Epiphany 3

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings

Old Testament

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

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

Nehemiah 8:1–6, 9–10

Psalm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 19

Epistle

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

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

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

I Corinthians 12:12–31a

Gospel

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

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

    ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

    to bring good news to the poor.

    He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to let the oppressed go free,

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

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

Luke 4.14–21



Sermon on Epiphany 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Epiphany 2

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings

Old Testament

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

   and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

   and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,

   and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name

   that the mouth of the Lord will give.

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

   and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,

   and your land Married;

for the Lord delights in you,

   and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,

   so shall your builder marry you,

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,

   so shall your God rejoice over you.

Isaiah 62:1–5

Psalm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 36

Epistle

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

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

I Cor 12:1–11

Gospel

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

John 2:1–11



Sermon on Epiphany 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Epiphany

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings
Old Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 60

Psalm

[1  Give the king your judgements, O God,

   and your righteousness to the son of a king.

2  Then shall he judge your people righteously

   and your poor with justice.

3  May the mountains bring forth peace,

   and the little hills righteousness for the people.

4  May he defend the poor among the people,

   deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.

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

   from one generation to another.

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

   like the showers that water the earth.

7  In his time shall righteousness flourish,

   and abundance of peace

      till the moon shall be no more.

8  May his dominion extend from sea to sea

   and from the River to the ends of the earth.

9  May his foes kneel before him

   and his enemies lick the dust.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 72.[1–9]10–15

Epistle

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

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

Ephesians 3:1 – 12

Gospel

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

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

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

    for from you shall come a ruler

    who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

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

Matthew 2: 1–12

Sermon on Epiphany

Let us pray:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Second Sunday of Advent

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings


Old Testament

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as
a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachai 3:1–4

Psalm

Benedictus

Epistle

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

Philippians 1.3–11

Gospel

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

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

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

Luke 3.1–6

Sermon on Second Sunday of Advent

We read these verses in the gospel today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Third Sunday Before Advent

Collect

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

or

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

Readings

Old Testament

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

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


Jonah 3.1–5,10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 62.5–12

Epistle

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

Hebrews 9.24–28

Gospel

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

Mark 1.14–20

Sermon on Third Sunday Before Advent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

All Saints

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings

Old Testament

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

Wisdom 3: 1–9

Psalm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 24: 1–6

Epistle

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

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

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

Revelation 21: 1–6

Gospel

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

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

John 11: 32–44



Sermon on All Saints Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Last Sunday of Trinity – Bible Sunday

Collect

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

or

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

Post Communion

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

Readings

Old Testament

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

Isaiah 55.1–11

Psalm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 19.7–14

Epistle

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

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

II Timothy 3:14-4:5

Gospel

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

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

John 5.36b–47

Sermon on Last Sunday of Trinity – Bible Sunday

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

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

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

So what do you think a testimony is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Harvest

Readings

Old Testament

Do not fear, O soil;

   be glad and rejoice,

   for the Lord has done great things!

Do not fear, you animals of the field,

   for the pastures of the wilderness are green;

the tree bears its fruit,

   the fig tree and vine give their full yield.


O children of Zion, be glad

   and rejoice in the Lord your God;

for he has given the early rain for your vindication,

   he has poured down for you abundant rain,

   the early and the later rain, as before.

The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,

   the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.


I will repay you for the years

   that the swarming locust has eaten,

the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,

   my great army, which I sent against you.


You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,

   and praise the name of the Lord your God,

   who has dealt wondrously with you.

And my people shall never again

   be put to shame.

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

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

And my people shall never again

   be put to shame.

Joel 2:21-27

Psalm

A Song of Ascents.

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,a

   we were like those who dream.

2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,

   and our tongue with shouts of joy;

then it was said among the nations,

   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’

3 The Lord has done great things for us,

   and we rejoiced.



4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

   like the watercourses in the Negeb.

5 May those who sow in tears

   reap with shouts of joy.

6 Those who go out weeping,

   bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

   carrying their sheaves.

Psalm 126

Epistle

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

1 Timothy 6:6-10

Gospel

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

Matthew 6:25-33

Sermon on Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Worship on 19 September 2021

Sunday, Trinity 17

Jostling for Position

Call to Worship

At this time, in this place, let us worship God – with open ears ready to listen, and hearts ready to receive, minds willing to be challenged and attitudes given to God. Come, let us worship God as one.

Lord God, you call us to live our best lives – for you, with you, in you. We may sometimes pause to smell the coffee or the roses, but we are often too busy to take time to be aware of you – that you are with us, in us, and in those around us. Quieten our hearts now to recognise you in this place today. Help us to reach out to one another with love, care and compassion,so that we can all live our best life for you.

Amen

God who loves little children, we adore you. We drink in the wonder of your presence, the specialness of our relationship with you. You are far beyond our understanding, your love is greater than our greatest dreams. We worship you, our Lord and our God.

Amen

Hymn: The Servant King

1. From heaven you came helpless babe

Entered our world, your glory veiled

Not to be served but to serve

And give Your life that we might live

This is our God, The Servant King

He calls us now to follow Him

To bring our lives as a daily offering

Of worship to The Servant King

2. There in the garden of tears

My heavy load he chose to bear

His heart with sorrow was torn

‘Yet not My will but Yours, ‘ He said

This is our God, The Servant King

He calls us now to follow Him

To bring our lives as a daily offering

Of worship to The Servant King

3. Come see His hands and His feet

The scars that speak of sacrifice

Hands that flung stars into space

To cruel nails surrendered

This is our God, The Servant King

He calls us now to follow Him

To bring our lives as a daily offering

Of worship to The Servant King

Confession

Our response is – Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

Let us consider how we jostle for position in our lives. …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be last.”
Lord for the times I’ve put myself first, or argued with people,
because I think I know better or that I am better …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

For the times when I don’t want to be a servant
because I think I can do greater things…

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

When I don’t recognise Christ in those around me
because I’m too busy looking out for myself …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

When I don’t understand what people mean, perhaps not understanding their feelings of fear …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

When I jostle for position, rather than being happy where you put me …

Lord, please forgive me, and teach me my rightful place in you.

Assurances

You challenge us, Lord, when we do wrong.
You get us to focus by using questions,
even though you know the answers.
Your image is present in each one of us.
When we confess our sins,
you are always there to forgive us.

We stand now, humbly in your presence. Forgiven.
Acknowledging that you, Oh Lord, are the greatest.  Amen

Thank you, Lord, that we can always find our place in you.
Thank you that we belong to you,
and no one can take that away from us.
We are secure in your loving arms.
We need never be afraid to ask you anything.
Thank you for the times we can meet blessing with blessing.

Amen

Collect for the day

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; 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.

Amen

Psalm 54

1    Save me, O God, by your name
and vindicate me by your power.

2    Hear my prayer, O God;
give heed to the words of my mouth.

3    For strangers have risen up against me, and the ruthless seek after my life;
they have not set God before them.

4    Behold, God is my helper;
it is the Lord who upholds my life.

5    May evil rebound on those who lie in wait for me;
destroy them in your faithfulness.

6    An offering of a free heart will I give you
and praise your name, O Lord, for it is gracious.

7    For he has delivered me out of all my trouble,
and my eye has seen the downfall of my enemies.

First Reading

James 3.13 – 4.3,7–8a

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Hymn: Breath on me Breath of God

1. Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Fill me with life anew,

That I may love what Thou dost love,

And do what Thou wouldst do.

2. Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Until my heart is pure,

Until with Thee I will one will,

To do and to endure.

3. Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Till I am wholly Thine,

Until this earthly part of me

Glows with Thy fire divine.

4. Breathe on me, Breath of God,

So shall I never die,

But live with Thee the perfect life

Of Thine eternity.

Second Reading

Mark 9.30–37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Some thoughts about jostling for position

Jostling for position

Sometimes when we strive for that great improvement, we jostle people about, don’t we? I am sure you can think of times when you jogged someone’s elbow to get closer to something you really wanted. For those who know about these things, I understand it is a common occurrence at the bar. I have even heard of little old ladies at the big sales nudging people out of the way with their umbrellas. For those of you who have run races competitively, you know about the jostling that happens when you are in the pack, and it can even happen among the front runners, which you may have seen at the Olympics.

I admitted playing lacrosse as a schoolboy a few weeks ago, and in that game there is a lot of jostling when you are going after a loose ball, and sometimes even when you are standing still waiting for something to happen. We have seen it on television when we watch the match of the day – either the Euros or the World Cup, or just when we are watching our favourite teams or even children at the local school. As two race toward the ball they are jostling each other for position to retrieve the ball and perhaps make the killer pass which ends up in a goal, one way or another.

Haven’t we all played that game? Haven’t we all striven to that point that we might have done just about anything to succeed?

That game is not just on the sports field. There are games being played out in board-rooms across the world, where one faction will do just about anything to get its way. We can even see it in Parliament when the questions in Prime Minister’s Question Time are being asked and answered. The innocent question about the schedule is asked and then the real question to expose some vulnerable aspect of the government is asked. Such a question raises an MP’s profile – to jostle the PM a little bit in the hope that there may may be a fall from the height of power so that that pesky MP might be able to step on that fallen political comrade to rise closer to the prize he covets.

People are jostling each other all the time because they believe their position is the only right one, and they want to force everyone to their way of thinking. We may have even seen this happen in our own homes with siblings and parents. I am sure we have all seen this in films, whether it is a business plan or a political stratagem, the proponent will use all manner of arguments to convince others, and sometimes they apply all sorts of ploys, “lies, damned lies and statistics” as someone has said. We even see some force their will on others by threats – the exposure of some peccadillo, a fist raised – what people would call “a gun to the head”.

The scale of the jostle changes, doesn’t it? – depending on how important people hold things. For the athlete, is the gold medal the prize beyond all others? Or does the true athlete realise that it is only how the game is played that matters? I mentioned this when I spoke at Purton when the Olympics were in full flight. We spectators were looking for wins and medals, weren’t we? That is how we were valuing ourselves. However, there are only three medals available in each of the disciplines. Whether it is on a bicycle or in a canoe, the commentators and everyone at home were wanting a gold medal. In the boxing ring or on the judo tatami, our wish was for our man or woman to land the killer blow – to take out every opponent and be the last one standing just like on the cover of this worship sheet. But I have to ask – What happens to the competitors lying in the dust?

As you know, I am a rather an odd fellow. – Rather than the win, I want to see a “beautiful game” played out before me, just as I want the game I play to be beautiful. Don’t we all want to see the best performance win in any competition, but most of all at the Olympics where the whole world gathers to see the best of the best and where we compete wholeheartedly, hoping for the best performance of our lives?

In the midst of the Olympics, we saw some who did not play that divisive, hurtful game of winning at all costs. I applauded those Olympic athletes who gave a heart-felt smile to congratulate their opponents on the completion of the events – like the woman archer whose arrow missed the mark but she smiled and walked over to her competitor to wish her joy, or Djokovic’s embrace of Zverev when he won so convincingly. I want to be able to do this at every moment of every day in my life. – Don’t you? Wouldn’t this be heaven on earth when the beautiful game of life is played to the rule of love? But heaven has not yet come to earth, has it? We still jostle for position and too often fail to keep the rule of love in our lives.

What do you think is going through the mind of Ali in the picture on the cover of our worship sheet today? Is he thinking about loving his opponent? Or is he proclaiming his greatness over the prostrate figure of his opponent? Has he spurned the humanity lying at his feet and even his own humanity in his triumph? What would we be doing in this situation? Would we be giving a hand to lift our opponent up, or would we be dancing around in our own little world being “the greatest”? Such a private dance does not speak of our playing any “beautiful game”.

Sadly, the picture tells me the latter story, the dance of the selfish greatest, but it does not mean it has to be the case. We can compete completely, yet still remain true to our rule of love which the Lord commanded. The game is the game and it comes to an end, but we live on after the final whistle, don’t we? We are athletes in a race to salvation which includes all our activities in life.

Have we been jostling or playing by the rules of the game, the rules of our Lord?

I would like to leave you with one last thought. If we are to play life to the rule of love, we might jostle people around us to do good things, maybe to love those around them, perhaps even to love our enemies. Let’s hope we can all play the game of life to the rule Jesus taught all his disciples, remembering we are counted amongst that number. That jostling toward love is the only jostling we should accept. Perhaps then we can proclaim that we are the greatest when we jostle and raise our opponents in love. The kingdom of heaven is here when the position we jostle for is that of loving one another.

Amen

Hymn: Brother, sister, let me serve you

1. Brother, sister, let me serve you;

let me be as Christ to you;

pray that I may have the grace to

let you be my servant too.

2. We are pilgrims on a journey,

and companions on the road;

we are here to help each other

walk the mile and bear the load.

3. I will hold the Christ-light for you

in the nighttime of your fear;

I will hold my hand out to you,

speak the peace you long to hear.

4. I will weep when you are weeping;

when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;

I will share your joy and sorrow,

till we’ve seen this journey through.

5. When we sing to God in heaven,

we shall find such harmony,

born of all we’ve known together

of Christ’s love and agony.

6. Brother, sister, let me serve you;

let me be as Christ to you;

pray that I may have the grace to

let you be my servant too.

Prayers

Let us pray for the world, thanking God for his goodness to all humankind.

Let us pray for countries, communities and individuals jostling each other. May they see what is truly good in life and strive to benefit each other, living lives of care.

Let us pray for our politicians as they jostle. Let their struggles be for their people, not themselves. May they nudge each other to do the good for themselves as for others.

Hymn:

God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name.

I’ve been born again in Jesus’ name

And in Jesus’ name I come to you

To share his love as he told me to.

He said ‘Freely, freely you have received;, freely, freely give.

Go in my name, and because you believe others will know that I live.

All pow’r is giv’n in Jesus’ name

In earth and heav’n in jesus name

And in Jesus’ name I come to you

To share his pow’r as he told me to.

He said ‘Freely, freely you have received;, freely, freely give.

Go in my name, and because you believe others will know that I live.

God gives us life in Jesus’ name

He lives in us in Jesus’ name

And in Jesus’ name I come to you

To share his peace as he told me to.

As we leave

In all that we do this week, let us take that moment to look into the eyes of the people around us. They are all part of our community, so let us pray that God will bless them as they go about their lives, lives they share with us.

Let us go out into the world
to shine with the love of God,
to listen with the ears of Jesus,
and to speak words of kindness and hope to everyone we meet.

Amen

Trinity 15

Collect

Almighty God, whose only Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence: give us pure hearts and steadfast wills to worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Merciful God, your Son came to save us and bore our sins on the cross: may we trust in your mercy and know your love, rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, the source of truth and love, keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, united in prayer and the breaking of bread, and one in joy and simplicity of heart, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35.4–7a

Psalm 46

1    Alleluia.
Praise the Lord, O my soul:
while I live will I praise the Lord;
as long as I have any being,
I will sing praises to my God.

2    Put not your trust in princes, nor in any human power,
for there is no help in them.

3    When their breath goes forth, they return to the earth;
on that day all their thoughts perish.

4    Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help,
whose hope is in the Lord their God;

5    Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them;
who keeps his promise for ever;

6    Who gives justice to those that suffer wrong
and bread to those who hunger.

7    The Lord looses those that are bound;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind;

8    The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous;

9    The Lord watches over the stranger in the land;      he upholds the orphan and widow;
but the way of the wicked he turns upside down.

10    The Lord shall reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

      Alleluia.

Epistle

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

[ For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.]

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2.1–10[11–13] 14–17

Gospel

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

Mark 7.24–37

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 15

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear! …’

These words from the prophet should speak directly to us today, even though they were spoken about three thousand years ago. Why? Why do I quote such an old saying? I think “fearful hearts” belong to us today, don’t you? With the last two years spent in COVID isolation, and with the fear of terrorists of the last few weeks, we know fear, don’t we? We continue to fret that the worst might happen in the next few hours – to us.

But Isaiah’s words are read out to us today. We need to hear his message of “comfort” – we need to hear that we can be strong and go boldly. Like Captain Kirk on his beloved Enterprise, we are enjoined to go boldly into the future, “where no one has gone before.” It is not just space which is the final frontier. No, there is another frontier – it is in time. The present is the border which surrounds us, the future and the past are cut off from us. The past has gone and will never be recovered or relived. It has passed and lies outside our grasp, but we can remember. The future is to come. It is to be hoped for, or perhaps dreaded depending on our fears. Spatially, what is beyond our reach, remains just that, and we have no control or experience of it. But what is at hand can be manipulated or handled. We have to admit that we are bounded in space and time, and the unknown can paralyse us with fear.

We all know this to be true, don’t we? We are afraid to make any decision because we wonder “What if …?” That question enters our minds and incapacitates us. “What if …?” becomes the stop sign for our lives. I think that is why insurance is so popular nowadays. It puts our minds at rest, there is no “What if …?” when we are insured, as all the ads tell us. Insurance is the panacea for our fear of the unexpected, the impossible of our everyday lives.

The future faces us and we have no control over its accidents, do we? That is the unknown country we have to enter. The future is not our everyday experience. Rather than insuring against the unknown, I think we ought to embrace it – no matter what will happen. Ernest Shackelton did so when he went to the Antarctic, didn’t he? The unknown loomed over him murderously but he survived because he embraced the situation and was able to overcome the frozen world which had taken so many other lives. Shackelton’s embrace was strong as life and took him into an unknown future, a future which included other trips to the Antarctic.

Such is the future, such is everything just over the horizon. It is for us to overcome those boundaries of our lives. We must be able to say to our friends – or indeed anyone who would talk with us – “Be strong, fear not!” More importantly, we need to say this to our very own selves – Fear not, μη φοβου, just as Jesus said two millennia ago.

And we need to do the same with the past. The past will be with us forever, but we can do nothing to it. We can only do something about it. We need to learn lessons from the past. Isn’t the saying, “The person who does not study history is bound to repeat it.” And not every episode of the past is something which bears repeating – but it does mean that we should be able to avoid the despicable in life if we learn from our past, individually and collectively.

We need to sing with Edith Piaff, “Je ne regrette rien” – that all that has passed is the past, out of touch, but remembered without regret for the future because we have learned from it. The song also goes on to say that we will treat everything the same. Doesn’t Paul also tell us to do that? Doesn’t Jesus’ example on the cross teach us this lesson?

‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Isaiah’s words echo through history, especially the history of the church, but I think they echo through the whole of history, in fact I think they echo all the world’s religions and philosophy. But religion, not philosophy, talks about our ultimate hope.

He will come and save you.’

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

These are the words Jesus reads from the scroll when he began his ministry. He speaks about our very own hope – our hope for the future, when our saviour will come with glory and might and power, to  which all the events of healing attest.

Jesus opens the eyes of the blind, both the literally blind and those who will not see. Jesus lets people hear what is real, about which the lame dance and the dumb sing with joy. Jesus has accomplished miracles for so many. I am sure that Jesus has accomplished miracles for us here today. Don’t we all have hope for the future? That is the miracle we all want – a future in which we will be saved. A future in which we hope. So who has that hope? Who has experienced that miracle?

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

This is the miracle we all hope for, isn’t it? That our eyes and ears are opened, that we would speak plainly to everyone we meet. Last week I went on about mission and conversation. All of that is predicated on the clarity of vision and hearing, on this miracle of hope, of any miracle which transforms our lives one way or another. – And miracles need not be the stopping of the sun in the course of its daily route, nor the equally extraordinary changing of the natural world, the curing of infirmity or withering fruit trees. I think the greatest miracle is that we can touch each other’s lives in some way – that we might care profoundly for another person. This care is the love I have always spoken of, the foundation of all we do.

We began with words from nearly three millennia ago, and now we are talking about love, that extraordinary openness to another, something within everyone’s capacity as a person.

Today we are hearing something in the present which assures us of our future because of what has happened in our past. We are no longer paralysed by fear.

Who else can do that, except someone who has experienced the miracle of God in their lives? Aren’t we the people who are free to act for those whom we love?

Amen