Sunday after Ascension

Collect

O God the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen, ascended Lord, as we rejoice at your triumph, fill your Church on earth with power and compassion, that all who are estranged by sin may find forgiveness and know your peace, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Eternal God, giver of love and power, your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world to preach the gospel of his kingdom: confirm us in this mission, and help us to live the good news we proclaim; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

First Reading

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Acts 16.16–34

Psalm

1    The Lord is king: let the earth rejoice;
let the multitude of the isles be glad.

2    Clouds and darkness are round about him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

3    Fire goes before him
and burns up his enemies on every side.

4    His lightnings lit up the world;
the earth saw it and trembled.

5    The mountains melted like wax at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.

6    The heavens declared his righteousness,
and all the peoples have seen his glory.

7    Confounded be all who worship carved images and delight in mere idols.
Bow down before him, all you gods.

8    Zion heard and was glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoiced,
because of your judgements, O Lord.

9    For you, Lord, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.

10    The Lord loves those who hate evil;
he preserves the lives of his faithful and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.

11    Light has sprung up for the righteous
and joy for the true of heart.

12    Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name.

Psalm 97

Epistle

‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.

‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

Revelation 22.12–14, 16,17,20,21 12

Gospel

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

John 17.20–26

Sermon on Sunday after Ascension

‘These fellows are disturbing our city; they [are Jews and] are advocating customs that are not lawful for us [as Romans] to adopt or observe.’

“Lawful” – this is such a loaded word, isn’t it? What does this Greek word translated as “lawful” really mean? I would like to delve into the Greek Lexicon just a bit to start us on our way.

The first meaning of the word is “the ability to perform an action”. This is quite innocuous, isn’t it? But the word quickly takes on more significance as it is used mor and more. It transforms from ability  all the way to legality. You can see why it might accrue that sort of content. After all, if I am able to do something, I have permission to do something. I have the power to do something, don’t I? I have the ability to make something happen in some way or another.

However, the question “Just because I can, should I?” raises its head here, doesn’t it? It suggests that I have the permission to do something, and such authority can often be questioned. In other words, power and responsibility of action become entwined morally and it seems that such a combination is reflected in language. The Greek word begins with ability and ends up including rights.

In both the Greek and Jewish communities, the word is used with the connotation and denotation of “authority” and “permission” to do something. For the Greeks a right is granted by the courts and civil authority, in other words through civil law. For the Jews of Jesus’ time and the translators of the Greek OT – the Septuagint – God is the author of all permission, the giver of the Torah, God’s Law. So let’s read our verse again with these considerations in mind.

‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’

Haven’t we heard this sort of complaint before? Hasn’t it been said by people all over the globe when “a foreigner” to the community has spoken out about something important? The apostles are just those sort of people – they are disturbing the status quo, aren’t they? But why are they perplexing? Why do they advocate doing things that we don’t want to do – things we say are not customary and legal?

Just what is it that has caused all this commotion in our reading from Acts? The people who are complaining about the apostles are losing their income. The slave girl who had a spirit of divination and told fortunes was very lucrative for her owners. They made this slave tell the future for a price, and that money went straight into their pockets. That girl got nothing. No wonder they caused such a stink for Paul and Silas – and all because they loved money so much.

However, despite the exploitation of the poor slave-girl, she kept up her looking into the future. “A spirit of divination” – that is a rather odd phrase, isn’t it? What does it mean to be so gifted? From the story, we understand that she can look into the future in order to predict it. This is an obvious money spinner for anyone who wishes to make use of it – either by being in charge of the girl or taking a new course of action because of what has been revealed. The owners played on human vulnerability by allowing the girl to tell fortunes to people who would pay for a hint to the future.

But is this really what the spirit of divination is all about? The girl does not predict any future for the disciples as she follows them about and makes her declaration about the apostles. What does she say? ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, [they] proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ This is not predictive in the way we think of telling the future, is it? However, it is prophetic in the sense that the OT uses that word and in the sense that the Church uses it as well. It is a declaration of truth.

The slave-girl’s owners couldn’t make any money from that sort of a declaration, could they? No wonder they complained and took Paul and Silas to court. No wonder they accused them of such a fundamental wrong-doing! Their love of money got in the way for what is right. The spirit of divination, what I want to call prophecy, is not a money-spinner which everyone usually wants to have.

Prophecy is not fortune telling, is it? The girl showed this to be the case in her declarations about Paul and Silas. ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ The girl reveals to any who would listen just what these men were doing among them. They were there to “proclaim the way of salvation”, not to profiteer off some gift that another had. They were there to speak and teach for the benefit of others.

Who would listen to such a message? Aren’t there more important things in life, just like the owners of the slave-girl argued in the courts? Paul and Silas were acting contrary to the norms and morés of the crowd around them. They eschewed the motive of greed and exploitation which the owners of the slave-girl display.

This is not unlike what is happening in the world today. Some have been declaring that we need to take responsibility for everything we do. It could save the planet and our society, if only we were to follow their plan of action. In the Ukraine the West has been castigated because it has done nothing in the face of a war that had been expected. In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister has been charged with irresponsibly because of a lack of leadership in the matter of the rule of law, laws that were drawn up for the sake of the nation’s health and safety. However, the law dictates the customs of the population and we see how that is working itself out in the news every day.

The prophets speak against the way the crowd thinks. The prophets want action pursued for the sake of what is right. – Don’t we all? Or do we only what what feathers our own nest? Will we act for the sake of the widow and the orphan? Or will I act only for myself? Will the law speak for the weak and disadvantaged, or only let the status quo stand?

These are the questions that the slaves of the Most High are asking in that Greek town two thousand years ago. These are, I think, the questions the slave-girl tried to raise when she acknowledged the preaching of the way of salvation after she lost that  ability to tell fortunes and she could no longer be exploited by selfishness.

Amen

Sunday, Easter 4

Collect

Almighty God,whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen Christ, faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep: teach us to hear your voice and to follow your command, that all your people may be gathered into one flock, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Merciful Father, you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd, and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again: keep us always under his protection, and give us grace to follow in his steps; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Acts

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Acts 9.36–43

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

Epistle

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,

‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honour

and power and might

be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Revelation 7.9–17

Gospel

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’  Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’

John 10.22–30

Sermon on Sunday, Easter 4

This is Good Shepherd Sunday. The reading from the gospel of John and our psalm give today its name. We should have had a premonition last week that the shepherd was coming, for in our gospel reading we heard about the terribly trying questions Jesus asked Peter. “Do you love me?” Of course Peter loved Jesus, just as we do. But Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. That should have got us thinking. We probably should have anticipated today’s theme and been thinking about how to feed sheep.

We have heard how the shepherd knows his flock – he knows them because they turn to him and they know him almost instinctively. Why? Why do sheep know their shepherd? How do sheep get to trust the shepherd?

This is not as daft a question as it sounds. We have all heard that shepherds in the middle east lead their sheep, haven’t we? The flock follows along in the shepherd’s footsteps. They seem to look for a leader. It is a very different sort of behaviour to the way sheep and shepherds act in the west. The BBC’s programme One Man and His Dog should give us a clue. What do we see when we watch them?

First, we have the shepherd who tells us about the help he needs and receives from the dog when dealing with his sheep. Then we are introduced to his dog, the active power which does all the work with the sheep. The dogs run out, gather up, drive and pen those poor, bleating creatures and the shepherd and the dog win their prize. It is a very clever system our shepherds have devised, isn’t it? – using a hunter to gather up the sheep instead of eating them. It is a relationship that has developed over millennia. And we are all beneficiaries of it – at the very least we have been clothed by the sheep with our wool socks, cardigans and coats.

But the shepherds’ dogs in the middle east are not like our collies, are they? They don’t herd the sheep. No, instead those dogs guard the flock. This is a very different relationship between shepherd, sheep and dog. However, it is one that is just as beneficial for all of us, but it is fundamentally different.

That is what we have to consider today.  Peter was asked to “feed Jesus’ sheep”. Peter was to become the shepherd for the flock. How did he care for the sheep? How do we care for the sheep in our own care? Do we drive or lead the sheep to the safety of the sheepfold? Do we force or offer the sheep the sustenance which is best for them?

This is a crucial question – a question which, I believe, is fundamental. Our answer reveals the attitude we have towards each other. It is a question which could explain why different sheepfolds are empty today. Who wants to be driven into a place? We have to admit that there is safety there, but who wants to be forced into a place where we have no choice in the matter, where in fact we may not be willing to settle? Who wants to be told, “This is best for you, so just do it!” Our children certainly resent and rebel against us when we adults take such a high- handed approach. But then again, don’t some of us oldies also take umbrage when we are told by health and safety officers what we must do? Or when our politicians set out regulations for us to adhere to? Don’t we all react better when we are led to a solution which is best for us? When the shepherd of our flock tends us carefully, aren’t we more willing to conform?

Certainly we behave much better when we hear the voice of reason and are asked to agree with another person’s proposals. So do sheep, in my experience. When they see you have food, they are happy to oblige. I suppose they see the benefit for themselves when you ask them to come. They are particularly keen, when you are shaking a bag of food. – They hear that something, don’t they? They may only be listening to their stomachs, but there is a long-term benefit for those sheep. They will have a secure place to live their lives if they listen to the shepherd.

What do we listen to? Whose voice calls to us? Are we listening to the good shepherd or to distractions? Jesus doesn’t tell us what to do, does he? He expects us to follow his lead – whether that leads to our own Golgatha or to heaven on earth, we don’t know, but we are to listen to that still, small voice of conscience – or to quote that famous hymn, that “still, small voice of calm.” That voice does not demand or tell you what do do, does it? Once to each and every one of us comes the moment to decide for the good or evil side. Sometimes we don’t see what the difference is, but we have to choose to do what we believe is good. That good is not an immediate thing, rather the good is ultimately good. It directs everything, and, I believe, it calls to us in spite of ourselves. Eventually we will all turn to the good. Well, I certainly hope so…

If, for instance, profession of the faith is a good, won’t we allow everyone to confess their belief even at the last moment of life? The Church has never turned away a penitent. That is why we have all these stories of death-bed conversions. But shouldn’t every moment of life be lived as if it were our last? That I think is the intent of the great commandments – to love God with all our hearts and minds and strength and to love each other as we love our very selves. Such an attitude puts everything in perspective.

Every moment in our lives could be our last. Isn’t that how we feel when significant events happen? For instance, in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, at the first wedding, the bride is taking leave of everyone at the reception. She is about to go away with her husband, embarking on a brand new life. At that moment she realises just how much she loves everyone – not just because she loves her husband, but because that love expressed in the wedding has opened her eyes to all the possible love in her life. She is that child again in the wonder of everything around her – she is infinite possibility in that moment of understanding love.

Doesn’t the shepherd do the same for the sheep? Don’t the sheep understand how wondrous life is when the shepherd truly cares for them when he leads them back to the sheepfold and the sheepdog guards them from the dangers of the night? We ourselves are sheep and shepherd both at the same time, aren’t we? You care for me and I care for you. We must fulfill the great commandment just as a shepherd and the sheep do. All benefit from this relationship, it just has to be loving in a way that gives infinite possibility to each and every one of us.

Amen

Sunday, Easter 3

Collect

Almighty Father, who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord: give us such knowledge of his presence with us, that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life and serve you continually in righteousness and truth; 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

Risen Christ, you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope: strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Living God, your Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in all his redeeming work; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

New Testament

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’

[ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’]

Acts 9.1–6 [7–20]

Psalm

1    I will exalt you, O Lord, because you have raised me up
and have not let my foes triumph over me.

2    O Lord my God, I cried out to you
and you have healed me.

3    You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead;
you restored me to life from among those that go down to the Pit.

4    Sing to the Lord, you servants of his;
give thanks to his holy name.

5    For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, his favour for a lifetime.
Heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

6    In my prosperity I said, ‘I shall never be moved.
You, Lord, of your goodness, have made my hill so strong.’

7    Then you hid your face from me
and I was utterly dismayed.

8    To you, O Lord, I cried;
to the Lord I made my supplication:

9    ‘What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?

10    ‘Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;
O Lord, be my helper.’

11    You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness;

12    Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

Psalm 30

Epistle

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,

‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’

And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.

Revelation 5.11–14

Gospel

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

John 12.20–26

Sermon on Sunday, Easter 3

“Saul went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus.” What is not said in this sentence? It is clear that Saul went to the high priest to ask for something. But what is that “something”? Saul asked for letters. Was this the alphabet? Did he want a parchment with an aleph or the sacred name of God written on it? What are these letters? Don’t we know about these letters in our own lives? They must have been letters of introduction.

They might have said “Here is Saul, my friend. Treat him as if you were to have me visiting your community.” We know about these letters, don’t we? Haven’t you written to someone saying a friend was coming to their village and you wanted them to have a warm welcome. Well, this must have been the start of those letters Saul asked for, don’t you think?

However, these letters were to ask for a specific thing.

“ … if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

When we read this verse, what do we think is happening? Is this fellow who was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”, about to truss up these men and women with ropes and drag them to Jerusalem so that they might be brought bound before the high priest?

That cannot be true, can it? We can believe this of the cruel Roman soldiers occupying the land, but Saul would not deal with his fellow Jews in this manner, would he? What could the writer have in mind when he wrote that verse? Consequently, this verse got me thinking about other verses that use the word “to bind”. A few came to mind quite quickly, Jesus’ promise which we read last week:

Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

And it also reminded me about what Jesus said to Peter in Matthew (16:19).

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

One commentator wrote:

To bind and to loose simply means to forbid by an indisputable authority and to permit by an indisputable authority.

So Paul’s letter of introduction transforms into a letter of authority in the matter of those who might be following “the way”, as Christianity was called at its very birth, that is before Saul became Paul, the man who proclaimed the message of universal salvation. The old Saul was given the authority to make judgement on those who might find “the way” true, when compared to the legalism of contemporary Judaism, where Torah, Haggadah and Talmud stood written in an indelible ink, an ink so black it could not be erased.

The traditional authorities would write judgements which would become binding on the inheritors of the Law. There were some authorities who would write judgements which would loose the people from the shackles of an oppressive legalism which all decry whatever the era. Wouldn’t the later Paul pass judgements on the tradition of Law which would transform the Jewish followers of “the way” into newborn faithful people? Wouldn’t the reborn Paul promise that the Holy Spirit would come to free all from the tyranny of sin, as did the OT prophets – as did Jesus?

However, Saul here is asking for letters of authority, so that he could decide matters of the Law as regards those men and women who belonged to the way. Saul wants the power to bind and loose with respect to “the way” and all those who might be followers of what he considered a most dangerous way of life.

If we could, would we grant authority to someone “breathing threats and murder”? Surely not! But we see this happening all too often, don’t we? Many laws are passed in the white heat of fearful anger, aren’t they? And then we realise that they were unjust so many years later. Fear has always produced a second class person, because of something in ourselves which is wholly un-righteous, something which will eventually be seen to be evil. Often those unjust laws are ignored, as often during the covid lock-down so many regulations were flouted. Anxiety is not the state in which to write laws, and anger and fear do produce a very high anxiety. Lawmakers should be seen as stoic, not affected by emotion, and they should be insightful. Those who create regulations should have the foresight to judge themselves and their laws in the light of “indisputable authority”.

Last week I droned on about faith as “ultimate concern”. I think authority derives from that. I think Saul became Paul because of it. The weight of binding was too much for Saul to bear. Paul rejoiced in the power of the Lord to loose the individual from anything which would bind to the world of immediacy. Paul rejoiced to allow people faith, that attitude which bares all to the judgement of ultimate concern. This was the person whom Saul became – as Paul he preached with the authority faith revealed.

So, I have to ask, who has “indisputable authority” in our lives today? I don’t know, do you? People just don’t bow to any authority today, do they? They don’t want to feel bound by any authority, nor do they feel as though they have been loosed from it all. And as for “undisputed” – surely no one today will grant any one person that title.

However, we do act as though there is an undisputed authority in our lives. We have to ask ourselves: What constricts? What frees? These questions lie behind making sense of any authority in our lives. The figure of Saul—Paul struggled with these questions just as we do today. And he came to two very different conclusions before and after that trip to Damascus, just as we do in our lives.

It seems life is very complex today. So many things get in the way of living well. We are distracted and get ourselves in a real state, don’t we? What is the better course of action? What will free us from all this worry and anxiety? Paul tells us faith will do that – he says that by recognising the freedom in submitting to the authority of an ultimate concern, the joy of a life lived well will be ours. This is the authentic binding and loosing of ourselves. We can be free from sin by living bravely, by taking responsibility for all our actions because everything we do should be done with the authority of love, that undisputed cause of all life.

Amen

Sunday, Easter 2

Collect

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen Christ, for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred: open the doors of our hearts, that we may seek the good of others and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace, to the praise of God the Father.

Post Communion

Lord God our Father, through our Saviour Jesus Christ you have assured your children of eternal life and in baptism have made us one with him: deliver us from the death of sin and raise us to new life in your love, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Readings

Old Testament

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’

Acts 5.27–32

Psalm

1    Alleluia.

    O praise God in his holiness;
praise him in the firmament of his power.

2    Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him according to his excellent greatness.

3    Praise him with the blast of the trumpet;
praise him upon the harp and lyre.

4    Praise him with timbrel and dances;
praise him upon the strings and pipe.

5    Praise him with ringing cymbals;
praise him upon the clashing cymbals.

6    Let everything that has breath
praise the Lord.

Alleluia.

Psalm

Epistle

 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

    Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Revelation 1.4–8

Gospel

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20.19–31



Sermon on Sunday, Easter 2

Our reading this morning from the gospel of John tells us the story of Thomas and his doubt – “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Jesus proclaims, “Peace be with you,” as he appears to the disciples when Thomas is amongst the company. And then Jesus addresses Thomas directly, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” To which Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God!”

“Doubting Thomas”– Why is this the reading for the First Sunday after Easter? But what do we mean by it? I think we probably mean something very different to the story John presents. Many preachers will use this story as a fillip for those who are having dark days in their journey of faith. Those preachers say, “Even Thomas had his moments, so we should be encouraged to live courageously through the whole our experience.” But I am not one of them. Why do you think John recounts this story for us?

This week I picked up the book Dynamics of Faith, in which the writer talks of doubt. The writer describes the visceral experience of faith – the drawing out of the whole person into a full life. He calls faith “ultimate concern”, that beyond which nothing else stands. And that ultimacy provides the very real possibility for doubt, that doubt which Thomas has here. The empty tomb is the very expression of doubt. Mary asks “Where have they taken my Lord?” while Thomas asks, “Unless I place my hand in the open wound of my Lord, how can I believe?”

Both Mary and Thomas wonder at the ultimate nature of their loyalty and steadfastness to Jesus in the light of this unexpected experience, the disappearance of a body which had been all so familiar to them. Had they deceived themselves with the thought that in Jesus they had their vision of God? They began to doubt fundamentally, and that doubt had nothing to do with a trick of the magic circle. That doubt had everything to do with life in all its fullness. That doubt brought into focus the possibility of non-being, the wiping out of everything. That is the power of ultimate concern. Either its presence vitalises or its absence destroys absolutely – That moment of doubt when we evaluate our own life’s ultimacy. Is this really the ultimate of all concern? That is why Mary wants to find that old reality of the presence of Jesus, she wants to be with the physical body, that old normality. Thomas wants the same, to be with the physical presence which he saw last hanging on the cross and whose side was pierced by a spear. Mary and Thomas both want that normality of Jesus dwelling with them.

Don’t we all know that hankering after “the good old days”? We have all longed for the days before the pandemic when there were no restrictions on anything we wanted to do, a life where we thought we knew everything. But has that ever really been the case? Hasn’t our moral concern always been with us, even if we might have ignored it? Doesn’t our moral compass already cast every thing into its right place? Don’t we already know that our ultimate concern for the other demands that we act righteously at all times?

Our faith should call everything into question, because we are always bound to consider ultimacy whenever we make any choice. And here at this moment of choice Thomas’ doubt arises. Here Mary’s anxiety over Jesus’ body should give pause for thought. In our everyday concerns for the “ordinary” and “normal” have we focussed on our ultimate? Or do we reveal that we are people of so little faith? That is the fundamental doubt the writer told exposed.

Normally we want this or that to go in a certain way, and when it doesn’t, when we ask about the very basis of its worth, we call everything into question. We begin with a doubt so very profound when we are faithful. It questions everything we know and all that we know is what exists. The death of Jesus and his resurrection can bring everything into question, don’t you think? I am with Thomas with his “unless I see”. I want to place my hand in Jesus’ hand, just as I can take up my wife’s hand. I want to have that “normality” which is so very comfortable, don’t you?

However, that is impossible for Mary and Thomas. And it is also impossible for me, because the physical presence of Jesus is no longer here now. However, I should be able to say with Mary and Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” That is the voice of faith speaking – the voice which declares the reality of life in all its fullness, the life which Jesus promises all who are faithful.

When we declare faithfully, we are affirming that all is precious, and no one thing is the only thing in our lives. We have no passion for only one thing. We are not like Tolkein’s Gollum who is obsessed with the one ring, that “precious” which forces us to make immoral choices. Again, if one has that love of money Paul warns against as the only focus for life, don’t we see how everything can crumble? This is the moment when we understand how doubt can keep us without sin and right on the track of a faithful life.

However, doubt is not a mere vacillation between one thing and another. Doubt places us in a moment of clarity, where true value and a worthy life becomes so very real in experience. At that moment we must declare the ultimate in life. We must blurt out the ultimacy of our lives. We must declare where our essential concern leads. We must say with Mary and Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” because at that point there is nothing left to distract us from that resolute and authentic life of faith, when we have converted from ephemeral to very real and ultimate concern. At that moment, no longer is there doubt. At that moment, we can see what really matters for life in all its fullness. The other has come into focus. There is no distraction by this or that because “they” no longer hold us in thrall. The crowd – and we all know its power over us in our ordinary lives – that crowded life loses all its fascination and we see our ownmost possibility, we see our authentic self for that Other beyond which there is no thing. At that moment we have perfect freedom to love and be loved. Our lives are complete in faith. In faith every moment is perfect freedom, where there are no distractions from the value and worth of the other, where we can speak for our Lord and God without reservation.

Amen

Passion Sunday

Collect

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; 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, you gave up your Son out of love for the world: lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion, that we may know eternal peace through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do also for you: give us the will to be the servant of others as you were the servant of all, and gave up your life and died for us, but are alive and reign, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

Thus says the Lord,

who makes a way in the sea,

a path in the mighty waters,

who brings out chariot and horse,

army and warrior;

they lie down, they cannot rise,

they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honour me,

the jackals and the ostriches;

for I give water in the wilderness,

rivers in the desert,

to give drink to my chosen people,

the people whom I formed for myself

so that they might declare my praise.

Isaiah 43.16–21

Psalm

1    When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.

2    Then was our mouth filled with laughter
and our tongue with songs of joy.

3    Then said they among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’

4    The Lord has indeed done great things for us,
and therefore we rejoiced.

5    Restore again our fortunes, O Lord,
as the river beds of the desert.

6    Those who sow in tears
shall reap with songs of joy.

7    Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed,
will come back with shouts of joy, bearing their sheaves with them.

Psalm 126

Epistle

 even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.


12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3.4b–14

Gospel

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

John 12.1–8



Sermon on Passion Sunday

Through the prophet, the Lord speaks to us

Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I see this is just the opposite to what we normally think God is asking of us. We often dwell on accomplishments of the past, and our consideration of past events blinds us to what is all around us. Don’t we try to keep everything the same as it has always been – to get back to that ancient normal? I think such an attitude is problematic because we grasp on to the past so tightly that everything becomes distorted. After all, the past is only what we remember. We can warp the past with our fierce grip. Those former things are merely what we imagine, the things of old are the fantasies of those who have survived – I suppose I am repeating what they say about history, that it is always written by the winners, the victors who spin everything in their own imaginings and for their own purposes.

The past is foreign, a space beyond the set boundaries of the present. When we see the past as memories massaged by what we hold on to, the past becomes a strange place in the hands of some.The past we remember is just that – the past is only what we remember. We have to be aware that everyone remembers something different. Like with those eyewitnesses to any event, every recollection is different. Tomorrow, I may remember this talk very differently from each one of you. I can only hope that the message, the meaning,  behind my words is remembered.

However, I have to keep in mind that I am now in your past, and everything I have said and done is now amongst the “former things” which will be considered one way or another. But the prophet is telling us not to remember, not to consider “the things of old”, and I would say the prophet counsels us not to grasp the past so tightly. Rather, the prophet is telling us that we are to perceive “new things” not just look to the past. I think the prophet’s words are more harsh than how we normally hear them. I think the prophet is telling us to live in the present in a radical way. We are not to consider and remember the past in the way we normally do. We have to remember that we are dragging the past along. It is a bumpy ride and a lot of memory drops off and is forgotten.

Don’t we often say, “That isn’t how we used to do that!” or “I don’t remember that!” when someone proposes something we don’t expect? Don’t we just want to keep doing the same thing – the ritual repetition of what has always been done? But when we do the same old thing, we are expecting something, aren’t we? Aren’t we hoping for that golden age of our remembrance to come here and now?

This imaginative mirroring of the past and future is what should drive us into the present. Only the present is reality for each and every one of us. The memory of things past and the expectation of a new thing, these are the considerations that drive us into the here and now. But what is that “new thing” that appears in the present?

Theologians used to call this “realised eschatology”. They said that the last things are all around us, “if only we would not harden our hearts.” We should be able to see the wars and rumours of wars that come with the end of time, the escaton
of the Lord’s appearance.

Aren’t we there right now? Don’t the events in the Ukraine call out to us that the horsemen of the apocalypse are riding through our midst? Don’t we see it? Or are we hankering after a normality which is a fantasy given present circumstances? Haven’t we hardened our hearts to the new things all around us? Is that because those new things are not very pleasant? Wars far away are the reality of the present. The constraints of Covid are a new thing we have not made our own. That is the reality. The last things are here, right now, do we not perceive it? The prophet asked this question millenia ago. And that same question is being asked of us as we read his words today.

How can we live in the present and at the same time call to mind the past and yet still hope for the future? This is where my reading of philosophy and theology have helped me. The answer is right here – it is our lived experience in our worship together.

We are keeping the ancient forms alive, but we are letting go of them at the same time as we relive the liturgy today, as we make it our own in the present. We are offering up our repetition of the ancient worship services so that we can perceive the new things that are right here in front of us. The key is that we are keeping them alive and live things change moment to moment – they do not stay the same. Our worship is alive in that we engage with the forms of prayer, the readings and the hymns and psalms moment by moment. Our engagement should open us to new experiences given to us through the ancient forms. Our engagement enlivens the past to pull it into the present. The past may come kicking and screaming into the present, but, if it truly does enter our present, it won’t be a mere memory of things past, purely a consideration of the things of old. It should be a new thing in our experience – even if it is ancient. That is the point of the prophet’s words. We must engage with the past as a present activity, not just throw ourselves into it in an abandonment of what we don’t like in the present, like for example the restrictions of the past two years. Nor should we live in expectation of a future which conforms to our fantasies as we fear it. The prophet is telling us that the past is a country we have taken leave of, as we travel as refugees into the future. We are here now on our way – neither past nor future is our dwelling. We live in the present whither the past has led and whence the future will proceed. We are at the juncture of all time and we must make it our own. We must consider the past and future as guidance. Above all, we must act in the present with that prescience, which faith gives us, a knowledge that the past is a precious gift to be handed on to the future.

We are refugees, like that wandering Aramaean whom Jews remember in their declaration of themselves. Aren’t we like Jesus who has no place to lay his head? Aren’t we like the refugees fleeing war and rumours of war throughout the world? We will pass through many countries in our quest for the peace of salvation.The prophet promises, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Such is our hope on our journey through the present from the past into the future. This is the present reality in which we worship.

Amen

Mothering Sunday

Collect

God of compassion, whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary, shared the life of a home in Nazareth, and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself: strengthen us in our daily living that in joy and in sorrow we may know the power of your presence to bind together and to heal; 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 love, passionate and strong, tender and careful: watch over us and hold us all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Loving God, as a mother feeds her children at the breast you feed us in this sacrament with the food and drink of eternal life: help us who have tasted your goodness to grow in grace within the household of faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’ The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, ‘As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there for ever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.’ Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.’ So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him. When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’ She left him there for the Lord.

1 Samuel 1:20–28

Psalm

11    Come, my children, and listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

12    Who is there who delights in life
and longs for days to enjoy good things?

13    Keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from lying words.

14    Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.

15    The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous
and his ears are open to their cry.

16    The face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
to root out the remembrance of them from the earth.

17    The righteous cry and the Lord hears them
and delivers them out of all their troubles.

18    The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and will save those who are crushed in spirit.

19    Many are the troubles of the righteous;
from them all will the Lord deliver them.

20    He keeps all their bones,
so that not one of them is broken.

Psalm 34


Epistle


As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.


Colossians 3:12–17


Gospel

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’


Luke 2:33–35

Sermon on Mothering Sunday

For me, Mothering Sunday is a difficult day. Here we are in the middle of Lent, that long fast of the christian year, and yet we forget the abstinence of the season for this one day. We bring flowers and cards to our mothers and then treat her to lunch, but in our reading from the OT Hannah brings her son to the temple “along with a three-year- old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine” in order to dedicate him to the Lord.

Hannah “named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’” The meaning of the name Samuel is ‘God has heard.’ Hannah’s petition was granted and the child was born. When the child was weaned, Hannah went to the temple with her son in order to give thanks and dedicate him to the service of the Lord God. She said to her husband, “that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there for ever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.” This dedication of the child to God through his name and bringing him to the temple is quite different to our everyday attitudes to our children today, isn’t it? Parents nowadays keep their children to themselves, wrapping them in the coddling of cotton wool away from any risk or danger in life. Our children are more fortunate than in generations past, aren’t they?

My childhood was spent with my friends and escaping from my enemies. We were out on the hill behind the high school which was considered such a dangerous place – of course it was, the hill had a fifty foot cliff looming over a new development of houses. There we played and hung around. Never thinking anything bad would happen because we were in a group of friends who watched over each other, even if we disagreed and the truths we shouted out to each other in the frustration of youth often hurt.

However, I was fortunate as a child. My mother treated me as a friend, a friend who would listen and speak to me as an equal, even more so as my beard went grey. We shared the truth about life and we respected each other. Now, I cannot bring her posies and gifts any longer, but I can remember that gift of loving friendship she gave me, a gift I want to share with others.

What do friends do for each other? I think they love without expectation, just as mothers love their children. They love unconditionally, as we have heard so many times before. But I want to elevate the love of friends to the heights of maternal care.

Who would hear the words of Simeon and not be frightened away?

Then Simeon blessed them and said …, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many …, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

Who would have the courage to say, “I am his friend,” as they saw the sword raised to strike that fatal blow right to the heart. We would worry about that blow, wouldn’t we? Perhaps we would even fail as friends.

Both Mary and Hannah are offering up their sons to God. They have dedicated them to the Lord. Again, I say, this is a foreign notion to us, even though we have heard these stories time and time again.

Do you remember the story of the Wisdom of Solomon when two women claimed a child to be her own? How can two women claim one child? Solomon must have been perplexed, don’t you think? But he made a monumental decision, he would divide the child in two, a half for each woman. It was only fair, he said, since neither would forsake their claim to the child. I want to think that mothering was at the root of his judgement – how could he call it forth from these two fierce claimants? What is a mother’s love?

A mother knows the sword piercing her soul, cleaving it apart because of the child at her heart. As the sword was poised above the child’s head, the mother’s heart was pierced and it bled the words giving up the child, so that it might live. She knows that she has to let go, or, in the words of that Beatles’ song, to “let it be”. This is the hardest of all actions, to let things take their own course, not to interfere in events even though you want something so fervently.

That “without expectation” is at the heart that mother’s love and I would say it is at the heart of any loving friendship. It is at the heart of the love which Paul espouses to the young churches, and now to us. It is the hardest lesson of all for anyone to learn, but mothers learn this lesson at the moment of birth. The child is now free for infinite possibility. The child is loved whatever the course of life. Mothering means always saying you love and letting go.

Years ago at school, we read a book called The Art of Loving – and I suppose everything I have said today stems from my understanding of that mysterious art. Love is unbounded and unbound, ever holding out its care for the other without expectation. The dedication of a child to the Lord is not the end of a mother’s love – rather, I think we should see it as the beginning of loving expectation, that great expectation of doing the Lord’s will for the rising of many, even if the sword will pierce to a mother’s very core.

My reflections on a mother’s love are at the core of my Mothering Sunday. But they range far beyond pleasant, childhood memories and stories from the bible. I have drawn on, but not spoken of, hard episodes from life all around us to celebrate this Sunday. I think we all would wish to offer something up as such a thanksgiving. – But here we are in the middle of Lent, at the very heart of the season of soul-searching and self-sacrifice, which everyone recognises as christian duty, even those without a christian connection say so. Today children will delight their mothers with their gifts, won’t they? But we, whose mothers have passed, to whom will we give the real or virtual blooms of this equinox?

I am not one for posies even if I do spend my working day in the garden. How do I present my appreciation of a mother’s loving friendship which nourished me? A posy represents the gift we would like to give, doesn’t it? It is a gift we would want to give all our friends as well as our mothers, as a recognition of their loving  care. So, I broke down this morning. I walked around the garden earlier and picked this posy. Here is my token of gratitude for the years of friendly love my mother and friends represents to me.

Amen

Second Sunday of Lent

Collect

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, by the prayer and discipline of Lent may we enter into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings, and by following in his Way come to share in his glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

These things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’

Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18

Psalm

1    The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?

2    When the wicked, even my enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh,
they stumbled and fell.

3    Though a host encamp against me, my heart shall not be afraid,
and though there rise up war against me, yet will I put my trust in him.

4    One thing have I asked of the Lord and that alone I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,

5    To behold the fair beauty of the Lord
and to seek his will in his temple.

6    For in the day of trouble he shall hide me in his shelter;
in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me and set me high upon a rock.

7    And now shall he lift up my head
above my enemies round about me;

8    Therefore will I offer in his dwelling an oblation with great gladness;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

9    Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call;
have mercy upon me and answer me.

10    My heart tells of your word, ‘Seek my face.’
Your face, Lord, will I seek.

11    Hide not your face from me,
nor cast your servant away in displeasure.

12    You have been my helper;
leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.

13    Though my father and my mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

14    Teach me your way, O Lord;
lead me on a level path, because of those who lie in wait for me.

15    Deliver me not into the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen up against me, and those who breathe out violence.

16    I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.

17    Wait for the Lord; be strong and he shall comfort your heart;
wait patiently for the Lord.

Psalm 27

Epistle

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Philipians 3:17–4:1

Gospel

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Luke 13: 31–35

Sermon on Second Sunday of Lent

“… Some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. …’”

I think this is a very odd incident, don’t you? Throughout history, the Pharisees and the Sadducees have been vilified as “the bad guys”, haven’t they? Why have they now come to Jesus and warned him about Herod’s murderous plan? This gives the lie to the usual picture of this group of people, doesn’t it? Why would they warn Jesus, if they were at odds with him? It would be even more unlikely if they were mortal enemies.

The wider context of our reading confirms that conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. In verses before and after our reading, there are explicit statements about the antagonism between them. So why do we have this story about this cooperation? Why would the Pharisees warn Jesus about a plot against him?

We can take a cynical view about this incident and say that the Pharisees did not want to be implicated in the murder of Jesus by “that old fox”. This is quite understandable, isn’t it? Who wants to be part of vile treachery? I know that I don’t want to be a part of the machinations of friends and acquaintances against others. People are too willing to do anything to get their own way. We can see this selfish dimension in so many events all around us, can’t we?

I think there is another way to look at this incident, a more charitable one. Perhaps it shows the confused nature of human experience. Do people really want to see the destruction of their opponents? Do we really want to see the people with whom we disagree to be eliminated completely in such a drastic way?

This incident proves that Shakespearean truth which states “conscience doth make cowards of us all”. The Pharisees are listening to their conscience, and they do not want to follow Herod in his plot against Jesus.

I think this story confirms that some Pharisees actually did listen to their conscience, but more than that, some Pharisees actually also listened to what Jesus had to say. (You may remember that Jesus did go to a Pharisee’s house and that Nicodemus was “a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin mentioned in three places in the Gospel of John.”) So shouldn’t it be possible that in spite of everything we think we believe, we might do something out of our everyday, ordinary character? Isn’t it possible that the Pharisees might in this one instance have done something which was antithetical to what they had professed at other times?

We have all behaved in this way, haven’t we? Saying one thing and doing another. I have done it myself, so it does not surprise me that others do so. For instance, I may call my brother scurrilous names and yet profess my love for him at every other moment in my life. I can contradict myself, just like the Pharisees have done in this instance in the life of Jesus which Luke records.

So just why has Luke remembered this event and told us about it? Where did such a story come from? Whom did Luke intend this story to reach? These are interesting literary questions, aren’t they? There are a lot of other questions when we consider the overall content of this episode. We don’t know the audience or the source of these verses, so it is difficult to place it in a context, and we all know how important context is for everything, don’t we?! NT scholars tackle all these sorts of questions, questions which are not at the heart of my Sunday morning’s rambling normally. But let’s consider them for a moment to put our minds on a track to understand just what Jesus says to Herod.

Here we have Jesus speaking to a group of people who, at best, are ambivalent towards him and he is clearly telling this crowd what he is doing amongst them.

‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen[, Herod,] I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”’

This is a conscious statement of who Jesus knows he is. Jesus is telling everyone that he is doing prophetic work. Jesus proclaims to Herod, the Pharisees and everyone down through history just what his mission is – and he is doing this by miracles. In fact, the preacher says Jesus is speaking to us. What of these words? Casting out demons and performing miraculous cures are the things people touched by God have done in the history of Israel, and amongst the heathen, gods have performed such miracles. Jesus is making an explicit statement about his place in the world and it is up to us to understand his place in heaven.

But this is not an eternally available offer. Just like all the sales in the shops and online, this offer is time sensitive and limited. Jesus is offering all this proof to Herod for only three days. Then his work is done. – Three days only! That is quite something, isn’t it? We christians think of what Jesus offers on the cross as an eternal event, don’t we? We think that we can turn to Jesus at any time, now or later. But Jesus tells Herod that he has to choose immediately, within three days, then he will be gone, like everything in our experience.

I think there is something else going on here. Here Jesus is foreshadowing what will happen very soon. We know from the context of the Gospel that Jesus is going into Jerusalem. Here we are, reading this story at the beginning of Lent. As christians we should be able to figure this out, shouldn’t we? He is going to the cross on Calvary. We need to be conscious of what Jesus knows of his own prophetic mission – that with all the other prophets of God, his life will end in Jerusalem. He will expound the message from the Lord, but will any hear?

There is an urgency here in this little episode from Jesus’ life as Luke tells it. We must decide about this prophetic Jesus right soon. We cannot delay. We cannot be ambivalent like the Pharisees. We must see the good Jesus has done, for the possessed and the incurable – for every one of us. We are being enabled to believe here and now. We cannot put it off any longer, the time limit is short, and Herod, that fellow who danced around his swimming pool in Jesus Christ Superstar, while awaiting a miracle, has to decide immediately about Jesus. We need to decide about our faith. We cannot secrete ourselves off into a den to hide from faith with that old fox. We now know what is real. Jesus has told Herod and so he has told us as well through these words Luke remembers and puts down in the gospel. We have to act here and now.

Amen

First Sunday of Lent

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; 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

Heavenly Father, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert: help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, you have renewed us with the living bread from heaven; by it you nourish our faith, increase our hope, and strengthen our love: teach us always to hunger for him who is the true and living bread, and enable us to live by every word that proceeds from out of your mouth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Deuteronomy 26:1–11

Psalm

1    Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
and abides under the shadow of the Almighty,

2    Shall say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my stronghold,
my God, in whom I put my trust.’


9    Because you have made the Lord your refuge
and the Most High your stronghold,

10    There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your tent.

11    For he shall give his angels charge over you,
to keep you in all your ways.

12    They shall bear you in their hands,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

13    You shall tread upon the lion and adder;
the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.

14    Because they have set their love upon me, therefore will I deliver them;
I will lift them up, because they know my name.

15    They will call upon me and I will answer them;
I am with them in trouble,
I will deliver them and bring them to honour.

16    With long life will I satisfy them;
and show them my salvation.

Psalm 91

Epistle

But what does it say?

‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Romans 10: 8b–13

Gospel

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’

 Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Luke 4:1–13

Sermon on First Sunday of Lent

Here we are at the beginning of the great fast of Lent. We are being tempted just as Jesus was in the wilderness. In the gospel reading, we hear about the devil and the tests Jesus underwent. Jesus countered the devil with quotations from the bible at every turn. I wonder what I would reply if there were only stones around me and I was famished, or if I were on the top of the temple in Jerusalem. And what would I reply now if I were shown all the countries of the world and were offered all power to control everything, especially in light of the events of the last week?

I may not, in my own experience, have the vision of all the empires in the world, but I can imagine that there are people who are tempted to take up that offer of world domination. Even in our private lives there are many who wish to lord it over others. There are so many bullies in the schoolyard! Aren’t there multitudes who want everyone else at their beck and call? We have seen these people domineering in friends’ lives, in work or on committees. We have even seen this in many countries’ leaders, let alone in the people we know personally. Leaders in the United States have been seen to be bullies personally and politically. However, politics is off the agenda, but our leaders are examples we can use to understand ourselves.

Becoming someone who wants to rule the world requires two things, the will to do what is not part of the social contract and the opportunity to do so. The social contract is our living one with another in the love of God, in our own love one for the other. We mutually benefit from this respect, this charity which we share with one another. It is a communal love which commends ourselves to others with no expectation. When we truly love, as I have said before, we want nothing back, we only want to give and when I truly love one person, everyone around me benefits.

But this love is not easy to accomplish in our ordinary lives, when this and that gets in the way of our intentions. Like that weak flesh Paul complains about, when his spirit wants to soar to sit in the heavenly kingdom with the Lord and Master of his life.

In our own lives we are confronted with decisions which we find very difficult. These are the temptations we have in front of us daily – we have to choose to love our neighbour and God beyond all things. We are confronted with the choice to do the right thing or not. Good or evil – that is the eternal choice – and the temptation to do something questionable is always right there in front of us. It would be so easy to slip into it.

To rise above all things and to do what is good, seems to be beyond our ability. We do not know how to achieve what is righteous in our lives. Here I am using the word, “righteous,” in the way the rappers do. They see that good deed as beyond the ordinary, beyond the everyday. It is not part of our usual experience, is it?

The temptations of Christ in the wilderness are extreme examples of the everyday choices we all make day by day. We don’t have the opportunity to be idolised by the world as in that temptation the devil enticed Jesus with, but I think we can see that we want to enthral one person. “If only she would love me!” is something I said so many times about heartthrobs before I met my wife. I want to be able to cajole that one person to my way of thinking, into my way of being in the world with me. Isn’t this where the bully starts? Don’t we start on that road of good intentions when we want to overwhelm the other with our so-called “declarations of love”?

This is a far cry from the devil obliging us to choose to acknowledge him, but the reality is the same – to decide to do what is good or not.

    ‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’

We all know about the Word of God, don’t we? We all know that it is as close to us as our hearts beat within our very selves. But do we really see what that word is in our everyday lives? Acknowledging the good in life that we could and should accomplish is a far step away from what we do day by day. Don’t we race through and do what is convenient and expedient? We never want to place our hand on the tiller to give guidance to our friends and neighbours or ourselves because we always think that what is good is always too hard for us to do. Certainly, I always tell myself that the Word of God is beyond my powers.

What about that fundamental experience of temptation by the devil which we read every first Sunday of Lent ? Do we know about that wrenching of conscience? Do we counter the bad choices by quoting scripture as a means of giving ourselves strength and wisdom in our everyday lives?

Then what about those of us who are not clever enough to quote scripture at any time, let alone at the right moment! How can I hope to counter the temptations of the devil, all the evil in my life, if I do not find biblical succour in my mind? Can I touch the sure foundation of the biblical Christ for my life? Is there any hope for me?

Well, I think there is. But it is a more difficult task. I have to start at first principles time and time again. I seem never to make any progress because I begin at the two great commandments and develop everything from that golden rule Jesus taught. I fail so often, but I am happy to begin again in the hope that one day I will succeed. Well, today is the day we begin our great fast once more collectively. What will we give  up? — I don’t think chocolate is the most important thing to give up. That is one of those things that are a minor annoyance in life. I want to give up something even more important in everyday life – and here the stories about Jesus in the desert should guide me.

During these awful times, after lockdown through which we seem to have learned nothing, now at the beginning of a conflict which could overwhelm the world, we must turn to that Word which will guide us, that Word which will show us the path through all conflict and danger. What is that Word? You know what I am going to say, don’t you? I have said it so many times before: Love – a love so profound that I am willing to give up everything for the sake of another. Would that our world leaders and our neighbours would hear that Word! If only I could live that Word day by day! — Lent is not just the forty days before Easter – Lent must be every day of our everyday lives.

Amen

Fourth Sunday Before Lent

Collect

O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations; 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

Go before us, Lord, in all we do with your most gracious favour, and guide us with your continual help, that in all our works begun, continued and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name, and finally by your mercy receive everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord of the hosts of heaven, our salvation and our strength, without you we are lost: guard us from all that harms or hurts and raise us when we fall; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

[ And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;

keep looking, but do not understand.”

Make the mind of this people dull,

   and stop their ears,

   and shut their eyes,

so that they may not look with their eyes,

   and listen with their ears,

and comprehend with their minds,

   and turn and be healed.’

Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:

‘Until cities lie waste

   without inhabitant,

and houses without people,

   and the land is utterly desolate;

until the Lord sends everyone far away,

   and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

Even if a tenth part remains in it,

   it will be burned again,

like a terebinth or an oak

   whose stump remains standing

   when it is felled.’

The holy seed is its stump.]

Isaiah 6:1–8[9–13]

Psalm

1    I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods will I sing praise to you.

2    I will bow down towards your holy temple and praise your name, because of your love and faithfulness;
for you have glorified your name and your word above all things.

3    In the day that I called to you, you answered me;
you put new strength in my soul.

4    All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.

5    They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
that great is the glory of the Lord.

6    Though the Lord be high, he watches over the lowly;
as for the proud, he regards them from afar.

7    Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you will preserve me;
you will stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand will save me.

8    The Lord shall make good his purpose for me;
your loving-kindness, O Lord, endures for ever; forsake not the work of your hands.

Psalm 138

Epistle

Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

1 Corinthians 15.1–11

Gospel

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5.1–11

Sermon on Fourth Sunday before Lent

And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

When I read these words, I thought of the fear and trepidation I felt when I read the words of Malachai last week, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Again, I am in a dreadful state, for like Isaiah I am thrust into a mood of uncomprehending apprehension. I look around me and see so much that is wrong, in particular the lying and blasphemy emerging from the mouths of my contemporaries – and on occasion even myself, if I am honest – and now I see there is something that should direct life – “the King, the Lord of hosts!” With Isaiah I cry in agony, and, I suppose, just like Paul as well, when I consider what my life is like. Paul bewailed his behaviour because he was among the harshest critics of those who proclaimed Christ the way, he even says he was foremost in persecuting the nascent Church harshly in the reading for today.

No wonder he was at odds within himself, just as I am – I am dumbfounded by my faith and my actions – just like the time Paul writes, “My spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak.” There is a fundamental contradiction within me. Like Isaiah, I suppose we all can say the same, that although we know what is good, we do not accomplish it in our lives. We tread the route everyone else has taken, and we are loathe to take that road less travelled by – in our case, the way of Christ. We find ourselves within that uncomprehending crowd and we may even be content to hide ourselves away in its midst all too often.

There is hope, however! There are moments of enlightenment – moments when we can see what we should do. In those brief instances we might seize the opportunity to do what is right and good. And when we do so, we are totally out of our everyday character.

We stand upright, ready to act, because we have the courage to be, to be faithful, and, perhaps, moral upright people. We no longer have the unclean lips of the crowd which brays its hatred of what does not conform to itself. The cauterising coal of the Word of God has paused on our lips and we can speak of a better way of life, forsaking what is dubious and fastening on to what is true and steadfast. At that moment we latch on to something timeless, that something the philosophers are always going on about, what the theologians find in faith, that final and first cause of all.

No wonder we can stand on our own and speak without fear. But we do have to still ourselves and realise just what we are. We have to forsake our feet of clay and lips unclean. We have to still stand to allow our comprehension of that sight, when the King, the Lord of Hosts, comes into focus.

The coal which touched our lips has freed us. Instead of sealing our mouth tight shut as cauterising a wound normally would, that coal from the altar has transformed us so that we can speak out with purity. We can utter the truth amongst our contemporaries without any thought about being different – that fitting in is no longer our main concern. Rather, standing tall in the truth is our only focus, to speak to and for the vulnerable and weak – to strengthen them. Our obligation is to speak for the widow and orphan, the people who have no voice in the world we know.

Our collect for today takes up the same truth Isaiah voices. Isaiah is fortunate to be strong in a way so many of us cannot attain. The cleansing burning coal from the altar has been pressed on his lips and he can no longer be part of the silent majority. He must speak out as a prophet in his time, just as Martin Luther King did in mine. Who will speak to us today? Whose clean lips will speak to this generation? Whose fingers on the computer keyboard will penetrate the uncaring cyber world in which we live today?

Where are the new prophets who will speak to the future? – and about the future! Looking around us today in the church, there are no children, no one to take the message forward. It has to be up to us to do so. We are the people who must speak up. Each of us can do so in our very ordinary lives.

I have said it before, just smiling with our eyes at passers-by might be enough to change the world. Those “random acts of kindness” which have transformed our lives should not be denied others.

And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Have we been able to arrive at that point in our lives? Are we able to say that a vision of the King, the Lord of Hosts, will now direct our movement in life? Will I keep my nerve and continue on that way which the King has revealed?

Just as I stand in trepidation at my unworthiness in life, so I stand in boldness with this new commission to speak to the world about the good and righteousness which it is possible to accomplish in our lives – to convey the glory of promised life in all its fullness.

It is extraordinary that we can feel the same emotions when we want to hide away and when we want to stand tall and brave. This is the mode of the hero, isn’t it? The hero is always challenged to take up a quest, to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. You know the sort of thing – cleaning the Aegean Stables and Hercules’ six other labours – to destroy the One Ring by that humble and insignificant Hobbit – to speak your heart the first time to the person who becomes the love of your life. The task is as varied as each one of us is. Nevertheless we are given a task. It is our choice whether we acknowledge it as our destiny or not. That is where these emotions begin, isn’t it? Don’t we say at first, Why me? Then as time goes by, the calling to courage mounts and we decide we must take up the challenge. We must become heroes in the style of Paul and Isaiah, or a Samson and David. We all must be able to say, “Here I am!” I will go forward as the good bids.

We must begin the quest for salvation, and as we plough on, share the stories with any who would have the time to listen to our tales of derring-do. Like the heroes of old, we come back to where we began our journey – to our ownmost selves, those selves who see the King, the Lord of Hosts as the true ruler of hearts and minds, that King whose rule of love subsumes all to itself, if only we would see its primacy. We must return to what the philosopher calls the final cause of life, the alpha and omega of our own possibility. We must complete the quest of our self in the homecoming of the Kingdom, like prodigal children, accepting the joy of our father as true heirs at the final banquet.

Amen

Candlemass

Collect

Almighty and ever–living God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh: grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Lord Jesus Christ, light of the nations and glory of Israel: make your home among us, and present us pure and holy to your heavenly Father, your God, and our God.

Post Communion

Lord, you fulfilled the hope of Simeon and Anna, who lived to welcome the Messiah: may we, who have received these gifts beyond words, prepare to meet Christ Jesus when he comes to bring us to eternal life; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

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.

Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachai 3: 1–5

Psalm

7    Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

8    ‘Who is the King of glory?’
‘The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord who is mighty in battle.’

9    Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

10    ‘Who is this King of glory?’
‘The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’

Psalm 24

Epistle

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

Hebrews 2: 14–18

Gospel

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Luke 2: 22–40



Sermon on Candlemass

I can never hear the words from Malachai without Handel’s Messiah singing them to me – “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” What do you imagine when you hear either Messiah or this reading? I am filled with dread. The whole of this passage from our first reading makes me nervous for myself and for all humanity in these dark times.

The coming of God’s messenger who will purify all in a furnace of fire “until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness”. Don’t you find these words of Malachai spine-chilling? – Don’t we have a lot to fear in the light of that day?

I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and [against those who] do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

There are all sorts of people being singled out for judgement. Let’s look at them – sorcerers, well I don’t know anyone who fits that description, but they may lurk somewhere in the shadows. Adulterers, they are few and far between, and I don’t know of anyone who is in an adulterous relationship, but they may be near by just unknown to me. Then those who swear falsely – this is a trickier group of people to determine. Do white lies count? What about when we sugar-coat the truth? Are these falsehoods? There are, it seems, people who tell a big lie and are perfectly happy that they don’t confess their lying. But everyone listens to the lie and makes nothing of it. They have sworn falsely and everyone has to accept the consequences of that deceit. This has been highlighted in the news recently, hasn’t it?

Then there are businessmen who do not treat their workers fairly, and there are other people who do not treat the vulnerable well. The vulnerable widow and orphan throughout history have relied on the care of others, especially if they were in a parlous way. Those who oppress knowingly, or not, is a very large group of people, isn’t it? Bullying or just name-calling can be part of this charge, and certainly prejudice of any sort falls into this category of bad behaviour. Then there are people who mistreat the alien in our midst – this can be “the incomer” into a local community, or someone who has arrived in a small boat somewher on these shores. The alien resident in our midst is hard to spot sometimes, but even so, they can be badly treated, and often are.

I think we can see ourselves in any of these groups of people who have done something wrong knowingly or not. But we don’t see ourselves as evil, do we? We sometimes just bend the rules a bit. How can I be “evil”? I am doing this or that to make life better for myself!

But the most heinous accusation Malachai voices is that we “do not fear […] the Lord of Hosts”. Malachai builds up the charges against the individual as he lists the wrongdoing all around him. The misdeeds get less specific as the weight of their unacceptability goes up. Sorcery leading up to unfaith is how the scale of charges looks. We know how sorcery may appear, but what about a lack of faith? How does someone appear who does not fear the Lord? This is a charge which has no particular manifestation. I can do good deeds whether I fear the Lord or not, but I can also do deeds which cause misery. However, do people who have that fundamental fear of the Lord do bad things? I think the fear of the Lord guards us in life. It is something fundamental to the good life and I don’t think the good life of the philosopher is what the crowd pursues.

That is why the reading from Malachai causes me to tremble right down to my boots. I need to be singular in order to be good and fear the Lord. In order to be “pleasing to the Lord” I need to be able to stand up to the world and overcome its dreadful tendencies. I need to be righteous in the sight of the judge of all, and I cannot do that standing in the midst of a baying crowd. I must stand alone before God apart from all others. That is the presentation we must deal with in these modern times. The temple is gone. The rites undertaken on behalf of the babe of Bethlehem no longer obtain. However, we must still be appropriate offerings to God.

That is why this reading from Malachai is appropriate for Candlemass – The Feast of the Presentation? In the gospel, his parents bring the baby Jesus to the temple “to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord…)”. The child was “designated as holy to the Lord.” Isn’t this a little like what Malachai is talking about in that passage? That each and every one of us has the opportunity – and the duty – to be presented holy to the Lord, tested in the refining fire of the messenger from God. Aren’t you a little anxious as you stand here in God’s presence, as we present ourselves to the Lord of Hosts, just as that innocent babe was given over to the Lord on that day of presentation, just as that babe was handed to Simeon who was present in the temple on that day, the day of his coming? No wonder Simeon was happy that his eyes had seen the coming of the Lord and he could depart in peace. Are we like him – “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation”? Do we live like Simeon in the fear of the Lord?

We do live in very peculiar times, just as perilous as those of over two thousand years ago when Malachai spoke in the name of the Lord. That is an obvious fact. The last ten years have been most anxious for us – on the world stage we have wondered about climate change and how we can stem that threat. Then there is the uncertainty of the UK’s place in the world after its withdrawal from Europe. On the personal level we have had to cope with the worry of Covid. And that personal responsibility has played itself out on the national scene, hasn’t it? Now there is chaos in public and private life because all the rules have changed yet again and we are still uncertain about how safe the nation is. How are we to protect ourselves and others in these uncertain times? Or do we go along with the crowd?

Everything, both globally and personally, is in flux. Today is about Presentation – not just the babe in the temple, but all of us have to present ourselves as holy, as pure offerings. We present ourselves to the world, to that unseeing and uncaring crowd as well. We have to overcome that deception of normality in order to obtain our ownmost possibility of what is right and good.

We all know about earworms, those little ditties which continue to echo once you hear them. My earworm continues to be Handel’s setting of these words, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” What will be your earworm today?

Amen