About Us‎ > ‎The Church‎ > ‎

Sermons

Sunday 9th December 2018

Advent 2

Readings:

Malachi 3: 1-4

Philippians 1: 3 – 11

Luke 3: 1-6

 

‘The Refiners Fire’

Intro: what have you done this week to prepare for Christmas? – cards/presents…

We’re remembering people in the scriptures who prepared for the coming of Jesus

Today – John the Baptist – an interesting and challenging character – what do you know about John:

What were the names of his parents? – Elizabeth and Zechariah

How old was his mother? – old than child bearing age

What happened to his father when the angel came and said that he was to have a son? – because he disbelieved, he was struck dumb

What was John’s role/work? – to prepare the way for Jesus

[show pictures of each of the following]

He dressed rather strangely. What did he wear? – a camel’s hair coat and a leather belt

He also ate strange food. What did he ate? – locusts – E’s experience of seeing roasted locusts on sale in a Malawian market.

What was his role? – to prepare the way for Jesus – to call people to turn away from their old ways and focus on their expectation of one who was to come.

And then, to baptise Jesus.

In Advent today, we’re called to share with John the Baptist in preparing the way for the coming of Jesus.

Expectations take waiting time. Advent is about a waiting time/a preparing time – preparing for the one who came to overturn the world, to raise up the poor, to offer love to all people.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Advent is the season in which we prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. We do this by looking back over the centuries, to those who have prophesied of the one who is to come, and to those whose lives have been lived in imminent anticipation of the Messiah.

Today we look at the prophets, through a particular focus on Malachi. Arising out of, and in response to, the words from the prophet Malachi, we are given a little glimpse of John the Baptist.

There’s been some debate about who Malachi actually was. His name means ‘messenger’ – and speaks of his role as God’s messenger. But his biographical details are scarce. It’s thought that he lived in the period immediately after the exile, when the Hebrew people had returned to the holy land and begun to settle down again. It was an interesting time. In a sense the people had forgotten about the dark times of exile and God’s redeeming work in setting them free and restoring them to their homeland. Instead of holding onto the liberation that they had received, they’d sat loose to God and God’s ways.

Their situation was a bit like the post-war periods in this country. There had been a terrible time of fighting and death and conflict. Yet once it was over and peace was restored, and the rejoicing had had its day, it was almost as if the country started to sit lightly to the values for which it stood.

These values included standing up for anti-Semitism, fighting together with brothers and sisters from different nations across the world, seeing the importance of a just peace and being prepared to live and die for what people believed in.

I remember the days of the big debate about going into Europe and joining the EU, and thinking at the time what a blessing this was, as it would do away with war between European countries. It has done away with the physical battles, for which I’m profoundly grateful, but it’s as if the remembering of the cost of unity has faded in terms of a renewed desire for an individual country’s supremacy. And wasn’t it this desire that led Germany to war?

Malachi in today’s reading gives a challenge to the people of Israel, as they sit lightly to their return from exile and start to turn away from the God who set them free. The priests in Temple service have been lax. The people haven’t kept up the Temple worship. The faithful people have become hard pressed and despairing wondering what their future holds.

It wasn’t so much that the Temple building needed looking after. It was more that the Temple stood for the people’s relationship with God and the neglect of it symbolised their neglect of who God was.

Malachi prophesies that there will be one to come, who will prepare the way for God. But this person about whom he is speaking is not a simple figure who will gently ease God in to the world. Instead, Malachi writes: ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? He is like a refiner’s fire.’

There’s a shock to the system in his strong words, a wake-up call to the people, to watch out for God’s messenger. God’s messenger won’t just bring easy deliverance. God’s messenger will lead the people to self-examination and to a putting aside of all that is coming between them and God.

The book of the prophet Malachi is the last book in the OT. It’s a bridge between the Hebrews scriptures and the New Testament. As a bridge, it’s pointing to the troubles through which Israel is going, and prophesying that God will not leave them in their trials. But their deliverance won’t be an easy matter, for the people themselves have to bear some responsibility for the plight that they are in.

Malachi’s message takes us on into the New Testament passage for today, where John the Baptist quotes the words from Isaiah, which are echoed in Malachi, ‘prepare the way for the Lord’.

The reading from Luke sets the scene for John.

Luke starts by establishes the historical context. He is rooting John in his international and local setting. It’s the time of Tiberius – governor of Rome. Here there is an indication that what’s to come is of international significance. The stage might be the Jordan, but the message is for all the world. And at that time Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea – a little reminder of how far the Roman Empire’s tentacles stretched. And Herod was ruler of Galilee. He’d inherited his kingdom from Herod the Great upon his father’s death in 4 BC. The brothers had then divided the kingdom up amongst themselves.

In this time, John the Baptist could have been seen as a humble and insignificant character, eccentric in many ways, not least in living in the wilderness and living on locusts. Yet he had a clear sense of his own calling – as one who would prepare the way for the one who was to come.

Eventually even his father recognises his calling. Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and sings God’s praise, as the words of the Benedictus proclaim, seeing his son as the one who is to prepare the way for the Saviour of the world.

What might seem like an insignificant voice in the wilderness around Jordan, is also a word for the nations. And the very fact of the insignificance of John and the way he’s in the wilderness, is an indication of how God comes and who God is. God comes in many different, and sometimes hidden ways, to challenge earthly powers.

Advent can seem like a time when earthly powers and worldly values predominate.

What do I want? What can I get? How can the shops make more money?

And in the follow on to Climate summit, there’s the even bigger question about the whole created world: How can we turn back the tide of thinking that the earth is there to be exploited? How can we see the damage that has been done, and look to repairing this damage?

Malachi turns the way of thinking about consumerism and exploitation upside down. The messenger who comes to prepare the way will be like a refiner’s fire, stripping down to the essentials, not encouraging worldly excess.

Part of our Advent message is – how can we be refined by this same fire? How can we be stripped bare of all that falsely encumbers us?

This isn’t just about possessions and accumulation. It’s about attitudes and habits and ways of looking at the world.

Advent is a time for self-examination. We each need to look at ourselves. What can I let go of in my life? How can I be more ready for Christ’s coming? Can I be like John the Baptist and help to prepare the way for Jesus and the dawn of a different kind of age?

Philippians helps to broaden the thinking about the refiner’s fire so that it’s not only what we let go of, but what we receive from God. As Paul begins his letter, he’s full of praise for the Philippians – praying that their love may overflow more and more.

What he describes is what happens when the refiner’s fire burns – it burns away negativity to release the goodness of God’s love.

The negativity within me, and within God’s world, is burnt away in the encounter with God – where hatred is replaced by love, where we’re filled with the fire of the Spirit.

The refiner’s fire burns away

-       our grievances with one another;

-       our negativity towards each other;

-       our human envy of others who have what we think we want,

-       Our desire to accumulate, always to have more

The refiner’s fire burns these things away in order to open us up to be thankful

     that each one here this morning is a gift of God;

     thankful that God has given us this day as a gift

     thankful, that even in the midst of adversity, God is with us and nourishes and encourages us.

The refiner’s fire burns away from us that which holds us back from being loving, and releases us into a new freedom for love – for one another, for the community around us, for the whole created earth.

If we’d read on in Malachi, we’d have come to the list of those in whom God stands in judgement. I was struck by two of the references, when Malachi speaks against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, and those who thrust aside the alien. His words echo down the centuries, speaking of the kind of economy that we’re meant to have in God’s purpose, and the way we’re meant to welcome the stranger, not put them to one side or ban them from the country.

I went this week to the launch of a Windrush book, put together by the third generation of Windrush folks. I was struck by the vivid way in which they spoke of still being discriminated against, despite being third generation British citizens.

The refiner’s fire burns away from us that which holds us back from seeing God’s love for all people and opens us to receive God again into our lives and into God’s world.

In the midst of our preparations in this Advent season, let us take time to reflect on the way in which God comes like a refiner’s fire.

Let us prepare ourselves again to catch a glimpse of God, who came in Jesus, and opens the way to life, for each one of us, and for our world.

 

 

Elizabeth Welch

..................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

Sunday 2nd December 2012

Advent 1

 

Readings

Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16

Psalm 25: 1- 10

1 Thessalonians: 3:9 – end

Luke 21: 25 – 36

 

Seasonal myths

Today’s the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the start of a new season in the church’s year. In fact, it’s the start of the church’s year. We go back to the beginning of one of the Gospel’s – this year it’s Luke. We return to the start of our faith – in the journey with the Hebrew people through the scriptures to the point of the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God’s love.

Advent in the church’s year comes as a contrast to the run up to Christmas in our secular society. 

I look around at this time of year and see the incarnation of four ‘myths’ as to what this season is about.

1.    The first myth is that this season is all about consumerism and being able to buy more and more – whether for myself or for others. There’s an unaddressed part of this myth, that happiness for us as individuals comes as we can spend more; and that economic success for our society depends on us spending more. I find myself asking over and again ‘Where do ‘people’ focus in this way of thinking – people with much more complex ranges of needs and desires than shopping?’

In contrast, Advent is about preparing for God’s coming, out of love, in a person – a very human person, born as a baby in a stable. 

2.    The second myth is that this season is all about partying and socialising – having a good time with workplace colleagues, family and friends. While I do believe that social interaction lies at the heart of a fulfilled life, the thought that this particular time of year has a primary focus on partying is to see only one part of the picture.

I’m reminded that in the longer tradition of the church, Advent was about fasting, in order to prepare for one big party on Christmas Day itself. In Clapton Park URC, people are invited to bring offerings of food for Urban Table, so that homeless and vulnerable people may be fed.

3.    The third myth is that this season is about living on the surface of life – seeing what new possessions we can gain and having a sense that possessions are what are most important.

Rather, Advent is about preparing to dig deep – into the long history of faith, into the troubles and challenges that this world brings, into the heart of our lives, into the heart of God. 

4.    The fourth myth is that this season is automatically a happy time, during which everything will go well and there’ll be no signs of trouble or difficulties. And yet I know only too well that on the level of the world and wider events, or on the level of family life, this is not necessarily the case. We’re surrounded by a myriad of wider issues which are challenging – Brexit, climate change, racism. Then there are the issues closer to home: will it be possible to fit in present buying, card sending, school plays, food shopping, cooking? Will Christmas be a happy family time, or are there issues of the loss of loved ones or conflicts within the family that will overshadow the celebrations?

Advent speaks of waiting, waiting for the coming of the loving God in Jesus, who challenges injustices and stands by us in times of suffering.

The readings for this Sunday point us to the way in which there have always been challenges for the people of faith. Jesus doesn’t mince his words: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.’

What’s interesting is that Jesus goes on to say, ‘Be on your guard…so that your hearts are not weighed down…with the worries of this life.’ 

In the midst of all the challenges around, it would be easy to get weighed down.

Advent is a season of waiting and anticipation and hope – in the face of challenges. It’s the season of waiting upon God and of taking time to wait upon God, even in the midst of difficulties and despair. It’s the season of anticipating that God came among us in Jesus and still comes among us today.

It’s the season of hope. It starts with the way the world is, with where each one of us is in our own lives, and points beyond the darkness into the light. Hope isn’t about an easy optimism. It’s about God confounding our despair with love. 

Jeremiah reminds us that hope has a political and a personal dimension. He speaks of a righteous branch springing up that will bring justice and righteousness.

One of the commentators on the verse from Jeremiah describes the difference between these two words, going back to the Hebrew origins of the words used:

"Mishpat," justice, has to do with such practical matters as ensuring fair trading practices, providing care and advocacy for widows, orphans, and the poor, and establishing authoritative processes for reconciliation and restoration when relationships are broken and damage is done. It's about mending and sustaining the social fabric, the relationships between people.

It’s about the way in which people live together, and the kind of priorities a country has for its life.

Alongside justice, is found righteousness.

"Tzedekah," righteousness, is the personal integrity that reflects the character of the God of Israel, named most commonly in the Old Testament as "full of compassion and mercy." It's about the energy that radiates through individuals reflecting the character of God and God's commitment to save.

The start of Advent brings before us the way the world is meant to be, and the way it’s possible for each one of us to personally live lives of compassion and mercy. 

Today we ordain Stuart as elder, and this service points to the way in which God calls us personally to follow in the way that God opens up for us. The calling can take different shapes and forms, but each of us are called to live for others and live lives of compassion. In Advent, we’re reminded that Jesus comes to open up this new way – for our world and for each one of us.

So…be on your guard…but don’t get weighed down with the worries of this life. In Advent, wait in hope for the coming of Christ, who keeps on coming in to our hearts and into our world. 

Elizabeth Welch

..............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

Sunday 4th November 2018 4th Sunday before Advent


Readings:

Deuteronomy 6.1-9

Psalm 119.1-8

Hebrews 9.11-14

Mark 12.28-34

 

Every day I hear another report about the growth of hatred.

A couple of nights ago two more young lads were stabbed to death in London.

The reporting about the rise of hatred in social media continues to grow.

There’s been a very public debate in the last few days amongst two police leaders about how to tackle hate crime and whether to prioritise other forms of crime that are more physically violent than those that involve ‘just words’.

There’s an argument about whether words on their own are violent, or are part of the right to freedom of speech, and should be allowed, whatever is said.

I walked past a group of rowdy young lads in St John’s church gardens in the early evening on Friday and thought ‘should I be worried?’ It was only them and me in the gardens.

 

There’s a rise of hatred and hate crime, as if it’s been unleashed on the world in a way that’s unstoppable, and all we can do is buy into it.

 

The readings for today take us in a different direction – the challenge to be loved and to be loving.

 

Mark’s Gospel looks at a discussion between Jesus and a scribe about which is the first commandment.

 

What has led up to this discussion is a time of strong argument. There are two immediate arguments that lead up to the Gospel for today. Firstly, there was the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees about paying taxes. (who says that religion is only ‘spiritual’ and has got nothing to do with the daily realities of life?). Secondly there was the argument between Jesus and the Sadducees about the resurrection.

 

Then we come on to the question asked of Jesus by the scribe. Scribes were often seen as allied with Pharisees and Sadducees as opponents of Jesus, just trying to argue with him. But here the case seems to be different. The scribe isn’t trying to test Jesus in order to put him down, he’s asking a genuine question ‘what is the first commandment?’

 

This isn’t a conflict story, it’s a real enquiry, about a topic that was often discussed in Jewish circles, ‘What is the most important commandment?’

 

The discussion arose out of the fact that there were 613 commandments altogether. Was one more important than another? Could some be obeyed, and others set aside? Was there something deeper underlying these commandments?

 

It’s interesting to see the analysis that has been done of these commandments, as to how many are positive ‘thou shalt…’ and how many are negative ‘though shalt not…’ The negative ones are as many as the days of the year – 365, whereas the positive ones add up to 248.

 

In the midst of this debate going on, Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

 

The scribe agreed with him, Jesus praised the scribe, and the encounter ended in harmony, unlike the previous two encounters, with the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

 

What Jesus was quoting was the Jewish ‘Shema’ – the words that were prayed three times a day in the Jewish community, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ Shema is the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ and is used to refer to this particular text, which begins with the word ‘hear’. It’s interesting to look back to the original Hebrew translation of the word for the Lord in this phrase. In the Hebrew language, what’s been called the ‘sacred tetragrammaton’ – or the four letters ‘YHWH’ were used. These four letters were not often spoken, not because they were confusing, but because it was felt they conveyed the mystery of God which is beyond words.

 

The Catholic translation of the bible has continued to use this sacred tetragrammaton ‘YHWH’, while the Protestant translations have gone with ‘Lord’, albeit often with the word ‘Lord’ in capitals and a special font.

In an age where there’s much gender discussion about the language to use about God, it’s good to look back and see the mystery with which the name of God was referred to. God couldn’t just be pinned down to a gender, because the mystery of God takes us beyond all genders.

 

What the Jewish community were reflecting was a belief that there was one God, unlike some of their surrounding neighbours, who believed in many gods. This one God had a focus in awe and wonder and mystery.

 

From this one God came the law and the commandments. Before there could be an argument about the details of the 613 commandments, it was important to see this one God underlying all the commandments, and the most basic response to this one God being a response of love – to God and to neighbour. What’s at the heart of the faith is not obedience, but love.

 

Over the centuries there has been a debate from two opposite perspectives about the loving God and the nature of the law.

 

On the one hand, people – from both Jewish and Christian traditions - have argued what is called a rigorist view of the law. This means that the underlying affirmation of the one God meant that every law was given in order to help understand how both God and neighbour should be loved. Therefore, the conclusion was drawn, that every law should legalistically be attended to and obeyed. In addition to this there was a long tradition amongst the scribes of debating the interpretation of each law, as it wasn’t always clear what each law meant in succeeding generations.

 

On the other hand, the argument focused on what was called an antinomian view of the law. This view argued that, as what was most important in response to the one God was loving God and loving the neighbour, it didn’t matter about obeying specific laws. The law was sufficiently fulfilled in love for God and love for neighbour.

 

This discussion still continues in different parts of the church today – as Christians argue for more legalistic rigour, or for more freedom in the Spirit.

 

What’s interesting is to follow how these words of Jesus were interpreted in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, what follows on is Jesus saying All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’ (Matthew 22: 36 – 40) this was taken to point to the need to obey every law in detail. In Luke, what follows on is Jesus teaching about love in action, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This was taken to point to the need for love in action, without being too concerned about the detail of the law.

 

There’s not just a simple answer about obeying every law, or about not being attentive to any law. There was a more complex understanding in terms of digging in to what loving God and loving neighbour actually meant.

 

What was significant, is that Jesus was saying that it’s not about either loving God or loving the neighbour. Both need to be held together.

 

It’s good to have laws, to protect people and to give a society a framework for living. But laws aren’t enough on their own to determine the way to live.

 

It’s possible to legislate against the consequences of hatred, but it’s not possible to legislate against hatred happening. Hatred is a deep-rooted emotion, arising out of a number of driving forces. Unless something else replaces this deep-rooted emotion and addresses the driving forces, hatred will continue.

 

Jesus teaches that we need to live by love and grace – not in disobedience to the law but going beyond the law, to a life that is richer and deeper than mere legalistic rigorism.

 

It’s interesting that the Shema – Hear O Israel, the Lord (YHWH) our God, the Lord (YHWH) is one’ - was seen firstly as a prayer. Out of this prayer to the loving God flowed the commands to love God and love neighbour. These commands were for the whole of life – heart, soul, mind and strength.

 It wasn’t enough to give a nod to loving God with the top of the head, and then let the body get on with whatever it wanted.

It wasn’t enough to love with the whole heart and ignore the call of reason and law.

It wasn’t enough to love with one part of the body and sit lightly to other parts of the body. Whole bodied strength was called for.

 

Jesus emphasises the relationality of love. Love is poured out by God into our lives. As we receive this love, so we can offer this love – to God and to our neighbours. As we abandon ourselves into God’s hands, so we are given the strength to take actions of love in our lives.

Deepening this relationship doesn’t just happen, it takes some work. (as Peter and I have discovered over the 42 years of married life we’re celebrating this week.)

 

Growing in love is personal and takes time – in prayer and meditation as we come to know God better, in listening and conversation as we come to know one another better.

I’m a user of Facebook and Instagram and What’s app, and I think it’s great being able to keep up with family and friends by seeing their postings. But I also believe that there’s nothing like sitting down face to face with people, in order for love and understanding between people to really grow.

 

From time to time I hear people talking about the path of love as weak and over simple. I’m then reminded that it was the path of God’s love that took Jesus to the cross.

It’s actually much easier to hate than to love. When we hate, we can dismiss people, put people down, disregard people who are different to us and seek allies who are ‘like us’ or ‘on our side’.

 

When we love, we follow a hard path.

We can no longer dismiss people, but instead look for their value.

We can longer disregard people who are different to us, but instead look to see what they have to offer.

We can no longer just focus on those who are ‘like us’ or ‘on our side’, but instead need to reach out to all those who God loves.

 

Only when we follow the hard path of love can we hope to overturn the treacherous path of hatred, and gain a glimpse of what it is that God in Jesus Christ makes possible for God’s world.

 

May it be so for us today.

................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................


October 7th, 2018


Trinity 19

Genesis 2: 18 – 24

Psalm 8

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2: 5 – 12

Mark 10: 2- 16

The readings today touch on a wide range of topics.

Genesis and Mark pick up on marriage and divorce; Mark and Hebrews touch on the blessing that children bring and what it means to be brothers and sisters; Hebrews picks up on the Psalm, with its reference to creation, and also points to an understanding about the nature of Jesus.

I want to draw out two underlying threads from these readings for today, based on themes that emerge from the readings.

These threads are: relationship and responsibility.

These two themes are firstly about what we believe about God and God’s loving purpose for this created world and all who are in it. Secondly, they point to the way in which, when we know love, we can grow in love for God and for one another.

At the heart of our understanding lies the thought that we’re not on our own. We’re called to be in relationship with God, and with one another, and with all of God’s world. This relationship is worked out in a whole range of ways. With the relationship comes responsibility.

I’m going to look at these themes through three examples that are given in our readings: marriage, children, and the created world,

But I want to start by what Hebrews says about Jesus:

‘Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.’

When we want to see who God is, we look at Jesus. It’s not that everything that there is to be said about God is said in Jesus. But whatever more we can say about God, it won’t contradict what we see in Jesus. Jesus embodies God. He shows us the value that God puts on people – in his healing and preaching, in his forgiving and teaching, in his living and dying and rising again. In his calling of disciples, he demonstrates the way in which we’re called to live in relationship with one another. And then he entrusts his work to us, ordinary human beings in all our strengths and weaknesses. But he doesn’t leave us alone. He is with us, day by day, as we walk in his way as his followers.

It is through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that we see the meaning of the two threads emerging from our readings today. Jesus, through the offering of love, draws us into relationship with God, and entrusts us with the responsibility of carrying out God’s work in this world.

Three examples of what this means emerge from the readings for today: marriage, children and creation.

1stly, marriage.

When I was ordained, over forty years ago, I can remember within the first six months being asked by two couples about the possibility of re-marriage after divorce. I worked in a local ecumenical partnership with Methodists. Baptists and the United Reformed Church in a new housing area, half of which was council housing. The only other local church was Anglican, who at that time didn’t permit the re-marriage of divorced people.

After some discussion with the two couples about the meaning and nature of marriage, I agreed to conduct their weddings. This was on the basis that relationships can go wrong, and that if everything has been tried to heal the difficulties, but the relationship still doesn’t work, God is a forgiving God who offers a new start.

We’re still friends with one couple, who have remained happily married over the years since then.

When we look at what Genesis says, echoed by Jesus in his teaching, we see an emphasis on man and woman becoming one flesh, not just for a moment, but for life.

Each of these readings has its own setting and context.

The Genesis reading is the second account of creation. Earlier, in the first account in Genesis chapter one, the writer points to the way in which both men and women are equally created in the image of God, according to God’s likeness.

Relationships are held within the relationship which each one has with God. Relationships need to be embodied in many different ways – including in families and communities. Relationships involve a commitment, and can go through a time of struggle and difficulty.

When Jesus taught about divorce, he was addressing particularly concerns in his day with regard to marriage. It had become possible for a husband, if he fell out with his wife, to write a note of divorce, and put the wife to one side, often abandoning her to a life of poverty.

Jesus was emphasising the kind of commitment that marriage was about. Marriage wasn’t just something which could be lightly set aside – and set aside by the man.

Marriage is one way of embodying the relationship that we are offered with God, a relationship that is for life and carries with it a responsibility for mutual care and support.

I find it interesting that, in an age in which marriage is seen to be increasingly difficult and, some would say, irrelevant, it is those in same sex relationships have campaigned for the importance and significance of marriage. We have spent some months here discerning and praying and reflecting on where the Spirit is leading us, as the Spirit has over the centuries led God’s people in new ways. We have come to the point of honouring that desire for those who love each other and want to make the commitment to each other, in God’s presence, to be able to do so.

The first example of relationship and responsibility that today’s readings offer us is about the nature and commitment of marriage.

The second example is about children.

Jesus says, ‘let the little children come to me’.

In Jesus’ day there would have been a much greater emphasis on children being seen and not heard. Jesus’ concern is for those who might be regarded as the least of all. These would include not only children, but those who were frail or disabled, those who came from different ethnic backgrounds and were easily disregarded, those who had no power or authority in this world’s eyes. Jesus’ welcoming and blessing the children was an example of his open welcome to all who were vulnerable.

We each have a responsibility for God’s special gift of children.

Then the Hebrews passage puts an interesting spin on the role of children by highlighting the people of God as brothers and sisters of Jesus.

One commentator on this passage asks an interesting point:

And this is the important question that I think the biblical tradition poses: can we truly be equal brothers and sisters if we behave as if we have no parent...Jesus offers to us a household of God. Yet to enter this household, we must become as children, because there is only one true parent to be recognized, God. There is…., the love that created us and all of creation. It is only when we open ourselves to that love— modeled through Jesus the Messiah who is the true Son, and mediated to us through the Spirit — that we are then able to live successfully as siblings.[1]

We are each children of God – and need to go on receiving God’s love, as little children receive the love of their parents. But God’s love is so much greater than that of any human parent, who can have faults and failings. For God’s love is everlasting and is eternally forgiving, in the midst of all our shortcomings and failings.

The third example of relationship and responsibility is that of the created world.

The Psalmist writes of all the glories of creation, and the way in which creation has been entrusted into human hands.

One contemporary translation of Psalm 8 reads ‘what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with honour and glory.’

By referring to human beings, to the whole human race, the Psalmist doesn’t single out certain people who are made more in the image of God, and other people who are made less in the image of God. The Psalmist doesn’t refer to strong, bold, upfront people as the ones whom God has made and for whom God cares. Strong or weak, bold or shy, upfront or retiring, humanity consists in all of these. The wonder of our God and of this creation of God’s, is that each person in all his or her diversity and variety are equally made a little less than God and are the ones about whom God is mindful.

Psalm 8 provides us with an interesting dilemma in relation to creation, when the psalmist writes ‘you have given human beings dominion over the works of your hand; you have put all things under their feet.’

The dilemma is when the word ‘dominion’ is taken out of the context of all of creation being the works of God’s hands, and, as such, entrusted into human hands on behalf of God. The original sense of the word dominion carries with it the sense of responsibility for God’s world, as partners with God. The dilemma with dominion is that it has been translated as meaning exploitation of creation, with little sense of creation being God’s gift. Once the connection between creation as both God’s world and our responsibility is severed, human sinfulness bites in, and the sense of creation being here to serve whatever short term aims there might be in store, grows.

The bottom line becomes, not ‘how do I care for creation’, but ‘how much money can I make out of creation’.

Being made a little lower than the angels carries with it responsibilities – for living in a way which values God’s creation as much as God does. We’re entrusted with caring for God’s creation, with addressing the multiplicity of issues that the state of creation brings – from climate change, to fracking, to tsunamis and earthquakes.

We have four diverse readings for today. But each one points in its own way to the importance of the life in God being a life that involves both relationship and responsibility.

May it be so for us today.


Sunday 15th July 2018

 

Readings:

Amos 7.7-15

Psalm 85.8-end

Ephesians 1.3-14

Mark 6.14-29

 

Theme: God’s challenges and wisdom

 

Sermon

 

Today we have four very different readings. It’s a reminder of the complexity of scripture and the need to engage seriously with that complexity, reading scripture as a whole.

We heard four passages, each with its own particular perspective. I am drawing out two themes for today: ‘God’s challenges and God’s wisdom’.

Two of the readings remind us of the challenging and disturbing role of the prophet – the one who comes to tell the truth about what he sees, even though it might lead him into areas of great personal risk. 

From the Old Testament, we have the prophet Amos, and in the New Testament, there is John the Baptist. These readings point to the consequences of taking the prophetic route.

In Amos and John the Baptist we see two people who were themselves challenged by God to live and speak in God’s way. As they responded to God’s challenge, they were challenging to others. 

Amos wasn’t a professional prophet, one of the several groups gathered around the religious sanctuaries who were paid to exercise this role. He says, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.’

Amos is an agricultural worker. Some commentators suggest that he had a large herd of animals and was thus an independently wealthy person. God has called him from his separate, perhaps comfortable lifestyle, to speak God’s message to the people.

God’s message is that the people have gone astray from God’s purposes. There are those who have taken bribes; others who have neglected the poor and needy; some who have thought that the offering of sacrifices got them out of lifestyles of integrity.

Amos hears God’s word, is obedient and speaks out, even though his speaking got him into considerable trouble. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, complains to the king about Amos, and tries to get him sent away from Bethel. 

But the good news, as far as Amos was concerned was, was that he wasn’t dependent for his living on the sanctuary at Bethel. He could therefore ignore what Amaziah said and continue with his words against the corruption of the people.

It can’t have made for comfortable living. But Amos had the strong sense of doing God’s purpose, not his own. 

Then we turn to the New Testament. Here’s another story, but one with a much less peaceful ending, about John the Baptist.

-       It’s a story of Herod’s personal exploitation of those around him

-       It’s a story of challenge to those who hold political power

When we look at John the Baptist we can see that he wasn’t the easiest of characters. He was a no-holds barred person. He called people to repent of their old lives and to leave everything behind. He wasn’t a person of any compromise. 

He was becoming well known – even amongst Herod’s circle. Mark writes that ‘Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man’.

Herod was interested in what John had to say – as long as what he said applied to other people and not to Herod. But then John told the truth about Herod and his behaviour. Herod had married his brother’s wife. John the Baptist spoke out and said, ‘it isn’t lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 

Herod wasn’t happy with this at all. Even so, he might not have taken action, if Herodias, the subject of the complaint, hadn’t been even more unhappy. And we know the story from then on in. The daughter dances for Herod, who offers her whatever she wants. The daughter and the mother plot together and demand John the Baptist’s head. And off his head comes. There’s that horrible picture, in the middle of a banquet, of the head being delivered on a plate.

The truth was too much – the truth-teller had to go.

It’s a challenging story. It’s the only passage of this length in the Gospel that is not directly about Jesus. 

It’s included at this point in the Gospel to remind people of the strength of opposition that will be encountered by those who strive to walk in God’s way.

It’s a reminder to the disciples, who are at this point experiencing some success in their mission, of the opposition that they are likely to meet. 

Amos and John are two truth tellers, two prophets, each of whom in their different ways encountered persecution.

I can imagine that neither of these two would have been comfortable people with whom to live. Their outspokenness and their challenge to those who were comfortable, was setting itself up for a robust response.

It is easy to feel that outspoken people are a pain. And that it’s preferable to live a quiet life.

But these two weren’t just outspoken people shooting their mouths off with their own opinions. These were two who believed that they had heard God’s word and were compelled to speak out. This hearing of God’s word was shaped by the communities from which they had come, the tradition of faith of which they were part, their knowledge of God and God’s Covenant with the people. 

They remind us that God’s call to us today is still to be challenging

-       challenging to the world when the world lives in ways that are not God’s ways;

-       challenging to values that put people down rather than raise people up;

-       challenging to ourselves when we would rather remain silent.

The first theme today is God’s challenges. The second theme is God’s wisdom. 

The words from psalm 85 and the first letter to the Ephesians point to God’s wisdom and blessing.

There are three points which come out of these readings:

1.    We’re not on our own. When we respond to God’s call and walk in God’s way, God is present with us. Whatever challenges come, we’re not left to face them on our own. Paul writes of God choosing us in Christ, even before the foundation of the world and destining us for adoption as God’s children. The wisdom that is offered is that of constantly seeking God’s presence, of reminding ourselves that God is with us, however challenging the way may be.

Part of this reminder is that which we gain through sharing week by week in worship and day by day in reading the scriptures and prayer.

For myself, there have been times when I’ve come to prayer in the weekday morning full of questions and challenges. Yet the moment of being still in God’s presence has changed my outlook and given me confidence to face the day that lies ahead. I’ve been drawn back into God’s presence. 

2.    God’s wisdom draws us into values which are eternal. The Psalm speaks words of peace and love and faithfulness. These are words which speak of who God is and the ways into which God leads us, not just for one moment in time, but for all time.

Peace and love and faithfulness can seem like easy words leading to a comfortable life. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

In some ways it’s much easier to be angry, to be filled with hate, to be changing our minds every other minute.

Seeking peace not violence, loving our enemies, holding fast to eternal truths are not always virtues which this world applauds. Yet this is the wisdom which God offers us.

We’re offered the possibility of seeing the world in a different way – through God’s eternal perspective, rooted in the present moment.

3.    Wisdom is about truth. Amos and John the Baptist spoke the truth that God gave them, truth that challenged values and authorities of their day.

The question of truth is an interesting one for our age. Where does truth lie?

This question comes up in all kinds of settings. I watched an interview with John Cleese this week, which touched on fake news. He showed some research which pointed to the UK being the country in Europe who least trusts the media.

There’s a relation between truth and wisdom. If taken too easily, truth can have a kind of ‘banging on your head’ aspect – the one who shouts loudest is the one who speaks the truth. But wisdom is a serious drawing together of inwardness and lifestyle, a measured approach to speaking, knowing when to speak and not to speak.

Going against the misuse of truth can be difficult and in itself a challenge.

Amos and John the Baptist lead us in the direction of truth-telling, however difficult the consequences. 

Two themes for today – challenge and wisdom.

Let’s prayer for the courage to respond to God’s challenges and the desire to receive God’s wisdom.



Sunday 3rd June: 1st Sunday after Trinity,

Holy Communion

 

The Ministry of the Word:

Deuteronomy 5.12-15

Psalm 81.1-10

2 Corinthians 4.5-12

Mark 2.23-3.6

 

The church today faces many conflicts and struggles, within the church’s own life, and by participating in what is happening in the world.

It can be a temptation to look back over the centuries and think that in the early church or even in the life of Jesus, everything was always OK, things went well, there were no conflicts or difficult issues. But as soon as I start reading the NT, I see another world being shown.

That other world is shown in both of our NT readings today, different though these readings are. Both readings refer to conflicts – one between Jesus and the Pharisees, and the other about Paul’s personal life and all that he has been through as he tried to live faithfully in his calling.

At first sight, it looks like we’re being faced with two different kinds of themes, - about the sabbath and about clay jars, but in fact they’re linked. They each serve to remind us about who God is, how we know God, and what God makes possible.

The first conflict is about issues round the sabbath and sabbath observance.

For the Jewish community the sabbath was the key mark of their faith. Sabbath rest was essential to Jewish identity. This is seen in the way in which the commandment about sabbath rest was the most developed commandment.

There were still a large number of interpretations about what the Sabbath actually meant. For example, the Essenes forbad useless talk and speaking about wealth or riches on the Sabbath. (can we today even contemplate what ‘useless talk’ might be?) There were others who said that even talking about the work that one intended to do constituted a violation of the Sabbath. (how many of us have the discipline not to talk about work on Sunday?)

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t question the sacredness of the sabbath. But he does raise questions as to how this sacredness is to be interpreted, and whether the Pharisees have actually become over-legalistic in their particular interpretations. These two disputes are referred to as the most serious of the ‘Galilean controversies’ and are a foretaste of the road that led to the cross.[1]

What actually happened? In the first story in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples were plucking grains from the field. It wasn’t so much that they were hungry. Jesus points to the way in which David in the OT went in search for food when he and his companions were hungry. It was more that plucking grain could be seen as work, which was forbidden on the sabbath.

In the second story, Jesus heals the man with the withered hand. Jewish understanding was that healing could happen on the sabbath, but only when a person was critically ill, since healing was classified as work[2]. However, Jesus is pointing to the Pharisees’ over-legalistic interpretation, which takes away from the original meaning of the sabbath, which is about the glory of God and the benefit of people.

It’s interesting to note that then, on the sabbath, the Pharisees and Herodians plot to destroy Jesus. So much for the sabbath being about life!

Tom Wright in his commentary on this passage refers to the Pharisees, ‘as not being an unofficial secret police force. They were an unofficial party, who had been active as a religious and political pressure group for nearly 200 years – entirely self-chosen with no authority to make laws or enforce them. They did have considerable influence on ordinary people, who respected their expertise in Israel’s ancestral laws and traditions. Some were wise, holy men.’[3]

Another of the commentaries on this passage points to the way in which three theological perspectives ground the practice of sabbath observance.[4] 1. God rested on the seventh day after finishing the work of creation; 2. the sabbath remembers the liberation from Egypt; and 3. the sabbath recalls the Sinai covenant – the perpetual covenant between God and people. Each sabbath day reminds the people of these three characteristics of God’s activity – rest, freedom and covenant.

Once the Christian community grew and expanded, there was a further contention, and that was as to whether the sabbath observance should be continued on a Saturday, or moved to the Sunday, the day of Resurrection. After some time of debate and discussion, the church moved to Sunday as the sacred day of rest, out of the new life that Jesus brought in his resurrection. It wasn’t that the sacredness of the sabbath was being done away with, it was that it was being renewed from a different perspective, the perspective of Jesus’ risen life.

Jesus wasn’t doing away with sabbath observance, but was recalling people to the fullness of what it meant.

So today when we reflect on what happened then, and how it impacts on us, we have a reminder that it’s still important today to have a day of rest – but not, for example, at the price of allowing people to go unhealed.

Two of the challenging issues for today in terms of Sunday observance are about consumerism and about the pressure for non-stop working. Either Sunday is seen as a shopping day, or it’s seen as part of the 24/7 work culture. What’s interesting about this is that salvation is then seen as lying within ourselves rather than with God. ‘I would be OK…If I only I could buy more stuff’…’I would be saved…If only I could work harder’

The practice of sabbath observance points to putting our lives in a bigger context; remembering week by week why we’re here at all, remembering week by week the people who are most important to us and spending time with them, remembering week by week who we are here to serve.

It isn’t just about resting up for the day, although it’s important to have a sense of rest in an increasingly busy society. It’s about having the time and the space to reflect on what fills our life – in terms of relationships and values, as well as activities. It’s about having a weekly time of re-focussing, on ourselves, not on ourselves on our own, but on ourselves in the presence of God.

Sunday observance, and the worship that is offered, serve to remind us about who God is, how we know God, and what God makes possible.

It’s not that God is restricted to Sundays, not at all, – but that Sundays symbolise and stand for who God is; Sundays are a time of reminder and renewal, which then overflow into each moment of the week that lies ahead.

I turn to the second conflict, which is all about the week that lies ahead – what we face each day, and the way in which we know God with us in all the ups and downs of daily life.

This conflict arises out of trying to live a life as a Christian, and then facing the challenges that come our way.

Paul uses the image of being like a clay jar – a clay jar which is fragile and can easily be broken. A clay jar, in which the power of God is known – like the candles we lit.

Paul reflects on his own experience and the tensions and conflicts he has faced: he’s been involved in hard battles, with many struggles. So, he writes of himself that he’s afflicted in every way, he’s perplexed, he’s persecuted, he’s struck down.

He isn’t saying that the Christian life is always OK, is a time of uninterrupted peace and tranquillity, is without its struggles.

What he is saying is that, even in the midst of all the difficulties and doubts, the power of God is there – like the candle in the clay jar. It’s this power which strengthens him and keeps him going and enables him to write

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”; and he finishes by pointing to the suffering of Jesus on the cross “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies”.

Being a Christian has its share of struggles. 

-          We live in an age in which the church is less generally accepted in our society. 

-          It’s an age in which there is rapid change going on around us, yet the church can feel like an institution which is resistant to change. 

-          Wrestling with the intellectual issues that our society brings about God and faith can develop a sense of perplexity and challenge

-          The issues we face come, not just from the world we live in and the church, but also from within ourselves.  Why can’t I work harder, achieve more, be more effective? 

It’s not always easy to accept our human limitations and frailties.

Yet what Paul is saying in his illustration of the clay jar is that it is these very afflictions and limitations and frailties that God uses to demonstrate his power at work.  God works in us through our weaknesses as much as through our strengths.

The amazing promise of the Gospel is that God chooses us, not despite who we are in our failings, but because of who we are in our weaknesses.  All this is so that God’s glory can be revealed – the glory that has been already shown in the offering of Jesus on the cross.  It is God who gives the strength to serve faithfully on the path to which he has called us.

This sense of the presence and purpose of God – part of the treasure of the Gospel

I find myself asking:

Is the church frail in order that we can point to the power of God? Are we still too dependent on ourselves and do we need to become more frail in order to witness to the power of God? Is there a sense of when we become strong we become complacent about ourselves and forget that our strength comes from God?

Part of the treasure of the Gospel is that God still chooses and sets aside for service, unexpected people – a bit like you and me.

Today God is still present with us in that Christ is risen and the Spirit has come – and that these aren’t just events of the distant past, but realities of the present moment which we can cherish in our frailty and receive in the bread and the wine.

But the treasure of God’s love and faithfulness to us is unchanging – and gives us strength for the journey.

Thanks be to God.


[1] Sacra Pagina commentary on 2 Corithians

[2] Morna Hooker commentary on Mark

[3] Tom Wright commentary on Mark

[4] Sacra Pagina commentary on Mark gives further details


***********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Sunday 6th May 2018 6th Sunday Of Easter

Holy Communion

 

Readings:

Acts 10.44-end

Psalm 98

1 John 5.1-6

John 15.9-17

 

I remember a holiday in Canada when we visited friends in a wine-making area. During this time we visited 3 or 4 different vineyards.

 

We heard the story of the time the vines take to develop – the work that goes in, before the vines produce grapes that make really high-quality wine.

The wine – varies from year to year; some years are known as good years, some are not so good. There’s a lot of pruning and fertilising and learning from experience as to what to do next, in order to go on improving. There are circumstances outside the vine-growers control which have a big impact, such as the prevailing weather conditions.

 

Today we listened to the reading when Jesus speaks of his followers as abiding in the vine of God’s love and bearing much fruit. It’s an interesting image to reflect on in the light of the church.

 

A church is a gathering of people who have responded to God’s love and who seek to live in that love.

-      A church is like a well-tended vine, changing with the seasons and from year to year; sometimes the wine produced will be really excellent, sometimes it will be more average.

-      There are external factors that affect the life of the church, to do with some aspects of the kind of culture we live in and its impact on us – consumerism, secularisation, self-centredness, atheist fundamentalism.

-      The life of any one church doesn’t just proceed smoothly on from strength to strength, there are highs and lows, challenges and struggles, as well as joys and celebrations.

 

But what lies at the heart of the matter, is that the church continues to abide in the vine of God’s love and bear fruit in the world.

 

I want to speak this morning of four different aspects of this love, arising out of our four readings:

-      Overwhelming love

-      singing love

-      steadfast love

-      adventurous love

 

1stly, overwhelming love

This comes from the reading from the epistle of John, where the writer talks about ‘whatever is born of God conquering the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?’

In the Easter season we look back to Good Friday and the cross; then we look to the resurrection and the everlasting promise of new life.

There are times on our journey of life when the dark side can threaten to overwhelm us – our fears and anxieties; a culture of hate; violence and the rise of crime; the Windrush saga.

 

We can be tempted to think that love occupies a smaller and smaller place in our lives and the life of the world. Yet the gospel promise is that God’s love is overwhelming, and undaunted, even in the midst of the darkest times.

 

It’s God’s love that brings us to love one another. This love is clearly seen in Jesus Christ. It’s this love, revealed at one time, which continues for all time and is eternally present with us, casting out fear and hatred and oppression and violence.

 

The first aspect of God’s love is that it is overwhelming.

 

The 2nd aspect of God’s love is singing love

 

The Psalmist writes ‘Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises with the lyre and with trumpets and the horn’

 

We have a really great musical tradition at this church, with people who are gifted at playing and singing. The psalmist points to the way in which the singing and the playing of instruments is in response to all that God has done for the people. The natural response is to lift up our hearts and minds and voices and be filled with the music of praise.

 

Music has an amazing significance in the life of faith. It enables us to respond in ways that go beyond words to the love of God. And the psalmist reminds us of the variety of instruments that can be used in God’s praise.

 

Singing together with each other is something the church can offer today in a culture where people have sometimes lost the opportunity to sing together with others and experience that sense of being taken out of ourselves and lifted up.

 

Singing love is also about carrying that attitude of praise with us into our daily lives – taking time each day to recall God’s gifts and to give thanks. And as we see how much God has done for us, so we our eyes are opened to how much God has given us through each other. Then we can let our lives overflow with praise for each other.

 

The 2nd aspect of God’s love is that it leads us to sing

 

The third aspect of God’s love is steadfast love

 

The Psalmist writes about God remembering his steadfast love and faithfulness.  God has continued to be faithful, in the midst of all the changing times through which the people have gone.

 

The mark of this love for Jesus’ followers, is that we are called, not to be servants, but to be friends. Friends are those who are trusted, who know what’s going on, who share in Jesus’ purpose.

 

Being Jesus’ followers’ means being Jesus’ friends, through thick and thin, through the good times and the bad times, despite whether we are actually getting on with one another or not!

 

We live in a country in which relationships are more and more fragmented and in which the sense of a supportive community in the neighbourhood is not so strong. The church has a renewed responsibility to cultivate the value of friendship, amongst our number and in relation to the people who live around us.

 

This is one way of demonstrating the steadfast love which is God’s – by the love we show for one another, through thick and thin.

 

The third aspect of God’s love is that it is steadfast

 

The fourth aspect of love is adventurous love. It describes that love which is moved to reach out in new and unexpected ways, ways that lead people into taking risks and travelling in new directions.

 

This adventurous love is summed up in the reading from Acts. The Holy Spirit comes upon all who are listening to Peter.  Peter has taken a big risk and gone off to preach the Gospel to Cornelius, a Roman centurion and thus a Gentile.

 

It was a turning point for the early Christians. The big question was whether the Gospel was just for the Jews or for the Gentiles as well. Peter has to have his mind changed by being given a vision – and not once, but three times!

 

He responds and takes a risk and goes to meet with Cornelius. And low and behold, the Holy Spirit immediately comes upon those who were listening to Peter. Those who had come with Peter were astounded. How could this be? They were only Gentiles; they weren’t of the historical family of the Jewish community! But how could the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God’s love, be anywhere else but present with the listeners?

 

Abiding in God’s love is not about settling down in a comfortable and familiar place. It’s about being ready to be surprised by the new ways in which God is working, the new power that the Holy Spirit is bringing and being ready to take risks to reach out with God’s love to new people.

 

To God be the glory for his abundant love in Jesus Christ and his powerful love in the Holy Spirit.

***********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Sermon by Doug Gray from our 'More In Common' celebration

What does it mean - to have more in common?

I always tell my students in preaching class to focus on one of the texts - try to do one thing well - today I’m going to break that rule and I want to think with you about two of the scriptures set for today - the story we heard from Exodus 17 about the children of Israel in the wilderness and the story in Matthew’s gospel about the chief priests and the religious leaders who come after Jesus.

I want to think with you about what it means to be a prophetic church - a prophetic congregation. Sometimes we are tempted to think that to be prophetic means having to be extra-ordinary - we associate it with mighty women and men of God like Moses or John the Baptist - and that’s not wrong - but I also think that the work of the Holy Spirit is to enable the prophetic ordinary - and it might help us with that if we work with a very simple, but I think a very biblical definition of what it means to be prophetic - to be prophetic, to be a prophetic church, is to be people who are seeking to do and to say what God is calling us to do and to say, here and now, in this place and this time.

When we arrived here, in 1995 - we came to a tiny, exhausted congregation - which had been trying to be faithful in a falling down building, a building riddled with damp, where the massive space next door had become very hard to use - most of the basement had become unuseable - some of the floors had rotted away - but God was here - God’s hand was still on this community and this congregation - and the grace of what we came to was that a scheme for redeveloping the building was already in place - English Heritage were ready to fund the work - we had a fabulous architect called Terry Dacombe - who was an inspiration to work with - who held my hand when I panicked - who patiently solved all the problems as they came up. There were inspirational elders like Eric Matthews and Janet Hackett - there were women of God like Mrs Dillon and Mrs Bond - faithful men of God like Ron Hasler and Ron Ebdon - and people knew we needed to change - that the congregation had become a bit isolated from the community - that to renew our mission we needed to learn that we had more in common with our community.

Early on it became clear that one of the people who could help us to do that was a community worker called Chris Lawrence - with his wife Ali - they moved on to Powerscroft Road - we all set to work.

This had been a historically white congregation, with the help and advice of our small number of black leaders and elders and members, we all needed to find ways to work together build a congregation which had more in common with a community around us which was very diverse - to see our future as a partnership between people from African backgrounds, from white English backgrounds, from Black British backgrounds - even people from Scotland and Ireland and the USA.

Clapton had a reputation for being a violent place - Lower Clapton Road had been dubbed Murder Mile by the media - Hackney schools were struggling - standards were poor, exam results were bad - young people were under achieving - leaving them disadvantaged as they entered the job market - levels of mental health were poor, levels of physical health were poor. Many people in these streets lived parallel lives - they were separated by class and by income, by colour and culture and religion.

So God - what do you want us to do? Does this place have a future? Are you going to bring us through the wilderness - this congregation, this community, this neighbourhood, this borough?

The story in Exodus 17 is a very mixed story - its both troubled and troubling and hopeful.

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says that all through the Hebrew scriptures, we see a dialogue between God and the people - it’s a passionate dialogue - sometimes the people are singing Hallelujah - I said sometimes people are singing Hallelujah […] - and sometimes they are saying where are you God? Have you abandoned us? Sometimes they are saying How Long O Lord - I said sometimes they are saying How Long O Lord - [….]

This is a story about people who have been set free - Exodus people - people who have been liberated from slavery - delivered from genocide - there’s the Hallelujah moment - but now they are in the wilderness - How Long O Lord… Moses you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill us - why are they saying that? Because they have no water - they are thirsty - not just us, not just the grown ups - our children have no water - you think if your child had no water you wouldn’t complain? - you wouldn’t cry out to Moses, or to God?

We just sent Beth off to Nicaragua for 3 months, to work alongside Nicaraguan young people on a project called Wash - working to bring clean water and sanitation to very poor rural communities - they had a revolution in the 1980s - and there were some big Hallelujah moments - but turning the revolution into a society where there is justice is so hard for human beings everywhere - maybe you can fix the schools but you can’t fix the housing market - maybe you can fight for equal opportunities but white racism will still find new targets and go back to the old ones - and men will still turn on women and straight people will still struggle to support justice for gay people.

So Nicaragua found it hard to sustain its revolution - and so did Venezuela and so does Scotland and so does Hackney.

When the Old Testament looks back on this story - the people are given quite a hard time - you should have trusted God - you should have trusted the God of Exodus to make water from the rock - you shouldn’t have turned on one another and on Moses in bitterness and quarrelling and in fighting - We are meant to hear that - but we are also allowed to hear the cry of these thirsty, frightened people - Is the Lord among us or not? God is big enough and great enough and good enough and faithful enough for us to bring our anger and our fear and our despair and our doubt - we can be honest with God.

Sometimes what we have in common is a threat to our life - we have no water - it’s a threat to our community - racist politicians are trying to divide us - it’s a threat to how our society works - young people on ordinary incomes can’t buy a house, can’t get a house.

Sometimes what we have in common is the failure of our politics, whether church politics or world politics - we turn on one another - we turn to hate and prejudice and suspicion - sometimes what we have in common is our failure - which is why we as a congregation, week by week, confess our sins - try to humble ourselves - try to make the in common confession that we too are part of the problem - that this housing crisis is making some of us very rich…

Sometimes, the obstacles seem to be so hard, so difficult, so impenetrable - they are like rocks in the desert - and we need to cry out for God to strike the rock - because the people need water - and the children need water…

//

In our gospel reading, Jesus has been making enemies. He has just arrived in the Palm Sunday procession to Jerusalem - it’s a Hallelujah moment, a Hosanna moment - and the crowds and the children are waving palms - they believe he is a prophet has come to help them - maybe the revolution is coming. It looks like that when he cleanses the temple - when he overturns the tables of the money changers - here in Hackney we have always lived in the shadow of the City of London - some of London’s poorest streets next to some of the world’s richest ones. In response to Jesus’ unsettling entry to Jerusalem - some have been waving palms and some have been wanting to throw rocks.

Jesus is confronted with the hardness of opposition - who gave you authority to do these things? You’ll get us all killed - the Romans will never stand for this - you’ve gone too far - And in the face of conflict - of official righteousness - of the hard condemnation of the powers that be - Jesus does three things:

·         First, he refuses to fall into their trap - meeting their question with a question - did John the Baptist - who also called for change, who also stood with the people, who also preached the revolutionary love of God - did he come from God? and his accusers are afraid - because the people think John is a prophet

·         Second, he tells a story. A story about what it means to be prophetic. About two men, one who talked the talk and the other who walked the walk. One who did, in his place and time, what God was calling him to do. One whose name was Moses and Martin Luther and Sojurner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks whose name was the name of ordinary people like Mrs Dillon and Janet Hackett and Chris Lawrence and  Jasmine O Connor and Mary Fagan and Vivi Boucher - and God willing, the name of ordinary people like you and me who are called to do what God is asking us to do - here and now - and the name of this Church

·         The Third thing he does is to tell it like it is - the prostitutes and the tax collectors - those you look down on and despise and exclude - those on the edges - they are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you - ahead of me - ahead of all of us who think we are better and worthier and more holy and more spiritual.

Jesus uses strong words, prophetic words, to strike the rock of their hostility and to let the gospel of God’s grace flow out.

It is that grace which brings us to this table. At this table we discover through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit - what we have in common - we are thirsty people who need this wine and hungry people who need this bread, we are sinful people who need the forgiveness offered here, we are people turned in on ourselves, who need to be turned out in love to the world God loves - turned out in love to the people in our neighbourhood with whom we have this in common - that we are made in the image of God and we are beloved of God. So we pray this morning for the Spirit to come down - for God to strike the rock and for that grace to flow into our hearts and our minds and our lives.

If we like the Israelites are asking: Is God among us or not? - By the grace of God, the answer is here on this table - where Jesus will come to meet us and to bless us.

So let God’s people say the Alleluia - and let the church say the Amen… AMEN.

Comments