Friday, 28 November 2008

Advent Sunday & St Andrew's Day

Since this Sunday is our patronal festival at St Mary & St Andrew our readings will be

Isaiah 52: 7-10
Romans 10: 12-18
Matthew 4: 18 -22

But I think these also fit the Advent theme pretty well.
The world does not need the church to tell it that it's nearly Christmas - every advert is shouting it at us, and tomorrow we get to start opening our Advent calendars.
But what the world does need us to tell them is...
If we say 'the Lord is coming' we will see some people immediately write us off as the sort of people who want to walk round with a sandwich board which says 'the end of the world is nigh'. And yet our message is vital - and the world needs it now more than ever.
Of course our message is more than what we say - it is how we live and how we treat people.
If our following Jesus has taught us something about who he is and what his coming means, we need to share this with our neighbours.. somehow.

Just opening thoughts - more to follow soon I hope!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Sunday 23rd November

For those who know me & have asked - I'm fine, thanks: down to 3 month check-ups at the dermatologist now & all nasty moles removed with no sign of more cancer.

Meanwhile, back at the coal-face:
This week's sermon so far (will need finishing off later/ tomorrow morning:

Christ the King
Today is the very last day of the current lectionary year – next week a new year begins for the church, with Advent Sunday. That means today we mark ‘Christ the King’.

You might wonder what it’s all about. What does it mean to acknowledge Jesus Christ as King – and why are we doing it now, just as Advent is about to start, rather than after Easter, perhaps even at Ascension, when the hard part is all done for Jesus and he is about to take up his triumphal place in heaven.
And anyway, you might well be wondering, does the lectionary and its themes really make any impact on our real lives?

What’s it all about? This week’s gospel reading is another well-known one, but another quite tricky one to understand.
Jesus tells the story of the end of time, and the separating of people, like sheep and goats.
At one level, it seems Jesus is warning his listeners about what will happen “When the Son of Man comes in his glory.. all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another”. This is the moment of truth: the final judgement – the time when people will be made to see whether they have served Jesus Christ.. or whether they are to face eternal fire, for neglecting the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Jesus could be warning his listeners ‘be nice to strangers.. because in serving them you are serving me’.

This is a perfectly straight-forward message, and plenty of Medieval churches used to have ‘Doom’ paintings in them, with pictures of people on Jesus’ right being whisked up to heaven – and the unfortunates on the left being forced into the terrible suffering and flame of the underworld. If most medieval worshippers had been able to read it might have said ‘Be good.. or else!’.

To be honest, I feel really uncomfortable about such a theme of 'judgement' – perhaps because I fear ending up in the wrong group – of turning out to be a goat when I’d hoped to be a sheep, but also because I don’t believe this is consistent with the gospel Jesus taught through his whole life. Jesus taught grace, the undeserved love of God, the free gift of forgiveness and acceptance which delights in the return of the prodigal and the repentance of the sinner. Jesus doesn’t anywhere tell people to love others in order to gain heaven – he says simply ‘follow me’ and ‘believe in me’. In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, when his disciples criticize a woman for spending money on costly ointment instead of on the poor, Jesus says ‘she has performed a good service for me’. The gospel cannot be reduced to ‘serve the poor and earn a place in heaven’.

So perhaps there’s another way of reading this story which is more consistent with the whole of the gospel.
This story of the sheep and goats comes towards the end of a chunk of the gospel where Jesus has been teaching in parables. If the kingdom is like this.. then what do you think? I want to focus for a moment not on God’s judgement of us but on our judgement of the situation.

Perhaps it is best to treat this story as another parable, which tells us about God’s kingdom. It seems to me that the last few weeks have all been building up to this - wise or foolish virgins; thankful, hard-working slaves or head-in-the-sand people; sheep or goats. It's not so much about God's judgement of us (and certainly not about condemnation) but about our choices, our discernment. ‘Where do you stand?’ says Jesus ‘what do you think? Are you going to be wise and thankful and care for others… or are you going to be foolish and begrudging, and too concerned to be ‘religious’ to live your life for anyone else?’
Are you in this kingdom, subjects of the King, or not?
If, in the end we discern that Christ is King, this has HUGE implications for our lives - this means following Christ is not just a leisure option but the basis for our whole lives.

If you’re wondering what difference the lectionary makes to us – today it is forcing us to look at the biggest question for life of all.
What are we here for? What is the point of our lives?
If you judge that we are meant to be living as children of God, servants of Christ the King, and followers of his way, then your life is meant to be lived in the knowledge that we can joyfully spend our lives in love of God and of others, and even risk losing our lives, knowing that in the mercy and grace of God we will be made whole and be accepted and loved and received into the bliss of heaven.

And if Christ is King then this has implication for our celebration of Advent (starting next week!).

We are preparing for the coming of the King – but wrapped in the flesh of a helpless baby. We are preparing to receive not just a messenger from God but the message made flesh.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Christ the King

So - we nearly made it to the end of the lectionary year!
Readings this coming week are:
Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
Ephesians 1: 15-23
Matthew 25: 31-46

I feel really uncomfortable about the theme of 'judgement' - but it's inescapable.
But I think I want to focus on our judgement.
It seems to me that the last few weeks have all been building up to this - wise or foolish virgins; thankful, hard-working slaves or head-in-the-sand people; sheep or goats. It's not so much about God's judgement of us (and certainly not about condemnation) but about our choices, our discernment.
If, in the end we discern that Christ is King, this has HUGE implications for our lives - this means following Christ is not just a leisure option but the basis for our whole lives.
And if Christ is King then Advent (starting next week!) is also a BIG THING - not just a messenger from God but the message made flesh.
More to follow when I've calmed down a bit!

Friday, 14 November 2008

Parable of the Talents

This Sunday's gospel reading is Matthew 25: 14-30 - the parable of the talents.

I'm not preaching - so I thought I'd post up a sermon I KNOW I wrote on this only a couple of years ago. But I can't find it - which is odd. I know that then I took a fairly hard line on 'this is about money - stop trying to squirm out of it'.

But maybe that isn't the message for the four churches where I'm currently serving. I think here there are more issues about the other resources we have - especially of buildings. Who are our buildings for? And what does Jesus want us to do with them??

One of the great challenges of serving four churches is four potential set of headaches about maintenance - but I don't see anything in the gospel here which supports us using our buildings as clubhouses - isn't that the equivalent of burying the talent? - so we need to be more imaginative, more engaged, more prepared to have things get a bit messy in order to serve our neighbours, and through them to serve God.
Use those resources! Jesus says.


Saturday, 8 November 2008

Notes for Sunday

These may be even more 'note-like' than usual - since I'm not sure what kind of congregation we'll get on Sunday (whether we'll have any children present, whether there might be a bigger turnout than usual, etc, etc) so I'll have to play things a bit by ear.

Remembrance Amos 5: 18-24 Matthew 25: 1-13

What is the purpose of Remembrance Sunday ?
Surely this question is what they call a no-brainer – Remembrance – it’s for remembering – duh!
As a child I used to watch my grandad (who fought at the Somme) watching the festival of remembrance, with tears rolling down his cheeks as he watched the poppies fall in memory of his dead friends. We must not forget those who die at war.
But it’s not enough to remember, it’s not enough - even though it can be very costly if our memories are painful.

Of course it’s vital that we do not take for granted the lives laid down in war - but our Bible readings remind us that there is more to life than simply remembering – or even remembering and being grateful.

The prophet Amos delivers a very scathing message from God.
God does not want empty gestures or mere thoughts – ‘I hate, I despise your festivals’. God requires people to live what they proclaim – ‘let justice roll down like waters’.
Amos is warning people who feel they are OK because they are the people of God that it’s time to act. They talk of ‘the day of the lord’ – a time when God will come and sort everything out for good. On the day of the Lord, the wicked better watch out, because God will punish them. But Amos warns that God’s own people are not blameless, and that it’s not enough to rest back on your identity as God’s own. If the people of God are to truly be the people of God they must act like it, and not just talk like it.

Similarly our remembrance of war must show itself in action – in a commitment to peace.
It is not enough to remember, even to cry, if we are not changed and our resolve to work for peace is not strengthened by our remembrance. Our remembrance should lead to our commitment to peace - not in spite of those who go to war, but in honour of them. We remember, we give thanks and we commit ourselves to peace in the future. Our remembrance should lead to action.

In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Jesus is also concerned about action. At many levels this is a strange parable. It comes in a little collection which are all about the final coming of God’s kingdom – what will happen on the ‘day of the Lord’, when time as we know it will end, and what followers of Jesus should do to be faithful.
The bit at the end of the parable ‘Keep awake therefore..’ doesn’t really fit the story – because all 10 of the bridesmaids fall asleep.
It’s not the lack of sleepiness that makes half of the10 wise – they are wise because they have done something to be ready for the coming of God’s party – they have gone out and bought spare oil.
They are wise because they wanted to see God’s kingdom come and they were willing to do something to get ready for it.

They didn’t just sit back and doze and wait for the arrival of the bridegroom and hope it would all be alright then – they were wise because they were active and prepared and they thought about what the coming of the bridegroom might mean.

So what does this mean for us?
There are some people who say there will always be war, it’s human nature and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it in Whittlesford.
But we know it is God’s will that there should be peace and justice for all people – and the Bible tells us that at some point in history (and we don’t know when) God will step in and stop war forever and bring all conflict and suffering to an end. Our task is to be active in trying to help make this world more like God’s place. We can’t perform an act of remembrance and then shrug our shoulders at the state of the world. We are to be active workers for peace – in small ways or large ways: praying for peace with justice for all people; treating anyone we meet with love and fairness; never taking human lives for granted; being part of the people of God who long for peace.

Our communion meal, too, is all about remembrance – remembering Jesus’ life which was given to bring peace to all the world.
When we eat and drink we give thanks for Jesus’ life, and we share in the bread & wine to show that we are ready to be active workers for peace in the world, as followers of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.
To God’s praise and glory

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Remembrance Sunday thoughts

With All Saints & All Souls last weekend, our Tuesday memorial service next week and Remembrance Sunday this week it seems the whole theme of memorial is hanging in the air. Sunday will see us standing at the war memorial for the 2 minutes' silence at 11 o' clock (& this year, for the first time, I'll be at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in the afternoon).. But I want the service (at 9.45) to be one of commitment to peace - not in spite of those who go to war, but in honour of them.

Our readings are Amos 5: 18-24
Thessalonians 4: 13-18
Matthew 25: 1-13

Thessalonians is concerned about the dead & their 'fate' in God.
Amos & Matthew are both concerned with 'values'.
Amos contains the 'I despise your sacrifices... I require mercy & justice' bit.
Matthew is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
We may have some cubs at the service so I guess they might hook into the 'be prepared' element of the story of the virgins - but surely Jesus meant to say something a bit more than this?
And how do wisdom and justice and discernment bring peace?


Saturday, 1 November 2008

All Saints' celebration

I've spent the week thinking about the sermon - on & off - but not got round to posting - for which (if anyone ever reads this) - apologies.

As you'll see from the notes below I have a baptism at one church - but this is the sermon for the other church (if you see what I mean). It may seem very simple - but I wanted it to be. Maybe my brain has been in a half-term sort of mood - or just frozen solid by the cold weather! Anyway - her it is:

Fully Alive! 1 John 3: 1-3 Matthew 5: 1-10

Yesterday was All Saints day. Some people’s impression of saints is of people who gave up all fun in their lives to follow Jesus. But one of my favourite saints is St Teresa of Avila – who was once travelling with a younger nun who was shocked to see Teresa tucking into a dish of partridge with great relish. ‘Haven’t we devoted ourselves to a life of prayer?’ asked the younger woman, to which Teresa wiped her mouth & said ‘at prayer time, prayer – at partridge time, partridge!’.

Or to put it rather more reverentially, in the words of Irenaeus,
‘The glory of God is a human person fully alive’.
This is what it means to be a saint – to be fully alive: alive to God, alive to others and alive to the best self that we can be.
And alive to the communion of saints – aware of our place in that wonderful, quirky, fully alive bunch of people who are the saints of God.
And I don’t just mean the sort of people who end up in stained glass windows and having little booklets written about them – I mean all the saints of God – every single person who tries to follow Jesus, each member of that huge family stretching around the world and down through the centuries.

We can all be saints.

The passage we heard from John’s first letter explains that this has nothing to do with our efforts to be good. It begins with God’s love for us – which makes us the children of God – loved, special, able to live in relationship with God.
This is why this morning at Pampisford we were baptising a baby – Matilda – baptising a young child who cannot even speak for herself yet reinforces the message that God’s love is a gift for us the moment we are born – we don’t have to earn it.
John’s letter also makes it clear that God’s love grows in us through our lives and enables us to become more and more like the fully-alive saints God has made us to be.
This sign of God’s love in the water of baptism is only the beginning for Matilda – God’s love will be there for her all her life, and if she chooses to respond to that love she will be able to grow more and more like Jesus Christ, more and more ‘saintly’, if you like.

And what’s true for Matilda and everyone in Pampisford is true for all of us in Duxford, too. God’s love is there, offering us life in all its fullness, offering forgiveness and peace and a growth towards saintliness.

This doesn’t mean that life in the love of God is easy – you have only to think of some of the more gruesome ways in which saints have died to know that God isn’t offering us an insurance policy.

Saints have it hard – whether it’s Peter & Andrew, crucified like their Lord, or Catherine of Alexandria on her wheel, or just ordinary struggling saints like you or me. Being a saint doesn’t make you immune to life’s difficulties.
But Jesus, in that part of Matthew’s gospel which we call ‘the sermon on the mount’ makes it clear that whatever life throws as the saints who follow him and live in God’s love, in the end, in the words of another Saint – Julian of Norwich – ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.
Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful..” for he knows that despite – sometimes even because of their difficulties all these saints of God will know God’s love more and more, and share in God’s presence at the end of their lives.

You might wonder what proof we have of God’s love for us – why should we believe that we are as precious to God as a new born baby to its parents?
The answer comes in this celebration of communion in which we can all share – as bread is broken and wine is poured out we remember that in Jesus Christ, God came to our earth to live and die and to be raised from death to show that there are no limits to God’s love for us.

All are welcome to eat and drink and to receive this sign of God’s love through which we are fed with food for our pilgrimage and strengthened to follow Jesus Christ.

So welcome to this communion - a celebration for saints – not because we are perfect, but because we are all God’s children, and God loves us always.

Thanks be to God. Amen.