Trinity 8

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings

Psalm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 23

Old Testament

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

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

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Gospel

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

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

Mark 6:30–34,53–56

Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Trinity 7, Sea Sunday

Sunday, Trinity 7

Collect

Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Creator God, you made us all in your image: may we discern you in all that we see, and serve you in all that we do; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God of our pilgrimage, you have led us to the living water: refresh and sustain us as we go forward on our journey, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,

‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;

the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’

And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’

Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

Amos 7:7–15

Psalm

8    I will listen to what the Lord God will say,
for he shall speak peace to his people and to the faithful, that they turn not again to folly.

9    Truly, his salvation is near to those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

10    Mercy and truth are met together,
righteousness and peace have kissed each other;

11    Truth shall spring up from the earth
and righteousness look down from heaven.

12    The Lord will indeed give all that is good,
and our land will yield its increase.

13    Righteousness shall go before him
and direct his steps in the way.

Psalm 85:8–13

Epistle

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:3–14

Gospel

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6.14–29

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 7

Today is Sea Sunday, when we remember seafarers as they cross the water on the seven seas for us. Seafarers are essential workers, aren’t they? They keep goods on the move throughout the world. They can also bring people from continent to continent or island to island. We all know the importance of sea traffic. When the Suez Canal was blocked by that ship, everyone blamed the shortage of everything on that incident and we realised how important free movement on the oceans is.

We have heard of pirates. We all know the fictional swash-bucklers, don’t we? The Pirates fo the Carribean on the big screen sailing away into the sunset and all that. Real pirates, however, have been on the news, taking over cargo ships, and terrorist pirates have even taken over ocean liners and cruise ships. Seafarers must fear them as one of the very real dangers of the sea, just as much as drowning. The psalmist speaks of the tenuous nature of life wherever we find ourselves, land or sea.

Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no path to a city in which to dwell.

They were hungry and thirsty; their soul fainted within them.

Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. …

Others went out to sea in ships, conducting trade on the mighty waters.

They saw the works of the LORD, and His wonders in the deep.

For He spoke and raised a tempest that lifted the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to the heavens, then sunk to the depths; their courage melted in their anguish.

They reeled and staggered like drunkards, and all their skill was useless.

Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distress.

He calmed the storm to a whisper, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

They rejoiced in the silence, and He guided them to the harbor they desired.

The psalmist says sailors, like landlubbers, have seen the power of the Lord God, but they have seen it in the chaos of the deep. We can only imagine the power of the waves as we huddle together against the rain inside our houses –  settled by the fire at home under the duvet. Being on board a ship that is being carried up to the sky and lowered down to the deep in troughs between two huge waves which dwarf any boat we might have ever been on, is not our usual experience, is it? We are on dry land. In comparison to seafarers, we really are flat-earthers, aren’t we? The surface we stand on does not gimble and whirl. We have never experienced our ground tossed and turned about. We have always stood on land which is stable and sure.

The sailor’s ground is the deck of his ship. It floats on those enormous waves which determine his direction. His captain must negotiate the course often against the elements – elements which could overwhelm the ship and all on her, goods, passengers and crew. We have no such worries as we walk to church on a Sunday morning. The nave of our ship is upside down on dry land and nothing can deter us from our goal. It may be uncomfortable in the rain and a hard blow, or in a sunny 30 degrees C, but we still have our feet on solid ground and we can continue on any course we wish. Our way is fixed to ground.

On the sea, when the storm comes, our ship becomes like a leaf on the wind, out of our control. We are driven whither the wind takes us, sometimes off course for a time. We have been thrown into the world and buffeted by something well out of our control. Like the captain, we must negotiate our course in life, a course which is strewn with distractions and frustrations, ever remembering that eventually we will reach harbour and anchor, even if we are overdue because of contrary winds and sea changes. And still the journey continues whether we have been able to take control or not.

I suppose the question we should ask has to do with our ultimate harbour. Have we charted our course home in spite of the stormy weather and obstinate seas? Have we that ultimate port in mind through the whole of our lives? Has it been marked on our charts and in our hearts? Have we been able to plot our position relative to it through the whole course of our journey?

Are the charts accurate? That is the next question to tackle. We have heard the Prime Minister talk of the “Road Map” – Brexit and Covid have each had a course discussed in Cabinet and vaunted in the press. But are the maps accurate? What is the end point on those maps? Is it merely an economic result? Or has the government charted a course to “the good life” – the life of the individual to pursue his or her own dreams, dreams which deal with his or her ownmost possibility as the philosopher would say, or one’s own Self as the psychologist might say. However, the preacher calls this ultimate goal of our dreams “heaven” and he reminds each one of us that is the final reality for everyone.

Whatever we call these dreams, our road map of hopes and expectations is revealed by deeds, all our turns on the way reveal how we have charted our course to our final haven, how we have kept our course fixed on our final possibility.

Our ship’s log records the results of all our struggles on the way – the storms which have pushed us off course now and again, the fair winds which have rushed us toward our haven. In our curriculum vitae we record how we may have been distracted by some particular thing on the way, or captured the goal at some point in our lives. Memory serves as our record, and we can only hope that others remember our good deeds. The ship’s log records how we recover from the storm as well. Do we resume our course once the bad weather has passed? That is the question we ought to ask. We all have bad spells at the tiller. We lose the pole star from time to time. How we rediscover that fixed point in our lives, that ownmost possibility, is what should concern us.

Confession and conversion are the words the theologians of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church have described how we behave when we recover our destiny within this freedom of action human life is. I think that is why St Augustine’s
Confessions
remains a book of interest from generation to generation – for it tells the story of how a man navigates distraction and overcomes loss of intent and finally how he recovers the purpose of his life. I think you can say that book is his “ship’s log”. I would like to say we are all seafarers. Whether we use the language of the Church or the language of poets or sailors, we find ourselves describing our life’s journey over what Shakespeare called the sea of troubles. We reveal what our course is through the stories we tell of ourselves. We show what we conceive as our ultimate goal through our language and the significant events we narrate in the log of our lives. I can only hope our story tells that the haven of our ownmost possibility is the peace and love of heaven, the place which is very near, as Jesus taught from the beginning.

Amen

Trinity 6

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name; through our Lord and Saviour 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, send down upon your Church the riches of your Spirit, and kindle in all who minister the gospel your countless gifts of grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Grant, O Lord, we beseech you, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by your governance, that your Church may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

Ezekiel 2:1–5

Psalm

1    To you I lift up my eyes,
to you that are enthroned in the heavens.

2    As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
or the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,

3    So our eyes wait upon the Lord our God,
until he have mercy upon us.

4    Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.

5    Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of the arrogant,
and of the contempt of the proud.

Psalm 123

Epistle

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

II Corinthians 12:2–10

Gospel

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Mark 6:1–13



Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 6

“And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.” Why could Jesus do “no deed of power”? After all, he was now where he grew up and two weeks ago we heard about Jesus commanding the storm to cease on the water, didn’t we? What do you think happened in the intervening two weeks?

I think there is a  “willful unknowing” amongst the people in his hometown. Surely they have heard of Jesus’ reputation for miracles – those “deeds of power”? So why don’t they allow those deeds of power to happen amongst them? I think the power of the crowd is at work, just as it is at work amongst us. They wanted everything to be just as it was, no change in anything.

After all, a “deed of power” is something that changes everything – forever. A miracle in your life demands that you make a fundamental change in your life. If your withered hand was made whole, wouldn’t you shout about it? If you were on a boat and the storm ceased at the words of Jesus, wouldn’t you want to let everyone know? When you love someone with all your heart, mind and strength, hasn’t there been an essential and existential change in your life?

I was watching one of those crime dramas of which I am so fond, and the bereaved father said, “We must not let revenge or vengeance determine our course of action. We must let hope provide the way we should move forward.” One of the cops who heard that said, “I don’t know whether I could forgive if my child had been killed.” That father had experienced the miracle of a loving child and so his life had changed.

No one can understand that in the everyday world, can they? We all want that “justice”, don’t we? We all want the perpetrators of crimes to pay, don’t we? We all want our justice to be complete and swift for those who would carry out heinous crimes, don’t we? How can anyone cry out for calm and understanding or plea for forgiveness, when a loved one is killed so barbarously? However, in this drama, this is exactly what happened, but this is not what anyone would expect in the normal course of events.

But I think this is exactly what should happen in these situations. After all, didn’t Jesus say as he was being tortured to death, “Father forgive them – they really don’t know what they are doing”? Maybe the words of that bereaved father reflected those last and more well-known words of Jesus.

Why did Jesus say this? If we remain in the mind-set of the crowd, we can never understand it, can we? The crowd has never forgiven anyone anything. Vengeance, which is the Lord’s alone, is what the crowd seeks, and that crowd wants to mete it out. We see this in films all the time – in the cowboy films there is the lynch mob, in the gritty urban dramas there is the crowd protesting and rioting on the street in front of the police station. The police try to defuse the situation so that justice may work itself out by arresting and bringing the guilty to court for judgement. The guy in the white hat rides into the situation and stands tall against the unthinking mob baying for the blood of the accused.

Would we dare stand with them as they called for calm and peace, as Jesus did when he was woken from his sleep on that stormy sea? Would we dare raise our voice for justice as the crowd calls for revenge at crimes committed.

I experienced exactly this on 9/11. I was at a conference near Boston when the news was broadcast. The talking heads on the television were calling for total war against all those people who could possibly do such awful things. Even though no one knew anything about the events, just that the twin towers were burning, destroyed by something unimaginable at that moment. I was the only one wanting to remain calm – I questioned the crowd’s call for blood. The crowd and I were at odds. Who was right? If this had been a vote, there was no question I was the only vote against the motion. Was I right or wrong? What should we have done? Investigate and determine the truth – or – strike hard and swift with the might of the American, military-industrial complex? I will always think the former, but, alas, it seems the crowd always takes the latter alternative – the automatic, unthinking reaction to events.

Sometimes a harsh response is required, but need it be immediate and without reflection? Why don’t we all require of ourselves a moral reaction to events rather than merely thoughtless activity? Can we stand up against the faceless crowd in times of fear? Can we be calm and peaceful?

Like the wind and the sea in the miracle story, our minds are racing and not under control. Our timidity comes to the fore and we do not want to stand up against the crowd – all our erstwhile friends who are letting their passions control their deeds.

“Take courage” says Jesus to us. We need to have “the courage to be” as the preacher once wrote as the title of a collection of sermons. The preacher exhorts all to a thoughtful life, a life that values faith, hope and love.

Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, significant for those with close connections with the United States. The Episcopal Church in the USA, a sister church in the Anglican communion for whom we pray through the year prays this collect today for the country:

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

To act “in righteousness and peace” – is what Jesus and the preacher want us to do, to have the courage to be what we can be.

All too often that aspiration is not what the crowd wants. The mob bays for blood in fiction and in fact. How can we withstand that crowd? I say with courage.

With courage deeds of power can be accomplished. We can do miraculous things, just as Jesus did. We may not be able to still the storm, but we can act in righteousness and peace as in that collect – we can take away the terror of being in a whirlwind, we can nurse the sick, we can be with others in a profound way – and those, I suggest, are the miracles we can  and should do. Love is the one thing which is always within our capacity. With love we can overcome the unbelief of the uncomprehending crowd. Love is the deed of power, that miracle we can all accomplish. Love is a deed of power for that another person’s life. And that is a miracle.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 4

Collect

Almighty God, you have broken the tyranny of sin and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts whereby we call you Father: give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God; 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 our saviour, look on this wounded world in pity and in power; hold us fast to your promises of peace won for us by your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Readings

Old Testament

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

    ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

    ‘Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb?—

when I made the clouds its garment,

and thick darkness its swaddling band,

and prescribed bounds for it,

and set bars and doors,

and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

Job 38.1–11

Psalm

1    O give thanks to the Lord, for he is gracious,
for his steadfast love endures for ever.

2    Let the redeemed of the Lord say this,
those he redeemed from the hand of the enemy,

3    And gathered out of the lands from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

23    Those who go down to the sea in ships
and ply their trade in great waters,

24    These have seen the works of the Lord
and his wonders in the deep.

25    For at his word the stormy wind arose
and lifted up the waves of the sea.

26    They were carried up to the heavens and down again to the deep;
their soul melted away in their peril.

27    They reeled and staggered like a drunkard
and were at their wits’ end.

28    Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

29    He made the storm be still
and the waves of the sea were calmed.

30    Then were they glad because they were at rest,
and he brought them to the haven they desired.

31    Let them give thanks to the Lord for his goodness
and the wonders he does for his children.

32    Let them exalt him in the congregation of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders.

Psalm 107.1–3,23–32

Epistle

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

    ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,

    and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return – I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

2 Corinthians 6.1–13

Gospel

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Mark 4.35–41

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 4

“Rebuke” – how often do you hear that word? I wonder if you have ever used it. Or – Have you ever rebuked anyone? It is something you never hear of nowadays, unless you are reading the bible, that is.

My online thesaurus gave me some alternatives to the word, “rebuke” – to berate, to chide, to lambaste, to reprimand, to scold, to have words with, to remonstrate, to reproach, to upbraid, to criticise, to castigate, to chasten and to chastise. All of those meanings are part of “rebuke” and I think we should understand the range of meaning in that word.

I am sure we have all “had words with” someone who upset us in some way. We may have scolded a child. Undoubtedly, we have berated a sporting villain who had fouled someone badly. Many of our contemporaries remonstrate others on social media one way or another. Why we may even reproach ourselves for our own bad behaviour! All of these experiences feed into the meaning of “rebuke”. – This venerable word, however, does not make it into our contemporary vocabulary, but its meaning is a real part of our own experience.

A “rebuke” is the stock in trade of the prophets. How many times do we hear of God reprimanding his people through the word of a prophet? How often does God upbraid Israel? How great is the chastisement when the Hebrews have fallen by the wayside on that path to the promised land!

Jesus took on this prophetic persona himself, when he called the priests in the temple, “Hypocrites”. He “rebukes” the Jews of his time, and with good reason. His contemporaries have polluted the streams and rivers of righteousness and justice. They had forsaken that high path to the mountain of God and fallen into the mire of a dissolute life, one which has forgotten to dwell on the final cause of all creation, their God. Jesus rebukes them all in so many places. And here in this short passage we hear Jesus criticising his own disciples for their fear. “Don’t you have any faith?” he asks. Then he turns to the storm and commands peace and stillness with his rebuke. The winds abate and the sea calms.

We have all heard this story so many times, but I think it deserves further consideration about its significance for our lives. – Jesus was asleep at the back of the boat, comfortable in the stern on a cushion in the midst of this raging storm. His disciples feared for their lives and criticised Jesus for his casual attitude in the midst of the heavy seas and high winds. They woke him with the plaintive, “Don’t you care about us?” They wondered about this man’s feelings toward them, these men who had left everything to follow him. Had they hitched their wagons to the right star? – Here they were at risk on the water in the midst of a storm and that man was asleep!

Don’t we all feel this when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune come down so hard upon our heads that we despair? Aren’t we like the disciples when we begin to wonder, “Why?” We are in our own storms, aren’t we? Collectively, we are now in the midst of this never-ending pandemic. Personally, we are in our own dark places. And what do we do? We rebuke others – the prime minister and his cabinet for not dealing with things so that we can carry on with our affairs as if nothing has changed in the world. We revile our contemporaries for their callous disregard of health and safety. And so on … but whatever we say nothing changes.

We do not stand in our own boats to rebuke the wind, do we? We do not say, “Peace, be still!” to the seas of troubles in which we sail individually and collectively. For we do not have the faith to do so, but Jesus did. Jesus rebuked the elements and they obeyed him – “they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” That puts us in our place, doesn’t it? Our faith is so measly that we don’t dare to act. Instead we chide our saviour into a miracle, something that shows how worthy he is for our respect and honour, how worthy he is of our worship.

Each of us understands the delicacy of life when we stand there alone in the silence of the whirlwind like Job, don’t we? That moment of clarity when we see our lives as that maelstrom of experience good and bad, those storms which surround us normally, which embrace us in a way that can crush us, if we do not have resilience, if we do not embrace our being thrown into life just as it is, just as Jesus was.

That storm into which we are cast can overwhelm us, just as the covid crisis has done in this past year. It is a storm which is not abating. This storm seems to extend beyond our capacity to cope, doesn’t it? With lockdown being extended so that we cannot do what we want to for another four weeks, we are assaulted yet again by an outrageous fortune which we must conquer for ourselves. We ask, when will this storm cease?

We panic on the seas of our troubles, don’t we? We have no faith in ourselves or our neighbours for help in our situation. We despair. This is the point of no return. We stand at a point where there is an abyss all around us and we must choose – we must choose to live.

I just mentioned Job. He is in precisely this situation of the maelstrom of troubles. – His life is in tatters, his family has all been killed off, his riches have been stripped away, even his health is being crushed with boils and pain. He is, we imagine, at that same point at which we stand in the midst of all our sufferings and anxiety. He stands in innocence and faith and chooses to live. Even his comforters cannot diminish his belief in his own innocence because they can not see how such suffering can come down on the pure and righteous.

The reading from Job talks of the whirlwind, that great maelstrom surrounding him – all of Shakespeare’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune assaulting him in his faithful innocence. This turmoil is completely beyond the power of any individual to control. The psalm speaks of the storms on the sea. At the behest of God, they arise and the waves rise to heaven and dip so low into the earth. Only those who travel on the great waters know the real power of the storms which God calls into being. All of our readings today speak to the human condition, that thrown-ness of the individual into a world which is capricious – we are thrown into the environment of chance and change that has no intention of making anything normal for any of us.

“The wind goes where it will.” That is what we think. There is no human control over the stormy wind, is there? The wind comes and goes without any by your leave. Storms rage and quell of their own accord, how can we think we can do anything with the whirlwind?

We can make things less extreme. By moderating our behaviour, we may make the climate, our environment, less dangerous. If we were to live by the rule of Christ’s law, the winds of change will be a “gentle breeze” as Seals and Croft once sang. Perhaps the jasmine sweet will be in our lives as the Spirit enters our hearts, when we respond to the call of God, when we hear the rebuke in the silence at the centre of the whirlwind and finally act our love of our Lord God and neighbour.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 3

Collect

Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth: send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Faithful Creator, whose mercy never fails: deepen our faithfulness to you and to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Loving Father, we thank you for feeding us at the supper of your Son: sustain us with your Spirit, that we may serve you here on earth until our joy is complete in heaven, and we share in the eternal banquet with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Thus says the Lord God:

    I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out.

    I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs;

    I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.

    On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.

    Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.

    All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.

    I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;

    I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.

    I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

Ezekiel 17.22–24

Psalm

1    It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord
and to sing praises to your name, O Most High;

2    To tell of your love early in the morning
and of your faithfulness in the night-time,

3     Upon the ten-stringed instrument, upon the harp,
and to the melody of the lyre.

4     For you, Lord, have made me glad by your acts,
and I sing aloud at the works of your hands.

12    The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree,
and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.

13    Such as are planted in the house of the Lord
shall flourish in the courts of our God.

14    They shall still bear fruit in old age;
they shall be vigorous and in full leaf;

15    That they may show that the Lord is true;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Psalm 92.1–4,12–15*

Epistle

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

[ Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.]

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

2 Corinthians 5.6–10 [11–13]14–17

Gospel

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4.26–34



Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 3

Passages from the prophets excite me, especially when they are full of imagery I can understand. Particularly poignant are passages which liken the divine to gardening, or arboreal, services, as Ezekiel and Mark do today. Who would not feel some sympathy with a God who wants to create a paradise on “the mountain height of Israel”? After all, who does not understand the desire to shape the wilderness into a garden, by letting some trees fall by the wayside and bring others to full fruition? Who is not thrilled by the image of a great cedar as the purpose of the creator God, an image which takes on the meaning of God’s people shaped and cared for by a most solicitous gardener?

There are times in my job that I feel that inspiration, when I have been able to shape a garden so that plants will flourish and their owners feel a joy where they live. When I mow lawns,  I feel I am presenting gardens at their best, green and pleasant as the land in that great hymn.

Watching all the news programs and commentaries on the health of the nation during lock-down, it was apparent that people need green spaces around them for their sanity. This is a lesson which must penetrate the whole of our lives. We must plan to have that good space around us, not just survive in boxes without souls. Such an outlook makes my job so much more rewarding. I feel I have helped produce that new creation in the environment of my customers.

The imagery Ezekiel uses is similar to the language that Jesus uses in the lesson from Mark we read for today. Again we come to agriculture for our re-presentation of our ownmost selves. Ezekiel says God will plant his domain at the heart of Israel, in the heights. Jesus speaks more plainly with his parables, “The kingdom of God is like …” or “The kingdom of God is as if …”. A famous NT scholar wrote a book called The Parables of the Kingdom. It has been the resource for many a sermon and a text on which many a theologian has pondered, let alone been quizzed on when in training.

It is an important book because it took seriously the literary critical method of reading the gospels, and it propelled the discipline of “form criticism” which is the notion that we use formulae in speaking and writing which give our words certain implicit meanings.

A parable is a way of speaking about something by clothing it in different language conventions. Today we have heard about the kingdom hidden in the verbal garb of a field being sown with seed and its subsequent harvest. We have also heard about the kingdom through the image of the mustard seed and its maturation into a tree.

Parables are signs pointing to something else, like the signs which announce Slimbridge on the various roads in the area. They tell us about Slimbridge – where to turn and how far it is away, for instance – they are merely signs about Slimbridge perhaps causing us thoughtful anticipation of the real thing. Ezekiel and Jesus employ parabolic language.

When we speak of the garden of God, paradise or Eden, we paint a picture which limits us to its expression of a something else. A parable makes you think about the subject. Here we have to think about the Kingdom of God through the imagery of a field or the mustard seed. Ezekiel’s planting of a forest in our minds also forces us to think – maybe about how we can bring about this paradise of fruitful trees.

With this in mind, wouldn’t you say that language is the problem of life? We can say one thing and mean another. We can speak about this and really be talking about that. Or, for instance, we can talk of love and mean it completely. In other words, we can speak in a manner that ties our language with what and how we have experienced life. —

And in other situations, we can lie.

Why? Why do we pervert language in this way? Why do we hide things with our words which will ultimately be revealed? The hidden will be seen in the light of a final judgement of our lives, if not the divine, juridical sense, at least by our conscience.

Let’s leave this negative use of language for private discussion and personal reflection. —

Rather let’s address this question – How can we use language positively? How can language bolster our lives with speech? How can we help others in their times of need, when a good word would raise them to a height from which they could launch themselves into the productivity of goodness? We know this positive use of language is possible because it has happened to ourselves – don’t we know this deep down in our hearts? The kind, “Good morning – how nice to see you!” does go a long way to cheer us up, doesn’t it? When someone stops to hear how things are going, I know I feel a lot better. Those few minutes of positive use of language, that pleasant conversation when we are not in the best place, does everyone the world of good. The banal courtesies of the day can and should be elevated to engagement in the life of the people with whom we stand in conversation. In so doing, we raise language above the everyday, unconscious chattering of the crowd. It is not longer talk just about the weather. The weather can become that parabolic entry into life when people converse with intent.

Prophets and poets use language in ways that are very different to ordinary, everyday expression. These writers are poetic in their use of imagery, some are prophetic, calling on the conscience of each individual to stop inhumanity and focus on the divine in life.

Through language we can transform our ordinary lives into an extraordinary lived experience, the Existence which the philosopher exhorts all people to embrace, and, in the words of the theologian, the full life Jesus offers to all who believe in Him, the word of God incarnate. It is possible that the power of our simple words can save the world, if only we would speak in truth.

Perhaps we should start thinking parabolically and so transform everything we say into a new language. I think we should try to acquire that new speech. I wonder whether George Orwell was hinting at this in his book 1984 – that spoken words are so very powerful – to bless or to curse as the bible says. Perhaps we can speak in a new way, a way that will reveal the kingdom in our spoken parabolic lives just as Jesus did.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 2

Collect

O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in you, mercifully accept our prayers and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace, that in the keeping of your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; 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 truth, help us to keep your law of love and to walk in ways of wisdom, that we may find true life in Jesus Christ your Son.

Post Communion

Eternal Father, we thank you for nourishing us with these heavenly gifts: may our communion strengthen us in faith, build us up in hope, and make us grow in love; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ The Lord God said to the serpent,

    ‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.

    I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.’

Genesis 3.8–15

Psalm

1    Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

2    If you, Lord, were to mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could stand?

3    But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you shall be feared.

4    I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope.

5    My soul waits for the Lord, more than the night watch for the morning,
more than the night watch for the morning.

6    O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;

7    With him is plenteous redemption
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Psalm 130

Epistle

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture – ‘I believed, and so I spoke’ – we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

2 Corinthians 4.13 – 5.1

Gospel

… and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ – for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Mark 3: 27–35

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 2

Do you think Jesus was out of his mind? – Well, that is what they were saying about him. Why did Jesus’ family want to restrain him? Why did they want to, as we would say, “put him away”? Would he be like the person in the attic in so many gothic horror stories – mad and kept incommunicado, away from all possible contact from anyone else? They (you know, that crowd we thought about last week) were all saying that Jesus was out of his mind. Why did they say he was mad?

Don’t you think this is a rather odd way to start a reading from the gospel in our worship today? The snippet from the gospel does not tell us anything about this judgement. Was it the crowd gathered around him, so many that food was scarce and no one could eat? Did that crowd drive him mad? We thought about the crowd last week, didn’t we? We considered peer pressure, that “keeping up appearances” which everyone feels. We should consider the notion of “received wisdom” of old wive’s tales, and we all know how accurate those are, don’t we!

“People were saying, ‘he has gone out of his mind.’” Who were those people? They are part of the baying crowd all around, that crowd which was making it impossible to eat. That crowd pressing in on Jesus as he went about his mission.

I think this is a very odd beginning to a reading from a Sunday gospel. Let’s see if we can understand this a little better. What has happened up to this point in this chapter of the gospel of Mark? Our lesson today is at the end of the third chapter. What happened at the beginning of the chapter? To begin with Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, then so many people had gathered around that he had to take refuge in a boat, “that he would not be crushed”. People came to him, it seems, because his fame for preaching and healing had become generally known. Next in the chapter is the appointment of the disciples who were to be with him. All twelve are named and called apostles. They were to “join” Jesus in the preaching and healing of Israel, the people of God. Jesus was going to send them on their own individual missions after they had joined him.

Is that the reason Jesus was called “mad” – because he was a peripatetic who preached in synagogues to which he did not belong and healed people with whom he had no connection? The life of a wanderer is not the Jewish style of living at that time. The Jews were “home bodies” – they were born, lived and died in the same village usually, much the same as most people around the world. The “wandering charismatic” was an oddity at that time. Like Jesus, they would have no home, unlike even the birds and the foxes which had their own nests. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, and his disciples would have no place of their own. They would wander in their ministry, preaching and healing as they could. These Jewish travellers would talk about the coming of the Kingdom to an expectant Israel. They would build on the Messianic hope about that Kingdom of God just about to burst  into life in the very next moment. Paul the apostle had this same fervour and hope, and he was another wanderer. These people were not ordinary amongst the population, either in Judea or Rome, Egypt or Britain.

These wandering Jews are not absolutely strange in Israel. Many left home to sit at the feet of a famous rabbi, although they did not belong in that particular community. It is the sort of thing that still happens in the Hasidic community – around the “rebbe” gathers a group of students  – they arrive because of his reputation. We might even see this Jewish “school” tradition realised here in the gospel reading for today. In the period of the gospel, these students would go to learn from the wise man and return home to enrich their own communities. They would become disciples of the rabbi and might even one day become the leader in their local congregation. Sometimes, they would find a new home and live there.

The church does this when it educates men and women to become priests. They often go away for years and then return to a local congregation to lead it. Sometimes priests are plucked from local churches for this time of training and then they are placed in their home churches again.

So we might say nothing has really changed, but we don’t call our priests mad, do we? Well, let’s leave that as a rhetorical question and move back to the wandering charismatics in the hellenistic period.

Were they seen to be mad? I suppose they might have been, just like those shepherds in the nativity story. They were all displaced people and they are very difficult to deal with, aren’t they?

‘Madness’ – the charge levelled at Jesus and his disciples, even disciples of today – is a social judgement on the stranger, and what is more strange than a fellow walking about the countryside preaching about the Kingdom of God with such power that many come to be partial to his message. Imagine such a madman having the reputation of the power to heal from all maladies, the blind, the lame, and even the mad had all been touched by this miracle worker, this preacher without fixed abode.

This is the significance of the statement, “‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” People who were adjudged mad must be under the power of a spirit which is so very different to spirit of the normal population. Beelzebul was the origin of this madness according to the thought of the time. If Jesus was able to drive out demons, then he must have the power of this demon. Jesus counters their argument, doesn’t he?

But what of the relation to his family, who wanted to restrain him – from what? we have to ask, his preaching, his healing, his teaching, his wandering the countryside with those strange men whom he called apostles and disciples? His family must accept that Jesus is mad, to want to restrain him. “Your mother and siblings are outside, don’t you want to see them?” Jesus asks, “Who are my family?” Jesus does not recognise family ties, and so in the usual sense he is not right in the head according to the crowd crushing in on him. Rather, I would think Jesus considers the silenced crowd as his family, those who had no expectation, but trusted his words in silence. This quiet crowd has no wish to restrain or push him. This crowd just wants to listen to him – to be with him in the genuine way friends sit with each other. There are no expectations or demands, no judgements whatsoever. They are not the crowd who at first says, “This man is mad.” I think this is the madness we should all aspire to, to preach about the coming kingdom and heal people in their time of direst need, when they wish to be silent in themselves just as we usually do.

Amen

Trinity

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity: keep us steadfast in this faith, that we may evermore be defended from all adversities; 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

Holy God, faithful and unchanging: enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth, and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love, that we may truly worship you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion

Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever.

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!’

Isaiah 6.1–8

Psalm

1    Ascribe to the Lord, you powers of heaven,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2    Ascribe to the Lord the honour due to his name;
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

3    The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders;
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.

4    The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation;
the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice.

5    The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;

6    He makes Lebanon skip like a calf
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7    The voice of the Lord splits the flash of lightning; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

8    The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare;
in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’

9    The Lord sits enthroned above the water flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for evermore.

10    The Lord shall give strength to his people;
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Psalm

Epistle

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8.12–17

Gospel

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 3.1–17

Sermon on Trinity Sunday

    The voice of the Lord splits the flash of lightning; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

    The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare;
in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’

Today we hear about the voice of the Lord and its power – it can split the flash of lightning, it can shake the desolate places of the world and it can strip forests bare. Yet there are other voices we can hear as well – those voices in the temple which cry, “Glory!” and Cherubim and Seraphim add their cries of “Holy! Holy! Holy!”, then there are our own voices which cry, “Abba, Father!” amidst the din of heaven.

Imagine the power of all of those voices sounding together in the vaults of heaven, resounding in the wildernesses of earth, echoing in our homes, and finally in our hearts. What a glorious noise that is!

But I wonder: do we ever hear the sound of heaven and earth resounding together? Do we listen for the voice of the Lord? Do we listen for the angels or the saints singing their praise of the God we worship? Have we opened up our ears for the sounds of glory and power which echo in eternity?

Some time ago someone set up a number of radios in a church which were tuned into different stations to show how many sounds are all around us. Sounds we don’t hear and I don’t think we have any idea that they are there at all. But it is all there, like the booming brass and tinkling cymbals celebrated in the psalms, or the boom boxes of the streets, or the television blasting away in the corner of the room. Nowadays everyone is plugged into their private music with their ear buds. As they run along on their exercise runs or make their way to the next important thing on their list, the beat sounds in their ears taking them away from everything except their exercise, everything except themselves perhaps.

Let’s take this change from the public noise of the ghetto blaster to the annoying scratching of ear buds as a good sign, that people are more attuned to listen to the beat of a different drummer. Perhaps there is a chance that God might play a greater part in people’s lives than appears to be the case today. It may be that the voice of the Lord, or the cherubim and seraphim, or the saints, will penetrate the isolation we have had to endure over the last year and a half.

However, I think we should ask a more prosaic question – do we ever listen out for the other person as they cry out in their joy? Do we ever hear others as they whimper in despair? Do we only hear our own wishes and the baying of our own crowd, that crowd that overwhelms us as we fail to do the right thing?

That crowd is not the famous “crowd of witnesses” from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, that holy crowd which should comfort us in our desperate times and which rejoices with us in our happiness – no, the crowd we are talking about here is the one that makes up a mob, those gangs which allow people to do despicable things. We have considered this dubious crowd before, haven’t we? We have talked about the crowd which eggs on the bully in the schoolyard, the crowd which creates “peer pressure” to oppress everyone, that crowd to which we give in all to often. We might even see it as the crowd of the “politically correct”.

No one can name any one person in a crowd, can they? There is no
one

responsible for the acts of the crowd – we say, “they did it”. Or as the woman said about that red dress, “The devil made me do it.”

We need to stand apart from every crowd, whether the crowd is in heaven or not. We have to choose for ourselves where we stand. I want to say that we must stand on our faith, independent from all, looking to the heart of life, staring at that abyss where we God dwells. When we stand in faith we are protected from the dubious crowd. When we stand in faith, we can stand on our own. I hope when we are standing alone we can hear the crowd of heaven, those witnesses to the truth of God, that glorious crowd of witnesses gathered around God, the crowd of disciples gathered around Jesus when he ministered to mankind, and the crowd of women which stood at the foot of the cross, when stain of sin was expunged and the crowd of witnesses which finally stood in the upper room when they understood the reality of the risen Christ. I hope when we stand alone we can hear the solo voice of every other person, that whatever they are saying in their very own selves becomes a message to us, a message upon which we will act. Let us be those radios tuned into all the different stations to show our listening and hearing of all the voices.

When we stand in faith, we stand alone to listen and hear. At the same time we are crying out with our own experiences, in our joy and in our sorrow. What will people hear when they listen to us?

Do we ever cry out, “Glory”, or “Holy! Holy! Holy!” or “Abba, Father” in times of joy or do we only cry out to God in despair? Do we ever place ourselves in the place where all attention is elsewhere – on the Lord God of Sabaoth whose heaven and earth is full of his own glory, that glory which should remind us of the Creator of all joy. Are our cries the woes of Job in his desolate pain as his faith is tested? Do we curse God because our wishes are not fulfilled? Do we stand alone as Job did among his dubious comforters firm in our faith in our God despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, ending them because of our faith? Or do we see ourselves clearly like Isaiah who declares,

‘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!’

Are we about to abase ourselves at the altar in the temple, hiding our eyes like the Seraphim? Are we about to open our eyes to see our King of kings and Lord of lords? Are we listening to the chorus of creation as it shouts out its life?

In the Orthodox Church everyone present participates as the choir. We can sing with abandon the songs of the church as we worship our God, three in one and one in three, as we do today, Trinity Sunday.

We must let our voices speak in various ways. All those radios should remind us that there is a symphony ‘round about us. We must join the choir of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, earthly and heavenly. But how can we compete with the power of the cherubim and seraphim in chorus, or the sanctity of the holy fathers and saintly mothers, or those of blessed memory who have passed before? We should raise our voices, nonetheless, perhaps with a humble ‘Abba, Father’ as our contribution to the glorious noise of the heavenly spheres echoing here on earth. We need to fill out the OMG of social media with the full statement. I think we have to say “Oh My God!” and mean it just as Isaiah did.

Amen

Easter 7, 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

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus – for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’

So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1.15-17,21-26

Psalm

1    Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.

2    Their delight is in the law of the Lord
and they meditate on his law day and night.

3    Like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither,
whatever they do, it shall prosper.

4    As for the wicked, it is not so with them;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

5    Therefore the wicked shall not be able to stand in the judgement,
nor the sinner in the congregation of the righteous.

6    For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 1

Epistle

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

1 John 5.9–13

Gospel

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17.6-19



Sermon on Sunday, Easter 7

Casting lots … We all know what casting lots means, don’t we? It often means just making a decision arbitrarily. However, there is also another, more sinister meaning which is part of this notion. When the die is cast, everything is taken out of our hands and the decision follows a trajectory all of its own along a path which cannot be altered. I think we all understand this – the notion of fate taking charge of one’s very own life. When the die is cast, we have to accept it. We can do nothing else except to live with it.

But is this really what we believe about life? As christians, don’t we have something to say about our fate? Surely the early church believed (and still does believe) very differently from the society around it. There is even a famous Briton theologian in the early Church who believed adamantly in the free will of human being – he went so far as to say that one can even will one’s own salvation. Unfortunately, he was declared a heretic and thrown out of the church.

This notion of free will is totally the opposite of what many in the Roman Empire understood about destiny. People believed they were locked into the skein of time woven by the fates, a bondage so complete that they could do nothing about their lives.

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church stood between these polar opposites. The Church said humanity did have free will which it must exercise with a good heart, and yet that heart would have to turn to God and through faith attain salvation.

There are many shades to this argument, but let’s consider the black and the white of it. Either there is determinism or there is free will. These two extremes of human agency are still available today, don’t you think? I would suggest that lock-down has given us a flavour of both ends of the continuum.  The protests throughout the world against lock-down and the fact that so many remain isolated at home unwilling to associate in any way with others, I believe, are the evidence. So we can understand how in the ancient world these two ways of thinking about one’s own self in the world come about, because we are feeling the same today.

Our short passage from Acts today points to the very precarious place the early Church found itself. We have the eleven deciding on the basis of prayer and casting lots to see how their number can be perfected again, to return to twelve. They had found two men, but how to decide between them? That was the question.

Well society, that faceless crowd, gave them the answer – “Cast lots!” it said, “we all know that way, don’t we?” Well, that course was partly taken, for the eleven believed that God’s will would be revealed somehow through the lots. But it was not the lots alone which determined the twelfth man. The two men were of quality. God’s will must have something to do with their hearts and here we come to see how the ancient world was changing. When I was at school, the notion of the “paradigm shift” gained popularity and my teacher used it to portray this change of attitude.

Do we have our own will to do what is right? Can we choose the good as the philosopher suggests we should do? Or is everything locked in and we can make no decisions at all, that everything just happens on its own – or if we make any decisions they are arbitrary and there is no responsibility attached to them. Here we are today. We don’t really believe that, do we? No, the notion of free will and responsible action belong to us and we act as such, don’t we? Well, I certainly hope I do, but in lock-down I began to doubt my own agency, my own capacity for decision and action.

In our reading we have the old order of the fates paraded before us in the form of casting lots and predictive prophecy. Somehow in the early christian community, the notion of this arbitrary control is at work and I believe we can see this sort of thinking in our own lives.

That notion of a controlling fate has not gone away, has it? Today we know that feeling – we have experienced it, more or less, in the current lock-down conditions. All the rhetoric surrounding lock-down sounds like the sort of railing against destiny which has come down through history. The bitter complaints against the rules and regulations which impinge on our freedom are not unlike the resentment people have always felt against fate.

What we should examine is the shift from the fates to faith in our story from Acts. I think the paradigm shift is to be seen here. In our story we have the casting of lots, and that reveals this ancient thread of fortune and destiny – the route on which a person journeys without any chance of change. When the dice are thrown it only reveals what is “written in the stars”.

But our reading injects a second thread into this notion of destiny, destroying its hold over humanity. We are to pray to God, to open ourselves to the one who knows our very hearts. Now that our hearts are our own – we do not belong to the fates – our fates belong to each one of us. There is no external control over the heart except as it beats in us. We are, after all, our hearts and they connect us with God, our God of the miraculous.

I would like to make a rather outlandish suggestion as to the meaning of the lots cast here. I don’t think the eleven could make up their minds as to which of the two men they wanted to take that twelfth place. No one wanted to be responsible for such a grave decision, so they fell back onto that ancient and arbitrary method. The eleven placed the decision out there in the midst of the world, not in their own hands. They played on the cultural acceptance of the auspices and the reader of signs. They revealed the will of God not because they could read the hearts of men, but through the arbitrary method of casting lots. This episode shows how the early church was tied into its culture, a culture in which a certain type of superstition abounded. We could find examples of this belief in our own times without a doubt. However, I want to make the point that this story shows how the minds of people were being changed. Although they used the cultural artefact of lots, it did not control the event. Rather, they had discerned two worthy candidates and the decision had to be made – somehow.

Living free is the gift of christianity to the world, the freedom of the Spirit, the freedom of a life ascending to God. We have the example of Jesus Christ to light the way and we have the Feast of the Ascension to remind us that we can overcome the world to live at the right hand of God.

Amen

Easter 5

Collect

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen Christ, your wounds declare your love for the world and the wonder of your risen life: give us compassion and courage to risk ourselves for those we serve, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Acts

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

    ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.

    In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Acts 8:26-40

Psalm

25    From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
I will perform my vows in the presence of those that fear you.

26    The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord shall praise him; their hearts shall live for ever.

27    All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

28    For the kingdom is the Lord’s
and he rules over the nations.

29    How can those who sleep in the earth bow down in worship,
or those who go down to the dust kneel before him?

30    He has saved my life for himself; my descendants shall serve him;
this shall be told of the Lord for generations to come.

31    They shall come and make known his salvation, to a people yet unborn,
declaring that he, the Lord, has done it.

Psalm 22

Epistle

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

1 John 4:7-21

Gospel

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

John 15:1-8

Sermon on Sunday, Easter 5

Does anyone remember the television programme, “Due South”? It was about a Canadian Mountie in Chicago, how everything was going wrong for him, but the Canadian did not give up on good manners and gracious behaviour toward everyone he met. Even the bad guys are disarmed by his kindness. It is a wonderful tale. I think we should see the Acts reading through the prism of this saying, “going south”. Let’s hope we can go south like the mountie, listening and talking with all people we meet however they are.

Philip had to take “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.).” He had to head south. But going south means that things have gone wrong, doesn’t it? (At least that is what the expression means to us today.) So, who wants to take a wilderness road? Don’t we all want to travel on the high road? Don’t we all want to be in the middle of the city, with its bright lights and entertainment? Don’t we want to be in the midst of the great crowd which distracts us from the south? When we are gathered together in those crowds, do we really want to go to those lonely, desert places? Do we really want to head south?

These are not as wild questions as you might think on the face of it. Haven’t we been in the desert because of lockdown? Don’t we want “to get back to normal”? This is the cry of everyone, isn’t it? Our leaders have been saying this for over a year, chafing at the bit of isolation.

I am convinced that we have not learned anything from lockdown. Too many are wishing to give up thinking for themselves and let the crowd do the work for them again. It is peer pressure on a grand scale. But perhaps it is a more subtle phenomenon than I am suggesting. The crowd, after all, does inform each individual’s course of action in life, either as something to go along with or to react against (or maybe some combination of these two opposite tendencies). After all, don’t we feel comfortable in a crowd? Don’t we become a part of that mass quite happily and cease to be our very vulnerable selves? There is an empowerment when we become part of the crowd – at the same time as we give up our autonomy.

That crowd is not to be found in desert places. In the wilderness we have to make do for ourselves, for we are alone and it is very clear to me that we might be in need of help, just like that Ethiopian court official.

We have all been on that road south, haven’t we? We find ourselves on that road when we are isolated and feeling abandoned, and for many lockdown brought this feeling to the front of their minds. Perhaps we have been on that road for a long time. If we have been lucky, we have been on that road and not felt oppressed or depressed by the journey. When we are on the road south, that is precisely when we want to discover a friend, when we want someone like Philip to appear so that we can discuss those very hard questions that seem to have no answer. We want someone to talk with about those matters which have to do with the fundamentals of life.

But why don’t we speak with people with the fervour of Philip? If we were as enthusiastic as that travelling disciple, perhaps someone might ask us the same question the Ethiopian courtier asked Philip, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ and we should be delighted to oblige. But apart from our showing enthusiasm, Philip also is an example that we should be very good listeners, hearing the questions people really have on their minds.

“The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’”

The Ethiopian was confused about his reading in Isaiah. Who wouldn’t be, then or now? Who is this lamb who stood silent before the shearer and butcher? Who would remain so quiet in his humiliation when no justice would be given?

We all have our own confusion when we are heading south – even if we are in the midst of a crowd. Don’t we see things on that road that do not make any sense to us? Don’t we require some sort of angel to reveal the true course of life to us?

The usual state of affairs is that everyone is pointed to the crowd and the crowd’s non-expectation of the good. Don’t we say, “That is the way it has always been. We can’t change it.”? With that opinion ringing in our ears, we give up our search for what is right. It seems doing the right thing is not what anyone wants to do – that everyone is expected to be absorbed into the crowd, into themselves, and do nothing. The siren call of the crowd, what “they” say, overcomes each one of us and we are put to sleep in that cocoon.

However, the philosopher has always exhorted us to the good as an ideal reality. And the way to the good is not amongst the herd, but rather it is when we hear when conscience calls in that dark night. No one else except the individual alone can hear that call, but we must listen for that, not the call of the crowd.

That brings us back to our reading from Acts. The court official has heard something in the book to hand, but he cannot make sense of it. Then Philip appears and talks with him.

Philip does not badger – he just recounts the saving history to the Ethiopian as he knows it. I think we need to learn the lesson Philip is teaching here.

He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Philip wants to know what the eunuch understands about the passage, he wants to share what he himself understands as well. This is a dialogue, a true interchange of thought between two people. The result of Philip’s hearing the confusion of the Ethiopian and the Ethiopian’s willingness to be guided in the story, is a true joy, a joy that results in the impromptu baptism at some random water on that road through the wilderness as they travelled south.

“Going south” – I wonder what that means to you. Does “going south” in our reading signify the awful state of affairs which our modern expression means? No, I think going south is an opportunity to show the love of one another which the epistle of John tells us about, that love that reveals God in the world – a love that is not normally revealed in everyday life, in the everyday of the crowd. Love lets us spend time with someone on that road south, just as Philip travelled a little along the way with the Ethiopian back to Queen Candace’s court.

Amen

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

The Reading from Acts

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is

    “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

Acts 4:5-12

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

Epistle

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

1 John 3:16-24

Gospel

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

John 10:11-18

Sermon on Sunday, Easter 4

non sibi sed aliis

The other day a seventeen-year-old boy was stabbed and killed in the next village. How could this happen in a sleepy Gloucestershire village? Why would anyone do this? That was the question everyone was asking – why indeed? It is exactly the opposite action to what we expect love to take. That love we ascribe to God and especially in the person of Jesus Christ.

As christians, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This clearly did not happen near Slimbridge the other day. That love of Christ is absolutely different to the action of the youths who took that youngster’s life.

This christian  love – the agape we hold so dear – should call into question so much of our ordinary lives – and even some of the extraordinary moments in our very mundane lives, especially that random act of violence which killed that boy. We are called to account, individually and as a society, aren’t we? How often do we act in the way of love Jesus showed us? – How often are we willing to sacrifice our own selves for the sake of  another person – to give that person life? The military, the police and our firemen – these emergency services all know that their vocations mean they are the people running towards danger for others as their duty, but who among us would do so? – Who would readily give up their own ambitions and hopes in order to let the other person live?

I know that I am utterly selfish, all I have ever  given up is my time to prepare these little addresses to offer to you. – And yet the question remains before me: Am I willing to place my life on the line for someone else? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I have never been so challenged. Naturally, I have to ask myself, “Do I know love at all, especially that love evidenced by the ultimate sacrifice – my life for another? That love of a shepherd?”

Although my life is selfish when compared to the act of loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, I have never – as far as I know – taken life away from another. I may have blighted someone’s life through ignorance or delusion, but I have never consciously stripped away a life. I have never plunged the knife in, figuratively or literally. This knife is a symbol of our contemporary selfishness, the fact that a person can wield it, rather than setting themselves as the target of the thrust instead of another. I have to say that that ultimate taking, can not be part of a christian’s life. Rather, the essence of our lives must be the giving to others, the generosity of spirit which derives from love. We may not be the heroic soldier of the cross who is a martyr for the sake of another’s life because of our love, but we, I hope, have given time and effort on behalf of others. And I hope we are still willing to offer something of our selves, despite our limited successes, for those around us.

That death in the neighbourhood has stopped me in my tracks and now the guilty verdict handed over on the former policeman, Derek Chauvin, should give everyone pause. The protests last year to say that Black Lives Matter and everything right up to this judgement should still be part of our consciousness. We should always remember that life matters and I have to ask, “Isn’t that what the Bishop’s LIFE initiative is all about? – the enabling of people to live well.”

This verdict points everyone towards the duty of care, our responsibility, for the other, whoever they are. After all, we are our brother’s keeper, aren’t we. At least that is what the story of Cain and Abel tells me. We can also see this biblical story as appropriate to today. Cain is the farmer and Abel the shepherd. They both produce sacrifices to God from their bounty. But Cain killed Abel, didn’t he? Like that stabbing across the river, we wonder, Why? Freud and the psychoanalysts would have one explanation, Levi-Strauss and the anthropologists would have another, the police and criminologists would give another set of reasons – in other words, everyone will explain it away as they reduce it to one reason or another. Perhaps they are all right. One person will kill another if there is something fundamentally wrong in the relationship, something out of kilter in their world. Cain and Abel were the children of Adam and Eve, what could they possibly have happened to sour their relationship? They were the first children in the world. What could be wrong between them?

Cain and Abel did not have the distractions of modern-day life to confuse them. The advertising and the diversion of attention from the essentials of life – which I would call the love of God and neighbour – were not part of their lives, but still something went wrong between them. The knife came out and a life was taken, just like that young life taken last week.

All of that is so completely different from the life of the shepherd. The shepherd is focussed on the other, not on him- – or her- – self. So focussed on the other that self is lost, figuratively and in fact. The shepherd will face the wild beasts in order to keep the flock safe. Do we do the same for the crowd around us?

We all know the saying from John about the shepherd. I think it is a challenging saying. The gospel of John, as a scholar of the last century says, makes uncomfortable reading for everyone. Jesus confronts the everyday self, the one where we gladly just go along with what the crowd want.

Jesus always challenges this state of affairs. He does not want us to rely on others to tell us what we want to do. We must rely on our very own selves to determine what should be done. This fundamental choice is based on being with others in that radical way of the shepherd.

Jesus has given us a model for behaviour – I would say that he speaks of the shepherd as perfect humanity. Sacrificial love for the other is the only way to live, for it gives life to others, just as Jesus promises and Bishop Rachel exhorts us in the LIFE initiative.

A shepherd would have saved that young boy had one been on that main street last week. A shepherd would have stepped in front of that knife. Sadly, I only saw all the emergency vehicles rushing by me to the incident. I was in the wrong place. I could not have shepherded all those boys, and so I feel guilty. My conscience guides me to acts of sacrifice, just as I am sure yours does.

I would have us all pray to become that person willing to give life to, and for, others, through altruism, not for our own sake but the the sake of others.

Amen