Sunday, June 13, 2021

Man plans, God laughs!

 Text:  Ezekiel 17.22-24 and Mark 4.26-34

Watch this sermon by clicking here: 

Clare and I count ourselves extremely blessed to be custodians of one of the larger gardens in this parish – a garden that I hope we will be able to use for a Strawberry Tea, or a parish barbecue before too long.  In a recent Chronicle poem, Marian Porter reflected on the sheer variety of plants contained in the 200 yards of border planting we look after – including a surprising number of ‘mahonia japonica’ – far more than our fair share, in fact!  I am frequently amused by horticulturally-minded visitors to the garden, who love identifying strange and rare plants among our borders.  But I have to confess, I usually have little idea how they got there. 

Clare and I are lucky recipients of the efforts of previous Rectory occupants.  Trish Jones and Susan Gibbons before her spent many hours labouring to create the lovely garden we now have, for which we will be forever grateful.  Because, frankly, neither Clare nor I have a clue what we are doing.  Most of our attempts to plant anything at all have ended in complete failure.  The Rectory garden is now where all new plants go to die!

But when they die, wonderful things happen.  New, wild seeds blow in upon the wind and establish themselves where the latest expensive, cultivated marvel has slowly died its death.  In place of the expensive garden-centre plant, which showed so much promise, wild flowers now bloom.  Slowly, year by year, with each new season of our gardening incompetence, Mother Nature is asserting her creativity and her inevitable dominance.

This is an all-to-familiar pattern to the Kingdom of God, as well.  We human beings strive and struggle to build the Kingdom of God.  We embark upon initiative after initiative, desperately hoping that our latest wheeze to establish alternative forms of ‘emerging church’ will bring new believers crowding to our door.  Messy Church, Café Church, Pioneer Ministry, Wild Church, Men’s Groups, Women’s Groups, FaithTalk, God in Art – they all have value, and they all have their place – just like the professionally grown plants we buy from our garden centres.  But God, we find, has God’s own unique way of working out God’s purposes, and building God’s vision.   Like Mother Nature in the Rectory garden, God just keeps on building God’s kingdom in God’s unique way. 

“The Kingdom of God”, says Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading, “is like a mustard seed”.  It’s often a tiny little seed, but it has the potential to grow into the greatest of shrubs.  Through Ezekiel, God promised the exiles of Israel that it would be God who would replant the Nation back on Israel’s own mountain, after their 70 years of captivity.  God’s activity is wild and unfettered.  The Spirit blows where it wills, and is constantly at work in the lives of all God’s creation. 

Often, I find, it is not my clever new initiative that draws new believers into the Kingdom.  It is God himself, working unceasingly in all human life, which causes that potential new believer to take the first steps of faith.  It is the person who wanders into church, seeking shelter, or comfort, or answers, in whom the Spirit of God is already working.

Am I implying, therefore, that all our endeavour for the Kingdom is meaningless?  No, I’m not.  But let me remind you of the last verse of the opening hymn we sang today: 

“All are efforts are nothing worth

unless God bless the deed;

vain our hopes for the harvest tide

till God brings life to the seed.”

 Here at St Faith’s, we have a Mission Plan.  Following the example of Lenin and Stalin, we’ve called it our five-year plan!  This week, your PCC will receive a report on our progress towards meeting the goals we set ourselves back in October, when we presented our Plan to the Annual Meeting.   It’s a plan which we firmly believe is in line with God’s mission to the people of this parish.  But little did we know, when the plan was being drawn up, that a world changing event was galloping around the bend.  None of us saw (when the plan was first in motion) that a pandemic would sweep across the world.  Many of the things we planned have been put on hold as a result.  Many of the professionally cultivated flowers we had bought have withered and died, while the wild Spirit of God has blown in all around us. 

If you had told me, even 18 months ago, that more people would be attending our services via computer than in person, I would have laughed at you!  Some of our online services now attract more than a thousand viewers.  Hundreds of people are reading our homilies, history and humour every week via the Chronicle, and responding to the deeper, more thoughtful contributions in a variety of ways.  New members and friends who live hundreds (or even thousands) of miles away are signing up to support our work financially and prayerfully.  Some of the deepest and most profound faith conversations I now have take place on Facebook, or via email.  If you had predicted any of these things to me only 18 months ago, I would have wondered at your sanity!

You see, as our opening hymn proclaimed – “God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year”.  There’s an old Jewish proverb, which is reflected in the Scriptures (especially some of the Psalms) and it goes like this: “Men plan.  God laughs!”

Here’s a final thought.  It is an arresting moment when we realise that the Church does not have a mission.  Rather, the mission of God has a Church.  We, the Church, are a part of God’s plan.  Jesus established it, and proclaimed that he would build it.  We are co-operators with God, and with God’s plan.  Our mission has to be, and must be, God’s mission – otherwise, all our efforts are nothing worth.


Sunday, June 6, 2021

Ordinary Time?

Texts:  2 Corinthians 4:13-5.1 and Mark 3:20-35

To watch this sermon, please click here:

So, my brothers and sisters, here we are in Ordinary Time, once more.  Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Trinity and Corpus Christi have passed, and we slide into the week-by-week contemplation of the everyday teachings of the Scriptures.  Our gaze shifts away from the dramatic narratives of the great feasts that have inspired us, and we settle into a period of diligent study, and quiet effective practice of our faith.  Ordinary Time.

Which is perhaps why the Lectionary gives us, this morning, such a smorgasbord of theological ideas to pursue!  As a preacher, my task is to focus on that which I judge to be most useful to you at this time.  And this morning, I have quite a lot to draw from.

Perhaps, we could consider the debate between Jesus and the Scribes, who accused him of casting out demons by the power of the devil?  It’s certainly a fascinating topic – and it leads to Jesus announcing that there is one sin, and one sin alone, which can never be forgiven.  He means the sin of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ – which often puzzles many people.  

I could, perhaps, remind you of the importance of ‘context’ in understanding any biblical text.  The context here is that the work of healing is ascribed not to the Great Healer (the Divine Spirit of God) but instead to the Devil.  That indeed is blasphemous talk.  It would be like saying that the Devil is the author of Love.  Or that God is the author of disobedience, hatred and war.

We need to hear this stern warning of Jesus.  To describe anything hateful, violent or evil as the work of God is indeed a heinous blasphemy.  Anyone, for example, who believes that God approves of, or instigates war, or sickness, is treading on dangerous ground.

It’s fine to say that religions are the cause of many wars, because, regretfully, there is truth in that statement.  But to suggest that God either approves of such conflict, or worse still that he desires it, or even foments it, is blasphemous indeed.

It’s fine to wonder why God does not always answer our prayers for healing from sickness or disability.  But to suggest that God causes it, or that it is perhaps a direct punishment for our sins is blasphemous stuff.

But you know all that.  We’ve covered such ground many times before.  So what else, as a preacher, might I focus on from today’s readings? 

Perhaps I should focus on the idea that a house divided against itself cannot stand – which, of course, Jesus talks about in relation to the crazy idea that his ministry somehow stems from the Devil. This is, of course, one of those great ‘Truisms’ which we hear (and don’t ponder) because it is so plainly obvious. 

If we were the kind of church in which there were different theological factions arguing against each other; or if our PCC was divided over some great policy issue; or if half our choir was threatening to walk out because of the Rector’s choice of hymns – then perhaps this would be a good text for us to consider in depth, together.  But, I have to tell you, I have rarely encountered such a harmonious, kindly, co-operative group as Christians we have here at St Faith’s.  So I’d really be preaching to the converted.  Wouldn’t I?

So, perhaps we should focus on the little story at the end of the Gospel, in which Jesus widens the scope of what the word ‘family’ means.  He says, ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’.  He invites us to look beyond our narrow, human understanding of what the family is.  He invites us to see each other as not just fellow-worshippers, or even fellow travellers on the road to faith, but as actual family.  A few weeks ago, we sang ‘Brother, Sister let me serve you’ (which is why I didn’t chose it for today).  But it conveys something of the depth of the relationship which Jesus calls us into:

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.

But you know all this.  When you care for one another, with phone calls to the lonely, or by meeting up for friendship’ sake, or by holding one another in prayer, or supporting the needy through the Discretionary Fund, then you are living out exactly how Jesus calls us live.  When you welcome to our family table those who are not like you, those who are of a different race, or a different sexual preference or gender identity, or a different intellectual ability, or even a different understanding of God, you are being exactly the kind of real family that Jesus is talking about.

So, perhaps there is little from the Gospel reading that we desperately need to consider this morning.  Perhaps I should just shut up, and sit down….

…Or….perhaps we could just take a few final moments to contemplate the words of St Paul, written to a church community not unlike our own, which we heard in our first reading.  Paul wants his readers not to lose heart.  He knows how much has been achieved by those early Christians, battling against the forces all around them to bring the Kingdom to fruition.  He wants to encourage them to press on, to keep on living as Christ has called them to live.  He wants them, by God’s grace, to keep on extending that Kingdom to more and more people, so that there may be even more thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

And that’s my prayer for us, at the beginning of this ‘Ordinary Time’.  Let us keep on loving one another, my sisters and brothers.  Let us keep on inviting others – even very different others - around our family table.  Let’s keep on weeping with those who weep, and laughing with those who laugh.  Let’s keep on proclaiming and demonstrating the radical, life-changing Love of God!  And perhaps, then, we will discover that Ordinary Time is not so ordinary after all!  Amen.


Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Meaning of Holy Communion

 To watch this sermon please click here:

As is so often the case, we have a medieval woman to thank for the feast of Corpus Christi.  Juliana of Liège, was born in the early 1190s in Liège, Belgium.  In that fine European city, there were groups of women dedicated to Eucharistic worship. They lived together, devoted to prayer and to charitable works.

Juliana developed a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament.  Like all such faithful people, she took great comfort from the celebration of Maundy Thursday, or the Feast of the Institution of the Eucharist.  But, as we often observe here, she noted that the Maundy Thursday celebration had many layers, including the washing of the disciples feet, and the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.    As a true devotee of the Eucharist, Juliana longed for a feast day outside of Lent in its honour.  This desire was enhanced by a vision of the Church under the appearance of the full moon with one dark spot, which signified the absence of such a singular focus in the Church’s year. She had this vision many times over the next 20 years but she kept it a secret. When she eventually relayed it to her confessor, he relayed it to the bishop.

At that time bishops could order feasts in their dioceses, so Bishop Robert ordered in 1246 a celebration of Corpus Christi to be held in the diocese each year thereafter on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.  The first such celebration occurred at St Martin's Church, Liège, in the city that same year.

The rest is history. The feast of Corpus Christi became rather a rallying point for the different Christian perspectives on the Eucharist.  The feast was intended to celebrate the true presence of Christ in the bread and the wine of Communion.  As it grew in importance, the elements were paraded around churches, and then around whole cities, in an ever more devoted display of faith. At the High Mass of the day, the bread itself, placed in an elaborate holder called a monstrance, was used to bless the assembled congregation.

But as the debates of the Reformation took hold, many considered such displays of the Eucharist to be idolatrous. For those who considered the Holy Communion to be no more than a memorial of Christ’s death and passion, it was too great a leap to believe that Christ himself could be present in the bread and the wine.  By 1548, the Church of England had abolished the Feast altogether, although traditional Catholic worshippers would still celebrate it in secret.  The 39 Articles of the Church of England specifically forbade the ‘carrying around’ of the Eucharist for people to ‘gaze upon’.

And so, for centuries within the Anglican Church, the feast of Corpus Christi has always felt a little bit ‘naughty’. To celebrate it with full pomp and show stands directly in opposition to the intentions of the Reformers of the church – and it continues to be a topic that divides opinion among priests and people of the church.

For my part, I think this feast still has value.  It is an opportunity for us to focus entirely upon the meaning of the service we do together every week – but without the possible distraction of focusing on other texts or issues.  It is an opportunity for each of us to ask ‘what does the Eucharist mean to me?’  What is the Service for?!  What is its fundamental purpose?  Why do we do it, and why should we continue doing it?

Surprisingly, one of the most profound answers that I've found to these questions comes from an atheist. The philosopher Alain de Botton has written a description of what he calls 'the Mass', which is well worth hearing.  (It’s part of his book "Religion for Athiests: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion").  He argues that Atheists need to learn from the Church.   He praises the Mass for the way that it brings people together in community around a meal. 

de Botton points out that with declining church attendance we have seen an exponential rise in restaurants.  But, he says, restaurants fail to "introduce patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which people chronically segregate themselves”.  The focus is on the food and the decor, and on the people we’ve chosen to meet.  It is never on opportunities for extending and deepening connections across the whole community.

In contrast, de Botton says of the Mass that... “Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values"

The Mass, says de Botton, "should inspire visitors to suspend their customary frightened egoism in favour of joyful immersion in a collective spirit - an unlikely scenario in the majority of modern community centres"

Of course, the Holy Communion is much more than a gathering of disparate souls into one body.  But it is at least that.  For me, it is also the chance to focus, for a while, on something other than myself, my needs, my desires.  It is a chance to be drawn outwards from my fragile ego, and into the life of the Eternal Trinity.  It is an opportunity to be fed, spiritually, by the source of all life, so that I may be empowered and inspired to live my life for God and for others.

What does the Eucharist mean to you?