Monday, 28 June 2010

Not preaching, but listening!

This weekend I will be at the United Reformed Church General Assembly and therefore not preaching.
The lectionary readings are:
2 Kings 5:1-14
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

and I think I see a thread running through of simplicity. True simplicity is life-enhancing, liberating, God-given.
I think we have a tendency in non-conformist circles to "push" simplicity (of worship, of churches, of lifestyle) in a way which can seem life-denying: as if beauty of form or worship-space or language was somehow wrong and sinful. As if we should deny ourselves 'nice' things to be near the kingdom.
Our readings show how we can get it wrong about 'things', but I think we have to work out for ourselves how to get it right.

Naaman wants to be made well with grand gesture & ceremony: but he learns that God can work in the unimpressive little trickle that is the Jordan. (Just as God can speak in the unimpressive little slave-girl who tells Naaman where to go).

Paul is keen that the Galatians don't attend only to the flesh and forget the spirit.

Jesus warns the ones he sends out not to be held back by trying to carry too much stuff.

Yet we are people of flesh as well as spirit. And God's presence is mediated to us in the 'stuff' of life, of other people, ultimately of Jesus. How we relate to the material without becoming materialist is a fascinating subject - and I hope those who will be preaching will come up with some fascinating answers!
Until next week...

Sunday, 27 June 2010


Ref last week (20th June) - a timely story about storm-chasers
bbc item

Slightly mad, possibly!


Lots of comments about the sermon today - and I did feel I had something to say. It's interesting that I spent quite a lot of time wrestling with why Jesus seemed to mean to his would-be disciples.
I often think sermon-writing & delivery is a bit like bread-making: vigourous kneading and a good 'knock back' leads to a better loaf!
I hope my listeners were fed with the bread of life.
God is good.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Notes for June 27th

A little earlier than usual - tomorrow I'm off to an ordination & with travel as well it will take most of the day: but worth it to see my parents & the ordination of a friend.

Trinity 4 (1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21, Luke 9:51-62)

So Elisha becomes the disciple of Elijah. Elisha is chosen by God: when the ‘still small voice’ of God speaks to Elijah on the mountain it tells Elijah to anoint Elisha as the next prophet for the people of God.
As we are told the story there is no great discussion between Elijah & Elisha – Elijah walks past Elisha & throws his mantle, his cloak, over him. And that’s it… “tag, you’re it!”.

Elisha’s response is not to question Elijah or try to wriggle out of his new position, but to ask if he can say farewell to his parents.. which he does.. and then to final sever all links with his past life as a farmer.
Elisha doesn’t just leave behind his oxen and his plough – he slaughters the oxen and uses the wood of the equipment to light a fire to cook the meat.

I wonder what his parents thought? Not only is he saying he won't return, he's assuming the land will now just fall into misuse - or maybe be sold off - no-one else will need his plough either! Elisha demonstrates the all or nothing nature of following God's call and God’s way. Through Elijah God calls and Elisha’s ‘yes’ is spoken with his whole heart and his whole life. It seems like scary stuff, this following God's way - no dipping your toe in the water, or wondering how life would be if you made different choices, no trial period, no glancing back…just “Yes”.

And if you wanted to hear Jesus, in the gospel, watering this requirement down a little, hard luck!
Luke tells us the story of three people who are possible followers of Jesus.

The first is impetuous ‘I will follow you wherever you go!’… and Jesus dampens his enthusiasm by stating that the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. Being a disciple of Jesus will never be a cozy option – the road is hard.

The second is called by Jesus and makes an excuse “first let me go and bury my father”. But Jesus says ‘let the dead bury their own dead’: which might sound a harsh response to someone who is grieving – but of course it could be that the father is hale & hearty ad what the excuse really means is ‘I will become a disciple after the death of my father – which could be many years from now’.

The third…well, the third, in all good stories, is meant to get it right.

Think, for a moment, of the three bears & their porridge - too hot, too cold, just right.

The first would-be disciple is too hot, too impetuous, he is rashly promising to follow without knowing where Jesus is headed.
The second would-be disciple is too cold. Well, yes I’ll follow, but not just yet, when my life has entered a different phase, when my father’s off my hands & I’m a free agent.
The third would-be disciple, in classic story-telling mode, should be ‘just right’. he certainly tries to get it right – because he sounds just like Elisha, ‘First let me say farewell to those at home’.
But Jesus knocks him and those of us who are waiting for the ‘just right’ bit of the story for six.
Jesus says “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.".

What’s happening, here?
It might help to just stand back a little and think about the context in which Jesus is speaking.
Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem – he is on the long journey which we know ends in seeming despair & death (although in truth, of course it doesn’t end in death at all) – but Jesus is going to be rejected by his own people. Already, at the start of the reading we heard, Jesus has been rejected by a Samaritan village. Following Jesus is about to get really hard from here on, in the whole gospel story. So when things get really tough, what will it mean to follow Jesus? Jesus wants any would-be follower to know that being a disciple needs to be the number one priority – however seemingly attractive the alternatives are. It can’t be wrong to want to say good bye to your family – but sometimes even a good thing should come second.

George Caird (a principal of Mansfield College – before I was trained there) writes: 'The most difficult choices in life are not primarily between good and evil, but the most difficult choices in life are between what is good and what is best.'. Following Jesus should be seen as the best and highest calling, and an irreversible decision – no looking back, no wondering what might have happened if…, no second thoughts.

Jesus is speaking at a time of great turmoil and rejection for him and his followers. No-one can pretend that the 21st century is easy, either. It’s hard Sunday shopping and Sunday days out; many for the church to compete with Sunday sport and people no longer see the relevance of Christ for their lives; one or two very vocal and very persuasive atheists are trying to make Christian belief sound like the refuge of the feeble minded.
Following Jesus is not easy – but it is the right thing to do, the finest choice we can make, and it demands our total energy and devotion.
And if that all sounds a bit gloomy, we need to remember that Jesus’ journey ends not with a cross, but with a crown, as God’s power is triumphant.
So be it. Amen.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Readings June 27th

1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21
Galatians 5:1,13-25
Luke 9:51-62

On first looking, the link between these 3 readings seems to be yokes & ploughing (or plowing, as our US friends would have it): but of course in each reading this is used as a metaphor for discipleship. This links quite well with what I was saying last week - but one of the small frustrations of being in 4 churches is that I am at the 'other' 2 churches this week, and they won't have heard the sermon for June 20th. Still. it keeps the preacher humble!

I am struck by the all or nothing nature of following God's way - Elisha demonstrates this perfectly by slaughtering the oxen with which he had been ploughing. I wonder what his parents thought? Not only is he saying he won't return, he's assuming the land will now just fall into misuse - or maybe be sold off - no-one else will need his plough either!
It's scary stuff, this following God's way - no dipping your toe in the water, or wondering how life would be if you made different choices.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Exciting new look!

Welcome to the new look blog. I hope it's reasonably easy to read.
Please note the advert for 'beauty products' came with the hit counter (the cute line of penguins) - I am NOT suggesting that my loyal readership might be in need of these...
Always glad to have comments - but welcome, even if you're a 'lurker'!

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Notes for tomorrow

(Not as early as I had hoped, but...)

Trinity 3 (1 Kings 19:1-15a: Luke 8:26-39)

Is there anybody there? What does it look like when God is at work? How do we know God is with us – how can we be sure we are not just whistling in the dark when we declare our belief in God?

These are natural, recurring human questions and Elijah must have had some of these questions in mind as he fled from the anger of Jezebel, having triumphed over the prophets of Baal. Elijah has had a pretty torrid time – facing up to King Ahab, predicting and then living through the drought, challenging and ultimately slaughtering the prophets of Baal. But now Jezebel has sent Elijah a message not just threatening, but promising, to have him killed: and Elijah flees for his life. Elijah decides that it would be best just to lay down and die, and give up on God’s call to prophecy.

But God hasn’t finished with Elijah yet – he still has work to do, and so sustained by food and drink from angels he goes to the mountain to meet with God.
In a passage which is impossible to forget, Elijah encounters amazing, terrifying and wonderful signs of great power: wind, earthquake and fire. But it is only in the silence – the sheer silence – which follows these, that Elijah hears God speak to him.

On Friday night I happened to be in Cambridge as one of the College Balls was on and I saw an incredible display of fireworks – the noise, the flashes, the colours, the smell of the gunpowder in the air.. it was really breathtaking, and then… it finished. I felt myself willing there to be more – just one more volley of cracks and fizzes – but all was still and I felt quite let down: no more Oohs and Aahs that night.

Elijah is much wiser than me – instead of yearning for more of the grand display of wind, earthquake and fire, he recognises that although God’s power may be displayed in these, if he is to hear what God wants of him he needs to listen in the stillness that follows. So Elijah presents himself, attentive and calm, outside the cave, and listens for God’s quiet call again. And then Elijah is told to go and anoint a new king, find a new disciple and encourage the faithful people of God who are left (despite Elijah’s desperate sense of being alone).

The pyrotechnics are not the whole story – only an occasional reminder that God is there – for there is also the time of stillness and focus and direction from God.

Our gospel passage tells another amazing and dramatic story. Jesus has crossed the sea of Galilee and is met by a wild-eyed, naked man – the others of his city have tried to tame him and even chain him up, but he has broken loose and now lives among the tombs, far away from ordinary life. Jesus heals this man by sending the spirits which have tormented him into a nearby herd of pigs, which immediately rush into the lake and are drowned. No wonder the people of the city come out to see what has happened: and they find the man clothed and in his right mind.
Just before this incident, as they crossed over the lake to get to this region, Jesus has calmed the storm. Now, it seems, Jesus has shown that he can calm the internal storms of the human mind. But the reaction of those who see Jesus’ power is much the same – fear of what they are dealing with, and Jesus is asked to go back to Galilee.

But the man who has been healed wants to go with Jesus – maybe he feels that having seen and felt and experienced Jesus’ amazing power to heal and to calm, he wants to see some more evidence of God in action in Jesus.
Every now and again on the TV there will be an article or documentary about storm-chasers – the extraordinary people who instead of heeding the warning and staying indoors when there is a tornado, jump in the cars and attempt to get amazing pictures, or take scientific measurements, or just experience the awe and power of a natural phenomenon.

“But Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’.”

Jesus send the healed man away. It is as if Jesus is warning the man not to be the spiritual equivalent of a storm-chaser – not to get hooked on the ‘wow’ moment of God’s activity, but to try to be a disciple of Jesus in the ordinary things of life. Changed forever by the healing of Jesus, he is called to use that experience to give power and confidence to his everyday existence.

So where does all this leave our search for a sense of God in our lives?
Maybe these Bible stories teach us that we should not be looking for the big moments – or at least that we should not be looking for them too often.
Sometimes the Christian life is spoken of as if we should be continually feeling that we are at the top of the mountain top – talking with God, walking with Jesus, filled with the Spirit.

But Elijah teaches us not just to talk.. but to listen.
Jesus tells the man he healed that he can walk with Jesus back in his own country, telling his story.
And the Spirit is not our way of tapping into God’s power, but a way of opening ourselves to God’s will.
We may be strengthened by remembering times of great power and great certainty – but we shouldn’t chase after those moments. For faithfully, quietly, in bread and in wine, God is with us, calling us to disipleship in the ordinary.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

June 20th

I'm tempted to change the layout of this blog - it must be the electronic equivalent of tidying your sock drawer as a displacement activity..
Anyway - this week's readings:

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

I think I see 'call' as the overarching theme - the call to steady service rather than whizz bang pyrotechnics. I'm always struck my Elijah's "I only I am left" - when in fact God talks about 7000 others! We've all felt that sense of loneliness sometimes - but maybe it's not always justified...

I will try to post more, earlier, this week!

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Reading (as dialogue) & prayers

Luke 7: 36-38, 48-50

Narrator: 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. Then Jesus said to her,

Jesus: Your sins are forgiven.

Narrator: 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, ‘

Jesus: Your faith has saved you; go in peace.

Prayers of intercession
Narrator: Let us pray. We pray for those with not enough to eat. We think especially of the people of Gaza and of Libya.

Jesus: Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life’.

We pray for those who feel alone or outcast. We think especially of those who have moved to a new area & those who have no home.

Jesus says ‘I am with you always’.

We pray for those who serve others. We think especially of the rescue and police services, and the armed forces.

Jesus says ’Love one another as I have loved you’.

We pray for those who long for forgiveness. We think especially of those in prison and those who have been victims of crime. We continue to pray for the people of Cumbria.

Jesus says ‘Your faith has saved you: go in peace’.

We pray for those who seek peace. We think especially of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel & Palestine.

Jesus says ‘My peace I leave with you’.

We pray for those we know who are ill. We think especially of (any who are in the prayer box or on the list)

Jesus says ‘Your faith has made you well’.

We offer all these prayers in the name of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit. Amen.

Short & (I hope) to the point...

Trinity 2

Jesus is sitting at the dinner table – well, reclining in a Roman fashion, probably, when a strange woman comes in and pours expensive ointment on his feet and wipes them with her hair.

You can’t really blame the host of the dinner party for wondering what’s going on. But very simply, this woman wants to express her love for Jesus. Maybe she’s seen him perform healing miracles; maybe she’s heard him talk about the love of God which will forgive all her sins… she wants to do something to express her love and so she anoints Jesus’ feet.

It’s a great story of extravagant love – that wastes all that expensive ointment. So it’s a good story to hear in a baptism service – because this baptism is all about a sign of extravagant love. But as we baptize Emilia/Zac it is not our love of God that we are celebrating, but God’s love for her/him. An extravagant love, a love that doesn’t count the cost, a love that has been there from the first day of life and will be with Emilia/Zac through every day that is to come.

We are here to celebrate God with us, the love of God for Emilia/Zac and each one of us, and we are here to express our desire to act on that love of God by loving in return. And so we offer Jesus the most valuable thing we have – not a pot of ointment – but our lives, and we try to follow Jesus, and to help Emilia/Zac to follow Jesus, from this day and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Sunday 13th June

More by chance than design, both churches this week have an all-age/creative service with a baptism.
So recognizing that the congregation is likely to be augmented by people who aren't so used to listening for God's word in the Bible, we're keeping it simple:
Luke 7: 36-38, 48-50
- which is the story of the woman anointing Jesus at the house of Simon the pharisee, but without the story-within-the-story of the one who is forgiven much debt.

We will (at one church at least) have the story presented as a dialogue, with the voices of the narrator and of Jesus.
Then in a short reflection, we will consider how the woman anoints as a sign of the love she has for Jesus - just as in baptism we baptise as a sign of the love God already has for the child (or adult - but as it happens both candidates are children). There is recognition of God with us, love of God for us, and our desire to symbolise that and to act on the love by loving in return.

So I just have to create the dialogue and some prayers of intercession, sort out those reflection thoughts a bit more clearly, and finalise 2 orders of service: and I'd like to do it by tomorrow as on Friday I'm off to a day conference and I'd like to take some time off on Saturday as I'm still suffering from a very busy weekend last weekend.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Notes for 6/6/10

(Keen readers will note I'm using some of the same material as at Pentecost - but it will be to the other 2 congregations, who haven't heard it already! - it's not just me being lazy - it seem to fit!)

Trinity 1
I’d like us to think today about what it means to be faithful, not fearful. When I was thinking about the sermon I preached at the 8am service on Pentecost, I came across this reflection, which explores some of our fears:

Go on admit it.
You’re wondering about the future. Maybe worrying.
Do we even have a future? Will our church survive?
Will our children have faith? Will our faith have children?
There are so many challenges.
We don’t know the people next door anymore.
Why would they want to come to our church?
People pass by. We don’t know them. No-one comes in.
They are outside. We are inside.
And so we wait and watch and worry.
But we don’t know what to do. Won’t someone come to help us?
But have you noticed there’s a story just like this in the Bible.
There are only a few left. People pass by outside. They are inside.
Waiting and watching. They don’t know what to do.
And then it happens.
Wind. Fire. Noise…
No-one came and took away their problems.
Instead the Spirit comes.

If we are faithful people, we will wait for the Spirit to come and give us the power and the confidence to face our fears. But there is so much to be fearful of, isn’t there: what about the random disasters that ruins lives – like the killings of Derrick Bird in Cumbria. It is frightening to think that some people’s lives can becomes so intolerable and so pressured that they are driven to that sort of action.
How can our faith help us when life becomes terrible and full of fear and sadness?

You might wonder what our Bible readings have to offer us and our fears. Elijah brings back to life the only son of the widow of Zaraphath; and Paul makes some claims about his role as an apostle. Where is the fear in these stories? But let’s think about each in a little more detail.

Elijah has every reason to feel fearful. God sent him to the King of Israel, Ahab, to tell him to turn from his sinful ways…which have included marrying Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, and worshipping her god, Baal. As proof that God has sent him, Elijah tells Ahab that there will be a drought, and then Elijah is told to take himself off, first to the land East of the Jordan, where he is fed by ravens, and then to Zaraphath, where he is told by God that a widow there will look after him.

You might wonder what Elijah has to be fearful of – after all God is clearly looking after him, but Elijah has been sent deep into enemy territory – as Zaraphath is in Sidon. Even the widow, who has been caring for Elijah, is ready to blame him for bringing hr sins to light and causing her son to be killed as a result. We know how alone Elijah feels at times in this battle against Ahab & the prophets of Baal, if we remember his cry to God ‘I, only I am left’.
Elijah has good reason to be fearful: he has alienated his own king, he is in a foreign land and his only helper in the village is blaming him for the death of her son.

But Elijah acts in faith – crying out to God to save the young man: and so he is able to restore the son to his mother and she, in faith, states ‘Now I know for certain that you are a man of God’.

Faith – not fear – leads to others finding faith.

Paul, writing to the early church in Galatia, also has good reason to fear. Once a devout Jew and persecutor of all followers of Christ, he knows full well what the authorities want to do to Christianity – they want to see it stamped out.

In the portion of the letter we heard, Paul is keen to show that his credentials are from God, not from other people, because he is keen to correct those who have been teaching that Christianity could be a sect within the Jewish faith – that if Christians would accept some Jewish teaching, they could be protected by the same laws which protect practicising Jews. In the face of the fear of persecution, they are suggesting an accommodation of the Christian faith ot eh jewish religion.

But Paul is fearless – Christians must stand up for the unique teaching of Christ about the grace of God, and not be bound by laws – even if this leads to persecution, imprisonment and death. And Paul’s reason for this is that he has been brought to faith not by the teachings of other people, but by the direct revelation of the risen Christ. This faith has cast out his fear.
So how can we, like Paul & Elijah, by faithful and not fearful?

Whether what we fear is slowly dying out as a church, or being caught up in a wicked world, or simply seeming foolish in the sight of others – how can our faith help us to face up to the fear?

The examples of Paul and Elijah teach us much the same lesson: trust in God’s grace, God’s activity.
As we continue to celebrate a year of prayer through ‘Vision for life’ and as our thoughts start to turn to the year of evangelism, maybe we are fearful that we will find it impossible to speak to others about our faith. But it is the Holy Spirit of God which enables people to hear the Good News – it is our job only to try to speak. So whatever your fear – pray for the grace and gift of the Spirit – be faithful not fearful, and place all your fears into God’s hands.

And at this communion table, receive what God gives you to strengthen you – the gift of life itself – poured out for you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

A little poetic interlude...

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

and when I come back from the wedding I'm just about to conduct I WILL sit down and finish the sermon & get it posted here.
Unless I've gone to lie down in the woods.