   

The Easter hope today is that the fig tree is not cut down.   So act now – to say sorry, to forgive, to live in love.   We have to live each day ready to face our Maker by living each day worthy of the wondrous gift that life is.

There is no doubt that the Lent lectionary throws us difficult texts like the one today – they can seem uncompromising and challenging, both to what we think we know of God and to our comfortable way of life and faith.  But this is precisely why we need to engage with them, and to spend time thinking ‘what does this mean for me?’  Only spending time in prayer over this text will you come to your own conclusion about whether you are living the life God wants you to, and if not, then now is the time to make some changes.  Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Parable of the Fig Tree’ by Jan Luyken)

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent

(Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3.17-4.1 & Luke 13.31-end) – Year C

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

It’s often said that religion and politics shouldn’t mix.  However, I prefer Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s response, when he said “When people say that religion and politics don’t mix, I wonder which Bible they are reading.”

Anyone who thinks that following Jesus won’t affect their politics is missing the point.  My place is not to say who you should vote for.  That is for each of you to read up on, pray about and decide for yourself.  But let’s be clear here – how you vote will be influenced by following Christ.  

Jesus was radically political.  We heard in today’s Gospel that a group of Pharisees told Jesus that Herod was plotting to kill him.  Were they helping Jesus, warning him of danger?  Or were they threatening or trying to unnerve him?  Probably the latter – there are points earlier in the Gospel where the Pharisees as a group are said to have had a grudge against Jesus (Lk 11.35) so it’s unlikely they were now trying to be helpful.  Regardless of their motive, Jesus responded by calling Herod a ‘fox’.  He had no time for this puppet king and his machinations.  

Instead Jesus ignored this threat and spoke of his work, his on-going healing and freeing of people from oppression by demons.  Throughout Luke there is a motif of exorcism and it’s often linked with the chaos and oppression of the political situation of the time, of the Jewish people being held in chains by Rome, and of the rigid religious rules of the Scribes and Pharisees that bound the people so tightly they couldn’t even see God any more.  Here Jesus mentioned Herod and then exorcisms in the same sentence.  He wanted the Jewish people to be saved from all spiritual, religious, and socially systemic oppression.

But equally Jesus wasn’t interested in becoming a king himself or in overthrowing the Roman occupation.  His ministry subverts all this type of party politics.  This is a bone of contention with his opponents, for his authority is not given to him by another human agent, but by God.  Furthermore Jesus didn’t fulfil the Messiah role in the way that many of his supporters had thought he would, and when he described himself as a mother hen he subverted the gendered language of the time – a rabbi, a king, a God, who is caring, compassionate, motherly, nurturing.  It’s such a beautiful image, so tender and loving.  The hen as she walks about is followed by her chicks; you can just imagine them running to her side, huddling against her breast.

But the picture is not entirely rosy.  As Christ described it, the chicks, his people, refused to gather under the spiritual safety of his wings.  Instead they scattered, falling away and ignoring him.  Throw into that mix a fox…well, we all know what happens when a fox gets into the henhouse. 

Jesus knew this.  In this passage he set his face towards Jerusalem, and talked of the past, of the catalogue of prophets who had tried to call the people back to God, and for their pains had been put to death.  Jesus as our mother hen will sacrifice himself for his brood.  

So where does that leave us today, on this the second Sunday of Lent?  Just as Jesus was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, literally as he went there to celebrate the Passover, but also as a spiritual journey, so we too are on our Lenten pilgrimage to the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday.  How are you doing in your prayer, self-denial, giving of alms, or whatever it is you are undertaking to draw closer to God this Lent?  How might you gather closer to Jesus under his wings?

Our Lenten journey is only as challenging and transformative or as easy and superficial as we as individuals make it.  There is no Roman occupation to oppress us, no Herod to threaten, and if you disagree with the religious authorities’ teaching you have the right to say so.  We have freedom to worship, freedom of expression.  That is not the case around the world.  I’ve watched in horror the brutal treatment meted out to anti-war protestors in Russia, and to women trying to express their freedoms in Syria and Iran.

Working for that oppression to be lifted from others is a political act, and no matter what anyone says about politics and religion not mixing, it is one we are called to be a part of.  Again Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it perfectly: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

We are called to listen to Jesus and respond to his Good News.  Later in the service we’ll sing ‘Facing a Task Unfinished’.  This hymn was originally written in the 1920s by the China Inland Mission.  They were praying for 200 new missionaries when the number of Christians in China was estimated at 100,000. Today, that number is calculated to be around 100 million.  

When we pray and act, with the Holy Spirit at work, amazing things happen; political structures are transformed, lives are transformed.  It’s too easy to say that as individuals we can’t make a difference, because we can.  In singing this hymn we remember the difficulties that Christians face in countries around the world in the face of evil acts and oppression.

The words of the hymn take us back to Herod and Rome, of the forces that defy Christ, but more so there is a challenge to us:

From cowardice defend us
From lethargy awake!
Forth on Thine errands send us
To labour for Thy sake.

It’s a stark reminder that Christians right now are faithfully following Jesus in places where it is dangerous to do so, and if they can do so, then we should jolly well be engaging properly with Lent and the Gospel too.  

So, together let us live out our Lenten pilgrimage with acts of defiant love, prayers for ourselves and the world, and lives lived out in the knowledge that we have been freed from all that might try to oppress us, safe under the shadow of Christ’s wing.

(Artwork: ‘Christ in the wilderness – the hen’ by Stanley Spencer

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