Saturday, 26 June 2010

4th Sunday after Trinity - calling, vocation and all of us


Galatians 5:1,13-25
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Luke 9:51-end: A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’as Elijah did. But he turned and rebuked them and said, ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.’ Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Today’s Gospel reading comes at a very important time for us as a church. The PCC and its subcommittees are considering what mission is about for us as a church, and how we should be doing it and what roles we should be playing within the community. The words, actions and non-reactions of Jesus tell us a great deal about what is appropriate for a Christian, and St.Paul’s words in Galatians tells us a great deal about what we should be like within a church.

Everything really hinges around the first line of the Gospel reading which says this:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.
The words ‘taken up’ are simply a euphemism. This passage is about Jesus recognising through prayer that his teaching ministry is coming towards an end and that God was calling him on to Jerusalem to lay down his life.

There is, in that phrase, however also an allusion to his ascension. The words ‘taken up’ lend themselves to both, and if you remember back to when I’ve preached about the ascension I’ve always been keen to stress that Jesus returning to the Father and taking our humanity into the Godhead within himself was really important to our final destiny.

So this first sentence sets the context for the entire next section. This is all about Jesus having a vision for what he was going to do next and then setting about to make it happen.
So the first question this asks us is, what vision do you have for the rest of your life, however long or short that may be?

I don’t often talk about my calling into ordained ministry. That’s not because I’m ashamed of it, it’s just that whenever we talk about having a vision for our lives, or a sense of calling, people automatically assume we must be meaning ordained ministry, as a priest. So I’m always hesitant to talk about my own calling just in case it makes you feel that your calling is any less significant.

I believe that we should all be seeking what God is calling us to do with our lives and listening to what he says in response, and that every genuine calling by God is as relevant as every other genuine calling, regardless of what role he calls us to. So perhaps this is a fitting time to tell you what happened to me in being called into the priesthood, but this could have been to any role.

It happened on new year’s day. At the time I was very happy in my chosen career as a scientist, although my musical aspirations were also there too. Priesthood was not something remotely on my radar, and in fact Ali and I were going to a Baptist church at the time. We’d got up late because of the night before and I was sitting in the lounge of our flat reading a book by Naomi Storkey all about the spirituality of good relationships.

Right in the middle of one of the pages I became aware of three words becoming very clear to me, but they weren’t on the page in front of me. I just kind of became very aware of them, and the words were, ‘Prepare for ministry’. That was it. Just something plain and simple like that. There were no flashing lights or warm feelings deep down in my soul; just a straightforward awareness that this was what I must now do.

I told Ali, obviously, and she suggested that I call one of my closest friends, Paul. I’ve never forgotten his response: ‘About ****** time too.’ When I queried what he meant he said that he’d seen it coming for years and wondered why I hadn’t. That kind of response was echoed over and again by others as I carefully chose those who I shared this sense of calling, this vision, with.

But the most important thing was the way it changed my whole life. Everything now became a matter of seeing how I could reach out to do what it was I was being called to do, and I have to say that it was a rocky old path. Our Baptist minister turned me down flat, which was the final straw in a lot of internal wrestling with attending that church. We then joined our local Anglican church, but did nothing but attend for a year because we wanted to belong first.

Then I began to wonder whether I had been correct in what I heard so I spent an hour with the Reader one afternoon, explaining what had happened to me. At the end of that I asked him whether I should be a Reader too and he retorted, as was his way, with, ‘No my boy, you should be a priest.’ Those were the words of confirmation I needed and everything came flooding back, with the vision renewed.

But even then it was another eighteen months, which included a period of being held back for nine months by my Director of Ordinands because he felt I still wasn’t ready, before I finally quit my job and went into training. So it took a while, and it was not a straightforward path, but once I had that sense of vision, and it had been confirmed by others, I knew this was what I had to do.

Now my call is not better or more important than yours; it is simply my call; what God asked of me. Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. That was what was expected of him; that was his call. So let me underline this question again: What is God calling you to do? What is your vision for life? Where are you going?

The second question that this passage raises for us is about how you plan to go about that vision once you have it. I get absolutely fed up with those within the wider church who get self-righteous and threatened by opposition to what they think is right. James and John exhibit all the hallmarks of those whose sense of calling seems to be dependent on everyone else agreeing that they are in the right.

So for those who are thinking about mission, and I hope that’s all of us, let me make one thing absolutely clear: There are some three thousand people in this parish, and plenty of others with whom we will come in contact. They will not all want to come to church. In fact a very large proportion of them will not be remotely bothered by what we think is truth.

That is simply how it is, and that is how it has always been. Our role is to seek out and pray for those who are searching, that God will guide us to them and help us to illuminate the way we are travelling. Do not ever be taken in by those who want to hype up evangelism and expect the church to be filled with hundreds and hundreds of people.

It didn’t happen to Jesus. Look at all the excuses people made, just in this short passage, for not following him. And when Jesus told it how it was, and what they should expect if they followed him, most people deserted him. If it didn’t happen to him, it’s unlikely to happen to us.

So when people aren’t bothered by what we think are words of hope, don’t be threatened by it as James and John were. Simply trust God to guide us to those who are wanting to listen and who are searching for truth in their lives. Jesus was non-violent. He just shrugged his shoulders and they moved on to another village.

These two are therefore the questions that this passage asks us. What is your vision for your life, however much is left of it, and how will you conduct yourself? As a church we must ask ourselves these questions, about what our main mission focus should be, but we are a body made up of many parts, and for us to do what we are called to do it is essential that everyone of us asks God what we are supposed to do as a part of that vision.

And then once we know we must conduct ourselves with humility. Being a servant of the truth is not something to be proud of, it is a calling, remembering that we all have so much to learn. And it is from that well of humility that those who are searching will have their thirst quenched.

So let us consider, what is God calling us to? What is he calling each of us to? Are we listening and are we going to let that calling alter our priorities? And are we going to remain humble, knowing that we are not special, we are simply searchers who have been led to God by the Holy Spirit. For this church to grow in numbers, and for us to grow as disciples, we must all do our part. Amen.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

3rd Sunday after Trinity : 1 Kings 19:1-15 When it all goes wrong


1 Kings 19:1-15
Elijah Flees from Jezebel

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Today we’re going to think about events that took place in the life of one of the great prophet, Elijah; about how he was struck down with terrible depression and about how God responded to him. We pick up the story after Elijah has fought a huge battle against false prophets leading people astray in ancient Israel. Elijah had won the battle, but the evil queen Jezebel sent him a message that she was after him for revenge and he would be dead by the next day.

When things get really bad in our lives, and there are times when they do, we feel like doing exactly what Elijah did; we want to run away. It’s likely that everyone one here has felt like that sometimes. That desire to escape can slip deeper into real depression where energy is sapped and we don’t know how to continue. When we slide from being low to being truly depressed then even our desire for life can be stolen.

There have been several occasions when I have spoken with those in the depth of depression where the most logical thing for them is that life should cease, and then they won’t be a burden anymore. For others, and I count myself as having been in this group, it can be a slide brought on by circumstance into feeling totally disconnected from the world.

Elijah seems to have been somewhere within that kind of emotional arena. Now if you know the story you will know that in the lead up to this he has been utterly triumphant for God in a battle with the false prophets of Baal. He has made a public spectacle of them, and you might think, what on earth does he have to be depressed about?

I suggest that perhaps we sometimes forget just how much continuous hard work and stress can sap our emotional energy. Elijah had made himself very vulnerable and then received a strong threat on his life which was the last straw. He had no resources left and it basically led to an emotional breakdown.

What I love about the Bible is the way in which there is never any gloss applied to the characters. Here is Elijah, perhaps the greatest of Israel’s prophets, in utter despair, and I want to acknowledge this reality for all those believers who feel guilty about being depressed. We have this feeling that if we’re Christians then we shouldn’t ever be depressed.

And what really doesn’t help is when other Christians come and reinforce this message, thus adding guilt to depression. Fifteen years ago Ali and I played a concert at a festival in Cornwall. We had two independent record producers who had taken an interest in the band with its new Celtic influenced style, and were keen to come and see us, and so they came along to this festival.

Well, I tell you, I had never before seen something so badly organised, and we wondered whether we had done the right thing. But there was nothing for it but to play. We were meant to be the penultimate act on the main stage and there were about two thousand people in the audience, so we were a little nervous.

The stage manager had been absolutely appalling and the whole evening was running almost thirty minutes late by the time it got to us, so it was a case of throwing everything up on stage as quickly as we could.

At large venues like this one it’s really important to have what’s called a good foldback speaker system which sends the sound of the band to a number of monitor speakers around the stage so that everyone can hear themselves and everyone else in the band. Well it turned out that not only had they not got a decent stage manager, but the stage sound engineer also couldn’t do his job. When we started the concert, and indeed throughout the set, regardless of what I tried to gesticulate at the engineer, all I heard for the entire time was our bass guitarist.

I had the worst concert of my life, trying to guess where we were in songs and remember who played what and when. After all the emotional build-up, when we came off stage I was so upset; really, really down. I was sure I’d blown it for everyone else, through no fault of my own, and ruined the chance at a recording deal.

But what made it even worse was that the festival manager, who was also a Christian, saw how I was and came over, put his arm around me and told me off for being depressed. He forced me to say a prayer thanking God for the concert which added guilt to how I was feeling. You see many Christians think that it’s wrong to be depressed, and that because we’re Christians we all ought to be happy all the time.

What that means is that not only do we feel depressed, but we feel guilty about feeling depressed. It gets doubly bad. And then we feel depressed about feeling guilty about feeling depressed. The good news, the really good news, is that God doesn’t come up and put his arms around us and say, ‘Cheer up, you can’t be depressed because I love you.’

Let’s look back at what happened to Elijah. He was convinced he was the only person left who was still faithful to God. He was convinced he was going to be killed. God didn’t try and reason with him. What he did was much more special. He tucked Elijah away in a cleft of a rock and then, after a great wind, and a great earthquake, and terrible fire, it went very, very quiet, and God spoke in a whisper that was like the sound of silence.

It wasn’t so much the words that God said that were so important. The main thing was that God was showing Elijah that he was still there with him. In his terrible depression God didn’t tell him to buck his ideas up. God didn’t tell him everything was going to be ok. God simply reassured him quietly that he was not abandoned; that God was right there with him.

For those in the lowest of lows, here is reassurance that we are never abandoned by God. He meets us where we are and doesn’t make us feel guilty about being depressed. But there is also a lesson for everyone else. You see we all have the Holy Spirit within us. God is present inside all of us, and so God ministers to each of us, not just directly but also through each other.

We should each, by our words and our actions to each other, be quietly saying, ‘I am here for you’, while at the same time saying to God, ‘I will give of my time simply to be with those who need me to be there.’ We are all God’s children and he calls us to minister to those in pain, and to be his hands and his feet. And when we are at rock-bottom, may there be someone who is there for us, ministering the love of God.

Depression is not God’s judgement on us; nor is it a sign of failure. It simply happens when events overwhelm us. But here there is reassurance that God remains with us, and he commands us that we should remain with each other. Amen

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Second Sunday after Trinity - Who are your friends and why?


Galatians 2:15-21
Jews and Gentiles Are Saved by Faith
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Luke 7:36-8:3
A Sinful Woman Forgiven
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, denarius was the usual day’s wage for a labourer'); and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Some Women Accompany Jesus
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.


I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I struggled to fit in at secondary school. Most of the kids were into football and few were interested in science. I was quite the reverse. And whereas most of the boys seemed to have little difficulty in playing the popularity game, I was a novice and totally inept when it came to most social skills.

Consequently I was always on the outside, looking in, and was regularly the butt of people’s jokes. It came as a surprise, therefore, when a girl, let’s call her Sarah, invited me to a party. Now I had known about this party for a week or so, and it seemed that lots of people were talking about it, but I hadn’t been invited..

Sarah was one of the ‘popular people’ who knew how to play the game. I had never been remotely on her radar as a person of interest, and, as you might expect, she had invited people who were at the centre of things. It came as a huge surprise when she fairly sheepishly asked me to come along. Now when you’re a spotty fat teenager and someone invites you to a party, you don’t question their motives, you just say ‘Yes, sure, I’d love to come’.

But gradually, over the course of the next couple of days before the party, her motives did begin to filter through. Sarah had a strict code about her party: there was to be an equal number of boys and girls there. She’d been gradually working her way down the social hierarchy and had her complete guest list, but then three days before the party one of the boys had dropped out.

She needed to fill the space, but now she was nearing the bottom of the pile. Pretty much the only alternative left was yours truly; so I got an invite. When the penny dropped I realised that I was being used, being exploited by her for her own ends. So having said yes I just kind of forgot to turn up, leaving her back with an odd number of guests. I did not want to be used by someone.

In our gospel reading we find a similar kind of thing is going on. There are three key players in the text: Jesus, Simon the Pharisee and the woman. We also need to reckon on a considerable number of onlookers. Although there were the specifically invited guests, of whom Jesus was one, there were plainly others who came in and out of the room.

So what do we know about Simon the Pharisee who was throwing the party? Well we don’t know very much, but we do know that the way he had treated Jesus was deplorable. Jesus was shown none of the usual hospitality. He had walked into Simon’s house. Jesus would have been wearing sandals, but with nothing else on his feet; no socks or any other protection.

Not only were his feet exposed to the usual dust and dirt of everyday life, but there were of course animals around who don’t usually clean up after themselves. Jesus, like all of the guests, would have arrived with dirty feet and the usual social nicety would have been to have had a servant wash the guest’s feet as they entered. No one had done this for Jesus, but the implication was that the other guests had been washed.

And he had offered no oil to anoint Jesus’s head, another social nicety that had been missed out, again implying that the other guests had all received this treatment. Jesus had been invited, and yet excluded. What on earth was going on? Well maybe it was this:

Jesus had, by this point in time, gained a degree of fame. There have been several prominent healings; a widow’s son has been raised from the dead and a great deal of public teaching has been given. The result of this was that the people were widely acknowledging that Jesus was a prophet. And so Simon invites him to a party. What’s more this is a public kind of party so anyone can wander in and see Simon with his famous guest.

So there they all are, reclining around a table eating. To the guests, to those on the inside, nothing would have been amiss. But to the outsiders it was clear that, in contrast to all the other invited guests, Jesus had dirty feet and unkempt hair. Simon was using Jesus to enhance his social status, but clearly didn’t care at all for him in reality. Jesus was a plaything to be exploited.

He’d got the new prophet to come and have supper with him, and had invited all sorts of important people to see this take place, and had then left the door open so that anyone could troop in and see. Simon was exploiting Jesus for his own end. Simon was using Jesus as stepping stone to enhance his own importance. Jesus had not been invited to the party because he was Jesus and Simon liked him; he had been invited because Simon wanted to enhance his own reputation.

Yet to the outsiders, those not sat at the table, it was painfully obvious what was going on, as indeed it would have been to Jesus, and it’s a mark of his big heartedness that he still went. In his shoes I would have gone elsewhere. And now the woman comes on to the scene. She is also an outsider. Her attention to Jesus gives Simon the chance to look down on Jesus; to allow Simon to feel that he is better than this so-called prophet.

The woman was referred to as a ‘sinner’. Who knows what that means, but to the puritanical Simon she was an outsider who was not good enough to be in his social circle. But for the woman, perhaps she is worried that Jesus would be embarrassed by the social insult that is taking place. She knows what it is like to be on the outside, and she knows that Jesus deserves better.

And so, as tears well up within her, for him and for herself, so she weeps on to his feet. Her hair is down, something not considered appropriate for a woman in public, but she doesn’t care as she uses it to wipe the feet of Jesus. She also has ointment with her which she uses on his dry, dusty and worn feet, surely bringing him some relief.

She is an outsider too, and she knows it. She knows that she has lived a life that had been full of poor moral decisions, but she cannot bear to see Jesus treated as she has been treated. She loves this other outsider from the very depths of her being, whereas to Simon, Jesus was just another rung he could use to climb the social ladder.

She is therefore the one to whom Jesus turns his attention. She is the one who receives grace and forgiveness. Simon doesn’t think he needs it, so doesn’t ask for it and doesn’t receive it.

And then when we allow the narrative to flow onwards a little we find Jesus continuing on his journey with a note about some of his travelling companions. Amongst them is Mary Magdalene, another outsider who had been cleansed of seven demons, and several other women who Jesus had healed. All the way through this passage you get the feeling that Jesus is more than happy to associate with the people that everyone else casts off.

And so the spotlight turns on to us. Jesus was a friend of outcasts and sinners. I know that’s me. It’s actually quite curious being a priest, because you’re forced into the centre, whereas for me I was always on the periphery. And so were all my friends. We were all outsiders, and I don’t ever want to forget that. The moment I forget I run the risk of starting to climb the social ladder.

Who are your friends? Do you value them for who they are or because it is good to be seen with them? Do you have any friends who are embarrassing? If not, why not? Is it because having them as friends would be a social stigma?

It seems to me that we should treat everyone as if Jesus had personally invited them to our party and had come along with them. We should never befriend someone for any other reason. People are not to be used for the simple reason that everyone has intrinsic value to Jesus and he doesn’t use people; he loves them.

So let me finish with two questions, and I’d like you to close your eyes and think about this.
Who are your friends?
Why are they your friends?

Let’s keep a moment of silence to think about who we associate with, and who we distance ourselves from and why...

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Special extra service - Care for the world

This Sunday our church is doing a choral service called Care for the World. It doesn't actually have space for a sermon in it, but you know me, any opportunity... So here's what I'll be preaching...

Romans 8:18-27
Future Glory

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

A sermon about caring for the world ultimately has to be one about trust; trusting in God, and waiting. It has to be a sermon about tears and smiles; about joy and fear; about gratitude for what has been and concern for what is inevitable. You see whichever way you look at it, and whatever perspective you place on it, and however much joy and delight we have dancing in our hearts on a warm summer’s day, this creation has a sell-by date, and however good it seems, it’s not designed to last forever.

If we look into the far future, perhaps a billion years from now our sun will have warmed enough to make earth uninhabitable. It will be several more billion years before the sun swells and perhaps swallows, or at the very least roasts our planet. But that is only the beginning. We now believe that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

Galaxies are racing away from each other ever more quickly. And whilst we know that nothing can travel faster than light it is also quite possible that the rate of expansion, that the growth in the space between galaxies will outstrip lightspeed. Distant galaxies will no longer be visible as they race away from us faster than their light can rush towards us. Our horizon will get smaller.

Stars will gradually convert all the available hydrogen into heavier elements until there is nothing left to burn. Slowly the universe will cool and turn black. Ultimately even the forces holding atoms together will decay as everything breaks down into its constituent parts. All will be dark. All will be quiet. All will be lifeless. Chaos will reign once again. If I were a secularist, this is when I would be really depressed, for truly this universe has no final future. Everything will be lost.

And we can feel it even now in our bones. Over in the school there is youth and vitality. There is energy as children are on the upward curve; soaking in, or perhaps borrowing is more accurate, the nourishment that the universe provides as they head towards maturity. For them the future is all. For us, we already know the state of decay. We already know that we don’t bounce out of bed now, but have to slowly stretch out the aches. Our bodies prophecy the future of the universe.

This is called entropy - the measurement of disorder, and there is nothing we can do about it. God has built this universe for a limited lifespan, for a specific task, and like a fine old car, one day it will wear out. But St. Paul has seen far, far beyond this. You can sense that he understands everything that I’ve just said even though he had none of the science. He can tell that the universe is somehow, just not working out. It’s groaning. So where does he look for answers?

Surprisingly his first glance appears to be at us, not because we hold the answer but because we bear the first-fruits. The universe’s groans are of labour pains as it gives birth to something new. Jesus, the Son of God, was also born as a human. He lived as a human, and he died as a human. Proper real death. Death like we will all experience. Except he didn’t stay that way. As we celebrated back at Easter, Jesus was raised, and he was raised as we will be raised, with a body that is so much more than our bodies are.

Jesus, that union of divine and human, fully God and fully a man, received a resurrection body; a body fit for heaven and for the new creation. Elsewhere St. Paul refers to him as the first fruit, and his promise to us is that we will also be raised with new bodies; bodies which will never again go wrong. I love that hope from the Old Testament about rising on wings like eagles, and running and never growing weary.

That is our future. That is what is to come. That is the resurrection hope. This universe, this little corner of it that we call planet earth, even with all of its beauty; even with the glorious sunshine flooding our little corner of the planet, this is just a shadow of what is to come. And we, with all of our aches and pains, with all of our illnesses and terminal old age, are one day going to be made new.

And our creation will be made new as well; that’s what we’ll hear about in the final reading. (Rev 21:1-5) This is what St. Paul is talking about; about the hope for that which is as yet unseen. We can’t see this new creation yet; but it’s coming, and Jesus in his resurrection body is the first fruit of it.

If you have never read it before, I highly recommend a little book by C.S. Lewis called The Great Divorce. In it, through the medium of story, Lewis makes clear his belief that when we get to heaven, to the new creation, what we’ll find is that actually it’s more solid, more real than this creation. He talks of visitors to heaven having to tread carefully on the grass because it’s so real that it hurts their feet until they become a little more solid.

This is the hope of what is to come. Because whichever way we look at it, this world is groaning
and longing to be set free from its decay. Our real hope is in the future, beyond the veil.


Except that’s not enough really is it. This service is all about caring for the world, and however much hope I can inspire for the future, we are also children of Adam and Eve, entrusted with a world. And what a mess we have made of it, and the children in Splash! and Splish Splosh! should be our inspiration for responsibility. What kind of world have we bequeathed them? You see whilst we may hope for the new creation, we are responsible for this tiny corner of the old one until such time as God chooses to wrap it up.

There was a time when scientists were talking about the future ‘Tipping Point’, and that if we could rein in our carbon footprints we could still stop global warming from going to far. But now a growing body of environmentalists are saying we’ve passed the tipping point, perhaps some time ago. We’ve fluffed it, and the world we were given care of is going to suffer dreadfully.

What that really means is that our children, and their children, are going to struggle. More and more scientists are saying that we now need to be concentrating on equipping the next generation to live in a hostile world. The power hungry nations of the west and the rapidly developing nations of the east have pushed us over the edge and the world is going to warm dramatically. There may no longer be any way of turning the tide.

That does not for one minute mean we should give up caring. Nor does it mean that we can’t slow things down. Our children depend on us caring for their future, and God has entrusted us with this world. We need to show them how to live and set an example. For my part I do not believe that capitalism and continuous growth is sustainable. There are too many of us and not enough resources.

It’s common sense really. Economies cannot grow without resources, but the resources are drying up. So there are practical things we can do to help. The simple answer is stop consuming as much. We need to set a good example. For example I’m happily using a car which remains reliable, mostly, despite being fifteen years old. In fact I hope to get a few more years out of it yet.

Every purchase must be weighed. Do we really need this? If so do we need a new ‘this’ or would a second hand one do? That way around we keep something off the rubbish dump for a little longer.

We need to stop putting things on standby mode and switch them off. Wear something out before replacing it. Recycle, recycle, recycle, and for goodness sake show our children and grandchildren that there are alternatives to continuous consumption. These are all basics but they all help slow the process.

And not wanting to be too apocalyptic about it, but we need to start thinking about how to cope with an over-crowded, over-heating world. That now seems to be inevitable. We have sown the wind for generations, and now we must be prepared to reap the whirlwind. Whilst we give thanks for the world of the present, we must prepare for the world of the future.

Whilst we care for what we have, we should repent for what we have squandered. And somehow we have to teach our children not to repeat our mistakes. If we are going to care for what’s left, we simply have to stop consuming, or our civilisation, our species, has no future. And the universe that was created to receive the love of the Trinity will become a little more quiet. Amen

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

1st Sunday after Trinity - Open your eyes and see.

Galatians 1:11-end
Paul’s Vindication of His Apostleship

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.

Luke 7:11-17
Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.


When we think about Jesus raising someone from the dead, the instance that often comes to mind is that of the raising of Lazarus, and we perhaps forget that Lazarus was not the only person to receive this grace from God. However, the raising of the widow’s son makes a very different point from the raising of Lazarus. That was a pivotal point in the ministry of Jesus, and was instrumental in his arrest.

In that story the Gospel author, John, makes it clear that Jesus waited after first hearing the news of Lazarus’s illness. He did not set off to heal him, but instead waited until he was dead. Jesus, on that occasion, was operating from his head; deliberating over the best course of action for the needs of the kingdom of God. But in the Gospel story before us today we see Jesus operating from his heart, a gut reaction if you like, giving us a deep insight into the character of God.

It’s also very noteworthy that what takes place is not dependent on anyone’s faith. We sometimes imagine that people who do not get better after we pray for them remain ill because we did not have enough faith. But there is none of that in this story. This is all about Jesus acting unilaterally. What we see is the compassion of God.

The story opens with Jesus approaching a town called Nain which is south east of Nazareth, so we are up in the region of Galilee. He has his disciples with him and a large crowd is following him. We don’t know how many people that might mean but there is clearly a considerable entourage. As Jesus approaches the gates of the town he comes across a funeral party going in the opposite direction.

Naturally they would be leaving the town because burials always took place outside the places of residence, for health reasons. What is particularly emotive, though, is that the man who had died was the only son of a woman who had already lost her husband. In a time before social security that meant that the woman had no means of support. In losing her only son she had now lost everything and was in a very precarious position in terms of her future well-being.

This is key because we might think that this story is about the compassion of Jesus for the dead man, but it’s actually all about Jesus seeing the needs of the widow. Jesus has seen someone for whom life is about to become perhaps impossibly difficult. Not only has she lost her husband but she has also lost her son, and without either of them, how will she eat, or buy clothes?

Jesus sees the situation for what it is and acts to protect her from this. By touching the bier he makes himself ritually unclean, but that is an action which stops the procession, allowing him the space to perform the miracle before giving the young man back to his mother.

The result of this action is twofold. The woman is saved from destitution and restored, with her son, to her community. In response the crowd are rightly afraid, but do not run in fear. Instead they give glory to God and proclaim that a great prophet has arisen amongst them. This latter comment is not surprising since the miracle Jesus has performed bears a strong comparison with the actions of Israel’s great prophet, Elijah.

If we were to read 1 Kings 17 we would find there the story of Elijah raising the son of a widow at Zarephath. The parallels between the two stories are very strong, and the people at Nain would have been well aware of he actions of Elijah. This is why they refer to Jesus as a great prophet for he was doing similar works to Elijah.

For us, though, I think that there is something else that should attract our attention. Jesus could very well have walked on past this funeral procession. It cannot have been the only one that he saw. In the absence of even antibiotics you can imagine that death was far more a part of the weave of life for them than it is in our modern society.

I cannot imagine that Jesus raised up every dead man and woman that he walked past, so what was different about this one? Well clearly he was moved with compassion because of what he saw, and that, I believe, is the key point. Jesus was looking. He ‘saw’. His eyes were open to the environment around him and so he perceived the need of the widow, and in perceiving what she most needed he was moved, and acted to help her.

And that, I think, is the key thing for us. This is the question which is raised. How aware of the needs of those surrounding us are we? In a world dominated by images from the TV, do we suffer from compassion fatigue? Are we still able to see the needs of those around us, or those on distant shores? Or are we too tied up with our own concerns.

We cannot help everyone. But how much effort are putting in to helping those whom we can help? How aware are we of the needs in our own community, let alone the more distant ones?

Ultimately it comes down to our attitude to life. In this community there are a great many of us with far better finances than the average UK citizen. But even the average UK citizen lives a life of plenty compared to the developing world which makes up perhaps two thirds of the world population. What is our attitude to others like? Do we ‘see’ them? Do we perceive their needs?

This, ultimately, is the message for us today. Be like Jesus. Open your eyes and look, really look, at the needs around you. And then do something, however great or small, that in some way improves life for someone in need. In this way, not only do we become like Jesus, but we also minister his love and his grace. You and I become the compassion of God. Surely there can be no higher calling, and it all begins be looking and seeing.