Sunday, November 28, 2021

When you get the get everything else!

Text: Luke 21.25–36.  Advent Sunday.

Once upon a time there was a homeless man, who lived on the street, outside the enormous mansion of the richest man in the city.  The rich man’s son used to walk outside the mansion, and over time he became friendly with the poor beggar.  He would bring small gifts of food, or warm clothes, or the occasional festive treat.  The two men, the beggar and rich man’s son became good friends – despite the difference in their circumstances.

One day, however, tragedy struck.  The rich man’s son suddenly died.  When the beggar heard of this, he was grief stricken.  How could he pay tribute to his friend?  How could he remember him?  Picking up a paper bag from the street, and a piece of charcoal, the beggar drew the face of his friend, lovingly.

When he had finished his drawing, the beggar went up to the mighty doors of the great mansion, and knocked for attention.  A rather snooty servant opened the door.  ‘Yes?’ he said.  ‘Oh great Sir!’ said the beggar.  ‘Please would you give this picture to the Master of the house?  It’s a picture of his son, who was my friend.  I want the Master to know that his son was kind to me’.  ‘Oh very well,’ said the servant, taking the picture and closing the door in the poor man’s face. 

A year or two later, another tragedy:  the Master of the House died.  Without an heir to inherit his wealth, an auction of all his possessions was held.  The beggar, seeing the sign about the auction, decided to go along out of curiosity.  To his great surprise, he discovered that his drawing of the rich man’s son had been framed and placed in a prominent position in the Master’s gallery.  He was stunned, and he waited to see what would happen next.

The auctioneer announced that the very first lot would be the drawing of the rich man’s son.  ‘The Master has decreed it, in his will’, the auctioneer explained, ‘as a condition of the sale’.  A sigh rippled through the crowd.  Who would want to buy an amateur charcoal drawing on the back of an old shopping bag?  There was silence in the room.  No-one made any bids.  The beggar felt around in his pocket, and found a couple of small coins.  ‘I bid these coins!’ he announced, holding them up between his finger and thumb.  Laughter roared around the room, as the relieved auctioneer banged his gavel on the desk and shouted ‘sold’.

The beggar was shuffling his way to the front of the room, to collect his picture, when the auctioneer announced, ‘That’s the end of the sale, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Good afternoon’.  Uproar.  What?!  All the wealthy art dealers began rattling their jewellery in protest! 

The auctioneer held up his hands for silence, and then explained.  ‘I’m very sorry, Ladies and Gentlemen, but there were two conditions attached to this sale by the Master of the House.  The first was that the portrait of his son would be auctioned first.  The second condition was that whoever bids on the portrait of the son gets the whole art gallery!

And that, my friends, is what I want to share with you this morning.  On this Advent Sunday, as we contemplate the coming of Christ into the world, in his conception, his birth, and his promised return, we must not miss this:  when you get the Son, you get everything else.  Not just personal peace, and rest for those who ‘travail and are heavy laden’.  But you also get a framework for transforming all of creation.  Following Jesus is a personal decision – but it has world-transforming potential too!

To a world in which survival is now the question, Jesus is the answer.  Listen again to his words of prophecy from this morning’s reading:  ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken”.  These are words for our time, are they not? 

In saying so, let me be clear.  I'm not saying that Jesus was talking about our time, specifically.  I don't subscribe to the idea (among many Christians) that we are in the so-called 'Last Days'.  But let's think about that idea together on another occasion.  What I am saying, though, is that the kind of circumstances which Jesus foresaw do look uncannily like our own times.

We don’t have to look far to see the signs in the sky.  The wealthiest men on the planet are building and testing their rockets – while announcing their view that the earth is ultimately doomed.  Many, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos claim that the long-term survival of human kind is in space.  Who do we think will be on those rockets?  Who is it who will build new colonies on Mars and beyond?  It won’t be the poor and the starving masses.  It will be billionaires and their friends. 

What about the roaring of the sea?  We don’t have to look far to realise that the ice-caps are melting, and the sea-levels are rising – entire cities and small nations will drown, certainly within the lifetime of the next generation.   Dramatically powerful weather events are increasing exponentially – Oh yes, the seas are roaring alright.

People fainting from fear and foreboding?  The Fear among humanity is palpable.  Fear of Covid.  Fear of foreginers.  Fear of conspiracies.  Fear of climate disaster.  Fear drives our news broadcasts, our social media, our politics and our daily conversations.  And yes, many people do faint from fear and foreboding.  Stress and depression brought on by fear is rising exponentially across the world.

To all these questions…Jesus is the answer.  There is wisdom in all the great religions of the world.  But only Jesus offers an answer to the signs in the sky, the roaring and rising seas, and to the fear:  ‘Stand up and raise your heads,’ he says, ‘for your redemption draws near’! 

What will this redemption look like?  I don’t know.  Somehow, I don’t think that we will ever see literal Jesus arriving on a literal cloud – that’s the language of metaphor, and I think we should treat it as such.  But what I do know is that we serve a God whose entire being is bent towards the salvation of the world….spiritually and physically.  Through Jesus, through his incarnation among us, through the unsurpassed wisdom he left with us, and through the promise of a coming new Kingdom, God inspires us to reach out to others with compassion.  He calls us to lives of service to all humanity.  He calls us to live lightly, treading softly on the earth.  He calls us to extraordinary generosity and to works of healing – to loving God, and loving our neighbour as ourself.

It is by following these teachings that the world can and, I believe, will be saved.  As the waters roar and rise, as fear expands, and as billionaires flee through the heavens, our sacred task is to keep on calling our neighbours and friends, and this whole community to live as Jesus calls us.  Not just to save our own souls, but to save the whole world.  For when you get the Son, you get everything else.


Thursday, November 25, 2021

Who are you?

Matthew 16. 13-20:

"Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’  And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’  He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’  Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’  And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’  Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah."

Who do you say that I am?  That’s the question that Jesus asks Simon.  And it’s an important question – because identity matters.  

If I asked you the same question, I imagine that many of you would reply ‘You are the Rector’.  But that’s only because you know me primarily in this role, at this time in my life.  In other places, and in other times, I’ve been a youth worker, a housing officer, and a charity chief executive.  I’ve been a government advisor and a shop-floor salesman of microwaves and stereos.  I’ve been a passport writer, a singer, a piano-player and a trumpeter.  I’ve been a student, and a roller-skate rink attendant.  I’ve been an ice-cream seller, a burger-flipper and a farm labourer.  I still am a priest, and a deacon, and a Canon, a teacher, and a social entrepreneur.

In my private life, I have been (and am) many things too.  I’m a husband, and a son.  I’m a brother, an uncle and a best friend.  Now I’m a grandad.  

But there are other things about my identity which could be used to describe me.  I’m tall.  I’m big.  I’m hairy around the chin.  I’m Caucasian (or white), I’m straight.  I’m middle aged - just, and I’m a cardiac patient.

All of these words and all of these descriptions are summed up in the one word…Tom.  But all these words, all these descriptions, only scratch at the surface of who I really am.  Because I know the secret ‘me’.  I know the internal conflicts I live with.  I know the thoughts that rage through my monkey mind.  I know the temptations I have to fight.  I know the things that give me pleasure, and the things that stress me out.  They are all part of me too.  They are what I’d have to try to describe if you really wanted to understand who I am.

So imagine the panic that must have crossed Simon’s mind when Jesus asked him the same question!  ‘Who do you say that I am?’  What answer could Peter give which would sum up succinctly all that he already knew about this man.  He could have said, ‘You’re Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter.  You’re the brother of James and Joses and your other siblings.  You’re the teacher, the wanderer, the story-teller of our time.  You’re the preacher, the prophet, the man of wisdom’.  But Simon used none of these descriptions of Jesus.   

‘You are the Messiah.  The son of the living God’.  

Messiah – Saviour.  The one whose coming has been long-expected.  The one who would offer the path of salvation to the Jews and to the whole world.  And the very son of God.

Jesus was delighted.  I imagine him throwing back his head and laughing!  ‘Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah!  You’ve got it!  You’ve understood the essence of who I am.  And that’s a revelation that could only have come from God!’.

‘And you, Simon, you are a rock!  That’s what I’m going to call you from now on…Rocky.  Petros.  Peter.  Because you, with all your mistakes and gaffs, are open to what God teaches you.  And it’s on that kind of openness, and attentiveness to God that I’m going to build my church. Alright?  Rocky!’

You see, Simon wasn’t all that his description said he was.  Any more than the word Messiah described all that Jesus was.  It was a nickname.  An epithet.  A way of getting a handle on Simon Peter.  It said nothing about his failures. Nothing about the times he completely got things wrong, like denying Christ, or lopping off the ear of a High Priest’s guard.  Or that time when he thought he should build some shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the mountain.  

Simon, you see, is ‘everyman’.  He’s you and me.  With all his failures, he sticks straight to the path of faith.  He is determined, and he wants with all his heart to follow where Jesus leads.

But his nickname doesn’t say all there is to say.  Nor does ‘Messiah’ say all there is to say about Jesus.  Nor does ‘Rector’ say all there is to say about me.

It’s supposed to be a Native American saying, that you should never criticise another, until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.  Simon Peter had walked more than a mile in Jesus’ shoes.  He’d lived alongside him, got to know him, heard him, listened to him – and at the end of that experience, he found that he could after all, describe him in a single, powerful adjective:  Messiah.

Jesus had walked a mile or two in Simon’s shoes too.  He’d sat with him, listened to him, laughed with him, eaten with him, watched him fail, watched him grow.  And at the end of all that, he had a an adjective – a nickname – for Simon too.  Rocky!  He was going to call him Rocky.

Here’s a final question to ponder…

How do you think others would describe you?  What nickname would you like be given by someone who has walked a mile in your shoes with you?  Gentle one?  Courageous one?  Prayerful one?  Faithful one?  Generous one?  Resourceful one? 

How would you like to be summed up in one word?  

And how can you live in such a way, that such a nickname becomes yours?  Amen.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Christ the King - Do we mean what we pray?

 Texts: Daniel 7.9-10,13,14 & John 18.33-37

A few weeks ago, on All Saints Sunday, we considered the story of the raising of Lazurus.  You might recall my point that all the complex imagery of Scripture relating to heaven is just that – imagery.  It’s an attempt to describe metaphorically something that our little brains can never truly grasp – the awe and wonder of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The raising of Lazurus, however, we can relate to.  It’s an event which is rooted in our plane of existence.  We can see the rock of the tomb, we can imagine the smell of the rotting corpse, and we can wonder at Jesus’s power over death.

Today’s scripture readings offer us a similar contrast.  On the one hand, the prophet Daniel has a vision of God, portrayed as an Ancient One with hair as white as wool, seated on a throne of fire.  The Ancient One gives dominion and glory and kingship to ‘one like a human being’ – meaning the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour.  Daniel imagines that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him.  It’s a fantastic vision – but it’s all imaginary.   It’s designed to inspire us, and to encourage us to keep pressing on with the task of bringing God’s Kingdom fully into being on earth.  It’s designed to fill us with confidence that one day God’s kingdom will truly come, on earth as it is in heaven. 

Like the language of many portions of Scripture, this passage is written by a prophet who gets a glimpse of God…but who then tries to describe him in the language of human beings.  Daniel was a civil servant in the Babylonian court.  So he resorts to language about thrones and dominations, about power and authority.  He colludes with earthly systems of government, and imagines that the Kingdom of which Christ is King will simply be a bigger, more powerful, more dominant force.

But, as with the story of Lazurus, three weeks ago, John’s gospel offers us a rather different glimpse of what ‘Christ the King’ is really like.  This is no heavenly superman, coming on the clouds of heaven to be given power and authority over all nations and peoples and tongues.  John, instead, offers us a broken and beaten messiah, on his knees before a living symbol of worldly power, Pontius Pilate.  Jesus before the Imperial Throne is denuded, stripped of all authority, and willingly surrendering his power to control what happens next. 

Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus steadfastly resists calling himself a King of anything.  He prefers to use Daniel’s phrase ‘a son of man’ to describe himself in humble terms – something he does 12 times in the Gospel.  But now, before the throne, naked and beaten….now he finally acknowledges his Kingship.  ‘My Kingdom’, he says, ‘is not of this world’.

If we do not grasp this fact, we miss the entire point of Jesus.  He did not come to Earth in order to establish a new system of earthly power.  He did not come with armies and weapons to beat humanity into obedience.  He came in humility, and with love and healing, to draw humanity towards him through love.  When we sing and proclaim that ‘Christ is King’ – on this Sunday of all Sundays – we do not imagine some heavenly army swooping down with flaming swords to establish a world Government.  There will be no winged angels with machine guns on the corners of our streets, enforcing heavenly rule!

The God we worship is the God who comes to us in a manger as a helpless baby.  He’s the God without a home, who submits to being beaten, stripped and hung on an Imperial instrument of torture. Even his mighty resurrection is only witnessed by a small number of his most dedicated followers.  Can you imagine what an earthly politician would do if he rose from the dead?  Can you imagine the press conferences?  Can you imagine the hoohah?!  Jesus, by contrast, appears in locked rooms, and walks unseen beside his Disciples.  Even his resurrection is accomplished humbly, sacrificially, meekly.

Our God doesn’t hold political rallies, or send armies, or collude with any of the ways that human being exercise power.  Our God’s power is discovered in weakness, in frailty, in humility and in sacrifice.  Our God doesn’t use the coercive language of politics, of division, of setting up one group of people against another.  He speaks the only language he knows:  the language of inclusive, sacrificial love.

What does this mean for us - as people who call ourselves subjects of Christ the King?  It surely means that we, too, are called to lives of self-sacrifice, humility and love.  We are citizens of heaven, and we pray daily for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done.  If we are serious about that prayer, if we truly mean what we pray, then this should be made visible and present in the quality of the lives we lead.  Our lives should reflect the values, and the practices of the one we call our King, our Master and our Lord. 

Any sermon which does not cause us to re-evaluate our own behaviour is, to be frank, a waste of time for the preacher and the congregation.  And so, I’m going to dare, right now, to challenge you.  I invite you to ponder how you deploy the gifts and talents that you have been given in the service of Christ the King. 

Are your relationships with others characterised by humility, sacrifice and love?  How do you spend your days: these brief flashes of eternity you have been given?  Are they days spent in the advancement of the Kingdom, in serving and loving others?  How do you spend your financial resources?  Do you use them to collude with human notions of material happiness?  How much will you spend on frippery and flim-flam, this Christmas; compared to how much you will give to others in need, or to the work of God’s church?   Do you invest in the illusory promises of earthly power, consumerism and politics?   Or, do you invest your resources in the advancing Kingdom of Love?

For, how we spend our time, how we deploy our talents, how we spend our money – these are the markers, these are the signs of whether we truly mean what we pray.  These are the performance indicators of the people who dare to call ourselves the subjects of Christ the King.  Amen.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Hilda - and the Battle for Unity

Hilda is a name we don’t encounter very often these days.  In fact, I only know one Hilda within my entire circle of friends and church members.  Few of us who are older than 50 can hear the name without remembering the infamous Hilda Ogden, of Coronation Street – a strong, forceful character, with a piercing voice, who made the life of her poor husband Stanley rather complicated!

But, in fact, the name Hilde has a long and proud history in the British Isles.  Originally it was a Viking name, and it meant ‘battle’.  Not a bad name for the fictional Hilda Ogden – who picked plenty of fights with Stan and her neighbours!  But perhaps it’s an even better name for the saint whose memory we honour today – St Hilda of Whitby.

Hilda was a relative of the King of Northumbria, who established a monastic community somewhere near Whitby.  She was much loved by her community, and highly venerated in her life-time as a wise and compassionate leader.  As such she battled against rural poverty and ignorance, and battled to establish her community of love and learning. She is known as a patron of the arts, because – in particular – she fostered the music of a sheep-herder called Caedmon.

But she is perhaps most famous for playing a large part in an important gathering of the early British Church, which took place in the year 664…known as the Synod of Whitby.  At the time, the Church had already been well-established in the British Isles – since at least the first century after Christ.  In fact, medieval scholars asserted that the first Bishop of Britain was a man called Aristobulus – who was believed to have been one of the 70 disciples, sent out two-by-two by Jesus himself.  Since those early days, the church had flourished, all across the British Isles.  The names of great Saints like David, Patrick, Alban and Aidan (who personally encouraged Hilde) come down to us from those years.  But, being somewhat distant from Rome, and especially after the fall of the Roman Empire, British Christianity had developed as a somewhat distinct version of Christianity, with many of its own local traditions.

But in the year 597, Pope Gregory sent Augustine, from Rome, with a brief to evangelise first the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Kent (who were said to be a pretty Godless lot, apparently).  Then, once established at Canterbury, Augustine set off to bring the rest of British Christianity fully under the authority of the Roman church.  Many British Christians were not too happy about this.  We Brits don’t take kindly to attempts to rule us from other European cities!  Great debates ensued, about the supremacy of Rome as the seat of St Peter, on whom Jesus had said he would build his church.  One particular focus for this debate was on how to calculate the date of Easter.  Different parts of the British Isles celebrated Easter on different days – depending on what calculation they used.  That meant that some Dioceses in Britain were cheerfully proclaiming Easter, while others were still in the solemnity of Lent.  The Kingdom of Northumbria, and especially the Episcopal See of Lindisfarne, was one such place.

So, the Synod of Whitby was called, by the King of Northumbria – King Oswiu.  After much debate, it was agreed that Northumbria would fall into line with the practices of the Roman Church.  In reality, the Synod of Whitby was just one of many such gatherings at that time, and part of a process of harmonising the British Church with the historical Mother Church of Rome.  But, some revisionist historians like to point to the Whitby Synod as a pivotal moment when a native, Celtic church came ‘under the heel’ of its more powerful Roman neighbour.   The truth is rather more complicated – as the truth so often is.  But those who fear the exercise of power over the British Isles from foreign capitals often point to the Synod of Whitby as a kind of ‘re-enslavement’ to Europe, like the earlier enslavement under the Emperor Tiberius…an enslavement which was only undone by Henry the Eighth, nearly 900 years later.

St Hilda played an important part in the Synod. And it was perhaps her greatest battle.  As a senior leader in the Northumbrian church, she spent much of the following years persuading and cajoling those around her to accept their place within a worldwide, or ‘catholic’, church.  In that sense, Hilda’s battle was for unity.  She longed for the body of Christ to be one – clearly and powerfully speaking with one voice, and being prepared to give up some individualistic practices and traditions for the sake of the greater good.  It was her defence of the Roman Church’s right to rule, while still being proudly a British Christian, which means that she is venerated as much today in the Catholic church as she is in the churches of the Islands of Britain.

St Hilda then, stands as a focus of Unity – for the worldwide church, as well as for political unity (remembering that the church of her time was much more than a purely religious authority).  That makes her a challenging saint for us Brits to contemplate (and indeed venerate) – especially while we anticipate Britain’s present attempt to free itself, once again, from the perceived shackles of another European super-power.  

On Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, when we will ponder what it might mean for the whole of creation to come under the Lordship of Christ.  In the meantime, the battle for Unity of St Hilda of Whitby might offer us some food for thought.


Sunday, November 14, 2021

November - Remember

November is the season of remembrance – and not just the remembrance of the Fallen in conflict.  Within the church’s Calendar, on the 1st of November, we remember all the Saints who have lived exemplary lives.  All Saints, or All Hallows as the old English tongue had it…preceded, of course, by the festivities of All Hallows Eve…Hallowe’en.  

Then, on the second of November, comes ‘All Souls’, during which we remember and pray for all the departed.  Some traditions insist on praying for all the faithful departed – but many of us don’t draw such a distinction.  We remember all who have died – especially, this year, all we have lost to Covid and the Climate Disaster.  We hold them up to the love of our heavenly Father, from which (as St Paul says) nothing can separate us.  We pray that they may rest in peace, and one day rise in glory, for that is the best thing we can do.

Then…Remember Remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot:  a rather more secular festival, in which we remember an act of terrorism, thwarted.  Personally, I’m not so keen on marking the 5th of November – because the events of that night arose out of a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants.  It’s a conflict that we have, thankfully, put largely behind us in history, and whilst (as with all history) we must mark it, and learn from it, I feel uncomfortable about celebratory fireworks being used in token of it.  

Then, the 11th.  Armistice Day.  We remember when the guns fell silent on the battlefields of the First World War.  It’s a date which grows ever distant from us in time, especially since the death of Harry Patch and his chums a few years ago.  But like our remembrance of the long-dead Saints, and all the departed, it’s a remembrance worth doing: bringing to mind, as it does, the carnage of industrial-scale warfare, and the sacrifice of both willing heroes and reluctant conscripts on our behalf.

And now, here we are, on Remembrance Sunday – when our remembrance is enlarged and expanded to include all those we have lost from this community to the drum-beat, the scars and the madness of warfare.  Here in this building, we remember the men of the Havant Volunteers at the Battle of Waterloo, whose battled-scarred standard still hangs over the heads of 16 Regiment today.  We remember the crew and military passengers of HMS Havant, lost during the evacuation of Dunkirk.  We remember the crews of the HMS Sheffield and the Coventry, lost in the Falklands conflict.  One of their fellow sailors is now the Captain of our Bellringers, here – and we therefore ring a special peel of bells each year, on the anniversaries of their fall.  We remember Corporal David O’Connor, a son of this parish, whose mother still worships here – in whose honour the cross on our altar today was fashioned from gun shells.  And many more besides – like Acting Captain John Philip Blake of the Royal Marines, killed in action while serving with the 43rd Commandos in 1944, to whom the lectern we use at practically every service is dedicated.  We honour each one of these, because, as Jesus said, “no-one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Remembrance is, of course, at the heart of Christian worship.  Every time we celebrate the feast of Communion, we remember the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we ‘do this in remembrance’ of him.

But what is the purpose of all this ‘remembering’?  And what does it mean to ‘remember’?  Let me invite you to contemplate the word itself: “Re-member”.  It means the active task of bringing-together those members of our community whom we have lost.  When we speak their names, or even see their faces in our mind’s eye, they are restored to us again, albeit for a moment in time.   To speak a name is, in some sense to give that person life again.  Whether I say Jesus Christ, or David O’Connor, or John Blake or any of the other names on the Memorial outside - they are re-membered.  They are brought back into our lives, and into our consciousness.   Their contribution to the life and safety of this community is honoured, while they themselves are mourned.  They are members of this community once again.  They are re-membered.

Let us, then, never cease from such a sacred task.  There will be many today who imagine that what we do together in this place is pointless, or unnecessarily jingoistic.  Many will criticise us for somehow glorifying war, when in fact all that any of us seeks is peace.  

Many will go about their normal Sunday business today – spending money in the shops, or playing football in the Sunday leagues, or visiting yet another tea-room in another stately home.  Many will be completely unware that the freedom they have to do these things is due to the sacrifice of the Fallen.  Many will fail to realise that the menu from which they choose their scone is in English, not German, because of the sacrifice of the fallen.  Many will fail to understand that the freedom they have to criticise their Government, or another political party comes out of the liberty for which the Fallen fought.  Many will walk on by this building, and the War Memorial outside, without any idea of how much it is a repository of this community’s memory.

But not us.  We are determined to do what is right – morally, spiritually, practically, to honour the memory of those who gave their lives for our freedom, and for our liberty.  We will bring them back together in our minds and in our hearts.  We will honour their sacrifice.  In the face of incomprehension, in the face of opposition and in the face of those who just can’t be bothered…we WILL remember them.  Amen.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

When will you listen? A sermon for Armistice (Remembrance) Day

Texts: Isaiah 48.17–19

Thus says the Lord,

   your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:

I am the Lord your God,

   who teaches you for your own good,

   who leads you in the way you should go.

O that you had paid attention to my commandments!

   Then your prosperity would have been like a river,

   and your success like the waves of the sea;

your offspring would have been like the sand,

   and your descendants like its grains;

their name would never be cut off

   or destroyed from before me.

Matthew 11.16–19

 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’


On this Armistice Day, we are treated to two short but powerful passages of Scripture.  

The first is the voice of God, speaking through Isaiah:  “I am the Lord, your God, who teaches you for your own good.  If only you had paid attention to my commandments!”  These are the words of a frustrated Deity…a God who we might imagine wringing his hands in frustration.  After all, through Abraham, Moses and all the great prophets he has done his very best to teach wisdom to his people.  Through commandments, laws, and volumes of wisdom he has taught them how to live – a way summed up by Jesus as ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’.  But over and over again, God’s people have turned a deaf ear to God’s wisdom – leading to a trail of blood, war, and godlessness throughout the history of the Nation.

This warning rings just as true for us today, as we contemplate the Wars of the last centuries.  We human beings seem to be pathologically incapable of solving our territorial disputes without going to war.  We seem locked into an endless cycle – a cycle of one or more wealthy nations grabbing all the good land and resources for themselves.  That leads to resentment on the part of other nations, who want that good land, or those resources, for themselves.  They create propaganda to inflame their populations, desensitising them to the humanity of those on the other side…and before you know where you are, Britishers are firing at the ‘Hun’, Nazis are annihilating Jews, Provos are firing at Catholics, Capitalists are firing at Communists, Christians and Muslims are firing at each other, despite both worshipping essentially the same God.

“I am the Lord, your God, who teaches you for your own good.  If only you had paid attention to my commandments!”  

Today, we honour the sacrifice of so many service men and women who have given their lives – as willing volunteers or as unwilling conscripts – in the meat-grinder of humanity’s wars.  This is not the place for a history lesson about the root causes of so many wars.  I will, in any case, leave the history to historians more qualified than me.  But it is the place for us to be reminded of the senseless futility of war, in comparison to the God-given alternative.

But we do not want to listen.  We are, as Jesus observed in our Gospel reading, like children in a playground.  We dance our little dances, and play our little games.  Our perspectives on the various propaganda we are fed is so narrow that we willingly lap it up.  Let’s blame the Nazis for the Second World War, not the Treaty of Versailles which created the economic conditions for their hate-filled rise.  Let’s blame the Muslims for the tensions of the Middle East which overflow our shores, not the powerful battles for control of their oil and resources over the last century.  Let’s criminalise the refugees for wanting to escape in little boats to the safety of our shores….not the systems of injustice, and the climate-shredding actions of the West which have fuelled their desperation.  

“O that you had paid attention to my commandments!’ says the Lord.  If only you would learn the power of sharing the earth’s resources, instead of hoarding them.  If only you learned the power of grace, over punitive sanctions.  If only you learned the power of forgiveness, over hatred and retribution.  If only you learned the power of peace over war.

O God, forgive us, for failing to heed your word and your wisdom, for generation after generation.  Break through, we pray, by the power of your Holy Spirit.  Teach us to turn our spears into pruning hooks, and our swords into ploughs.  We can’t do it on our own – as the Roll Call of Warriors on the Memorial outside this church testifies with such power.  We need your word.  We need your wisdom.  Help us…for we cannot help ourselves! Amen.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Follow me?

Texts: Jonah 3.1-5,10 & Mark 1.14-20

So...there you are, at home. You're maybe digging the garden. Or preparing the dinner. Or perhaps you’re settling down for warm evening in front of some soap operas...and there comes a knock at the door. On the doorstep is a wandering preacher, who looks straight into your soul and says "Come. Follow me".

What do you do? You've got a family who are relying on you. You've got responsibilities to them, and to your neighbours. You've got an employer who is expecting you to be at work...or a teacher who expects you in class. But there's something about this preacher. There's something inspiring about him.

Of course, you know something about him already. You've heard some of his teachings, and you've heard the rumour that he's out and about looking for followers. But you never expected that he would knock on your door.

So what do you do? Should you simply follow him out of the door? Should you step out on a new adventure...and let all your other responsibilities take care of themselves? Or should you shut the door in the preacher's face?

But you've been intrigued by this preacher's message. You've already heard him, talking about how the 'Kingdom of God'...the new government of coming. You've heard him calling people to turn away from society's normal ways of doing things. You've heard him saying that people need to 'repent' turn away...and to believe that there is good news.

But that's hard, isn't it? Good news. Hmm. Good news for whom?  The last time you heard the phrase 'Good News' was when a politician promised you something extraordinary, painted on the side of a bus perhaps, or proclaimed from a TV studio.  ‘Everything will be better’, they claimed, ‘if you’ll just follow me’.

But this wandering preacher - this Jesus-bloke - he's promising another kind of good news altogether. Or at least that's what you've been hearing. Apparently, his good news is good news for the poor. And for those who are mourning. And for those who are pure in heart. And for those who are peacemakers. That's a bit different than good news for business-men and for weapon-makers...

Perhaps Jesus' good news...good news for the poor, and the oppressed, and the meek...perhaps that is worth following. Perhaps that is worth even laying aside your family responsibilities for a while.

What do you do? Are you prepared to follow this call to 'Follow me'. Because that's what heroes do. Heroes throughout history are always given a call to follow. Sometimes they resist that call. Like Moses who resisted the call to lead the people out of slavery (as we shall hear this evening in The Bible Story).  Or like Jonah, as we just heard, who resisted the call to go and tell the people of Nineveh to repent.

Because calls are dangerous. Calls lead us out of our safe, secure lives into lives of adventure, possible danger, and even death. But isn't it the case that the best journeys are the ones where there is adventure and challenge along the way?

That's a challenge that many followers of Christ have followed over the centuries. It's a challenge to stand up and fight for what you believe in. It's a challenge to leave family and home - and to become a peace-maker, sometimes even in a foreign land. It's a challenge that will certainly include adventure. It might well end in death.

But's it's a hero's call. It's a call to transform a society - perhaps through fighting to save the planet (as at least one of our congregation has done this week in Glasgow).  Perhaps it’s a call to engage deeply with a part of your community?  Perhaps it’s a call to take up transforming power of rendering aid and giving food to starving people though World Vision or the UN Food programme.  Perhaps it’s the simplest call to invite your neighbour or friend to come to church with you, or to share a church publication with them.  Perhaps it’s a call to offer up some time to run a charity shop, or provide a welcome to seekers of peace in the Church.  Perhaps it’s a call to pray, sincerely and deliberately – holding a dying world up before the face of its Creator.  Whatever your individual task, it’s a call to get involved in God’s mission to transform every human system which oppresses others - into a Kingdom of love, justice, peace, and harmony with all of Creation. 

So what do you do?

Do you follow this preacher - this Jesus? You don't know where he might lead you. Wouldn't it just be easier to stay at home.  Wouldn't it be easier to tend your garden, wash your car, survey your holiday magazines, and pretend that everything's alright with the world.  Wouldn't it be easier to never give your time, your energy, your skills, or your money to any other living soul?

Yes. It would be easier. But where's the adventure in that? Where's the challenge? Where's the growth? Where's the chance to be changed from glory into glory ever more like the image of God your Creator?

"Come. Follow me. And fish for people".

You hear the call. You know something of what it means. It's something about doing things differently. It's something about living for others, not for yourself. It's something about acquiring scars and wounds, instead of the latest stuff from the market or the shops. It's something about giving up home and family, and having nowhere to lay your head for the sake of a bigger vision, a better vision. A vision of a new kind of Kingdom.

You've heard the call.

What do you do? What do you do?

Thursday, November 4, 2021


 Philippians 3.3–8a

For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

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

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ


Luke 15.1–10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’


I don’t know about you, but I confess to a certain level of rising anxiety this week.  I’m find myself anxious about a lot of things.  There’s the number of rising infections, of course.  Will I fall victim to this virus?  Will my family?  Or any more of my parishioners and friends, like dear Bill Saggrot, last week?  This week, I’ve been especially anxious about doing the right thing for our Remembrance Sunday commemorations - frantically trying to arrange all the pieces.  And I'm a bit anxious about the planning of our Christmas services - because I don't know how many people we will be able to safely accommodate.

But I’m anxious about other things too.  Like the state of world politics, especially in the context of COP26.  What chance is there, really, that the world's leaders will stop plaing politics, and become 'statesmen' (as the Queen so wisely challenged them, this week).   

Tomorrow is, of course, November the 5th.  So that adds a new layer of anxiety – especially for those of us who have pets or very small children.  We want to protect them from the stupidity of letting off fireworks – usually by people who have no idea who Guy Fawkes was!

Anxiety is, of course, a normal human reaction to the changing circumstances of life.  It’s part of our natural protection mechanism.  We cast around for threats to our security, or comfort.  We are on our guard…and that makes us anxious.  We become more alert…less likely to sleep…and therefore more anxious. 

In our first reading, St Paul describes the kind of anxiety that he has lived with, all his adult life.  There’s an almost Trumpian level of boasting on display as he talks about all the ways that he tried to work himself up into being acceptable to God.  He was ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church; righteous under the law and blameless.  (You can just hear Donald Trump at this end of that list can’t you?  ‘No-one has ever been more righteous-er than me!’).

There’s a lot of anxiety on display in today’s Gospel reading, too.  First, there’s the anxiety of the Pharisees and scribes.  They were anxious about this new charismatic preacher in their midst, who appeared to be leading people away from their way of doing religion.  They were anxious about losing their authority – losing their power base.

And then, in Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, his main characters display anxiety too.  The shepherd is anxious about his lost sheep – so much so that he leaves all his others, to go in search of the one who was lost. The woman who has lost a silver coin is anxious.  How will she feed her family, or have dignity in her old age, when she has lost her coin?

Both the shepherd and the woman are offered to us as pictures of God.  Now, we need to be careful about making God in our image – but there is a sense in which Jesus sees God as being anxious about the spiritual fate of his children.  The Scriptures in general give us a picture of a God whose whole being is anxiously focussed on the salvation of humanity.  He is anxious to communicate his wisdom for living, sending prophet after prophet to teach us his ways.  When that stratagem fails, he sends his son – his very self in human form – to teach us from his own mouth, and then to die in order to show us the way to life.

And ultimately, it’s God’s sheer passion – anxiety if you will – for his children which saves us.  Paul ultimately discovers that all anxiety about faith, all his chasing after righteousness was ‘rubbish’ compared to the experience of finding out that God loves us, anyway.  In fact - and here's a nugget for Bible nerds - the word that Paul used, in Greek, was not 'rubbish' at all.  It was a strong, attention-grabbing word related to 'dung' or 'excrement', which would not normally be used in polite society.  Paul wants his readers to to understand that all the ways we try to save ourselves, without the wisdom and grace of God, are like so much...well...dung. 

We have no need to try and earn God’s favour – because he is already favourable towards us.  He loves us…enough to have come to live among us, and die among us.  For, what greater love is there than this…that a man should lay down his life for his friends?  This is the kind of God who will search out the lost sheep, or the valuable lost coin.  This is the kind of Father who stretches out his hands to his children and says ‘Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden…even in a pandemic, even when the politics of the world are in chaos, even when the climate is catastrophically changing…and I will give you rest.

So, to my own present anxiety, and to yours, I say this:  let us use the coming days to rest in the Lord.  Let’s stop chasing after the things of creation which we think will make us happy, and look to the source of all creation instead.  Let’s take time to rest in the loving gaze of our heavenly father, to contemplate his teachings, and receive the power of his love.