Monday, 25 February 2013

Women's World Day of Prayer 2013

When my daughter was going off to university for the first time last September she was understandably nervous. ‘I don’t know anyone else who’s going to Nottingham! I will be surrounded by new people! What if I don’t make any friends?’ . 
I told her, as I’ve told her at other times in her life “Remember – strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet”. I had no idea that this idea came from the body of Jewish teaching known as the Talmud – we’ll hear it at the end of the service 
‘There are no strangers: there are only women and men who have not yet met’.
It’s a useful piece of advice, reminding my daughter not to be too nervous and I hope inspiring us all to treat any ‘strangers’ we meet with respect and friendliness.

The teaching from Leviticus sounds, at first, like the same sort of advice:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien
You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my laws.

But these words of God to Moses begins with ‘You shall be holy’.
These laws and commandments are not there to help people to get along with each other, to make life more sociable and easier. These are laws to help God’s people live holy lives, lives fit for God’s own people. Welcoming the stranger is about being the people God has created us to be. God made us and loves us – but God made us to be holy, loving, reflections of God’s own love to the world around us.

And Jesus’ parable takes this teaching about holiness a step further.
Often Jesus parables have a surprising twist in them – they get us thinking, they teach us something new. It is no surprise to us in the story of the people separated like sheep and goats that the ones who have been good are rewarded and the ones who have been selfish are punished. We know that God commands us to be good and loving – to be holy. Clearly the ones who have neglected the poor, the starving, the imprisoned & so on have not lived lives of holiness,, lives for others. But the surprise for those neglectful people and for the ‘good’ people is that what they have done they have done for Christ – or when they have neglected ‘the least of these who are member of my family’, they have neglected Christ.
So holiness, goodness, turns out to be not only what we do to others, but how we treat God himself.
When we welcome the stranger we are living holy lives, lives that are right in God’s eyes, and we are serving God in what we do.

‘You shall be holy’ says God – how can we do that?
By the way we treat others. We should respect them as we would respect God if he was here before us. We have to welcome the stranger. That welcome, that respect, that love should know no boundaries of race, class, status, faith.
We should look for ways in which we can serve God in others – reaching out with friendship, especially to those who are different from us.
In the name of Jesus – who was so very different from us, and yet is our saviour and friend. Amen.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Lent 2 - sacrifice

Luke 13: 31-35, Genesis 15: 1-12, 17 & 18

Here we go, another week deeper into Lent, and another week closer to Holy Week and Easter.
Last week we heard about the temptations of Jesus, and how he chose to trust God and walk God’s way rather than walk his own way in his own strength.
This week Jesus shows that trust again, even though he knows that walking God’s way is walking the road that will lead to the cross.

The passage from Luke begins with some Pharisees, who perhaps we are more used to encountering as the baddies in Jesus’ story, trying to help Jesus. It seems  they are wanting to help Jesus to escape from Herod, to run and spare his life, perhaps so that Jesus can continue his teaching and healing ministry.
There is no suggestion that they have anything but Jesus’ best interests at heart when they say ‘get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’.

Jesus does not underestimate the power or the malice of Herod – he calls him ‘ that fox’, nor is he filled with bravado, believing that Herod won’t dare to confront him. Jesus recognises that his ministry will end, and echoes the forthcoming events of Easter ‘on the third day I finish my work’. Jesus is clear-eyed about the real danger he is in ‘ it is impossible for a prophet to be killed anywhere except Jerusalem’.
He knows the danger, but he will not run from it, because Jesus does not have his own interests at heart.

Instead he speaks of his love for the people of Jerusalem, even if they will not listen to the gospel he brings them. Jesus speaks lovingly of the city and its people ‘how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers its chicks’.

In the face of the violence of ‘that fox’ Herod, Jesus is determined to put himself between the fox and the little chicks who are the people of Jerusalem.
Like a devoted mother, Jesus will give his own life for the lives of his brood. And as we gather at this table, we remember that Jesus gave his life not only for Jerusalem but for us all.

Trusting in God the Father’s purpose for his life allows Jesus to face the fact that his gospel of love and peace will unsettle the political status quo in Jerusalem and will lead to his arrest and trial and death. But Jesus is not about to give up, shut up or run away. Such is the extent of the love of God which he is determined to live out, that Jesus will accept death in due course. But for a time he will withdraw and he says “you will not see me again until the time come when you say ‘blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’.”. These words will ring out on Palm Sunday – just as we use them often when we celebrate and remember Christ’s coming to us in the Eucharist.

Jesus describes his work so far as ‘casting out demons and performing cures’. This is the work of bringing in God’s kingdom, a place where people will be at peace and will be whole and filled with eternal life. The way Jesus talks about death he is clear that his death, too, is part of the work of the kingdom. In order to show the extent of God’s love, Jesus will not flinch from persecution and death on the cross, because he knows that through his death the power of God’s kingdom of love will be displayed. This is a love which will accept our human condition by going all the way to death, and a love which will prove stronger than death on Easter Sunday.

And what are we to make of the strange ritual that Abram carries out, cutting a heifer, a goat and a ram in two?
This is very like the sort of ritual which people of the Near East in Abram’s time might have performed to settle a deal between two people or between two tribes. The nature of the agreement is – if one of us breaks this pact, we will be cut in two like these animals.
Abram, a stranger in a strange land, is still waiting for God to make good his promise to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

While Abram waits, surrounded by potential enemies, he makes a pact – but this pact is not with another tribe, it is with God. This is another act of trust – Abram decides to place his trust in God, and not in other people. He believes God when he says ‘Do not be afraid Abram, I am your shield.’

As we gather today we do not need to sacrifice animals in a ritual which expresses our trust in God. Jesus has made the sacrifice. He is the one who offer us the pact with God.
We do not need to accept this pact with God. We can continue to trust in our own strength, to keep ourselves safe, to avoid the potential danger of ridicule created by putting our lot in with Jesus. When we hear the equivalent of the voices telling us to beware Herod, we can turn tail and run.

Or we can choose to trust and accept the love of God, which we see in the body and blood of Christ – in this bread and this wine. We can reach out to receive his strength and accept a part in God’s kingdom. Like Abram, we can believe that God will be our shield. This may not mean absolute safety and security for our lives, any more than it did for Jesus. But it will mean a place at the table of God’s kingdom and the strength to trust God and seek to do God’s will.

The choice is ours – may God help us to choose well
In Jesus’ name. Amen

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Lent 1 - Temptation

I think I have always tended to preach about the meaning of the temptations for Christ's ministry, but this year I have tried to focus on what it means for us.
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Luke 4: 1-13

So Lent begins with a visit to the wilderness.

First we hear about the people of Israel bringing the first-fruits of their harvest to God, and remembering their past years in the wilderness: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”. Now that the people are settled and growing their own food, they need to remember the wilderness, remember when times were hard, remember how God was with them and protected them.
The people of God need to remember who they are.

Jesus goes into the wilderness to remember who he is. How is his life and ministry to be conducted? What choices should he make if he is God’s chosen?

And so Jesus faces temptation – which after all is just facing a choice – this or that? For my sake, or for others? Trusting God or relying on myself?

One of the difficulties we might have when we hear about Jesus’ temptations is that they are nothing like the choices we face. I have never yet had to ask myself whether I should turn a stone into a loaf of bread or not – it is not a real choice for me. Nor have I ever stood on the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem; nor been offered rulership of all the kingdoms of the world.

So what are the temptations facing Jesus really about, and how do they speak to us and our, real choices in life?

Can we use different language to describe the temptation to turn stone to bread? Jesus is facing the temptation to grab what he needs, to use his own power and ability to provide whatever he wants – whether that is food for his own stomach, or food to ‘buy’ himself a lot of followers.
Yes, Jesus will feed the 5,000 – but the miraculous feeding of people will not be his usual way of getting their attention.
So Jesus is tempted – will he grab what he needs? No.

What about throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, so that the angels will catch him? Jesus is facing the temptation to test the system, to make sure that he is safe. Before any threat to life and limb in the future, he could just make sure that all will be well, that his ‘safety net’ of angels is safely in place.
Here’s the temptation – will Jesus make sure he is safe in future? No.

And finally bowing down and worshipping the tempter, in return for all the kingdoms of the world: what is happening here? However we imagine satan or evil or the tempter, it seems the temptation is for Jesus to hedge his bets, to use a power other than the power that comes from God. Jesus could seek a wordly power, a misuse of power, one that ignores the power and the place of God in the world.
Will Jesus turn away from God? No.

Each time Jesus is tempted – to grab what he needs, to keep himself safe, to turn away from God – he instead chooses to trust God.
Jesus chooses not to grab what he needs – he trusts God to supply those needs.
He chooses not to keep himself safe – he trusts God with his future.
He chooses not to turn away from God and seek other power – he trusts his heart and his life.

When Jesus is asked in Matthew’s gospel (22:37) ‘which is the greatest commandment he answers’ love God with all your heart, soul and mind’. Here at the beginning of his ministry, in the wilderness, he makes the choice – to trust and love God for his needs, his future and his life.
And then he goes out to teach others that this is the life to choose – a life of trusting God.

So where does that leave us?
Facing the same choices as Jesus, as it turns out. Not the specifics of turning stones to bread and the rest.. but the choice between trusting God and trusting our own strength. Do we want to grab what we can, make sure we’re safe, turn away from God – or will we, like Jesus, trust God with our needs, our futures and our lives.

What does is mean to trust God with our needs?
It means being ready to come to God in prayer and place our needs before him – not as an alternative to acting, but as the underlying trust that through our efforts and through the efforts of others, God will supply our needs.

What does it mean to trust God with our futures?
It means refusing to get anxious about what is to come – as individuals, as families or as churches. Trusting that whatever comes God will not desert us.

What does it mean to trust God with our lives?
Perhaps it means taking time in Lent to trust God with our time, with our attention, with our hearts – more time spent in prayer, in reflecting, in study of God’s word.

This Lent – always – we need to remember who we are. People who have been brought to where we are by God’s help & presence, as the people of Israel were.
People whom God has blessed, and guided and cared for. 
And people who need to trust God for our needs, our future and our lives.
Today & always. Amen.

Saturday, 9 February 2013


Luke 9: 28-36

Ever since Christmas we have been hearing gospel reading after gospel reading that tries to help us to see something of God’s glory in the life of Jesus Christ.

Last week, we had the presentation of Jesus as a baby in the temple, and his recognition as the Messiah by Simeon and Anna; the week before that we had Jesus declaring his purpose and mission when he preached at Nazareth; before that it was the miracle of the water being turned to wine at the wedding at Cana; and before that the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John and the voice from heaven ‘you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased’.

We haven’t been encouraged to listen to the teachings of Jesus, or wonder at his healing of people who are blind or deaf or disturbed – that comes at other points of the year – we have been forced to come face to face with the question ‘who is this Jesus?’.

And the readings have, I think, forced us to conclude that this is no ordinary man, however good a teacher and wonderful a healer he was.

Going right back to Christmas and the reading from the start of John’s gospel that we always hear at some point in our Christmas celebrations – ‘we have beheld his glory, the glory of the father’s only begotten, full of grace and truth’.
When we look at Jesus, we see God’s glory.
When we look at Jesus, we see God here with us.

And just in case you haven’t been paying much attention over the last few weeks, the lectionary has a final poke at us before Lent starts. Who is this Jesus?

The one who astonishes Peter, James & John when they go up the mountain and just for a moment glimpse him as he really is.
Luke tells us that this happens “about 8 days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God” . Eight days before, Jesus asks his disciples ‘who do you say that I am? And Peter replies ‘You are the Messiah of God’. The disciples are starting to see who Jesus truly is – and he warns them that he ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’. Everything they are about to see happen to Jesus – as the opposition to him mounts and as eventually he is crucified – will make them wonder whether he can be God’s chosen one. Surely God’s chosen wouldn’t suffer like this. But Jesus wants them to know that it is precisely because he is the Messiah that he will suffer and die – and then be raised to life as the triumphant proof that he is the son of God.

So they go up the mountain together, a place to draw nearer to God. While Jesus is praying, a change comes over him.
But everything that happens is for the benefit of the disciples, not to reassure Jesus. Jesus’ face and clothes glow – a sure sign that he is talking to God the Father; then Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus; then a cloud overshadows them – another sign of God’s presence; finally, just as at the baptism, God’s voice is heard “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”.

When Jesus meets with God the father he becomes like God himself: and the disciples see that Jesus is the one who contains the glory of God in his human form – he is the chosen, the Messiah, the Son, the Christ.

So what does all this mean?
For the disciples, it is a rare opportunity to see Jesus clearly, as he really is, full of the grace and truth and glory of God. This knowledge of who Jesus is will help them, after the resurrection, to make sense of all that has happened to Jesus.
And what about us, what does this story of transfiguration teach us about Jesus?

Perhaps is can help us to wonder about who Jesus really is. It can give us nudges and hints that we have not yet fully understood Jesus. If we have been trying to follow Jesus the teacher; or pray to Jesus our friend; or ask help from Jesus the healer – the transfiguration points us to something more.
Jesus is teacher, healer, friend – but he is more than that. We will never fully grasp who Jesus is – there is something deeply strange and wonderful about Jesus – the one who glows with God’s glory, the one who walks and talks with Moses and Elijah, the one of whom God says ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’.

So we can never sit back and think we have fully worked out who Jesus is. Our lives are spent journeying, wondering, following Jesus.

So with the start of Lent next week we have a chance to wonder again about who Jesus is, to explore more deeply the mystery of his presence and his love.

We have Lent groups again this year – looking at Isaac Watts hymn ‘when I survey the wondrous cross’ – there are flyers and free booklets to take today. Come and learn more about the Jesus who dies on the cross and offers us God’s love.

Or use the time of Lent to take a part of each day to think more deeply for yourself – read a gospel, bit by bit; reflect on the sermons you hear; take time to pray.

And here at this table celebrate the greatest mystery of all – Jesus here, for us, in bread and wine.
Be fed by God’s love, receive Jesus as you receive the bread & wine and enter more deeply into the mystery of who Jesus is, to God’s praise and glory.  Amen.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Presentation of Christ in the Temple/Candlemas

A sermon for Christian Unity celebration based on 
Malachi 3: 1-4 and Luke 2: 22-40

Anyone who – like me – is a fan of Handel’s Messiah will have had a hard time of it not bursting into song this morning. The reading from Malachi was full of good bits ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’… ‘but who shall abide the day of his coming’ ‘and he shall purify, and he shall purifyyyyyyyy..etc’

We cannot escape the connections of today’s scripture readings to the Lord’s Messiah (with or without Handel) – we are celebrating the presentation of Christ in the temple: the promise of Malachi fulfilled, the Lord’s anointed recognised just as the glory of God has been shining through all our celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany.

But of course it was very different for Simeon and Anna. They didn’t go to the temple to celebrate the presentation of Christ, or refer to it as Candlemas, or anything of the sort.
They were in the temple – as usual. In fact we’re told Anna never left the temple. An ordinary day, then, an ordinary act of purification following the birth of a child, an ordinary family, an ordinary 6 week old baby (if any babies are ever really ordinary!).

And yet in this ordinary event, Simeon and Anna recognise the moment at which their waiting is complete. Luke tells us Simeon has been ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel’; whilst Anna tells all those ‘looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ about the child. They have been waiting for God to act, for the Messiah to come, for the Lord to appear in his temple to refine his people. God has promised to come to his people in glory and in power: and in one baby among the hundreds, if not thousands, that they have seen, they recognise the fulfilment of God’s promise.

They know their Scriptures, they have been trusting and waiting, they are looking for God to act.
And what else do they require for their eyes to be opened to God’s presence in their world?
Luke tells us it’s the Holy Spirit.
Three times he mentions the Holy Spirit as he tells us about Simeon: the Holy Spirit rested upon him; it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah; and guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple.

So today we celebrate God with us in Jesus Christ, as we recognise with Simeon and Anna that this is the child who will grow to be the light of the world and the saviour of all who will believe in him. But we need also to be ready, like Simeon and Anna, to be open to the signs that God is acting in our world, today.

One of Rowan Williams’ often quoted statements about mission is “Mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in”. Whether we are wondering about our own individual lives – how can we be useful in the world? – or contemplating the purpose of our churches, individually or together, we need to be open to this question of what our mission, our purpose, our lives are about. And surely as Christians we want our purpose to be part of the purposes of God, to be part of God’s mission of love to the world. So we need to try to find out what God is doing, so that we can join in.

What do we learn today from Simeon and Anna about how we can do that?
They show us that we need to read scripture, to trust and wait, to look for God’s action in response to people’s need in our world.
We need to be ready to see God fulfilling his promise to care for and be present with the people he has made.
But how? How in the muddle of our lives, in the constant noises and clamour of the media, of the demands of technology, in the many relationships and needs which almost bombard us with worries and concerns– how in all this can we discern God at work?
As Simeon did, through the action of the Holy Spirit.
But don’t think for a moment that I’m suggesting that we should sit back and wait for the Spirit to do all the hard work, while we remain passively obedient and wait to be ‘zapped’. God’s spirit does not let us off the hook like that.
Simeon was not let off the hook by the Spirit – the action of the Spirit was not a substitute for reading Scripture, and for praying and trusting and waiting (in Anna’s case, for 84 years!). But through these things the Holy Spirit was able to act and show Simeon and Anna that the Lord has come to them that day in the temple.

So how can we be open to the work of the Holy Spirit?
By reading and seeking to understand Scripture together; by thinking and talking together;
by worshipping and praying together.
Together: because the gift, from God, of the Holy Spirit to the church is a gift that comes to all and to each and we discern its work best when we listen together and share what we have all heard God saying to us.

I am well aware that with a time of vacancy coming up, the four churches of Whittlesford, Pampisford & Duxford United Reformed Church will be thinking about their mission and who they might find to minister to them in that. They will need to do that together – but I hope that the seven churches will continue to grow together, in the time of vacancy and then with the help of the new minister when he or she arrives. We have made a start in our listening to one another – we meet, we worship, we pray together.  And as Lent approaches we will have an opportunity to study and think together, too.

Let’s listen together for what the Spirit tells us of what God is doing among us – so that God’s light may shine in us and through us, in the name of Jesus our Messiah – the light of the world. Amen