Sunday, February 28, 2021

Deny Yourself, Take up your Cross and Follow Me. A Sermon for Lent 2

“If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8.34)

If you’ve heard many of my sermons, you’ll know that I don’t necessarily keep to the time-honoured tradition of preaching on three points!  But this week, my chosen text doesn’t really give me any other option.  Jesus calls us to (1) deny ourselves, (2) take up our cross and (3) follow him.   So, let’s explore each of these ideas together, shall we?

1.  Deny Thyself.   Eastern wisdom and modern psychology have both taught us that the idea of ‘the self’ can be a tricky thing indeed.  Who we perceive ourselves to be can separate us from God and from each other.   Our desires, our personal feelings about things, our perceived needs, wants, fears and angers – they can all consume us to the point where we fail to notice what – and who - is around us.  We can become the centre of our world – to the point where all our focus and energy becomes directed at our own survival.  And once survival that is accomplished, we focus on our own personal happiness.  

Those who accumulate massive wealth at the expense of others have fallen into this trap.  They have tricked themselves into believing that the accident of their birth, or some lucky business decisions have somehow given them the right to own all the toys, and to cease caring about those who have nothing. 

At the other end of the same continuum of the self, we find the drug addict whose entire existence has been shrunk down to the question of when they can get their next fix.  All thoughts of what their life could contribute to the sum of human happiness is lost, in the relentless pursuit of the needs of the self.

The truth is, of course, that few of us are at far ends of that continuum.  Most of us sit in the middle – neither uber-wealthy, nor totally absorbed by our addictions.  But by holding up these two extremes, perhaps we can begin to see why Jesus thought that both too much wealth, and too much self-obsession, were not healthy for anyone’s spiritual life.  Perhaps by looking at these extremes, we can begin to notice the tendencies in all of us to place our personal desires above the needs of our community, or of the poor.

Denying the self, then, is not just good for us.  It’s good for the world.  A world of self-denying, sacrificial givers would be a very different place indeed.  It would, in fact, be a Kingdom on earth as is in heaven.

But how shall we do this?  How can we begin to truly live in self-denying, kingdom-building ways?  This brings us to the second part of Jesus’ three-point plan!  He calls us to (2) ‘take up our cross’.

The cross has many meanings – many of which we will explore together during Holy Week and especially Good Friday.  It may surprise you to know that the Cross is a much older symbol than Christianity.  For many ancient religions, including for the Eqyptians and Hindus, the Cross was a simple symbol that points us to an eternal truth…the truth that we live in the middle of a great battle between the spiritual and physical worlds. 

The arms of the cross signify the physical plane on which we live.  East – West…we live on an apparently flat plane of existence.  But the vertical slash of the cross intersects that plane.  The world is infused by God, and by the spiritual realms that are unseen, and yet present with us.  The cross symbolises not just Jesus’ death, but his incarnation – the moment when heaven plunged into earth, like lightning from the sky.  The moment when ‘God came to town’ and added a heavenly dimension to the flat plane of human existence.

Our task is to live in the mid-point of that intersection.  We need to learn how to live at the very centre of the cross, to find the balance point between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical.  We need to avoid being ‘so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly use’.  But also we need to never let the cares and the struggles of earth divert us from the path of heaven.  We need to find balance between worship and action, prayer and living, giving and receiving         .

But crucially, as Jesus showed us, this balance point is also where we also have to die.  On the cross, in the intersection between heaven and earth, we learn how to die to self, and live for God.  There, where Jesus died for us, we need to let our focus on The Self die too…so that we can be reborn with him.

How?  How can we die and yet live?  This is where the third part of Jesus’ three-point plan comes into effect.  We die to self by (3) following him.  Jesus is our leader, our Lord, and our King.  It is his Laws for Life that we are called to follow.  And we do it, every day, by dying.  We let our selfishness die away.  We let our greed die.  We let our laziness and over-consumption die.  Every day, bit by bit, we die with Jesus, so that we can be reborn with him.

It is Jesus’ way of loving self-sacrifice that will save us.  We need to give up the false claims of the world: dying to any ‘false truth’ that having a nice house, or a new car, or money in the bank will have any impact whatsoever on eternity.  As a wise man once said, “it doesn’t matter how big your house is, your coffin will be the same size as everyone else’s.”   Neither will possession of these things bring us true happiness in our earthly life either.  Each one brings its own pressures.  The nice house must be maintained, and builders and cleaners paid, contracts negotiated, roofs and decorations pondered over.  The nice car will quickly lose its appeal the first time it gets scratched along a hedge.  Excess money in the bank needs constant managing, and investment or even charitable decisions become a constant source of worry and angst.

We who claim the honour of being ‘disciples of Jesus’ are called to a completely new way of being.  It’s a way that has been preached for at least a thousand years on this site in Havant, and for two thousand years in this Land.  But it is a way that I suggest we are only just beginning to truly grasp.  We need to come to Jesus, deny the Self, take up the Cross of Life-balance, and follow him to find rest for our very souls.  We need to develop the wisdom to know when enough is enough, in terms of our possessions and self-preservation.  We need to turn away from the sights that dazzle, and the tempting sounds we hear.   And we need to know when to reach up with arms of faith from the flat plane of human existence, our arms stretched up the vertical shaft of the cross, with our gaze fixed on our Master and our Friend.

O give me grace to follow Him! Amen.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Golden Rule

 Matthew 7.7-12

Asking, Seeking, Knocking – and how to treat others.

In just a few weeks, we will arrive at the great feasts of the Triduum – the celebrations and commemorations of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  I’m very much hoping that pandemic conditions will permit at least some of us to be together in person on those occasions.  But whether in person or online, we will focus all our attention, quite rightly, on the final days of Jesus’ life on Earth. 

But in doing so, we must not make the mistake of forgetting all that came before.  It is easy for us to forget that the Gospel accounts of Jesus are primarily concerned with his life, and his teachings.  Although his whole life is ultimately bent towards those climactic events in Jerusalem – we need to understand the importance of his life too.  As I said over Christmas, let’s never forget that Jesus didn’t only die for us: he lived for us as well.

Today’s Gospel places us at the towering conclusion of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’ – set out over the chapters 5,6 and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel.  It’s well worth taking some time this week, to read the whole of the Sermon for yourself.  In it, Jesus ranges across a whole panoply of his thinking about how society should function.  He starts by pronouncing blessing upon the poor, the down-trodden, those who mourn, and those who stand up for justice and peace.

Then he calls his followers to be light and salt to the world – bringing clarity and taste to the society in which we live.  He deals with topics like anger, and envy, and murder, adultery and divorce, and the taking of oaths.  He rescinds the justice rule of ‘and eye for an eye’ and replaces it with the command to turn the other cheek.  He replaces revenge with forgiveness, hatred for love.

Then, Jesus moves on to issues of piety – how we should conduct ourselves as his followers.  We are not to be ostentatious about our charity, but to give as though our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing.  We are not to parade our faith around proudly and arrogantly, fasting should be done quietly and secretly.  We are not to judge others. We are encouraged to pray diligently and privately – and he teaches us how to pray in the word of the Lord’s Prayer. 

Then, Jesus focuses on the topic of wealth.  We are not to store up treasure on earth, but treasure in heaven.  We are not to worry about where our next meal or clothing comes from, but to rely on God’s provision.  We may ask, seek and knock – because our heavenly Father knows what we need. 

Each of these topics – and there are more than these in the sermon – are worthy of our attention, and each is worth of a sermon of its own.  But today, our attention is drawn towards the climax – a memorable phrase which summarises so much of what has gone before.  It’s a phrase that is common to most, if not all, of the great religions of the world – so much so that it is known, universally by philosophers as ‘The Golden Rule’.  And it’s this:  treat others as you would like to be treated. Or, as it is sometimes stated in negative terms:  ‘don’t treat others the way you wouldn’t want to be treated’.

It is vital that we understand just how fundamental this principle is.  Let us play a little imagination game together.  It’s a game I like to call ‘What if?’

What if, in our personal lives, we were as willing to forgive others just as we would like to be forgiven when we mess up?  Because we all do.  All the time.

What if, in our personal finances, we were as willing to help others as we would hope others would help us should we become poor?  Because no-one’s financial security is guaranteed.  Anything can happen – like a pandemic, or war, or stock-market crash for example.

What if, as a society, we were as willing to welcome strangers and refugees to our shores, just as we would hope to be welcomed if our homes had been bombed, or our economy had failed?

What if, as a world, we could create a system in which the greed of a few is limited by law, the resources of the planet are stewarded carefully, the medicines of the world are shared fairly, and the food of the world distributed equally.  Fairness, equity, and careful stewardship are only what any of us asks for ourselves.  Why not for everybody?

These are ultimately Kingdom Questions.  Some will accuse me of interfering in politics – and that’s OK.  Because being a Christian is ultimately about declaring to the world that there is a better Way than ANY of the political frameworks we’ve made for ourselves.  Jesus lived to show us what that Way could be like.  His radical path of fairness, equity, careful stewardship, forgiveness and love has shone like a beacon over the world ever since he first spoke in that Sermon on the Mount. 

But Jesus spoke to a world which was, and still is, blind and deaf.  He spoke to a world in which punishment is still seen as more important than restoration.  He spoke to a world which has resigned itself to the accumulation of massive wealth by a tiny elite, and the poverty of billions.  He spoke to a world which spends hundreds of times more on weapons of war than on medical research.  He spoke to a people who are, it seems, incapable of reducing consumption, and of stemming the pace of climate change.

To such a world, Jesus’ sermon and Jesus’ wisdom still echoes in our ears….’Treat others as you would have them treat you’.  It’s a simple message, whose radical, transformative power is perhaps lost to many in its glorious simplicity.  But Jesus still speaks those words, through you, through me, to a world with its hands over its ears.  Why not try Jesus’ Way?  Why not treat others as you would like to be treated?


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Blessings and curses

 Deuteronomy 30.15–end and Luke 9.22–25

Take up your cross…

Today’s Gospel reading, for the first day of Lent, presents us with a challenge.  “If anyone wants to be my follower,” says Jesus, “he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”.  It’s very tempting to preach on that text today!  But, if I go too far along that road, I’ll have nothing left to say on the Second Sunday of Lent – when these words will once more be placed before us!  

So instead, let’s focus – unusually for me, I admit – on the Old Testament reading of the day.  Deuteronomy is a very important book.  It is one of the five books of what the Jews call the Torah – loosely translated as the ‘Law’.  These five books are the basis for all Jewish law, and stand as an ethical and moral code against which all human laws can be compared and judged.  In chapter 30, we find ourselves standing with the Hebrew nation, at the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert, and just moments before they are to embark on their campaign to take possession of the Land they believe God has promised to them.  Moses addresses the people, telling them that at the age of 120 he can (in a lovely phrase) ‘no longer get about’!  So he appoints Joshua to lead the people on.  But before they can go, Moses sternly warns them.

What we sometimes miss is that Joshua – or ‘Yeshua’ – is the same name which is given to Jesus.  The name ‘Jesus’ is just an anglicised version of Joshua.  In other words, we can see the advance into the promised land, with Jesus / Joshua at the front as a metaphor for our own journeys.  When we are ready to move forward, to claim the good things God has in store for us, it is Jesus who will lead us on.

But Moses’ warning to the people is stark.  He offers them a simple, binary choice:  on the one hand, there is life and prosperity.  On the other hand, there is death and adversity.  The path that the people will take relies entirely on one simple factor – whether or not they will obey the commands that God has given them…commands for how God should be worshipped, and for how his people should live together.  These commands are all written down for us to read – they are there, summarised in the book of Deuteronomy.  And so, the choices presented to the Hebrews, all those centuries ago, are presented to us too.  We, too, are offered the chance of life and prosperity, or death and adversity, depending on the extent to which we choose, as a society, to follow the Laws of God.

What are these laws?   Well, it would take a very long time to read them all!  But we can summarise some of the main themes – and in doing so, think about the extent to which our own society reflects the ethical and moral standards they set out.  

Some of the laws are essentially what we would think of as common-sense.  Laws, for example, about keeping the camp clean, and laws excluding the eating of certain foods – most of which can make you very sick if not properly stored and prepared.  Other common sense laws are around who one is permitted to marry – to keep the gene-pool strong.  There are laws about what should happen to lost property, the use of accurate systems of weights and measures, and the establishment of courts of justice to decide about disputes.  All these common sense laws were designed to just bring some basic fairness into human society – and by and large we would recognise them as being relevant to today.  

But, in many other areas, I suggest, we find that our society is a long way from the kind of world that Moses and the Hebrews thought was in accordance with God’s will and purpose.  For example, the Laws of Moses demand that the poor should be aided, and that foreigners should be treated like family.  The Laws of Moses prohibit the charging of interest – especially to one’s own people.  They also establish laws of ‘Jubilee’, by which debts are cancelled, and land returned to its original owner at regular periods – to prevent the accumulation of excess wealth by crafty businessmen.  Taxation is regulated by the simple expedience of a 10% share.  Everyone pays it – and there are no tax havens nor complicated tax avoidance schemes to line the pockets of the accountants and their clients. There are laws about the payment of fair wages to hired servants, and the humane treatment of slaves.

The primary focus of all the Laws of Moses are on how a community should live together.  It accepts that some will succeed and prosper, while others will struggle and be poor.  But basic fairness is at the heart of all the community Laws of Moses.  No-one shall be destitute, no widow shall go hungry, everyone will pay a fair share to the common purse, and no-one will be permitted to exploit another person for their own gain.  The needs of the whole community are paramount – and while some will prosper more than others, a balance is struck – and a whole community enabled to thrive.

Is this, however, what we see in our society?  Do we reflect the principles of the Laws of Moses?  A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies makes for interesting reading.  During 2020, frontline workers survived on minimum wages, furloughed workers had their wages cut by 20% (unless they work for this parish!), countless workers lost their jobs altogether, and 2.4million people have so far died of Covid-19.  

At the same time all this misery, a small group of 647 billionaires increased their personal net worth by a combined one trillion dollars.  That’s a one with nine zeros after it.  Or, a thousand, million dollars.  That’s a hard number of conceptualise, isn’t it?  So let’s try this.  If you stacked up a trillion dollars in a pile of $100 notes, the pile would be 631 miles high.  

How stunningly different our society is from the just, fair and proportionate one of which the Hebrew Bible conceived.  We have permitted this inequity to flourish – by the votes we place at elections, by the shopping choices we make, and by our silence in the ears of legislators and politicians who frame our laws.  Moses was not silent.  He offered the people a choice between life and prosperity for all, or death and adversity for many.  

This Lent, perhaps we will take time to consider our complicity in the systems which have allowed the second of these paths to be the road we’ve chosen to travel…


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Valentine and the Mountain

 Text Mark 9.2-9 - The Mount of Transfiguration

Today, of course, is Valentine’s Day, as well as being the first Sunday of Lent. I've been doing a little digging - to see what I could find out about the origins of Valentine's Day.  It might interest you to know that very little fact is known about it at all! The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among a list of early church martyrs.  According to Gelasius, Valentine was one of those martyrs "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God."  As Gelasius implied, nothing was known about Valentine, even a couple of hundred years after his death.

Quite why St Valentine has become the focus of romantic love is one of those really knows.  Certainly there is no factual history that links Valentine with love.  He appears to have been a martyr who was be-headed because he would not deny Christ...and there is a legend about him healing his jailer's daughter before his death.  But that's about it.  There is one story, from the 1400s (a thousand years after Valentine’s death) that he was arrested for performing secret marriages of soldiers – who the Roman army preferred to keep celibate, to be better fighting men.  But that is a highly dubious story.

There’s one other potential connection worth exploring.  The Romans had a festival called Lupercalia, which celebrated the she-wolf who had suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. It was celebrated on the 15th of February, and included all sorts of fun and games...and no doubt a certain amount of, shall we say, 'romancing' used to take place between the young men and women of Rome. It may simply be that the feast-day of the largely unknown St Valentine was closest to the ancient love-fest of Lupercalia... and the two have become entwined.   Who knows?

Nevertheless, we are where we are...Valentine's day has become linked to the notion of romantic love...spurred on by the card-printers and that now, all around the western world, lovers of every age are desperately running around trying to find some small token of love.... preferably one that they haven't found in a previous year. It's quite a challenge, isn't it?!

In the light of this lack of information about Valentine, it would be relatively easy to dismiss the whole story as worthless myth – and to refuse to have anything to do with it at all.  But that would be to miss the point of myth.  Myths and fables may not be literally, factually, historically true.  But they always contain truth.  We should always be careful not to confuse fact with truth.  Facts are scientifically testable events.  Truth, on the other hand, is the search for meaning underneath either a fact or a story.

Let’s use a simple example.  If I drop a heavy object while standing on the earth, it will fall to the ground.  That is a fact.  But the truth, underlying the fact, is that the force of gravity acts upon the object to cause it to move towards the centre of the earth, until a solid object (like the ground) stops it from moving.

And that’s the challenge of Valentine.  Any stories you may hear about him are myth.  There is no factual, provable evidence even for his existence.  But the underlying truth of this day that has grown up around him is that love does matter, and the bonds of love between human beings are worth celebrating and nurturing.

Today’s Gospel story also has the feeling of myth about it, doesn’t it?  We are presented with a definitive ‘mountain-top experience’, and a story of Jesus conferring with Moses and Elijah, prior to setting his face towards Jerusalem and the cross.  In the meantime, a bit of comic relief is provided in the story by Peter - fussing about whether to build shelters for these heavenly beings to meet in.  I’m dubious, personally, about whether this story is recorded fact, or glorious myth.  But, as with all such myths – and with all such stories, even when absolutely true – the question we must ask is ‘why is this written down for us to read?  What is it that the writer of this story wants us to learn?’.

There are many potential learning points for us. 

First, we might see that Jesus didn’t appear on earth out of nothing.  He came as an inheritor and embodiment of all the Biblical history which preceded him.  He speaks his own wisdom, but that wisdom is routed in the wisdom of the past, embodied in the teachings of Moses, and the prophetic vision of Elijah. Jesus inherits that history, and he fulfils it, through the sacrificial path he is about to follow, to the Cross and Resurrection.

Secondly, we are reminded that life often contains ‘mountain top’ experiences, but as I’ve preached before on this passage, we must never forget that we come down from mountains.  Great spiritual events are brilliant for inspiring us and equipping us – but the work of the Gospel takes place in the valleys and dark places of our world.

Thirdly, the comic relief provided by Peter reminds us to keep focused on the spiritual, and not to get too bogged down by the practical issues of life.  That’s very easy for me to do – as I find myself obsessing about the latest building project in the parish, or the practical requirements of parish bureaucracy.  If I’m not careful, I can find myself spending all day doing practical things for Jesus, and failing to just stop and bathe in the beauty and the power of Jesus himself.   Is that true for you too?  Do you also find yourself focusing on what you need to do, rather than what you need to be?

Related to that thought comes a fourth (and final) point.  At the conclusion of this story, God speaks from heaven saying ‘this is my Son…listen to him’.  Again, if I am too busy doing stuff for Jesus (like Peter), I will fail to take the time to listen to what Jesus teaches me – through the pages of Scripture, and through my heart by the Holy Spirit.  We all need to make space to listen to God, as well as to serve him.

Let me try to cunningly draw the two themes of this homily together.  On the one hand we have Valentine – and icon for love, not just of the romantic kind.  We know little enough about him, but we can be sure that it was his love for Jesus, above all, which drove him to perform acts of love for those around him.   And, on the other hand - we have the Mount of Transfiguration, on which the very God of Love commanded us to listen to his Son.   It is Love, ultimately, which sits at the heart of both these stories.  And it is love which will drive us down from the Mountain of our worship today, and into the valleys of doubt, poverty, faithlessness, loneliness, and all the other ills of the world.  We will carry with us the Love which Valentine knew, and which Jesus embodies – as we go on to love and serve the Lord!  Amen.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Jesus the racist?

 Children and Dogs - the Syrian Woman

Mark 7: 24-37

Insults. I like insults. I confess it. There is nothing quite so pleasing to an old cynic like me than a well-crafted insult.  Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Yes, Madam, and you are ugly. But in the morning, I will be sober." Priceless, isn't it?

We all know, though, don't we, that insults can easily cross the line between gentle playful fun, and downright hurt and offence.  Certain words have the power to wound...for all sorts of reasons. Which is why it is quite surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult.  And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.

Jesus appears to be saying that his ministry, his power, his gifts, are meant only for the people of Israel - not for anyone else.  What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only white English people can be Christians. 

But when we read the Bible, we have to be very careful. Only a few pages earlier, especially in chapters 3 and 5, we find that Jesus quite happily and regularly preached his message to non-Jews, all around Tyre and Sidon, casting out demons into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs. 

So the immediate context of Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus was happy to preach to non-Jews, happy to heal them.  He clearly wanted all peoples to know about God.

So - we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist. But then, we've got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other. So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?

Mark tells us that after some intense theological arguments with Jewish religious leaders, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee.  And, according to Mark, he "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in retreat...trying to get away from it all for a while...needing to get his head together in a quiet place without crowds all around him asking for another miracle.

Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle`. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, tired, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap.  We can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I need to focus on Israel...I need to get them to understand before we can take this message any further". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".

Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as a Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus needs to focus on the Jews first.

Then comes the difficult line: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response.  In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!

But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus. And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind.  She persists - she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".

You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly turned his own metaphor against him.  Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".

So what do we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?

First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt cold, hunger and fatigue just like we do.   For those of us who are struggling with what feels like a never-ending lockdown, we can be sure that Jesus feels our tiredness, and our frustration. 

And, just like us, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things a little out of balance.  The same goes for us. It is not sinful in itself to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of revealed truth.  When strong science, or the Holy Spirit, reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong (a false truth, perhaps!) we sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face in the new direction of truth.

Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong.  It’s good to recognise that we are all human… that we can all mis-speak from time to time.  We need t be always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.  As someone who enjoys both giving and receiving a bit of teasing, I know that feeling of ‘Oh no, I’ve over-stepped the mark there!’.  I pray for the forgiveness of those around me, when that happens.  Just as I offer forgiveness if their occasional careless words cause me pain.  That’s part of what it means to live in a Christian community – forgiving others, as we too are forgiven.

So, what do we learn from this story?  We learn that we follow a Lord who know what it is like to be us – to be tired, fed-up, and in need of getting away from it all.  He stands with us, alongside us, sustaining us and encouraging us – knowing completely what we are going through.  He is with us today, just as he was with the Syro-Phoenician woman.  He is our rock, the source of all our forgiveness, and the healer of spirit, body and mind.


A Sermon on the 60th Birthday of Matthias, Bishop of Ho

 Text: Mark 9.2-9

Greetings from the United Kingdom, to all my friends, my brothers and sisters, and to all my adopted sons and daughters in Ho!  Before I embark on my sermon – which I am deeply honoured to preach -  let me just say how sad I am not to be with you in person on this momentous day.  It has taken a worldwide pandemic to stop me from being with you on this, the 60th birthday of my dear friend and brother, Bishop Matthias.  But as you may know…the 14th of February is not just the Bishop’s birthday…oh no!  It is also the anniversary of the day in 1975 when he was confirmed into the Church he has served all his life.  And not even that is enough!  It is also the 33rd anniversary of the first time, as a newly ordained priest, that Matthias celebrated the Holy Mass!

But, wait, there’s more!  Not only is today such an important day for our beloved Bishop, it is also the feast of St Valentine – an early Christian, who died for love.  Matthias has often shared his love with me, as I know he has done with you too.  So today, as we ponder the Scripture of the day, let us hold the theme of Love in the back of our minds…conscious as I am that many of you will go home to share tokens of love with each other, this Valentine’s day!

So now, let’s think about topic of the day, as given to us by the Revised Common Lectionary – the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. 

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?  You know, one of those experiences that blows your mind - something you'll always remember?  I've had a few.  I've been at fantastic worship events, where emotion has overwhelmed me – often here in Ghana.  I will never forget, for example, being at the 10th Anniversary Celebrations – out there in the same compound where you are meeting today!  Neither will I forget the wonderful ordination service I was privileged to attend, in Worawora, when Fathers Angelo, Dennis, Meriku, were welcomed into the order of deacons, and Fr Macaphuy was ordained both deacon and priest on the same day!

Birthdays are often mountain-top experiences….as I’m sure the Bishop would agree today!  Weddings too are mountain-top experiences.  For weeks, months, or even years (sometimes) people look forward to their wedding day.  Everything has to be perfect...the music, the dress, the cake, the's all vitally important.  And then, at the wedding I well find yourself caught up into one of those mountaintop experiences.  Your senses are in over-drive - sound, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all are at peak efficiency.  You become determined to drink in every moment.

But you have to come down the mountain again.  The next day, there are bills to be paid, journeys to be made.  New wives discover that their new husbands have smelly feet!  And new husbands discover that their beautiful new wife now wants to change them, stop them drinking and introduce them to vegetables!  Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.

I remember climbing a mountain – or at least a small hill, out of Ho in the Bishop’s car, on our way to Worawora, a few years ago.  The journey up the mountain was all very well.  But when we started to come down the other side, we had a lot of trouble.  We smelled burning, coming through the air vents into the car.  At first we thought perhaps there was a fire somewhere near, and that we could smell the smoke.  But then, we realised that the smell was coming from the wheels of the car itself.  It was the brakes!  The brakes were on fire!

Our Gospel story today is of just one such mountain-top experience.  It’s called ‘the story of the Transfiguration’.  The disciples find themselves caught up in an event which underscores the whole ministry of Jesus.  There is a view back through history - as Jesus meets with people who have been part of the story of the past...Moses and Elijah, and is affirmed by them.  And then there's a peering into the future, as God's voice from heaven confirms again who Jesus is, and the importance of his mission. "This is my son, the Beloved...listen to him!"

The disciples who have accompanied Jesus to the mountain-top are having the time of their lives. They don't want to leave...and they even suggest building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses.  They seem to want to capture the moment, and stay in it forever.  But the thing about mountain-top experiences is - you have to come down from them again.  Discipleship involves following, and going on.

Mark places this story in a pivotal place in his is dead centre at the middle of his 16 chapters.  Before the Transfiguration, Mark deals with Jesus’ ministry around Galilee - his teachings and his miracles.  Then comes the mount-top experience of the Transfiguration - Elijah, Moses and even the voice of God meeting with Jesus - strengthening him for what is to come.  Then, according to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem...towards challenge, torture, death and ultimately, resurrection.

Mountain-top experiences are part of life - and they are often part of the life of faith.  Some people spend their whole lives trying to regain such experiences.  Mystics and saints have lived lives of ever increasing discipline and piety in the hope of touching, once more, the face of God.

But faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment of time...and trying to live in it forever. Faithfulness, and true discipleship, is achieved by following-on in confidence that God is leading...and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced.  You have to come down the mountain again...and take what has been seen, learned and experienced on with you...on into the journey.

My hope is that our Sunday services are mini-mountain-top experiences.  They are a moment in the week when we experience God together, and through each other.  They are a moment in the week when we climb the mountain, and look beyond ourselves, beyond our day to day lives, and briefly touch the face of God.

But we have to come down the mountain.  We have to keep following on...following God into our every-day lives...taking what we have said, done and experienced with us.  We allow our worship, the words we say, the actions we do, to permeate our daily lives...colouring them, perfuming them.  Because of our mini-mountaintop experience we somehow live lives that are more infused with meaning, more alert to what God is doing in our lives, and through us in the lives of others.

One of the things I hear most often as a priest are the immortal words "you don't have to go to church to be a Christian" – usually from someone who is asking for baptism for their child, or to arrange a wedding - or sometimes from church members who haven’t been to church for weeks!

Of course you don't have to go to church to be a Christian...but it helps!  It’s a bit like learning to sing in a choir – as my brother Prosper would tell you.  You might be the most talented singer, with the voice of an angel.  But, each singer only has one line of music to sing.  It’s only when you sing in the choir that your one line of music fits with all the others - to create the anthem.

Or, here’s another analogy, which I know the Bishop will like.  Football!  Being a Christian is like playing football.  You might be the most talented footballer-trickster in the world.  Perhaps you can keep a ball bouncing on your head all day long.  Perhaps you can dribble a ball accurately around sticks in the playground without ever missing the ball.  But until you’ve played in a Team – you will never understand what the game of football is all about.

Actually, as the Bishop will tell you, I still don’t understand what the game of football is all about!  But that is one topic on which we agree to have a different opinion!

Through being together, like the disciples on the mountain-top, we get to drink together from The Source....we get to be inspired for the next week...we receive, together, the same spiritual food for the journey.

But it’s never about the’s always about the journey.  It should never be about the Sunday should always be about the day-by-day service...the giving of service to our families, our co-workers, our friends and our neighbours.  Inspired at the mountain-top, we go back into the valley to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet.  Just as Jesus left the mountain and then set his face towards Jerusalem, healing and teaching along the way, so we too are called from this mountain top out into the world.

So, my final encouragement to you all today is this.  Go from this mountain-top of worship today with joy in your hearts, and words of celebration on your lips – especially on this most important day in the life of our Bishop!  Take the joy you have experienced here, take the peace you have experienced here, take the Valentine love you have received here – and share that joy, that peace, and that Valentine love with everyone you meet.

Go, in the peace of Christ to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Light in the darkness

 Text: John 1.1-14

Here, on the second Sunday before Lent, almost at the centre point of Winter, among the darkest days of the year, the Lectionary invites us once again to contemplate Light.  Just as it did last week at Candlemas. 

But this time, by pointing us to St John’s Prologue, the Lectionary lays it on with a trowel.  Not content, as St Luke was last week, to merely describe Jesus as Light to the Gentiles, St John adds contrast to the picture.  He places Jesus, the wisdom and voice of God, the Word Incarnate, in direct contrast and opposition to THE DARKNESS. The Light (of Christ) shines in the darkness, he says, and the darkness did not overcome it.

These were words of hope and encouragement to the first people who received John’s Gospel.  They would have been a frightened, anxious community of early believers, hiding from Roman and Jewish authorities in private houses with the windows tightly shut, or digging out the catacombs under the streets of Rome.  They would have been whispering the hope of Jesus to one another, and recognising each other with furtive drawings of a fish in the sand of the market place. (That’s where the Christian fish-sign originated – a secret symbol between early Christians, scratched in the sand).   

The first Christians to have heard John’s Gospel, perhaps 60 or 70 years after the death of Jesus, would have known what it meant to live in darkness.  They would know what it meant to be a minority who longed for the light of God’s wisdom to shine into their society.

That was their context – and it echoes with ours, does it not?  The Christian Church of today also stands in opposition to the darkness – the darkness which gathers around us today.  In recent weeks, we’ve become aware that churches all over the world are facing real financial difficulties (and dwindling followers) accelerated by the reality of COVID.  We’ve had to confront the fact that despite growth in faith throughout much of the under-developed world, Christianity is presently dying in the West. 

And this should not surprise us.  The church in the West stands in complete opposition to so much that the West holds dear.  We stand against greed, and the amassing of wealth by tiny minorities.  We stand against hedonism and pleasure-seeking for its own sake.  We stand against the prevailing drug culture and intemperance of excess alcohol.  We stand against consumerism, and the exploitation of workers in slavery conditions, making cheap goods and clothes for us to hoard. 

These are dark times indeed.  No less dark than for the church of the first century which stood against the military dictatorship of Rome, and its system of market-led consumerism under-pinned by slavery.  And sometimes, the darkness feels overwhelming for us too.  It feels too high a mountain to climb.  Too deep a darkness to overcome.

Yet “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.  The message of Jesus Christ is that however desperate things feel, however deep the darkness surrounds us, it will not overwhelm us.  The Light of Christ will continue to shine. 

The question then for us, we tiny few, we remnant of humanity who cling to the Light, is not so much what we stand against – for we know how dark the darkness is.  The question is, as people of Light, what we stand FOR.

We stand, in the name of Jesus Christ, for a Kingdom of LOVE.  That love, focused first on God, and then on loving our neighbours, shines out from this building and every church community like a beacon from a lighthouse.  It probes and prods at the darkness, which will never overcome it.  It offers us a completely NEW way of living. 

Starting from the day when each of us knows, truly knows, that our past lives are forgotten and forgiven by God, we, the people of the Light, learn how to stand up for love. 

·          Love which shares its wealth; it does not hoard it. 

·          Love which reaches out to those in need, and offers the hand of help. 

·        Love which delights in communities coming together – whether in person or even online as we presently must. 

·       Love which frees the slaves of Eastern sweat-shops, by refusing to collude with consumerism, and by offering aid and micro-loans instead.

·          Love which offers an alternative to drug addiction and drunkenness – life in all its fullness.

·          Love which brings healing to the sinner, and balm to the sick. 

·          Love which picks up the phone and bears the anguish of its neighbour. 

·          Love which shares its wisdom and laughter through the pages of a simple Chronicle. 

·          Love which even has the power to overcome death – though that is a topic for Easter

So, my dear friends, when you hear that the church is in financial and numerical crisis, do not be afraid.  We’ve been in crisis before, many times…and we will be once again.  The darkness always tries to overwhelm the light of the church….but darkness, and the very gates of hell, shall not prevail against it (Mt 16.18).

For the true church is the church of Christ the Light-bringer.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!  Amen.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

In-service training

Text Mark 6.7-13 

 There was a time, still in many of our living memories, when the idea of ‘on the job training’ was alien to us.  In days gone by, we went to school, then to University or an apprenticeship, we became ‘Masters’ of our chosen trade, and then we just got on with it until we retired.

               Those days have gone, however.  These days, anyone in the world of work has to be open to constant ‘in-service training’ of one form another.  We need training to keep up with the latest legislation around health & safety, or the vital topic of safeguarding.  We need to get trained to use the latest software on our computers.  If we are clergy, we are expected to keep abreast of all the latest advances in theology, and in the debates of the church.  'On the job training' has become essential to us all.

               Jesus understood the value of training – which is why, in today’s Gospel, he sent out The Twelve, into the mission fields.  He gave strict instructions that they should rely on the provision of God, and the hospitality of strangers.  He was teaching them to survive on their wits, and by their relationships, rather than relying on any personal wealth they might take with them on the road.  He was also giving them a foretaste of what life would be for them after he had left them to the task of the Gospel.  They needed to gain confidence in speaking about the things of God, without always waiting for Jesus to address the crowds.

               The thing about the work of the Gospel is that it IS work.  It TAKES work, and training, to do it effectively on behalf of our Lord.  That training, which is available to all Christians, is essentially quite simple.  It involves regular prayer, and regular engagement with the Scriptures, and learning (as the disciples did) from teachers of the faith who have been learning on the job for a longer time.   With prayer, study and good teaching, anyone can be equipped to take the Good News of Jesus Christ out into the world.  Three things:  prayer, study and teaching.

               The problem comes when one of those three essential elements is missing.  Study and teaching are worth nothing without prayer, which embeds wisdom into the soul.  Prayer and study alone are likely to inflame a passion for God, but without the tempering words of wise teachers, such passion can easily be mis-directed.

Something I’ve missed during this last year of Pandemic has been my occasional encounters, in the church, with enthusiastic Christians who are on fire to spread good news, but who don’t really understand what the good news is.  They have prayed, and they’ve read the Bible from cover to cover, but they haven’t had the wise teaching which we all need to set us on useful and wholesome paths.  They are the kind of ‘religious extremist’ that we’ve all encountered. 

They are the people for whom a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  They are the kind of believer who has taken literally some of the more imaginative texts of the Bible.  Or they have made just one element of the Scriptures the entire focus of their life.  They are the kind of people who insist that the end of the world is coming any day now.  Or whose belief in the power of speaking in tongues, or of healing power of praying to the saints, has reached the level of magical thinking.  In America, they are the kind of believer who handles snakes in their worship, because of an obscure text which promises no harm will come.  Or they are the kind of single-issue believer who spends their day displaying placards with the awful words ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’.  Or they are the kind of believer who becomes so obsessed with the concept of Satan, they see him at work in every institution they encounter (except, of course, their own little meeting hall – until other members of their church disagree with them).

In a couple of weeks, Sandra and I will be launching our programme of Lent courses – which will, this year, be entirely by Zoom.  Between us, and our friends in other local churches, we’re hoping to offer some ‘in-service training’ to all of you.  We’re currently putting the final touches to what that programme will be, which we will announce in next week’s Chronicle.  But I can tell you that it is likely to include training and teaching on the history of the Bible, or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recommended Lent course, or a course examining Christian attitudes to Creation. 

My encouragement to you, this morning, is to pray for discernment over the choice we will offer you next week.  Prepare your heart to say YES to the opportunity to continue growing in knowledge and wisdom, alongside the continuing path of prayer and bible reading.  Because all of us – especially me – need some in-service training from time to time!  Amen.