Friday, 27 May 2011

Easter 6

Readings:
1 Peter 3: 13-22
John 14: 15-21

(Just to explain the last part of the sermon - this week we 'launch' a new thing - four groups from all four churches to plan worship, mission & outreach, youth & children's work, & pastoral care. It seemed right to refer to this in the sermon).


Easter 6
Today - the fifth Sunday after Easter - is called by some people Rogation Sunday and can be marked by a congregation going out and ‘beating the bounds’ - walking around all of the edges of the Parish.

It got this name because of the words in the Prayer Book gospel for the day: "Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give to you". (The Latin for ‘ask’ is 'Rogare' ). By the 17th century, the old Roman festival of "boundaries", had been adapted by the church on this Sunday and served a practical purpose. In the days before Ordnance Survey maps, there were not always clear lines of demarcation between the parishes, especially where there were open field systems. During the procession, all around the boundaries of the parish, boys were bumped on prominent marks and boundary stones, or rolled in briars and ditches, or thrown in the pond to ensure they never forgot the boundaries. The Victorians made it more civilized by beating objects rather than people, in the context of a service and procession, and also included prayers asking God to bless the crops, especially asking for protection against disease.

You might wonder, in these days of maps, and pesticides, whether we need to think about Rogation Sunday anymore, but I think our Bible readings remind us that we still need to consider how we interact with the world outside the church building, and that we still need to ask God to help us in all that we do.

Rogation was about the church interacting with the world around: working out where the boundaries were of those who were in the church’s care, going out and being seen, and asking for God’s help in the daily lives of the people outside the church.
In a sense, it is a form of evangelism – of reaching out with the Good News of God’s love. I realize some people find Evangelism a deeply scary word,
laced with ideas of jamming your foot in someone’s door – and yet we would not be much a church of Jesus Christ if we kept the Good News to ourselves. So what sort of Evangelism is it appropriate for us to get involved with, today?

The first letter of Peter tells us not to be afraid to be followers of Christ, even if we encounter hardship. The author has this advice to give the church : “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”. No hard sell here, no door-knocking, no sales pitch. Be ready to ‘Give an account for the hope that is in you’ – be able to say what your faith in Jesus means to you, prepared to speak out about your own experiences of God’s love in your own life, in the Bible and in church.
At the end of April, the media reported the death of Revd David Wilkerson – author of “the cross and the switchblade” – an account of his work with teenagers in gangs in New York, who became converted to Christianity and gave up lives of drug abuse and violence to follow Jesus Christ. They were amazing stories – and yet…as I read them as a teenager I felt that their stories were not like my story: ordinary people need to hear ordinary stories of the extraordinary love of God. Your neighbour, your friend, your family need to hear your story, however simple, of a journey of faith to help them see they could make the same journey.

This may seem an almost over-whelming thing to ask – but this is Rogation Sunday, so let’s remember that when God is asked, God helps.
Jesus says to his followers “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever”.

On this day of asking the chief thing to ask for is the spirit of God to enable us to be true children of God. Jesus promises the spirit, which will ‘lead us into all truth’ and which will make us his followers, his body, his people. The Spirit will help us to speak to others simply and effectively about the God we know in Jesus. But we have to be prepared to open our mouths. We may feel scared, but Jesus promises we are not alone.
So, let’s imagine that we get up the courage to speak to someone. What then? What can we do?

A few weeks ago I was at the annual Ministers’ Spring school – lots of opportunity for discussion and worship and fellowship. As always it was tiring but well worth while. One of our speakers this year was Bishop Graham Cray, who is now heading the “Fresh Expressions” attempt to reach new people with Church. I was very struck by something Graham Cray said : ‘Church is community before it is an event, even a worship event’. When we invite people to church we might of course invite them to a particular event, like a Songs of Praise or Harvest or whatever. But we should be inviting them to come and meet some other parts of the body of Christ. We need to be drawing people into a community of followers of Jesus. Because here in the midst of the body of Christ people stand the best chance of encountering the best advert there is for Christianity - the risen Jesus Christ.

We might be left with lots of questions about how we can reach people with the Good News, how we can make the church a really good place to invite people to, and how we can make sure they meet God in Jesus, here. I hope some of these questions will be tackled by some of the new groups we are setting up, that I talked about in the notices. But I do know that to do this work we will need to be fed and nurtured ourselves, reminded of God’s love for us and assured of his strength.

And so we come to this table, to draw near to God and to be fed by him – so that we can then turn out to the world with hope in our hearts and a message of love to share. In the strength and in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Guilt

I wrote this for one of my church newsletters - I think it also applies to the guilt I feel about not always getting round to posting early on this blog!

"It was bound to happen sooner or later. I missed the deadline for my minister’s letter in the village newsletter. I am cross with myself for leaving it so late and feel guilty that it might make people think I don’t care enough to write this month.

The truth of course is that among the many things I had to do to catch up from time away at Minister’s Spring School and then URC Mission Council the letter got left until…too late!

But it has got me thinking about guilt. “We have not done those things which we ought to have done”, we might sometimes pray.
I end every week feeling that there are things I haven’t done, and often find myself praying that God will grant me another week of life to try to get it all finished. In one prayer from Iona we pray “Give us time to amend our lives”.

Yet fortunately, since absolute completion is impossible, it is not all down to us – God is gracious and loving and forgiving and sometimes I feel I hear a divine whisper telling me not to be so hard on myself.

A lovely poem by James Thomson (a Scottish poet, 1700 – 1748) sums this up – I offer it to you if you sometimes get carried away with a sense of guilt:

ONCE in a saintly passion
I cried with desperate grief,
"O Lord, my heart is black with guile,
Of sinners I am chief."
Then stooped my guardian angel
And whispered from behind,
"Vanity, my little friend,
You're nothing of the kind."

Yours, a forgiven child of God,
Ruth"

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Easter 5 - a baptism

Home
You might think it’s a good job that Ella- Rose is too young to understand the Bible readings we’ve just heard, because they seem a bit gloomy for such a happy occasion.
Jesus talks about a home in heaven for us at the end of life: and the story of Stephen tells us how suddenly and violently his life ends.

But I think these are amazing readings, which remind us that Ella –Rose is starting out on a journey today which Jesus promises will never end. Today we celebrate Ella Rose’s baptism and remember that the love of God is here for her and will travel with her all through the life that we know and beyond it to the place we call ‘heaven’ – the life that never ends, in God.

I have often used the words of Jesus from John’s gospel at funeral services – they are words many people find comforting. A promise of a Home in

Heaven, many dwelling places, prepared for us by Jesus himself, a place of peace and eternal rest.

But the Story of Stephen reminds us that this earth is not our home, but that if we are followers of Jesus our eyes should be on something higher than our own comfort. Stephen is content to be a faithful follower of Jesus and to stick to the truth of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son, even though it cost him his life. But the good news is that Stephen knew that God’s love which he had seen in Jesus would never leave him, whatever happened.

We do not live in a place or a time of such danger – we know that Ella- Rose will never be kidnapped or tried or stoned for her faith. But we should not let this relative safety and security blind us to the truth: this world is not our home –this little span of life is not all we get: our journey is much longer than that.
Baptism is the beginning of a much longer journey with God than we can possibly imagine. That is both a comfort and a challenge to each one of us. If this world is not all there is: if God’s love is the most powerful force in the universe, then how we live our lives is affected by that.
Stephen thought that living always remembering God’s love was worth giving up his life for: and he’s only one in a long line of 2000 years of Christian martyrs. Even today, especially in those countries where different faiths clash, there are people who lose their lives because they refuse to give up their Christian faith.
Stephen was not recruited as a preacher or a teacher but as an administrator, helping to share out food in the early church. Yet Stephen is ‘full of grace and power’ and begins to do great wonders and signs among the people, and so becomes involved in a debate in the Synagogue about the rightness of choosing to follow Jesus. Trumped up charges of blasphemy are brought against Stephen, in a bid to get rid of him.
In his defence, Stephen paints a picture of God constantly calling his people forward, and people constantly resisting. So all the prophets of God have been persecuted, and latterly Jesus has been rejected, says Stephen. “You have received the law given by God’s angels and yet you have not kept it”. The people in the synagogue rise up in fury and stone Stephen, as we have heard.
Stephen preaches the need to listen to the new things that God is doing, the need to be prepared to hear the gospel afresh and not stick with what is known and comfortable. And he lives what he preaches – he doesn’t just settle for the job of administration he has been given, but is open to the prompting of God’s Spirit which leads him to teach and preach and be faithful to God’s message even to the point of death. His sight is not set on his own plans for life – but on the dwelling place prepared for him by Jesus in God’s kingdom.
The challenge to each one of us is to respond to Christ’s call on our lives by having our eyes open to the things of heaven – the gifts which God gives us – peace, love and our true home.
This journey starts with God’s love for Ella-Rose & each one of us, and it calls us to follow Jesus Christ in our walk to heaven. And then o this journey through life we have to be prepared to be someone remarkable, for God.
Amen.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Easter 4 (already?)

Apologies for late posting - been away from the desk most of the week.
Readings are:
Acts 2: 42-47
John 10: 1-10

Good Shepherd
Do you ever find yourself wondering quite what it is that Jesus was offering people? That’s an easy question for those who are sick and come for healing – but John’s gospel tells us that Jesus came for the sake of the whole world, so what exactly is this “full life” that Jesus promises his disciples?

The first part of the Gospel reading seems rather complicated:
Jesus says ‘the man who does not enter the sheepfold by the door.. is nothing but a thief and a robber’ but ‘the shepherd... calls his own sheep by name’. John then goes on to say of Jesus’ disciples, ‘they did not understand’.

I don’t really blame Jesus’ listeners for not immediately understanding - it does take a bit of thinking through.
Jesus is saying something about his relationship to those who follow him: he is the good shepherd, the one who cares, the one who can be trusted.

He hasn’t come to take hearts and minds by force, like a thief, but to offer a way to go which those who trust him will follow.

Jesus is saying something about his identity as the one who can be trusted and followed. He is also chiming in with the tradition that the King of Israel was considered to be leader only in the place of God, the true shepherd.

We only have to think of the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd” to see that the shepherd of Israel was the Lord God.
Jesus is identifying himself as leader of the emerging church and as the true shepherd of the people, the Son of God himself.
Jesus uses the parable of the shepherd to inspire his listeners with confidence that they can trust and follow him and that through him they will gain life in all its fullness.

But ‘full life’ doesn’t mean a life entirely protected from the ups and down – the dark valleys and the green pastures - that ordinary people encounter. Jesus isn’t offering a message to accept God’s care & so be wrapped up in cotton wool, untouched by the pain of the world.
Jesus says these words just before the Passover and his death on the cross. Following a crucified criminal is certainly not a guarantee of safety or security: there will be risk and rejection and what looks, to the world around, like failure.

I don’t believe for a moment that Christians should go out looking for suffering – but that we shouldn’t be surprised if it comes, and that by enduring it we can reveal the love of God, as Jesus did. Full life means a life unafraid, a life lived in the knowledge that whatever the wolves of unhappiness that seem to be circling us, we are safe in the care of the Good Shepherd, and that our lives have meaning and purpose, as his had.

So faithful followers of the crucified Messiah hear Jesus’ voice and follow him: he leads them and cares for them, but this is no guarantee of being treated well by the world or of what many people would reckon ‘success’.

Here in Jesus’ phrase ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ is an invitation to all of us to become a part of the project of God - the kingdom of God. A full life is one which accepts our role as workers for God’s kingdom: those who will work for a place of love, joy and peace for all people, a place where everyone will know themselves loved and cared for by God.

So the offer of Jesus to be the Good Shepherd is not just about caring for us, his sheep, but also about calling us to follow, and to become truly His. After Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension the disciples began to realise that they were now called to become the body of Christ, the new agent through which God’s love would work.
You might have felt a little overawed by the description from the book of Acts of the church at that time.
the believers has all things in common, signs and wonders were being done, they were adding daily to their number.

Just 2 weeks ago I was saying that the early church didn’t always get things right, but they’re certainly getting a lot right here! This is some time after the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. Filled with the life and power of Jesus Christ, the church is growing and living the kingdom.

I spent quite a lot of time last week at our Ministers’ Spring School, listening to lots of the latest ideas about the way society is organised, the way the world is headed, the values most people live by, and the role of the church in bringing God’s love to people in new and fresh ways.

In a nutshell, the conclusion seemed to be that in a fast-changing, self-centred, consumerist world what most people are experiencing is isolation, a sense of futility and a deep sense of longing which they try to fill with consumer goods – new houses, new cars, new phones, and so on.

In that face of all this, the church is called to follow Jesus and to proclaim the glorious truth of God’s love, showing people a route to faith in Jesus which leads to a truly full life – a life of hope and trust and love.

We might think the odds of this counter-cultural message being heard in our world is slim, but our task is to proclaim it faithfully, to model being a people who are living God’s kingdom, and to accept the strength and protection of the Good Shepherd to lead us where we must go as we seek new words to express ourselves and new ways to display God’s love.

So may we, as a church and as individuals, know, proclaim and enjoy life is all its fullness. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Emmaus

Coming to Faith Acts 2:14a, 36-41 Luke 24:13-35

This story of the events around the journey on the road to Emmaus is one of the most memorable in Luke’s gospel.
It’s a story you could tell almost entirely in verbs.
Walking, talking, arguing, asking, explaining, understanding, inviting, staying, breaking, praying, sharing, recognising, returning, telling.

All this activity, but perhaps the most important part of what happens is the process of turning around.

First the disciples literally turn around – they walk the 7 miles or so from Jerusalem to Emmaus & then, as night falls, they turn around and go straight back to Jerusalem again.

And what causes this physical turn around? A turn around in their knowledge and emotions.

At first they fail to recognise Jesus, but they are taken on a journey by Jesus which leads them to turn around from lack of recognition to recognition.

There is a real sense of transformation in this story.
The disciples are crushed, puzzled, crest-fallen – arguing between themselves about what has happened. Jesus joins them on the road – but we are told they did not recognise him.
Emmaus, where they are headed, stands to the West of Jerusalem, and so some have argued that they didn’t recognise Jesus because they were blinded by the setting sun.
But surely even if they didn’t recognise Jesus in the setting sunshine as he joined them, they would have recognised him as he talked to them and walked alongside them?
Yet just as Mary, in the garden on that Easter Sunday morning, had failed to recognise Jesus at first, so it is with these two. It seems that the risen Jesus is not just a revived Jesus, he is not instantly recognisable.

There is an argument sometimes put forward that the so-called resurrection of Jesus can be explained away by the idea that Jesus did not die on the cross but was only unconscious and was then revived by the cool of the tomb.
But that would not explain this difference that is apparently there – the resurrected Jesus is recognisably Jesus, but is not simply identical: hence the failure to recognise him at first.
So, un-recognised for the moment, Jesus engages them in conversation.
And when they talk of the Messiah, he shows them how, starting from Moses and the prophets, God’s word speaks of the purposes of God through suffering and trial. We are not told the argument Jesus gives – what bits of the scripture it is that he unpacks for them.
But somehow, slowly, their eyes are opened.

Finally when Jesus joins them for the meal and breaks bread, their eyes are opened as to who he is. They recognise him, and rush back to tell the others they have met with the risen Jesus.

And it’s not just their knowledge, but their expectations and emotions have been turned around.

As they explain to Jesus on the road why they are so sad, it becomes clear that Jesus needs to turn around their hopelessness and fear. They think the story of Jesus has ended in defeat ‘But we had thought that he was the one to save Israel’.

They need to see the new thing God is doing.
God is not acting through a messiah who is victorious in war – but triumphs by passing through death to new life. They thought they knew how God would act – sending a great warrior to rescue Israel. But God has been doing something else. Jesus does not avoid suffering, but triumphs over death by real encounter with it. God does not carry out resuscitation, but resurrection. They must turn around everything they think they know and embrace new life, new hope, new ways of God acting in the world.
Where does that leave us?
If it really was the risen Christ that couple met on the road to Emmaus, then Jesus Christ has turned round death for us. He was alive that Easter Sunday evening and he is alive forever, not limited to a physical body in Palestine 2000 years ago, but set free to be with all his disciples, forever.

So we, too, can meet with Jesus. As we travel through life, are we ready to be turned around by an encounter with the living Christ?
We might feel that all is lost, that hope is gone… but Jesus can walk with us, and show us life and hope.
We might think we have seen it all and that God can no longer surprise us, and then find that Jesus turns round our expectations.
We might meet him, here & now, this morning…