Epiphany 3

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit and set all your people free to praise you in Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Almighty Father, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: may your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

Nehemiah 8:1–6, 9–10

Psalm

1    The heavens are telling the glory of God
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2    One day pours out its song to another
and one night unfolds knowledge to another.

3    They have neither speech nor language
and their voices are not heard,

4    Yet their sound has gone out into all lands
and their words to the ends of the world.

5    In them has he set a tabernacle for the sun,
that comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber and rejoices as a champion to run his course.

6    It goes forth from the end of the heavens and runs to the very end again,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

7    The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple.

8    The statutes of the Lord are right and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure and gives light to the eyes.

9    The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever;
the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10    More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold,
sweeter also than honey, dripping from the honeycomb.

11    By them also is your servant taught
and in keeping them there is great reward.

12    Who can tell how often they offend?
O cleanse me from my secret faults!

13    Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins lest they get dominion over me;
so shall I be undefiled, and innocent of great offence.

14  Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Psalm 19

Epistle

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

I Corinthians 12:12–31a

Gospel

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

    ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

    to bring good news to the poor.

    He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to let the oppressed go free,

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Luke 4.14–21



Sermon on Epiphany 3

Imagine the scene, everyone in Slimbridge is down by the roundabout. They are agitated and there is murmuring – they want the clerk in orders to read out the Ten Commandments, the Thirty-nine Articles, and the historic Creeds.

Well, if you can’t imagine that, let’s think about our reading from the prophet this morning.

all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, …

We don’t have gates into the village, but the roundabout is the main entrance, isn’t it? Everyone, it seems, comes in to, and goes out of Slimbridge on St John’s Road and at the roundabout go straight on to Dursley, left to Gloucester and right to Bristol. In Jerusalem, the Water Gate is one of many gates into the city, gates which go to particular places. Everyone in Jerusalem knows this particular gateway to the city, as they must have used it to get water.

Do either of these scenes seem to be a real story to you? Do you really think anyone would clamour to listen to a recital of the Law? Or would you want to listen to that newly discovered book of the Law here and now? Would your friends and neighbours wish to listen to the historic formularies of the Anglican Church?

Or if you were transported back to Jerusalem two and a half thousand years, would you want Ezra to bring out the book of the Law and read it to you?  – How many of us really want to be reminded about how badly we behave by such a recital?

This public reading is nothing we have experienced, is it? No longer does the town cryer walk the streets ringing his bell, and announce the news at major points in the town. Happenings of importance are disseminated by facebook or twitter nowadays, even the news programmes of radio and television have been forsaken for an app on the mobile.

So what do we consider of such great moment that we would gather together in a public place to hear what is really happening? I don’t know. Life has become so isolated, for we don’t even talk over the garden fence any more, do we? – When was the last time you just nattered with your neighbour for no particular reason?

Not just a “nice weather we are having” – not a five minute chat about whether the clouds mean rain or fog or whether the sky will clear and it will turn out to be  wonderful weather. That’s the way socialising tends to be seen, isn’t it? So much so that the television channel Dave has a catchy quote, “One freezing day gives two weeks of conversation in the UK.”

I would say that there is a thirst for something more than superficial chats in Jerusalem so long ago and everywhere today. We should be able to see this all around us. Even those mundane words about the weather can reveal a yearning for something greater than whether we should expect rain or shine.

But what do we do day by day? We fall into the habit of only talking about the weather – and nothing else. We have forgotten that everyone we meet has the same yearning which each one of us has. You have that longing – so do I. So why do we only speak about the weather when we are really interested in something else? Partly it is easier to have a passing comment about the weather than settle into a more drawn out conversation about how we are coping with life. How many of us want to listen to a detailed recalling of another person’s day or all their troubles? Don’t we say, that their stories have nothing to do with me?

Is that loving our neighbour as ourselves? – But that is a question for another time.

Let’s look at the public reading at the Water Gate in another way. Last week we heard about the gifts of the Spirit – this week Paul writes to us about the singleness of life in diversity. The gifts are all derived from the Spirit – one Spirit, the same one, expresses itself in each individual differently. The metaphor Paul uses this week is the body. Hands, eyes, legs – these all compose the body, they are different to one another, but they become a unity when one considers the interaction of one part to the other.

The reading gathers together the diverse members of the population, just as the body is composed of many parts. All of us have gathered together in this place to unite ourselves through listening to the old, old story being recounted here in prayer and reflection, and in the liturgy’s language. Like the people of Jerusalem we here have gathered to hear the recital of something which has nothing to do with the weather, but everything do to with the good life.

Just like the people of Jerusalem, we too want to hear that recital of something greater than how cold the day is turning out to be. We want to know the direction of life in our ultimate concern. Isn’t that why the people wept when they finally heard the words Ezra read and interpreted for them at the Water Gate? The great weight of moral responsibility finally landed on them. Hadn’t the direction of their ordinary lives become clear to them?

Why did they weep? Perhaps the people realised just what the everyday concerns had done. When they finally heard the Law being read to them, when it was discussed thoroughly amongst “all who could hear with understanding”, how could anyone be content with the life they had been leading?

all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then [Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites] said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

Instead of bullying the people about their bad behaviour, what does the leadership of Israel say, “Eat and drink with joy, and now share your feast with others who have nothing.”

The Prophets, the Scribes and the Levites all concur in this message of the Law, don’t they? Because there is such agreement amongst all the leaders of Israel, is it any wonder that the people weep?

Will that crowd all disperse with joy after their great meeting at the Water Gate? They were all “who could hear with understanding” – just like us. So will we “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” today after we have met at this Water Gate, where we have partaken of the water which will never leave us thirsty ever again?

Amen

Epiphany 2

Collect

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, now and for ever.

or

Eternal Lord, our beginning and our end: bring us with the whole creation to your glory, hidden through past ages and made known in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God of glory, you nourish us with your Word who is the bread of life: fill us with your Holy Spirit that through us the light of your glory may shine in all the world. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

   and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

   and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,

   and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name

   that the mouth of the Lord will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,

   and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,

   and your land Married;

for the Lord delights in you,

   and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,

   so shall your builder marry you,

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,

   so shall your God rejoice over you.

Isaiah 62:1–5

Psalm

5    Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens
and your faithfulness to the clouds.

6    Your righteousness stands like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep;
you, Lord, shall save both man and beast.

7    How precious is your loving mercy, O God!
All mortal flesh shall take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

8    They shall be satisfied with the abundance of your house;
they shall drink from the river of your delights.

9    For with you is the well of life
and in your light shall we see light.

10    O continue your loving-kindness to those who know you
and your righteousness to those who are true of heart.

Psalm 36

Epistle

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

I Cor 12:1–11

Gospel

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John 2:1–11



Sermon on Epiphany 2

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’…”

I wonder whether this verse is actually the shortest of commentaries on the OT book of Job. Because, if we remember correctly, Job is having a lot of trouble and is constantly asking, “Why, O Lord?” as he loses friends and riches, his family and even his health. However, in his isolation Job keeps faith – he never curses God for his tribulations. He may condemn the day of his birth, but all he curses is his human experience, never the divine.

What about us? Do we ever curse God because of our circumstances? Do we ever blame God for what most would call, “Ill fortune”? We suffer bad luck, don’t we? After all, don’t we sing with Albert King, that famous blues brother of B B King, “If it ain’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”?

Do we blame God for our circumstances? We may condemn our situation, calling down God’s wrath, but do we ever curse God for the ill that happens in our world? Theologians have always discussed this problem of the existence of evil in everyday life, and they have a name for it – “Theodicy”. Sometimes they come to the conclusion that what happens in our lives is merely random. At other times they opine that everything happens for a reason and all is going to God’s plan which we cannot fathom. This grand plan is the result of the watchmaker God, everything interacts in a way that we cannot quite comprehend because we have not put all the parts together. Perhaps we never will put it all together. After all, we don’t understand why there are those wicked mosquitos, do we?!

In our non-comprehension, we are like the steward at the wedding-feast at Cana – we taste the new wine and are amazed at the quality now revealed.

However, we are not at Cana, are we? I don’t think any of us have tasted such a vintage as that wedding’s steward. Instead, our parents and we ourselves have tasted a very different wine. Our teeth are set on edge, so much so that we fear our children will taste the same bitter draught, and we are afraid that even our grandchildren and their children will have to drink from the same vintage which has made our eyes smart and may have even tempted us to forsake the grape forever.

In the confusion of our tastebuds, we curse the world, the flesh and the devil, all of which are conspiring to take any joy out of our lives. We may even be tempted to rail against the source of all creation because we are under attack from all sides, just like Job. This is nothing new, this siege mounted against the individual is eternal. Job complained of it. Shakespeare wrote of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and we wonder whether we have the strength of body and mind to overcome them. We ask ourselves whether we have the stamina to win the day and enjoy the sweet wine of the Lord’s promise, that sweet everlasting drink for us as foreshadowed at Cana.

Part of the riches of the kingdom are the gifts Paul explains in our reading this morning. Healing and wisdom are but two of the extraordinary gifts which manifest the Spirit here and now. Sometimes we can see it in this benighted life, the one in which we suffer so terribly. More often than not, we don’t see such joy.

On occasion we pronounce something. We are surprised when someone says, “You really helped me yesterday when we talked.” This is well beyond what we consider our pay grade. We have a glimpse into something close to heaven on occasion and we have hope for the future, which seems to be well out of our experience.

We may have helped someone heal through our unconscious wisdom, thoughts which arise spontaneously as we live in the moment, that uncharacteristic moment of caring dialogue with another, a conversation we may not remember, but which has a profound effect on the other. In those golden moments we participate in something greater than the deranged world around us.

We sit in that great banquet with those who have helped us, and those whom we have helped. That is the mansion of the kingdom, that mansion of so many rooms through which we have moved during our lives. In the midst of pain and suffering, there is joy to be shared – even if we don’t recognise it as it happens.

The Buddha recognised what Paul is writing about, what Job’s story is all about. That there is chance and change throughout life, and we need to transcend it to experience the Spirit which transforms all into the best of all possible worlds,  a heavenly realm. This is not the life of a Candide, it becoms a moment of absolute reality, the ultimate reality in which we understand our ownmost possibility for the course of life.

I want to take Paul’s comment as a confirmation of the message of Job’s suffering – that although so much must be borne, we must impute all evil to our ignorance of what is good. That is why Paul says no one can curse God and still be in the Spirit, and no one can acclaim Jesus as the Christ except she or he be in the Spirit. In other words, you can’t have it both ways.

Nothing in life is straightforward at all. Isn’t our life full of contradiction and temptation? Don’t we often misconstrue what is right in front of us? The philosopher teaches us about perception and moral acts in the midst of the maelstrom of the everyday, when we are confused by so many voices. Paul says, “You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.” We are no longer those “pagans” – rather now we are enlightened and listen to the Word of God, no longer fixated on an object in the confusion of the voices all around us.

A true voice can be heard, a voice which speaks to our very silent, suffering selves. It does not chatter, nor does it distract, but it gives focus, a focus which helps us cut through the bitter taste of that drink we too often think life is. The steward of the wedding feast stands before us inviting to drink of a marvellous vintage. We expect nothing to be the same again, but that will be true only if we never let things return to the same old ways.

I think this is a message for us all in the worry of the pandemic, of economic confusion, of what has been the normal of the past. The message is that everything is changed in an instant, the instant we taste that new wine and see that it is good, when we share the life of the Spirit with all around us.

Amen

Epiphany

Collect

O God, who by the leading of a star manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith, may at last behold your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Creator of the heavens, who led the Magi by a star to worship the Christ–child: guide and sustain us, that we may find our journey’s end in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, the bright splendour whom the nations seek: may we who with the wise men have been drawn by your light discern the glory of your presence in your Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings
Old Testament

1    Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

2    For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

3    Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

4    Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

5    Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

6    A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.

    They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Isaiah 60

Psalm

[1  Give the king your judgements, O God,

   and your righteousness to the son of a king.

2  Then shall he judge your people righteously

   and your poor with justice.

3  May the mountains bring forth peace,

   and the little hills righteousness for the people.

4  May he defend the poor among the people,

   deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.

5  May he live as long as the sun and moon endure,

   from one generation to another.

6  May he come down like rain upon the mown grass,

   like the showers that water the earth.

7  In his time shall righteousness flourish,

   and abundance of peace

      till the moon shall be no more.

8  May his dominion extend from sea to sea

   and from the River to the ends of the earth.

9  May his foes kneel before him

   and his enemies lick the dust.]

10  The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute;
the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts.

11    All kings shall fall down before him;
all nations shall do him service.

12    For he shall deliver the poor that cry out,
the needy and those who have no helper.

13    He shall have pity on the weak and poor;
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.

14    He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence,
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.

15    Long may he live; unto him may be given gold from Sheba;
may prayer be made for him continually
and may they bless him all the day long.

Psalm 72.[1–9]10–15

Epistle

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

Ephesians 3:1 – 12

Gospel

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

    “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

    for from you shall come a ruler

    who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2: 1–12

Sermon on Epiphany

Let us pray:

Creator of the heavens, who led the Magi by a star to worship the Christ–child: guide and sustain us, that we may find our journey’s end in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We are celebrating The Epiphany today and this prayer encapsulates the significance of this event in the life of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Let’s see it the way our contemporaries might look at it.

First of all, we address God as the “Creator of the heavens” – we then describe one of the mighty acts of God – this miracle is the guiding of the Magi to Bethlehem and their consequent worship of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes who was laid in a manger. What does the ordinary person make of this description of God, that is, if they even consider the deity as a reality at all? I think it substantiates the attitude of many who say that they left Church because they grew up, and out of the stories they were compelled to accept as children.

I actually don’t blame them, for I, too, could easily give up on the whole enterprise, if I stopped listening to this prayer at this point – if I were only to accept that a star guided three men to a stable in Bethlehem. But the prayer goes on! We have more to consider. After addressing that beyond which nothing can be conceived (as St Anselm calls God), the prayer petitions that we should find our journey’s end, that we shall be guided and sustained in our course of life. We are asking for help from something far beyond anything we know, that Creator of the heavens whom we address here because we are searching for that journey’s end right now, whether we know it or not.

When we take in the imagery of our prayer’s address, when we understand the reality of the meaning of the first phrase, we can comprehend the significance of the whole prayer, don’t you think? So many get stuck with the symbols of our faith, as if the symbols themselves are the fundamental reality. “Creator of the heavens” – that is a symbolic utterance describing our very selves and our place in the world. We are at a loss as to where we are, in a creation which includes everything we know, heaven and earth, the universe and all that constitutes life as we know it.

Such symbolic utterance compels us in our lives, doesn’t it? We can see it all around us every minute of the day. When we call our partners, “Beloved,” we are speaking in symbols. “Beloved” is not my wife’s name, but she knows it as a symbol for herself when I use it. And she realises the very real significance she has in my life.

Many use the meme “OMG”, don’t they? I would say that they are acknowledging the extraordinary in their experience. They expostulate “OMG” when they are surprised at something, something they don’t expect, something far out of the ordinary. “OMG” is heard when they are happy and when they are upset, just as we who come to church might use it. Don’t you? Well I certainly do.

We in church use more sophisticated language. It is more symbolic than descriptive, pointing to something beyond itself. “OMG” must be seen as an equivalent to “Creator of the heavens” which we use now because it expresses wonder and surprise. We acknowledge something far beyond ourselves with this address of our prayer, just as someone who uses “OMG” is amazed at something, albeit in a very different way, we might say in a very much more limited manner.

One of my teachers wanted his students to see the continuum between the mystic’s use of the phrase “Creator of the heavens” and the child’s automatic, unthinking use of “OMG”. His writing and lectures were full of examples of language which echo each other, as do our two phrases, “OMG” and “Creator of the heavens” presently.

Let’s do another word study. You have often heard people say that they have had a moment which was an epiphany, haven’t you? When their understanding was transformed, when their world was turned upside down – for example as when Paul was walking on the road to Damascus. That was an epiphany in the sense we are using it, in fact we might say it was a Theophany, the moment when God appeared to Saul and he became Paul. That is the moment of epiphany, when everything was changed in a moment, even that man’s name.

Tradition says The Epiphany is when the three wise men approach the child lying in the manger. The magi give presents to Jesus, the famous “gold, frankincense and myrrh”.

Psychologists see thoughts and actions revealing the ultimate focus of a person’s life. This can be a conscious activity, but for many of us we ourselves are not very aware of what ultimate drives us. We often do not know what is guiding us – in the imagery of our prayer and the gospel, we don’t have the guiding light of that bright star. Psychologists look in at our lives and see those very important symbols in the unconscious understanding of all of us.

A little before Christmass there was a program called “Vienna Blood” on the television, I wonder if anyone else saw it. This particular episode concerned the murder of a monk. But the prologue over the credits to the episode was very interesting, because it set forth Freud’s theory of religion and the story filled out one possible interpretation of religion in life. The prologue told about how human being ranges between the deepest, most pathetic emotions and the highest and most spiritual refinement of rational thought. Freud suggests that religion is the emotional response to life, quite uncontrollable and completely controlling. Everything rises out of, and is covered by, sentiment. He says feeling pervades all life and must be transcended. Freud suggests that people are crushed by religion, and formal religions use that emotion to subjugate believers to its strict hierarchy. But I don’t believe Freud for a second, although I believe he gives us a very important description of faith. —— Religion does unite the whole of life – emotion and sprit find expression in both the phrases, “OMG” and “Creator of the heavens”. These memes are the linguistic outpouring which point to our individual journey’s end. They reveal, if we reflect on it, what is important to us, as we exclaim our disappointment at bitter times and our wonder at better times. –  I would like us to conclude our reflection this morning, by saying with feeling and full intent, “Oh my God … ”

Amen

Second Sunday of Advent

Collect

O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, purify our hearts and minds, that when your Son Jesus Christ comes again as judge and saviour we may be ready to receive him, who is our Lord and our God.

Post Communion

Father in heaven, who sent your Son to redeem the world and will send him again to be our judge: give us grace so to imitate him in the humility and purity of his first coming that, when he comes again, we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith; through Jesus Christ our
Lord.

Readings


Old Testament

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. 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; 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. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachai 3:1–4

Psalm

Benedictus

Epistle

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day
of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion
of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for
the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1.3–11

Gospel

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Luke 3.1–6

Sermon on Second Sunday of Advent

We read these verses in the gospel today.

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,…”’

We all know about this quotation from Isaiah used in the gospel, don’t we? We have heard it every year at Advent for all the time we have been christians. That lone voice is declaring that the way of the Lord must be prepared. That voice crying is John’s voice, isn’t it?

However, I want to take a step back, because we english-speaking christians have been reading this quoted Old Testament verse incorrectly. A Jewish friend pointed out that the voice is crying that “the way of the Lord is to be prepared in the wilderness”. That is how the Hebrew scriptures preserve Isaiah’s words. That is quite different to the quotation as used in Luke.

How has this happened? To understand this we have to look at the artefacts of the ancient world to understand this. An ancient manuscript of the gospel has no punctuation, nor do the words appear separately, and sometimes there are contractions and abbreviations to help confuse matters. Letter follows letter in one long, flowing stream. The biblical scholars parse the letters into words and add punctuation. Other scholars translate the newly formatted text and we read their work in various versions, like the RSV, the NIV and the NEB. Most recently the NRSV.

When we read a commentary on this passage, we find there are variations in original manuscripts and how these might affect translation. Is this change in word order significant?

In my more cynical moments, I say that we should be very careful about being dogmatic about any particular translation. But, usually, I don’t think we have to be on the alert because as christians we stand in a tradition of interpretation and translation. That tradition should protect us from error. Another protection is that I have always thought a great test for reading the bible correctly is to ask how it applies to you, in other words we should read any passage in the first person. So let’s think about this verse through that lense of interpretation this morning. Whose is that voice? Is it Isaiah’s voice? Or John the Baptist’s? Or can I say that that
voice is my own? Is that voice yours? Who has the courage to cry out the word of God?

Do you bewail your situation in loneliness, despairing of everything that is happening to and around you? Or is your voice prophetic? Do you call down justice like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? Are you that lone voice decrying the errors of the present?

Do you see yourself in the desert where the way of the Lord must be prepared? Do you want to civilise the world around you?

Doesn’t moving that phrase “in the wilderness” define the interpreter’s place in the world, the interpreter’s self-understanding? Don’t we think that the interpreter’s task is singular – to clarify the text? The interpreter is to deal with the text in order that it will make sense for everyone. There is a secondary result of this activity to clarify the text as it
affects the message being interpreted for those listening to the new translation. This clarification – like clarifying butter – takes out the impurities of self interest and makes the interpreter of no consequence. We arrive at the text itself with proper interpretation. In other words there is no “spin” as there has been in our political lives, a fact that has become
very clear during the last few years.

The verse we are looking at is problematic, because if we see ourselves as “a lone voice in the wilderness” our intention about this verse is very different than if we see ourselves calling for the way of the Lord to be made in the wilderness. In either case our voice is raised alone, for it
is one single person crying out the words for all to hear.

If we see ourselves as isolated, don’t our actions and words take on a different cast? Don’t we show ourselves over against others in a very different way than when we place ourselves amongst others to declare the human enterprise of making the way of the Lord a reality in the desert of our experience?

Whether the way of the Lord or the voice is in the wilderness, tells more about us in our translation of the world than it does about the phrase in the text – we reveal our own spin on the place the wilderness has for ourselves. This discussion of our verse from Luke is important because
it reveals that wherever we place these words, “in the wilderness”, are valid ways of understanding this verse from the gospel. This discussion shows how connected we are to the subject matter which we are trying to understand.

There are times when we are speaking from a remote, perhaps even hostile, point of view and there are other times when we speak amongst our fellows about what should be done for the sake of God.

Interpretation exposes our prejudices and predilections – interpreted text reveals our most human desires. Sometimes it is all very clear, at other times they have to be teased out in a long and difficult exercise. This is everyone’s task – interpretation is an everyday, constant task.

Interpretation is our understanding of something. The philosopher talks about this task as circular. Every conclusion we come to, drives us on to another position which must be understood anew in the same way, and so we go on around again, every new insight forcing us to look at everything all over again. I think we are able to understand ourselves and our place in the world when we struggle to interpret. We do this every day when we try to read people, don’t we? We piece them together, just as we put this text from the bible together – in order to understand.

So where do we place the words “in the wilderness” in our text today? That is the problem I pose this morning.  I am asking each one of us to interpret the text for ourselves. I only hope we don’t get lost in the wilderness during our preparations for the holy day of christmass.

Amen

Third Sunday Before Advent

Collect

Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God, our refuge and strength, bring near the day when wars shall cease and poverty and pain shall end, that earth may know the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.


Jonah 3.1–5,10

5    Wait on God alone in stillness, O my soul;
for in him is my hope.

6    He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

7    In God is my strength and my glory;
God is my strong rock; in him is my refuge.

8    Put your trust in him always, my people;
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

9    The peoples are but a breath, the whole human race a deceit;
on the scales they are altogether lighter than air.

10    Put no trust in oppression; in robbery take no empty pride;
though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.

11    God spoke once, and twice have I heard the same,
that power belongs to God.

12    Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord,
for you repay everyone according to their deeds.

Psalm 62.5–12

Epistle

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Hebrews 9.24–28

Gospel

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1.14–20

Sermon on Third Sunday Before Advent?

Can you imagine Ninevah – a city so large that if you were to walk from one end to the other, it would take you three days to make that journey? I suppose London and its environs would rival that great city of the ancient world in every way.

We can imagine the goings on in Ninevah because we can see the same sorts of things happening in London today. Is God wroth because of what is happening today, just as God was incensed with the citizens of Ninevah so long ago? Certainly we are upset with all the evil we see today, from the mild forms of rude behaviours like swearing at the innocent, which we have seen and perhaps experienced, to the reprehensible acts of knife crime and even murder reported on the news daily.

Then there are all the other shameful acts of bullying, exploitation and harm of all sorts which fill the spectrum of wretched human activity, all made known to each of us, either by responsible news gathering or mere gossip which travels faster than the speed of light.

When we hear such reports, don’t we all condemn such wicked behaviour in the same way that Jonah must have done in the name of the Lord, as he looked over at Ninevah? Why else would he be so upset when God changed his mind about the destruction of that great city? However, this is a very human reaction, isn’t it? That the promised event which was well deserved has been passed over. We all want the bad guy to get his or her comeuppance, and we are bitterly disappointed when we are not vindicated by such a well deserved punishment for evil acts perpetrated against the innocent – in other words, especially when they go against all I have done!

Jonah does take this all very personally, just as do we, when we see the evil people do, when we say that such evil deserves punishment and expect those dire consequences at every moment. But when it doesn’t happen, what do we do? We sit in our tents like Achilles and fester, or we rail against heaven like Jonah.

But Jonah’s prophetic work was effective! He prophesied about doom and destruction because of evil. The message was heard and people changed their ways. Ninevah was saved because God decided he no longer needed to destroy the city. God changed his mind, and Jonah is bitterly disappointed. Don’t we know all about this? Don’t we want to see the punishment of all that wickedness? Don’t we want to see good triumph over all that evil? Of course we do. Nothing else would be appropriate – even if everything had been turned around, even if everyone concerned had transformed what they had been into the righteous and good.

God changed his mind when there was a general conversion. He saw and it was good, to re-use that phrase from the creation story, and when the floods subsided he placed the rainbow in the sky for our hope and to remind all of his eternal mercy.

Why don’t we change our minds when we see genuine remorse and a transformation of behaviour – from that despicable to the good? The people of Ninevah discarded the gaudy, sensual silks for the sackcloth and ashes of repentance – they declared a fast and converted their behaviour from the shameful to the laudable? God was able to change his plans for all of Ninevah, wasn’t he? No longer was he going to level that great city to a pile of rubble because he saw that all had changed their ways.

Can’t we see what is happening to us today in much the same way as Jonah observed Ninevah? I am not saying the pandemic is a plague from the righteous God of Judgement, though some might argue that is the case. No, I am seeing the pandemic as if it were Jonah’s preaching of the destruction of civilization as we know it. And it did threaten just such a destruction – we only have to look at how many families have lost loved ones and how those lives have been wrecked. No, I would like to see the pandemic as a wake-up call for everyone to the precarious nature of life. This virus flitted through the world, bringing destruction in its wake – even it if is not the desolation of that great city – but the world is on the brink, isn’t it?

The health of the population of the whole world is at risk, we like the Ninevites changed our ways, and total depopulation was averted. We went into isolation, we wore  our masks – we changed our habits of work and play.

I would like to say the individual became valuable again. It was no longer the economy driving thought and prayer. We began to change what was normal – we even began to hope that there was a new normal which would keep those new values, especially as we began to think globally on the level of the individual. The environment has become key. How do we make the world safe for each and every one of us – for the future? Many saw indications that a global awareness of the individual was rising from the darkness of forgetfulness. There was an enlightenment on the horizon, if only …

But we have not had the conversion of the Ninevites, have we? Instead we have burst out of our bubbles and have dismissed everything we learned through lock-down. Even though we are in danger of spiralling into greater and greater numbers of covid instances we have made decisions to go back to the “old ways” – indiscriminate association, lack of protection, all those things which were the lessons learned in lock-down have been forsaken. We have returned to thinking in terms of economics rather than humanity, in terms of acquisition rather than the other and altruism. What would Jonah be thinking if the Ninevites had acted just as we are doing now? I think he would be prophesying destruction again, I think he would be expecting the end of that great city of Ninevah yet again. Their short fast and the wearing of sackcloth has been forgotten. Now we wear their silks and feast on extravagant dainties. Jonah would rightly be expecting the destruction of the modern Ninevah. I have to ask now – Have we returned to that old normal? I don’t think we have achieved the new normal of the conversion now. We need to remember the lessons of lock-down and forsake that past. After all, that old normality led us to the pandemic. We need to transform our lives in order to live to the fullest in the sight of God. This is what the prophets have always said. This is Jesus’ message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is right here among us.” I pray we have now truly changed our ways in order to be worthy of heaven.

Amen

All Saints

Collect

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God of holiness, your glory is proclaimed in every age: as we rejoice in the faith of your saints, inspire us to follow their example with boldness and joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God, the source of all holiness and giver of all good things: may we who have shared at this table as strangers and pilgrims here on earth be welcomed with all your saints to the heavenly feast on the day of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them for ever. Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.

Wisdom 3: 1–9

Psalm

1    The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it,
the compass of the world and all who dwell therein.

2    For he has founded it upon the seas
and set it firm upon the rivers of the deep.

3    ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord,
or who can rise up in his holy place?’

4    ‘Those who have clean hands and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to an idol, nor sworn an oath to a lie;

5    ‘They shall receive a blessing from the Lord,
a just reward from the God of their salvation.’

6    Such is the company of those who seek him,
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.

Psalm 24: 1–6

Epistle

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Revelation 21: 1–6

Gospel

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

John 11: 32–44



Sermon on All Saints Sunday

What are your children and grandchildren going to do tonight? Are they going to join their friends ‘trick or treat’-ing? If they are older have they been involved in any of the film fright fests that are on television? If they have left home, have they been involved in some dark practices we don’t know anything about? This is a spooky time of year, when the clocks change, the darkness lands earlier, and we are more inclined to think the worst.

Today is Halloween, the evening when we think about the other world. In line with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’s year, we have gathered to remember during this season after the green season of Trinity of those who have passed before us. This is the red season of Remembrance, the saints and souls during  the week coming, with next week bringing Remembrance Sunday when we call to mind those who have died in service to the country, in war overseas and active service here.

Today, then, is All Hallows Evening, the day we anticipate the Feast of All the Saints, when we celebrate the saints who have passed before us. The Church is not the only entity looking forward to this celebration. The media has been full of ghouls and monsters, the scariest of the unworldly has made its way into public view. Why has Halloween taken on this frightening face, rather than remaining the anticipation of a day of celebration of all that is good and holy? The answer could be long and tedious, especially the way I tell it, but suffice it to say that we normally find it easier to frighten ourselves than to enlighten ourselves.

So let’s look on the positive side of this day of anticipation.

The other Sunday, someone said “You know, the Roman Church names ten thousand saints.” That person was amazed at the number of recognised saints. – How could there be that many? was the soeaker’s unasked question. But aren’t there more? We might retort? Couldn’t we ask: Aren’t there so many holy people who are unrecognised? Like all those heros in the background of our own day? In the bible we hear about the saints in Jerusalem, they were the whole congregation gathered in that place, and Paul writes to the saints in other places, doesn’t he? and they are all un-named. The implication is that all believers can be counted in that number of the holy. Don’t some of us use the phrase “of blessed memory” when we mention someone who has died? So don’t you think we attempt to sanctify those who have gone on before? How many of our remembered ones have not been officially named saints? Do we need to name each and every one? What if we forget someone?

A long time ago, a preacher was talking about the saints ambivalently. On the one hand, he could name all the wonderful deeds the saints had accomplished. The healings and teaching, the public witness to the gospel – all the deeds the saints accomplished, all sorts of great things. However, on the other hand, he delighted in listing all the recalcitrant and the ornery, all those difficult people who were named as saints. St Augustine for instance was one of that preacher’s examples, Augustine wanted to be good according to the Church’s teaching, “but not just yet!” as he says in his book, The Confessions. There are other demanding people who also became saints – some were misanthropic and wanted to live alone in the desert, others were happy to live in community, but they were difficult to get along with. St Ignatius of Antioch was one saint who was killed in a persecution of the Church. But he challenged the authorities to make him a martyr, and they obliged. His letters are full of provocation to the pagan leaders, goading them into making him the martyr he wanted to be. He became, just as he wished, the finest wheat milled by the teeth of the lions in the Colosseum.

There is such a range of personalities amongst the saints. Why shouldn’t there be an infinite number of these holy people in the sight of God? After all, salvation, which is entry into the Kingdom of God,  is being offered to all of creation.

Then another question is: Why don’t we consider ourselves saints on a par with Anselm or Beckett? Mother Teresa or Joan of Arc?

One of the marks of a saint is the joy they have in life, like Francis of Assisi who looked at all of creation and saw his brothers and sisters in everything. His joy in creation overflowed to such an extent that people crowded around him and became the Franciscan Order, which continues with that joy of life in whomever they meet.

Let’s try to understand that. There are a lot of people around us who have joy in their lives, and they show it individually. You and I, for instance, may enjoy a piece of Bach the organist plays, but we show our happiness differently. But that joy, that deep joy, undergirds how we express it. I might go very quiet, and meditate on the notes and their relationships one to another. You might become very excited, perhaps even swaying or tapping in time with the rhythms being produced. The organist enjoys Bach in a very different way to us listeners. Through sight and touch, the sound is produced and the joy of heavenly melody overtakes. We have all engaged in the joy of Bach so very differently, but it is joy which unites us.

That common joy which underlies so many expressions of enjoyment is a profound reality, something we often lose sight of, when it comes to comparing ourselves with each other – for instance, when we promote someone to the status of saint. I think we should change our perception of who a saint is. Let us see that we all have the possibility to be  considered holy through the lives we lead.

That underlying joy, that joy of faith, is the link for all the saints as they gather around the banquet to which Jesus called them. That underlying joy is our link to the saints and to one another. Even though we may not get along with everyone, we all enjoy that faith which drives us on.

Don’t we all say monks and nuns are close to becoming saints because they were driven to escape the world we live in? Their lives are lived in a holy order. They create a world of their own – a world which we all wish to understand in some way. In the earliest period of the Church universal, there were the people who fled to the desert to perfect their life in the presence of God.

The Desert Fathers had many people visit them in those desolate places where they struggled amongst themselves and confronted the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. We all want to know how to win that battle, don’t we? Don’t we ourselves “visit” unworldly people ourselves? Perhaps even by just coming to church we dissociate ourselves from the everyday world for that holy hour. Our life of worship is so very different from our ordinary life that it does draw us to that other-worldly reality which we attribute to the saints, that it does make all the everyday worthwhile.

Maybe that is why the other-worldly and the unwordly come to prominence at Halloween. Perhaps even in our worldly everyday life we hanker after something the world itself does not offer. The orderly world of commerce and social respectability give way to the chaos of trick or treat. The ordinary is upset and so we revel in the orange and black of jack’o’lanterns. So, I would like to say – That is what happens when we celebrate all the saints. We recognise we want a different order in our lives, the order of heaven where the banquet is prepared for all – all the saints and souls we remember.

Amen

Last Sunday of Trinity – Bible Sunday

Collect

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Merciful God, teach us to be faithful in change and uncertainty, that trusting in your word and obeying your will we may enter the unfailing joy of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God of all grace, your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry with the bread of his life and the word of his kingdom: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your true and living bread; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55.1–11

Psalm

7    The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple.

8    The statutes of the Lord are right and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure and gives light to the eyes.

9    The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever;
the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10    More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold,
sweeter also than honey, dripping from the honeycomb.

11    By them also is your servant taught
and in keeping them there is great reward.

12    Who can tell how often they offend?
O cleanse me from my secret faults!

13    Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins lest they get dominion over me;
so shall I be undefiled, and innocent of great offence.

14    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Psalm 19.7–14

Epistle

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

II Timothy 3:14-4:5

Gospel

But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’

John 5.36b–47

Sermon on Last Sunday of Trinity – Bible Sunday

“But I have a testimony greater than John’s.” – What is this testimony? It makes me wonder about these words of Jesus. What could be greater than John’s statement that the Kingdom of God was close at hand, that it was time to amend our ways in the world? Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the Kingdom just as John did, didn’t he? This is the message which the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church still proclaims, a message which certainly resonates to the depths of our souls, doesn’t it? Especially in these times of covid when we are so confused.

I wonder, what do you make of these words of Jesus? On their own, they make no sense, do they? What if I said, “I have something to tell you, something that is more significant than anything Bill might say, maybe even more important than anything Bishop Rachel could say. What would you reply? Would it be that “Yeah, yeah” we thought about a few weeks ago? That cynical double positive that is a real negative. Or would you hear me out and then perhaps say, “No, no.” meaning an emphatic, “No!” – that you could never countenance such a bold statement ever.

I think the same thing might have happened when Jesus said those words. Would anyone believe that Jesus would gainsay the message of that prophet John. No one could believe that Jesus should want to overwrite the Testament which came from Moses, those tablets handed directly to Israel on that mountaintop so long ago.

So what do you think a testimony is?

We can all think of judicial testimony and all that entails. We imagine Perry Mason as he delves into the testimony of a witness in court. Then there are all those other modern legal eagles on the small screen. They pursue evidence of an event (dire and extreme at the very least). Then a person puts him- or her- self on the witness stand and testifies to the facts of the case. Isn’t that what the policeman advises? “The facts, nothing but the facts.”  As a witness in court we swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. That is the most important thing, isn’t it? Only the truth will do as we tell the story to which we bear witness and testify. – On the witness stand, we are in some ways just like the saint-martyrs of the Church, those who told about the foundation of their lives without any fear of the reactions of others. We do the same when we tell the truth without prejudice and certainly without any of the modern spin on events to obfuscate and deflect away from what is significant and true. I think we are just like the saints when we bear witness and testify.

There is another way we use the word testimony. Don’t we speak of a “last will and testament”? Normally, this is where we divide the spoils of life among family and friends, hoping none of it goes to the Chancellor. It is our last chance to do something we want with our wealth. But when we read about wills in novels or see them read out in tv dramas, it is not just about goods and chattels, is it? No, in these wills there are observations made about life and the recipients of the largess. “My dear wife” is graphically described often as quite the opposite to that epithet, and the descriptions go on through all the family and each of the hangers-on who had somehow attached themselves to the person whose last chance of witnessing to them the will is. This is prophecy in a broad sense, speaking the truth without reserve for its own sake, not for any prosaic purpose. Its purpose could perhaps be to testify to a higher purpose of life, a witness to God before all humanity.

Jesus says that his testimony comprises his works and deeds just as much as it is his words which create his testimony. His testimony stands bold in the world and yet no one pays attention to it, just as we do not acknowledge God who sent Jesus and, I would say, each one of us into the world. If Jesus has a testimony to proclaim by his very existence, don’t we? Don’t we proclaim by our lives what we believe and feel fundamentally – that essential belief that often we do not even acknowledge to ourselves?

Testimony is a conundrum, isn’t it? Whether we like it or not, we testify to our ownmost possibility through the whole of life. We tell the world by our very lives just what is at the heart of them, words and actions sum up who we are and what we ultimately believe. Our testimony.

Testimony is also something that happens in Church, in those “tent meetings” like those held by John Wesley or Billy Graham, those great evangelical gatherings where the fire of religion is stoked and the dross of life is burned away to allow a new life in God. We also testify in that evangelical tradition despite the fact that we are Anglican. The “meeting tent” may not be our expression of faith, but we have gathered here today to give testimony to that higher purpose of our lives. We may not be struck down by the Spirit, we may not speak in tongues, there may be no extraordinary, miraculous events during our worship, but we bear witness to the divine in our lives, one way or another just by being here.

And that brings me to our celebration today. We should be thinking about the testimony the Testaments of the Bible. As we sit here in this building, especially this morning, we should meditate on the fact of the bible.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

This verse of the bible is often quoted to prove the Bible’s own infallibility, but I don’t want to enter that discussion. I want to address what we do with the bible. Do we take it to heart? Do we allow the bible to teach us? Do we compare our actions with those characters in it in order to correct our misdeeds or to train us in righteousness? Do we let the bible or any other external authority equip us for every good work we might claim for ourselves? – I don’t think we do. – I imagine we all proclaim ourselves sufficient unto the day. There is, we say, no power in the world to correct us or to control us. We proclaim our free will but never behave as if we follow any higher principle – at least that is what my life indicates. What about yours? This verse and the phrase in our collect for today, “to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them” should make us focus on this book of books.

Let’s consider the Bible to be a source book for life. There are stories about trials and tribulations, there are stories about people who fail miserably in what they should be. However, it does show us what righteous deeds can look like explicitly. The Bible does provide us with thoughts to ponder about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, let alone the aim of salvation.

So we have testimonies clearly in our lives and in the Bible, but we obscure them so very often that the lessons we should learn are half forgotten. We remember the God of Love, but ignore the God of righteous judgement and sometimes quite the reverse. We remember partially, don’t we? — I contend that “to hear, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” Holy Scripture would remind us of the variety of life and how to live. It would “equip us for every good work.”  We might be able to remember everything. All life, good and bad, is revealed in Scripture. The bible is full of characters we meet every day. So why don’t we open our Bibles and learn about the world around us?

Let us proclaim our testimony prophetically, as the martyrs of the Church have done before us, like John Wesley and Billy Graham. Let us remember everything and so bear witness, testifying to the message of hope we have heard by speaking the truth with love as Holy Scripture encourages us. Perhaps, then, we all might be able to say with Jesus, “I have a testimony greater than John’s.”

Amen

Harvest

Readings

Old Testament

Do not fear, O soil;

   be glad and rejoice,

   for the Lord has done great things!

Do not fear, you animals of the field,

   for the pastures of the wilderness are green;

the tree bears its fruit,

   the fig tree and vine give their full yield.


O children of Zion, be glad

   and rejoice in the Lord your God;

for he has given the early rain for your vindication,

   he has poured down for you abundant rain,

   the early and the later rain, as before.

The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,

   the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.


I will repay you for the years

   that the swarming locust has eaten,

the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,

   my great army, which I sent against you.


You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,

   and praise the name of the Lord your God,

   who has dealt wondrously with you.

And my people shall never again

   be put to shame.

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,

   and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.

And my people shall never again

   be put to shame.

Joel 2:21-27

Psalm

A Song of Ascents.

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,a

   we were like those who dream.

2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,

   and our tongue with shouts of joy;

then it was said among the nations,

   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’

3 The Lord has done great things for us,

   and we rejoiced.



4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

   like the watercourses in the Negeb.

5 May those who sow in tears

   reap with shouts of joy.

6 Those who go out weeping,

   bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

   carrying their sheaves.

Psalm 126

Epistle

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

1 Timothy 6:6-10

Gospel

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,a or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:25-33

Sermon on Harvest

Harvest is a unique time during the year. It is not something we moderns are very much aware of really, are we? With our supermarkets and modern storage systems, everything is flattened out into a constant supply. I can get an apple in or out of season, or a banana from the equator, and strawberries in December. There are lots of examples, aren’t there?

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, however, reflects a different time and sensibility, one that is in tune with the seasons and seasonality – we just have to look at the decoration of the church building throughout the year. At the moment everything reflects the growing season which culminates in this celebration, this feast of the harvest. It ties itself to an agrarian calendar and all that pertains to agricultural work, that fundamental supply of food to our tables. Today we are giving thanks for farmers and all the shops which supply our wishes. We have done this for years. We give thanks for farmers and the harvest. We depend on the farmers and how they store and present their produce on the shelves. We don’t have to battle the elements to provide food for the table. It all comes from storage somehow. We don’t normally go to the field to pick the produce for supper. We ourselves are not reliant on the summer sun and rainfall for our sustenance – just the shop. Our lives today are not dependent on anything precarious like the weather – or are they?

Lately, I hope that we have realised modern convenience relies on a great deal. We have to go to the shop, the shop buys its products from different suppliers, the suppliers rely on transport (as do we). This interdependency can be very complicated, and events on the news have proven this point. The web of human interaction has been highlighted by economic realities, hasn’t it? First, it was the shortage of carbon dioxide – we panicked about the possible shortage of food because of the use of CO2 in food production, let alone our drinks, then came the shortage of lorry drivers and the shelves in the shops seemed to have been affected. Finally, there was the lack of drivers delivering fuel, and the consequent panic buying at petrol stations, in spite of the fact that everyone said there was enough fuel – you may have passed by when there were cars snarling up the roads as they waited to fill up. And now the petrol stations stand empty waiting for deliveries, just like some of the shelves in the shops.

We should take heed of our dependency on each other. We should have learned this lesson from the pandemic. Unfortunately, “getting back to normal” actually seems to mean “selfishness” or  “being greedy again” to ever so many people.

In our epistle we read, “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” I wonder whether we have thought about this sentiment at all during the isolation of lockdown, but especially now while we wonder about “getting back to normal.” The epistle goes on to describe the life of the discontent – it is not a very pretty picture, is it? When we think about our own lives, what do we imagine our lives to look like? The “great gain of godliness” – or are we so discontent that we want nothing to do with God? I wonder whether this discontent is the reason churches stand empty nowadays.

Being content – just what is that? Is it merely accepting whatever comes our way? Are we content with the way things are because we feel powerless to change the way those things are? Or are we too weak-minded to decide to change those bad things for the better.

This is not the christian way, though, is it? Christians have always hoped for something better, don’t we have stronger wills than the usual – we have always hoped for heaven, haven’t we? The social gospel is the embodiment of these ever-so-real aspirations. We believe passionately that salvation is for everyone, don’t we? So, I would say, we christians are never content. – We christians don’t blithely accept everything that comes our way. We intercede for others in prayer and in action, just like the good Samaritan. It may be just the encouragement a smile can give another person, or the full blown sacrifice of time and effort on behalf of someone else during our ordinary lives.

We christians are working toward heaven in every moment of our faithful lives. That is the “the great gain in godliness” – well, I think so anyway. The lives we lead which produce hope in the lives of others, isn’t that the source of contentment?

Farmers must feel the same as they work in the fields and with their stock so that the nation will be fed. That food in our belly allows us to have hope, don’t you think?

But at what cost? The environment has become a political football, and it is an issue which has had an impact on food production. Ethical behaviour in the provision of foodstuffs has come to the fore. The campaign for more vegetables in our diet is a case in point. More vegetables means a healthier life, but also more sustainable farming, less reliance on non-organic substances within the food chain. The husbandry of stock can be less intensive and more humane. The environment will win, and so will we, when the benefits of a new diet are felt. I am sure we know all these arguments – they have been on the media often enough, and our children are making the same points, aren’t they? Just like when we were young, we tried to change the world, now our children are acting as our conscience. Let’s listen. Let’s transform the earthly world into heaven. There is, after all, good theology to impel us in that direction.

Joel’s words are quite challenging, aren’t they? On the one hand Israel is in the midst of complaining about the harvest, but, on the other, the prophet tells us that the next harvest will be abundant. Joel’s words, “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you,” echo the psalmist’s, “May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy.”

If God can acknowledge his hurtful actions, in particular at the hand of his great army, all those insects which destroy crops, surely we should acknowledge our unbelief and begin a move toward God. –– We have touched on a great many things today, but harvest does touch every aspect of our lives, just as our faith should do. I hope we will see the network of all things that worship reveals today and every day as we intercede for the whole world and accomplish our good deeds in that world for the sake of others on this, our Harvest Sunday.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 10

Collect

Almighty God, who sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your Church: open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Gracious Father, revive your Church in our day, and make her holy, strong and faithful, for your glory’s sake in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Holy Father, who gathered us here around the table of your Son to share this meal with the whole household of God: in that new world where you reveal the fullness of your peace, gather people of every race and language to share in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.

Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

Exodus 16.2–4,9–15

Psalm

23    So he commanded the clouds above
and opened the doors of heaven.

24    He rained down upon them manna to eat
and gave them the grain of heaven.

25    So mortals ate the bread of angels;
he sent them food in plenty.

26    He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens
and led out the south wind by his might.

27    He rained flesh upon them as thick as dust
and winged fowl like the sand of the sea.

28    He let it fall in the midst of their camp
and round about their tents.

29    So they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they desired.

Psalm 78.23–29

Epistle

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

    ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Ephesians 4.1–16

Gospel

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 6: 24 – 34

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 10

Our gospel reading is a very difficult one for many. Jesus is asking a probing question about why people believe. By extension, as we read this story, Jesus is asking us why we believe. – So, why do we believe?

Many will tell about the miracles in their lives which have convinced them of God’s grace and reality – the child born, the spouse of their dreams, a cure for an illness. The list can go on, don’t you think? However, the stories from our time are nothing when compared to the miracles of the bible, healings of lame, blind and deaf, feeding five thousand with just two fish and five loaves, turning water into wine, even raising the dead, and yet we still consider all sorts of our own experience as divine manifestations.

But then there are people whose “miraculous” are the disasters which have rendered their lives inexplicable – spouses  disappearing, cancer, alzheimers, children dying. There are so many extraordinary things in life that confuse and depress. These experiences can take any joy out of life. So much so that some might think there is no divine providence guiding the path of homo sapiens sapiens.

These are the two poles of human experience, happiness and despair. These are the poles between which we are suspended for the course of our life. We travel between disaster and joy. We have to make sense of this tightrope walk. What do we say to ourselves as we precariously venture above that abyss swinging from one pole to the other? We are like the manic depressive who is exceedingly happy one moment and depressed to suicidal rage at the next moment. We just don’t really understand these things, do we? We are confused by our very real experiences.

How can the one God Almighty, so distant from my life as I live it, intervene in my life with a miracle? How can the all-loving God remove himself and cause, or just let, disaster happen everywhere around me, or visit mayhem upon me? These two questions are part of that continuum in which we find ourselves. We have been thrown into the world and we will orient ourselves towards something. The miraculous is the obvious choice to make because it stands out from everything else in our experience. Either it binds us to something greater than ourselves, or it oppresses us so much that we are crushed by it into nothingness. This is the oldest question of human experience.

Our readings today speak about the miraculous in the life of Israel and at the time of Jesus. The quails and manna are the OT equivalent to the gospel miracles of feeding the five thousand, aren’t they? Both sets of recipients of the miraculous food mistake where it comes from. The Israelites attribute the manna and quail to Moses, the Jews ask Jesus himself for that bread and water everlasting. Neither group thank God for his generosity. They all see the men in front of them as the source of the miraculous. But Moses and Jesus deny themselves as the origin of the sustenance, as they just happen to let the glory of God shine through them. Jesus says in our gospel reading, “this is the work of God” and Paul reminds us that Moses wears a veil because the glory of God was shining in his face and the complaining people of Israel could not bear such a sight.

This is just one of the mistakes people make, isn’t it? That they take something as something else. We do it all the time. We mistake a weed for a flower and, when we let it go to seed, the garden is inundated with plants we don’t want for the next seven years, as the saying goes. We sometimes take the bad for the good and vice versa in our lives, when we might avoid such errors of judgement if we just stopped to think. But we do it all the time. We all know we do, don’t we? We let the everyday rule our ownmost possibility – we enjoy fripperies when the salvation of our souls should be the real aim of our lives. We too often take weeds as the most valuable of flowers.

At the moment the Olympics have taken over. We are looking for wins and medals. That is how we are valuing ourselves. However, there are only three medals available in each of the disciplines. Whether it is on a bicycle or in a canoe, the commentators and everyone at home are wanting a gold medal. In the boxing ring or on the judo tatami, our wish is for our man or woman to land the killer blow – to take out every opponent and be the last one standing. What happens to the competitors lying in the dust?

I am a rather an odd fellow. Rather than the win, I want to see a “beautiful game”. That is my miraculous. Don’t we all want to see the best performance win at the Olympics where the whole world gathers to see the best of the best and where we compete wholeheartedly hoping for the best performance of our lives?

When I was at school playing lacrosse, the coach said the team who played well would win. It was skill and sportsmanship that makes the victory – the score is ephemeral. We live out our sport day by day, like the judoka who has learned from his discipline about life and those lessons contribute to the good life. It is not the win of competition that is the aim. They would rather share with those ’round about them. The aim of the founder of that gentle way was this complete person. He says the judoka learns about the whole of life through training in the discipline of the gentle way, the body is strengthened, the mind is sharpened and wisdom is gained when all are put together. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, and John Ogden, my lacrosse coach, were of the same mind. If you “cheated” when you played the game, you would be found out by the referee initially and also your opponents, then the crowd watching the match would know. Finally, you would realise it. You would lose your self respect, the most devastating of all losses.

Those life coaches, I would say, were teaching the same message which Jesus and Moses were handing on to their followers – and to us today. Every move we make, every step we take, will be seen against the standard of the best in the sport and life. We play by the rules and do our very best and everyone benefits. New heroes are lifted up and we benefit from their examples. As christians, our hero was lifted up on the cross. What an example we have there! There is no mistaking what is good in that life given for the salvation of all. The rule we follow is our Lord’s, the rule of love.

We can all experience the value of the good in this life for ourselves, because we can live it out, following that rule. We can look toward that miraculous example of the cross which will lift us from any doldrums we may languish in. Christ will raise us out of the abyss we are in danger of falling into.

But we have to see and hear. We have to look to Christ, or to these modern heroes who are living out the best in life for our sakes just as we live our our own lives for others.

We must treat victory and defeat just the same. In other words we follow our rule of life, and live it out, for the rule of our life is its own reward. The miraculous is the everyday life we lead, the miraculous of loving one another and thereby God.

I applaud the Olympic athletes who give a heart-felt smile to congratulate their opponents on the completion of the events – like the woman archer whose arrow missed the mark but she smiled and walked over to her competitor to wish her joy, or Djokovic’s embrace of Zverev when he won so convincingly. I want to be able to do this at every moment of every day in my life. Don’t you? Wouldn’t this be heaven on earth when the beautiful game of life is played to the rule of love?

Amen

Trinity 8

Collect

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Generous God, you give us gifts and make them grow: though our faith is small as mustard seed, make it grow to your glory and the flourishing of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, whose Son is the true vine and the source of life, ever giving himself that the world may live: may we so receive within ourselves the power of his death and passion that, in his saving cup, we may share his glory and be made perfect in his love; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Psalm

1    The Lord is my shepherd;
therefore can I lack nothing.

2    He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

3    He shall refresh my soul
and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4    Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5    You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full.

6    Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23

Old Testament

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Gospel

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Mark 6:30–34,53–56

Prayers

Let us pray for the world and let us thank God for his goodness.

Let us pray for the shepherds of flocks of all descriptions, from farmers and herdsmen to heads of households. May they all make decisions from selfless love for the sake of those others for whom they care.

Let us pray for the Queen, her government and her loyal opposition – that their deliberations will produce righteousness and justice for all. We pray for our local officials whose focus is ourselves.

Let us pray for our bishops, Rachel and Robert, as pastors of pastors and our shepherds in the faith.

Let us pray for all around us, that we all may have oversight of our neighbours, that we will step up to help when help is needed.

Let us pray for the ill, those whose bodies, minds or spirits are compromised in any way … … … .

Let us pray for those who have died recently and those whose years’ mind falls at this time.

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 8

It seems that I have always been with you on this day here in Minsterworth, on a Sunday when The Good Shepherd is the theme. Most poignant is the psalm, but there are two verses from the other readings which I would like to consider this morning with you. The first is from the prophet:

“I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

These words are apt for any time, aren’t they? We all hope for shepherds over us who are able to assuage our anxieties. Life is so difficult with the pandemic and there is a great political discussion about the lifting of covid restrictions as a matter of law. I believe everyone is a bit confused, just like those sheep scattered all over the place in space and mind. Is the epidemic over and does everything become as it used to be in 2018? We are looking for leaders who will guide the nation in courage and hope – leaders who will care for each and every single person in the country in this year, 2021 – post covid. We want shepherds who are inclusive, so inclusive that no person will feel dismay or fear and that every person will be a very real part of the common weal.

These words of Jeremiah are an aspiration for every age and every nation, let alone the theocracy which Israel has always considered itself to be. Israel was a land where God was the ruler, and the king was the representative of the divine. No wonder Jeremiah utters those words about the shepherds who scatter their flocks. It is no wonder that he condemns such people in positions of authority and responsibility so comprehensively.

Can’t you just hear Jesus saying these same words about shepherds, especially after he has castigated the leaders of the people. “Dens of thieves” and “mouths like sepulchres” are phrases that come to mind instantly about the leadership of Israel in his day. We can probably tar our own leaders with the same sorts of phrases, because our leaders have scattered and confused us. Our leaders have destroyed our hopes and aspirations, it seems.

But I can also hear the promise of good shepherds, just as Jeremiah prophesied, echoed in the condemnations Jesus made. For wherever there is a curse in the prophets there is also a blessing. The blessing here, when the bad shepherds are condemned, is that good shepherds will come – at some time. I see Jesus in this prophetic tradition – one of the prophets who describe the people’s misdeeds, call them to repentance, and promise the Day of the Lord. Jesus has condemned the evil of his generation, he warns of the Kingdom of Heaven as the Day of the Lord being so very near that all should change their ways – and he describes the Kingdom as a promise to those with upright hearts of faith, with “ears to hear”.

“Jesus had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

“Jesus had compassion” – that is the key to everything. Shepherds without compassion are shepherds capable of scattering and destroying their flocks. They do not have the care of the flock in their hearts to find the one lost sheep of the one hundred in their charge. Jesus contrasted the true shepherd with the hireling elsewhere. The hireling runs away from danger – the hireling has no commitment to the flock he has been given, just like those bad shepherds who destroy and scatter.

Jesus did not just condemn and hope for the best, as our political leaders always seem to do. No, Jesus taught them many things. They needed to have a proper hope and to have the means to achieve the best. The best for faithful people is not just a dream – it is a reality to be created here and now.

This is that “realised eschatology” which the social gospel embodies, that the final possibility of heaven can be made a concrete reality here on earth. The martyred saints have all given their lives to accomplish the feat of heaven on earth. The saints who have fallen asleep taught about the coming of the kingdom into the individual’s life, that salvation is attainable through faith and good works.

When we look around at the world, we see such disarray everywhere. What do we feel? Last Sunday saw one such event to highlight the lack of direction in people’s lives. When the England football team lost the final of the Euros, what did we hear on the news? – The result was announced on Radio 3, I hasten to add, so even I knew about it. – All the news broadcasts described the devastated feelings and they interviewed fans all over the country in their deep disappointment. What did you feel when you heard the news, or watched the final moments of the penalty shoot-out? Did your world collapse? Did you feel like lashing out at those who failed to score their penalties? Or were you just so happy that the team had played so well?

What do you feel for those who were interviewed on Sunday night and Monday morning? I, for one, was bemused by the reactions of so many fans. I suppose, like Jesus, I have some compassion for them because they are a bit lost. They don’t know what they are going to do now that the Euros are over and their expectations have been dashed. But things will get back to “normal”, won’t they? But what is that “normal”? What will you do now that the government has removed all the restrictions?  Will you be able to function amongst all the new-found freedom given us because of the lifting of the severe, corona virus and legalistic restrictions? Are you without direction now that there are no more rules to tell you what you have to do?

However, isn’t this the “normal” everyone wants? No more rules and regulations to determine what I am permitted to do. I can now go unmasked wherever I want and I can hug whomever wishes to hug me. That is the normal everyone has been talking about for so long. Now it is here. Will we be able to deal with it? Or will we be lost like those scattered sheep of whom Jeremiah spoke? Jesus has compassion for us as we bumble along in what everyone is calling “normality”, because he knows the normal of the everyday world should be the fullness of life he has offered the world through his life – and that is not doing whatever we want. The fullness of life is the offering of care to each and every one we meet. We are to become the good shepherds. Each and every one of us is to be the king – the humble king and shepherd – who would give himself up for the other in their distress. Perhaps we should set our sights on being good sheep, sheep who follow the good shepherd into the Kingdom. Perhaps we should aspire to become like the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and grants peace.

Amen