A Short Sermon for Low Sunday

 Another guest post from my husband…

Acts 2:14a,36-41: 14 ¶ But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd,…………….. 22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20.19-end: 19 ¶ When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 ¶ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Sermon

 

While I was seeking inspiration for this sermon the news was full of only one thing; the royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. The wedding was on every channel and dominated every newspaper.

 

It was like the world cup in reverse. All the women were glued to the tv. Admiring the dress, the finery and soaking up the romance. And the men were wondering around looking lost and aimless.

 

There were men fishing on the beach, with a few cans, that didn’t look as though they had gone fishing for quite some time. It can’t have been the weather – the sea breeze was cold despite the sun.

 

But the humour aside. I may not get excited about a wedding dress but I do wish the royal couple a long and happy marriage. What is important, isn’t so much the beautiful day but the days and months and years that follow.

 

I have prepared so many couples for marriage and sadly, for some it is all about the big day. And I mean ALL about the BIG DAY!

 

I have had one couple that split up at the reception and another on their honeymoon! Thankfully, those are extremes.

 

And I know of plenty of others that are strong to this day. It is wonderful when you marry a couple then baptise their children. Then, later, see those children at the local school. I have not had the privilege of preparing any of these children for marriage but I hope and pray that these couples will remain a stable foundation for their families to the end of their lives – just as they promised on their wedding day.

 

This is what I prayed for on Friday. That the joy of the day will be distilled into a lifelong commitment, through good and bad. Then I went to see if I could find my fishing rod! Well, in my case my bike keys!

 

A lifelong commitment through good and bad is what we are called to in Christ. Those first disciples had gone through so much and they would have to endure more in the years to come. They were faithful to Jesus, their friend and king.

 

But that doesn’t mean that it was easy for them. Thomas doubted from the beginning. Peter had already denied Jesus and the others had run away.

 

So when I doubt, when you doubt, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. It just means that we are human. It also means that the faith we have may be real and not a fantasy. Real faith is questioned and tested.

 

 

Now for us the dust of Easter has settled and we now learn again to live the Easter life. We continue our life as part of Christ’s bride the Church. Amid all the finery and pageant of Easter we made or reaffirmed our baptism promises. Our marriage vows to Christ.

 

You will be different from the time when you first made your baptism vows. You and I change and grow every day of our lives. Life’s experiences change us and we grow.

 

Christ continues to love us as we change, no matter what that change is.

 

Our task is to trust that love and try and learn to love Christ back whatever the world does to us. Whatever our doubts and failings. Christ does not turn away, even if you or I abandon him.

 

I may fail to keep my promises to Christ, so might you. We may be unfaithful but Christ is not. Christ, through the Spirit living in us, faithfully seeks to work in us – to make us good, and holy, and content: To make us whole and complete in Him.

 

Jesus says to you, “Peace be with you”. Jesus breathes on you saying “Receive the Holy spirit”.

 

Like the royal wedding, the pageant of Easter is over and now the hard work and the real joy begins.

 

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

 

Easter Day ~ He is Risen and walks among us

 Some years ago while attending an event in Leicester diocese, I saw Jesus walking in the crowds. The man was the actor who plays Jesus in the mystery plays (for more about him see the Being Jesus link) and had a really ineffable quality about him that got me thinking: what if Jesus really did walk among us and we simply didn’t know. If we made the assumption that he is indeed among us, would this change how we lived our lives?

I try to do just this.  

Jesus walks among us

 

I know he’s only an actor

Playing his appointed role,

But can I be the only one

Who felt my heart lift to see

Those sandaled feet among us,

The archaic robes shabby in sunlight

And the dark curls of beard

Twitch with a smile as he passed?

Am I the only one to ask

A terrified “What if?” and wonder

If it might truly be Him

Walking among the crowds,

Still alone and set apart

Even when thousands press round?

Of course, I know full well

He’s only an actor doing

What his role demands of him,

But still my heart sings

As my mind asks, “What if?”

 

What makes Good Friday, good?

 

What makes Good Friday, good?

 

Good Friday? What on earth makes such a day good?

Celebrating the hideous death of a good man, and the craven flight of his supposedly loyal followers?

Or the fact that we at the other side of the story know the ending?

Imagine how that day must have been for those involved. The disciples scattered, all their dreams and hopes in tatters, fearing for their own lives. Only a few, like Jesus’ mother, and John(according to some) daring to stay and watch, weeping as someone they loved died a slow and excruciating death; the rest hiding and quivering at every footfall that came near their door.

The veil in the temple was torn as Jesus died, torn in two against the weave of the cloth, and the sky became dark, if you believe the Gospels. It must have seemed that the world was ending, or was close to the end, to the friends and family who had seen the rise and the promise of Jesus’ ministry. Their own deaths would follow soon, hunted down by the authorities and exterminated as subversive vermin.

I’ve often thought about what Jesus himself felt, whether he knew the ending of the story, or whether, like his friends, he had no idea how things would pan out. I’m never sure how much accretion the Gospels contain, of things attributed after the event. But whatever the case, to go through death, and the cruel death by Roman-style crucifixion……the agony is beyond imagining. Few people will ever experience such pain, such anguish.

My own experience of pain and of internal anguish are tiny in comparison and yet, they give me a slight insight into the experience, which is the most anyone can hope for. My struggles with despair, depression and anxiety, are nothing and yet, they bring me the gifts of compassion and empathy. When I suffer my Good Fridays, as I do periodically, I never know for sure that there will be, this time, an Easter morning, that I will rise again. Experience and knowledge tell me there will be and yet, I doubt it. Each crisis is like the first, the only crisis, as I live through it. I try to record my passage through times like these in poetry and in prose in the hopes that I can remind myself of the promise of resurrection, and that others too might find hope in it.

Good Friday

(me to Jesus/Jesus to me)

Nail me to that cross again

Why don’t you?

You’ve done it before

And you’ll do it again.

Here, I’ll even hold

My hands out for you,

Pass the hammer,

Hold the nail steady.

Bang! It’s done,

All over, bar the shouting.

Long day, arms outstretched,

Breath ragged, pain white hot.

Sky darkens, night begins.

Death, a relief, a release,

The cool of the tomb

A simple comfort, unexpected

After the heat of the day.

Comfort too in acceptance

Of the inevitable, peace even.

Sleep now: the worst is over.

Maundy Thursday ~ calm before the storm and a sense of foreboding

 

Maundy Thursday ~ calm before the storm and a sense of foreboding

 

Some years ago now, I wrote a poem that still haunts my own memory, if that doesn’t sound too self-obsessed. I was walking home late at night after attending a Maundy Thursday vigil and as I walked through our quiet village, I smelled lamb cooking at the Indian takeaway and it set a train of thought running that resulted in me coming in and scribbling down the following prose poem.

Gethsemane Girl

It’s a still night, the warm air filled

With the hot greasy scent of a thousand meals.

Glad I didn’t have to cook tonight;

I know lamb is traditional but it seems so unfair:

That little life cut short just for us.

I shouldn’t be here; they said no.

He didn’t, of course; he never does.

But I’m here anyway.

Maybe he knows; they don’t.

Look at them, sleeping like babies!

He wasn’t himself tonight, seemed sad.

Someone said he’s paranoid,

Expecting betrayal at any moment.

Won’t be me”, that’s what Peter said.

He can’t help boasting but it’s sad.

He’s like a big hairy dog pretending to be brave-

One sniff of a wolf and he’d be off!

Anyway, I’m worried.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned,

It’s this: men can’t be trusted.

I shouldn’t be here: but someone should,

And since they’ve all dozed off

There’s only me, wide-awake in the bushes.

Nothing I can do but wait;

This mood of his will pass,

It always does.

But he does look so sad

And I wish-

But that’s not to be.

I’m so tired too.

I don’t know why I’m here;

I don’t understand half of what he says

But while he says it, it sounds so right.

Pity not everyone agrees.

If I close my eyes, just rest them, mind,

Just for a moment or two.

It’s been such a long day.

I won’t sleep, not like the others.

Not sleeping, just resting my eyes,

Just-

I’d been thinking about the other ‘actors’ in that drama so many centuries ago, wondering how they’d seen it all, living it moment by moment without knowing the eventual outcome. I identified with those shadowy figures that we hear mentioned and who played a pivotal role in the Easter story and yet whose own voices have never been heard. As I smelled the hot curry smell, I thought about the women who cooked and cared for Jesus and the disciples and started wondering what they had truly been thinking, that night before the Passover, so many centuries ago. We don’t know who they all were, Mary Magdalene is often suggested as one of the inner circle; she has always struck me as girl with resources and I began to wonder whether she would have sneaked after the disciples who were invited to pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

So into that darkened garden I crept, my hands still slightly greasy with lamb fat and olive oil from the shared meal and my eyes heavy with tiredness. I knew things were changing, sensing the storm coming like a weather sense, and yet, hoping and hoping that nothing bad was going to happen.

While I wrote the poem some years ago, at the time, I could also sense changes coming, unable to pinpoint them. It took longer for the storm to hit, and my life to be altered beyond anything I imagined, but like Mary in that garden, I knew something was coming.

Now, six or seven years later, I approach Maundy Thursday with the renewed sense of something coming. It’s still far off, I think, but I can feel it, like a summer storm you can feel even when the sun is brilliant and there’s not a cloud to be seen except that dim dark line at the far horizon. I’m not sure whether this is good or bad coming, but change in any way is unsettling and shakes you up.

I’m trying to remember my Gethsemane Girl, hiding in the bushes and not knowing the end of the story, and trying to tell her, Be strong, it changes everything beyond what you ever imagined possible.

 

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent ~ asking the whys and finding a way

Another of my husband’s sermons. If you wish, skip the Bible readings and go straight to the sermon itself. 

 

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7: 15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 ¶ And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

1 ¶ Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 ¶ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Romans 5:.12-19: 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4.1-11: 1 ¶ Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Sermon

I looked at this morning’s readings and everything seems so simple and straightforward.

I read that Eve gave in to the tempter, the serpent, Adam sinned and ever since all people have suffered and all people die.

Then I read that Jesus the second Adam came, took our punishment, died and everything is now OK.

This is how the Gospel is sometimes explained. Nice, simple and neat.

Choose Jesus and live – stick with Adam and die.

But I have chosen Jesus. I have stuck with Jesus and everything is not OK! I am not OK. You see this sort of simple explanation can be useful, but the reality is always far more complicated. St. Paul knew this, the Old Testament writers knew this, as did the Gospel writers.

This week I have seen pictures and heard stories of the horror, of the fighting in Libya. I have seen the pictures of the devastation in Japan. You must have seen the same.

If I take this simple idea of salvation; if I take it literally; I should say that all those people killed in Libya, in Japan have gone straight to hell, at least all those that weren’t Christians.

If I stick to this simple idea; I should say that it was just and right that they should all die, they had clung to Satan’s lies and they had paid the price for their choice. A simple, straightforward and brutal truth.

But I can’t.

I can’t do that. I see those people and I weep for their suffering – I can’t help myself. I pray to loving God I know to be with the survivors, and helpers – that God may give them some comfort and the strength that they need.

I cannot accept that the God who cared so much about the world to send his Son into it and to die here, would abandon those people.

I cannot accept that the God who loves all of us, would just kill over a thousand people, on a whim, grab their frightened and confused souls, … and just throw them away, like rubbish, into hell.

It must be nice to be a fundamentalist, or at least life must be pretty simple. But I refuse to be taken in by neat, simple answers that don’t fit the facts.

So let’s wipe the slate clean. Lets start again.

I start by admitting my ignorance.

I admit that I don’t know why that earthquake happened. I know a little about the earth shifting, a little about the physics behind earthquakes and tsunami but I can’t give you, or anyone else, a reason why it happened now, to those people.

I suspect that there isn’t an answer to that question, even that that is the entirely the wrong question to ask.

Then admitting my ignorance, I move on to what I do know. I read the our Old Testament reading and I know that God created me, everyone and everything. I know that what might have been idyllic is so no longer. That this world is no longer perfect. I also know that some of our problems are of our own making.

So I know that God cared enough to create us and our world and he still cares enough to keep it running, even though it seems far from perfect. God still cares enough to stick with us, even though we fail to do what is right, again and again.

Then I look to our New Testament reading, and I see that God is not only putting up with us. I realise that God loves me, you and everyone. That he loves us so much that he sent Jesus to pull us out of the pit we have fallen in to. Jesus came to save us from ourselves and all that is wrong with this world, and at great cost.

So now I can look up from the individual trees, the narrow arguments and see something of the forest, the overall picture of God’s saving action in history.

The Bible tells us that God loves those people in Japan. God wants the best for them and for their families and for their land. God’s love is universal. We are called to see everyone as our neighbour, and to love them as ourselves. Why, because that is what God is like.

We become Godlike when we love. So our love and concern should reach out to those people in Japan.

Through the God who is everywhere, in everyone, we are linked to those people. Over all those miles between us we can join our tears with there tears; we can know God’s power to give us strength and hope in times of trouble, and we can pray for the same for those people in Japan.

Prayer is a mysterious thing, but it is powerful. In prayer we enter the presence of God, we share our fears and distress, as well as our joys and happiness. In God, through prayer we are in some way linked to the object of our prayer, the people we see in Japan. We can join with God in sharing their pain. We can join with God in bringing hope.

So we should pray, and pray hard.

We should also act, if that is possible. Sometimes we have the opportunity to do more than pray. Sometimes, we can step in and help those that suffer. Sometimes we can sent money.

Sometimes , when the trouble is nearer to home, we can join with God in practical caring for the sick and the distressed. We can sit with the bereaved. We can hold the hand of the sick or the dying.

We can cry with those that cry and laugh with those that laugh – any one who has spent time with the bereaved will know that the pain can make people cry and even scream out, but the next minute they can be laughing at some silly thing their loved one used to do; then the laughing may turn without warning to tears once again.

In being a part of this world; in not hiding ourselves from its joys and its sorrows, we are like our God who sees and feels all.

In our prayers for the people in Japan we come closer to the God who already cares for them. We stand with our Jesus who weeps over the loss of life, as he wept over Jerusalem.

So, finally, I want to turn to our Gospel reading: The temptation or testing of Jesus.

First, Jesus was tempted and so we will be tempted too.

Second, Jesus overcame his temptation and so we can overcome too.

Third, to save himself Jesus turned to his Bible and his Jewish tradition, as well as to his personal knowledge of God, his Father.

So just as I have tried to do this morning, we can overcome our temptations by looking to Scripture, to our Christian tradition and to our own experience of the God of love.

Weeping with the people of Japan is a reminder of our weakness and need of God, and of the power of God to save. So perhaps weeping for Japan, for Libya, the pain around us and our own failure, is a good way to begin our lent.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

The Comfort of Ashes ~ an Ash Wednesday poem

 

The Comfort of Ashes

There’s something clean about ashes;
Rubbish reduced to uniform powder.
No heaps of trash to hurt the eye,
No rotting corpse to hurt the heart.
Clean
Simple
Impermanent.
A gust of wind, a wash of water
And it’s gone for good:
Dissolved
Dispersed
Disappeared.
It does not disturb me that I am such dust;
What the fire cannot touch
Never can be touched
By hand or flame or even eyes.
Let then the residual ash be blown
On the wind and be gone,
Returned to the kind earth
Whose bones gave me form
And let my soul go home unhindered.

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

 

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

I’ve had a couple of busy weeks at work, both jobs, and I’ve enjoyed it mostly, even though some of it was stressful. But waking up this morning I felt the full weight of the default depression land on me like a big slobbery dog who’s pleased you’re back. All the petty concerns I’d put on hold while I was rushed off my feet came back and had a pity party in my head. My teaching job is currently in some jeopardy as they are moving premises and it’s going to be a lot harder to get to work; I’ve resolved that the first near miss as a car clips my bicycle signals me quitting. I love teaching, I really do; it’s one of my talents and in many ways, I am wasted where I work. If you’ve seen Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, it’ll give you a clue about my style of teaching; but it also means that even had I the correct bits of paper, I’d be sacked in a week in a state school. So I am on the sharp look out for a new job, one that is year round, and which doesn’t have the substantial drawbacks of my current one (of which I will not speak here)

But my return to sullen misery has woken me up to something that slumbers much of the time. That’s the realisation that even changing jobs, changing homes or whatever significant life change I might sometimes crave is only a distraction from my real work in this world. Six months into a new job, or a new location, and the same old issues come creeping back, like rats who realise the ship was not sinking after all.

That’s a bit of a scary realisation. It means that anything I pursue, success, fame, wealth, whatever holds no power to change anything internally. If I become a NYT’s bestseller, nothing changes. If I get the job that seems to fit every talent or skill, nothing changes. Oh for sure my mood might alter and improve, I might even be happy for a while. But nothing deeper changes.

You see, any real change has to come from within, not from anything external to me. I’ve never been someone who found retail therapy anything other than a disappointment, and while I have certainly chased success as willingly as any writer, I’ve started to grasp the fact that such success does not and cannot make me anything other than momentarily happy. I can see now that my lifelong pro-wrestling match with the Black Dog has saved me some expensive mistakes.

Chasing things because you believe that they may make you happy is a futile exercise, and one that frankly underpins the whole economy of the prosperous West. It is endless and caustic to the human soul, because it is tantalising and drives you on to seek more and more and more to less and less satisfaction, and eventual bitterness.

What then can bring peace to the troubled soul? What can tame the Black Dog and make it an ally and not an enemy?

Well, my current theory is that it is meaning that brings peace. It’s certainly how people survive the kind of catastrophic experiences that send many over the edge and down into insanity.

It’s only a theory but is one borne out by such luminaries as Viktor Frankl, and also by personal experience. I can accept and even value my own sufferings when I realise that they have shaped me to be the person I am now, and the riches of compassion and empathy that have been uncovered within me. They’ve made me a far less selfish person than I would otherwise have been.

Native Americans have a saying, something they speak as a prayer when they enter the sacred space of a sweat lodge. They say, “For all my relations,” as they enter, and by that they do not mean their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and so on. They mean every one of us humans, and all the animals and trees and plants, right down to the Stone People, the rocks we kick aside and split asunder.

So my prayer today, in honour of all that I have endured as a human and all that I will endure, is that it is done in honour and support of all life, all creation, and that I will find meaning in all.

For all my relations.”

Amen.

A Candlemas Sermon- the great hidden in ordinary, hidden in plain sight

Another “guest post” from my husband. If you wish, skip through the readings (in brackets)  to the sermon itself. 

 

{Malachi 3.1-5: 1 ¶ See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. 6 For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.

 

Hebrews 2.14-end: 14 ¶ Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

 

Luke 2:22-40 – the presentation of Christ in the temple.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23. (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24. and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25. Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28. Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30. for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31. which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32. a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33. And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35. so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36. There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37. then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.}

 

Today we look forward to Wednesday – to the presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas as it is usually known. We are about at the end of Epiphany but we have a little more to learn about the sharing of God’s love with the whole world. A little more before we start the Sundays before Lent.

So what to we know. Well we know that Mary and Joseph were not rich. You see, the Old Testament law says that Mary should have brought a yearling lamb and a pigeon or a turtledove. It was only if she could not afford a lamb that she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, instead. Mary brought two pigeons and I don’t believe she is someone who would short-change God, so she and Joseph must not have been able to afford a lamb. 

So, this poor couple enter the great temple carrying their little baby. There was nothing obvious to mark them or Jesus out as special. And yet Simeon instantly recognises this little baby as the promised Messiah, the Christ. He picks Jesus up and we have him recorded as saying the wonderful words we know best as the Nunc Demitis, “Lord now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word………..”. A prayer that I have recited so often at the graveside. It is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to a God who is faithful and keeps his promises. It is also an acceptance of death as part of God’s plan for humanity – a theme for another sermon perhaps. Simeon embraces his death and praises God.

Now we have a poor couple, with a little baby. Who at the same time are the ones carrying the hope of the world in their arms. Hope that makes an old man to praise God for his coming death. The wonderful power and majesty of God hidden in the ordinary, the normal. This great moment when Jesus is brought to the Temple, and no one notices. No one sees anything special until Simeon steps out from the crowd. Then there is Anna the daughter of Phanuel, an old woman who has been a poor widow for most of her adult life. Again she sees what the priests and holy men cannot. She takes Jesus and praises God.  

The great hidden in the ordinary. Hidden in plain sight. 

I recently heard a story about the growth of two monasteries that I know and treasure. One is Mount St. Bernard in Leicestershire, whose monks helped to me to keep my sanity while training for the priesthood. And the other is on Caldey Island off the Welsh coast; that one I have visited but do not know so well. Both were in serious decline and both now have new novices and a new vibrancy about them. This made me think about another story about a failing monastery.  

Story of the failing monastery (thanks to Anthony DeMello!): This monastery had once been full of song and praise. A centre of learning and teaching and encouragement. But like so many things the monastery’s glory began to fade, novices were first rare and then gone altogether. Leaving the abbot and just a few ageing monks.

Now obviously the abbot knew that something had to be done. So, they prayed for growth. They tried modernising, they tried new services, they tried everything that they could think of to become more relevant, and successful once again. But after slight, brief successes, all their efforts failed again and again.

 And the monks kept getting older. Finally, the abbot knew that this task was beyond him. Something was wrong, and the monks prayers were not being answered. Worst still, the sense of community, the one thing the abbot thought the monastery had left, even that was starting to go. Under the pressure of failure, of rising bills and few people, tempers were starting to fray. Arguments were starting. The brothers were finding faults with each other. They started to grumble at brother cook about the quality of the food. Brother cook lost heart and the food did become worse. Discontent was growing and growing fast. 

In desperation the abbot called another meeting for them all to pray about the mess they were in. At that meeting one of the monks mentioned a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert who was becoming widely regarded as a holy man. A modern day Christian prophet. So they prayed some more and decided to use some of the little money they had left and send the abbot to see the hermit.  

The abbot finally reached the hermit, who was sitting in silent prayer by a remote cave. The abbot shared the peace and solitude and prayer of the hermit for several days before the hermit asked why he had come. The abbot explains about the mess in the monastery and asks what he can do. The hermit prays silently for another few days and then declares that all will be well with the monastery. — One of the brothers will one day be recognised as a great saint who will guide them all back to their vocations. But the hermit could not say which of the bothers was the saint. God has disguised the saint. He is hidden from them but he is there.  

So the abbot returns to the monastery excited and tells all the brothers. Who become excited themselves. A great saint, a saint who will be famous …… and in their monastery. Eating food with them. Working with them. And they begin to look around could it be brother cook, of course not he was prone to depression and couldn’t even cook any more. Could it be the abbot: how could it be, under him the monastery had declined to almost nothing. And so they went through each of the remaining brothers. None of them seemed like great saints. But was that just God’s disguise? It could be any of them.

 So, without noticing it, they started to treat each of there brothers as the hidden saint, just in case. And they began to realise that the hermit was right. They began to feel better about their monastery. Brother cook was praised and the food improved. An atmosphere of quiet holiness started to cover everything they did.

 Visitors began to notice, or rather feel, that there was something special and holy about that monastery. Something saintly. Visitor numbers grew. Novices began to arrive. People started coming for spiritual support and advice. Until the monastery became a famous centre of learning, and teaching and encouragement.

 You see, that simple apocryphal story is about God, majestic and mighty, hidden in plain view. But present all the same. And no less powerful for being hidden. That is how God works.

 That is how God the creator is hidden in his own creation. How God the mighty and powerful became a little baby, born to poor parents. That is how he could come to the temple and almost no one recognised him. 

That is how God is here now in this church. How God is here in each of you. And me, I hope. God is here and it is the holiness of our lives that will attract people here. It is the way we love and care, for one another and for those we meet. It is in all of these little things that God hides himself: God hidden but still felt. 

God is hidden but God is felt in the way we treat one another. In the way we care and respect one another. God is more often in the places that normal wisdom would never consider. Like a king in a manger. A holy and successful church in a little place like this. And holy saints in ordinary bodies like yours.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

The Texture of Silence

 

The texture of silence

 

Silence has texture.

You don’t realise how different those textures are until you stop to listen.

There’s the broken glass, bleeding edge texture of the awkward silence that falls in the ringing aftermath of a fight. You can feel the sharp fractured edges as the shattered peace falls to the ground like glass bird-scarers in an old fashioned kitchen garden.

Then there’s the hungry salivating silence of expectation, that bated breath hush, like the dying tones of the dinner gong where only vibrations and eagerness remain.

And finally there’s the silence you find in holy places, where worlds meet and touch and even overlap. You walk in and are struck by the depth of the quiet, self conscious suddenly of the creak of a door or arthritic knees, yet any sound you make rapidly vanishes, absorbed into the deep silence as a stone dropped into an underground lake. The ripples spread out to infinity and are lost, and the silence returns. It has the texture of the finest velvet, rich and soft as forest moss. When you let yourself be still, you can hear the silence over the roar of traffic or the bustle of a busy kitchen, like a kind of celestial white noise.

When you find a place where this sort of silence prevails, cherish it. Hold it in your heart, explore that texture in your mind till you understand that beyond all the sounds of the world, from the discordant roar of aircraft, the inanity of human chatter to the melody of springtime birds and the wind in the wheat, this silence is the song of the spirit that plays on whether we choose to hear it or not.

An Advent sermon

This is sort of a guest post, if you like. As you may know, I have been in hospital, having an operation. There were complications but I am home now and ok. Mostly anyway. I won’t bore you with details. 

 The following is my husband’s sermon for tomorrow(today when you read this). Even if you are not a believer, or you belong to another faith, please do read it, as I think the central themes are relevant to many people. I believe in peace, in people of all races and faiths getting along and realising we are all one family. (It’s also his birthday tomorrow too, so Happy Birthday dearest!)

Matthew 1.18-end : 18 ¶ Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

For the last three weeks we have been looking backwards to God’s promises to us: The hope of the Messiah given through God’s messengers. Today, the 4th and final Sunday of Advent the story focuses on the celebration that is less than a week away. Our readings speak of God’s love for us – of how he promised us through the prophet Isaiah that a virgin would conceive and bear a son whose name would be known as “Emmanuel”, God with us – and how this special child would save and deliver his people.

In our Gospel reading, we are told how that promise came true through Mary’s child and we are told how Joseph, out of his love for God and his obedience to God, took Mary for his wife and did all that the angel commanded him to do. And it’s because of Joseph’s obedience that Jesus had a home and family.

And then there is that reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. That reading is just Paul’s introduction, he sets out his credentials as an apostle. And then there is a greeting: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Scripture is eternal, passing the bounds of space and time. So to all God’s beloved in Corton: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

That is how our passage from the letter to the Romans ends. But like Advent that is ending, it sets the scene for the riches to come.

So Grace to you .. and Peace.

Peace… That is something that seems to have been far from me this week. Work has been incredibly busy and I’ve been coming home glassy eyed from staring at a computer screen without a break. My brain seized solid with mentally jumping from one topic to another. A seized brain might not be very active but it certainly isn’t at peace.

Then there’s been the worry. The worry of Viv going into hospital. I know it’s only a small operation. In at 7am and out the same afternoon. But it’s still an operation, Viv will still be hurt and I can’t do anything about it. Nothing but ‘be there’ and do the things that she can’t until she is better. We worry about those close to us. And logic can barely scratch the surface of that worry and fear.

I know God is with me, with Viv. I know His presence all of the time. It is comforting to but I still worry and fret. What if?… what then?…

What then – well the snow comes in drifts making the 6.30 drive treacherous, but at least the concentration keeps my mind of other things, the other what ifs…

We arrive safely at the hospital and slither gracefully, or not so gracefully into the warm. We arrive at the department and a grey exhausted night shift nurse welcomes us. You could see the pause while her tired brain takes in that new patients have arrived. You can see the effort as she reaches down past her feet to summon up a tired smile that starts at the corner or her mouth and finally reaches her eyes.

We are told to wait. So we wait, a small group of women with their husbands, boyfriends or ‘significant others’. All dazed, frightened and worried. All still a little cold with snow melting off our shoes. Then within 10, 15 minutes at the most, Viv and the other women are checked in and shown to their beds. And I, with the other men are kindly but firmly escorted off the ward. We’ll phone you between 1 and 3 to let you know you can pick her up. And the small group of us wander off dazed back into the cold and ice.

And Viv wasn’t home that night, there were complications, there always are. But she is home now. But I still need peace.

We need peace. I need peace.

Peace.

Peace is a key theme for Christmas. I decided to get the shopping in before Viv came home, while I could still leave the house unattended. And I found peace. I saw peace on Christmas cards in the supermarket.

I saw the word, and a dove or a mother and child, I stepped back to admire and soak up the peaceful scene …. and bumped into the basket of the person behind me; who bumped the person with the overfull trolley next to them. And the bubble is burst.

We talk about peace, we long for peace but we don’t seem to have a clue about how to go about getting it. So we spend and spend, and spend some more …. just in case. In case of what, I’m not quite sure.

We fill our baskets and cars with more food than any person can eat. We buy presents and so much more. We fill our homes and then go out for more.

I need peace, the people in that supermarket need peace, our world needs peace. Peace is an ideal and seems to stay just out of reach. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

I arrived home, I saw the sparrows on the feeders and chasing each other around. I saw the candle burning, a silent prayer for Viv. And peace came back. Well peace had never really left, I had just been too busy to notice God’s peace still there, waiting patiently inside. The peace amid the worries and fears. The peace that was stronger than the ‘what ifs’.

Peace snuck up on me, and tripped me up. And I nearly cried. I had an insight into what all this Advent preparation is all about. Why taking the time to prepare is so important and why rushing to get to Christmas too early, too quickly is so harmful.

I realised why the Peace was there. It wasn’t because I am saintly or special. But because I know lots of people who are, literally saints and they are with me every time I pray. And the peace was there because God was there, Jesus was there with me, through the Spirit. That peace was there all the time, I was just too busy to see it. That is what Advent preparation is for.

Advent is there so that we can spend time get close to God. Pondering God’s promises of Peace and Grace. Reading about the people of faith, hearing the Bible stories and prophecy. Considering again the possibility that hope could come through Mary, a young girl, saying Yes. Advent is about learning to trust God again, even though we can’t reach out and touch Him. We learn to appreciate the presence of God with us all the time.

Now I get uneasy with too much talk about Jesus as my friend. Jesus is the incarnate Word with, the one who was with the Father at the beginning of time. Jesus is our all powerful judge, the one more powerful than death, all death. Greater than time, the one who will return and end time. But at the same time Jesus can be like a close friend, I don’t deserve it, and never will, but that is one of the mysteries of faith: That the all powerful God can be baby, or stand beside us now in Spirit and surprise us with peace.

Its a gift. After all that is what Grace is – a gift.

So Grace to you .. and Peace. Because the hope of grace, is at the heart of our Advent preparations. Grace is a blessing undeserved. A gift, wrapped or unwrapped, that will arrive at Christmas.

Now I don’t know about you but Grace is what I need. I know myself far too well to think that I could ever earn God’s favour. It needs to be a gift or there isn’t much hope. But a baby born in 1st century Palestine was a gift. A gift from God that we find so hard to accept.

Going back to the pre-Christmas supermarket – we get a taste of grace, and think we can do the rest with tinsel and food and drink. And it is hollow at the centre, without hope. The hoped for joyful family Christmas ends in a fight, harsh words, New Year indiscretions and a year of painful recriminations.

So we have been given a gift – or lots of gifts – We have Advent as a gift, the preparation that makes it possible for the Christ to be at the centre of our Christmas. Without Christ there is only ‘mas’, a mass of people frantic and aimless, prodding turkeys and gathering sprouts.

So Advent is about preparation. Preparing ourselves for Jesus’ return. Or more accurately letting God prepare us. Then we will be reading to celebrate Christmas. A Christmas full of hope and joy and expectation. A Christmas with the Christ shaped hole filled with the incarnate Christ. Christmas, like a good cake can’t be rushed. It needs preparation, work and sufficient time. Time for the gift of Advent to unwrap itself and become part of us.

So use this Advent, what is still left of it.

I’ll end where I started, with the wisdom of St. Paul. : To God’s beloved in Corton: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ….. this Advent, this Christmas and Always.

In the Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.