Archives September 2005

Sermon: Harvest 2005

Sermon: Harvest Festival, 25th September 2005

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Harvest Festivals are another of those minefields which confront your clergy: what should the focus be? Do we really want to encourage tins of spam and out-of-date jellies or do we try and take an oblique look at time and talents and wangle in yet another desperate appeal for your money?

This year, I want to dispense with all that and ask ourselves what Harvest is really all about, what it meant a hundred, two hundred years ago and what it means to us today. In this age, when strawberries can be purchased at all times of the year, flown in from exotic corners of the world (where, it might be noted, they take special pains to remove all the flavour in the process!), there is no concept any more of seasons.

The book of Ecclesiasticus says:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; (Ecc 3:1-2)

And yet, if you want it, you can have it at a price. You can have it, when there are people in sub-Saharan Africa which are still not over the failure of their crops a couple of years ago and still live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Harvest Festival is a distinctly English celebration which was linked to the cycle of the pre-jet age supermarket. It was a seasonal festival, and relied as much on the August and September weather as we do for the Summer Fayre. At the end of a month of hard slog, with the grain in the barn to tide us through the dark winter, the people of rural England genuinely had something to be grateful for. That is why Harvest is not on a fixed date – because the Harvest finished at different times in different places each year. And this is the crux of the celebration – thankfulness. And not merely thankfulness to God for the chance to limp through another year without starvation.

In an age when biology had not reduced our food to amino acids, there was still a genuine awe and wonder about the process of growth, the cycle of the seasons, the transformation of the seed into what was on your plate. The wonder of God’s creation should not be lost on us, and as you step out of this church, I want you to pause. I want you to look around you at that churchyard and see God’s wonder in all its variety – those trees, that grass. Look beyond at that sky; and be filled with a sense of child-like wonder.

Do you, or I, or anyone know – how oats and beans and barley grow?

There is a harvest which is still relevant to us, not as consumers but as producers – a harvest which we ourselves are called to gather. Like most harvests, it requires an investment of effort and a commitment on our time.

The Psalmist writes

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psa 126:5-6)

And this harvest may cost us many tears. It may take some hard work, but as the Psalmist says, hard work is rewarded with God’s goodness. This is the harvest of mission – and the sheaves which we are all called to bring in are people.

Many of you came yesterday to our gift day. I thank you for that. But how many of you brought someone else, how many of you said to someone “come with me this morning”. How many of you suggested that being in Church might have been the right place for someone? That coming into the presence of God might help them, support them, give them joy.

Any why? Are we ashamed of all this? Are we embarrassed by this little habit of ours? Is that why we only come on a Sunday morning when all the respectable people are still tucked up in bed or out on the car boot sales?

We are called to be evangelists. We are called to harvest for the world. Am I asking you to stand on a street corner and harangue the passers by? You and I know that this is not effective mission, because all it does is highlight the difference between where people think they are and where they think God and his Church is at. How many people have said to you “I’m not good enough to come to Church!” How many people say even in this congregation “I am not good enough to come to this altar rail to share in the body of Christ”.

But this community exists because it is God who makes us worthy, and invites us into him. He does not want us to preach in obscure or remote terms about an invisible God, but to do something much more within our own experience.

Recall from the book of Mark where Jesus heals a demoniac.

As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.
(Mar 5:18-20)

Everyone marvelled, because the man did not go out and tell them about Jesus, but he told them about what Jesus had done for him. In the same way, we need to tell people of what Jesus Christ does for us, the who, what, how and where will come later; share what Christ does for you, and people will want more.

This is not shoving it down people’s throats, because you are only sharing of yourself. It’s only when you stand apart and speak of Christ as some impersonal idea, rather than the relationship that you have with him then it becomes an imposition.

I know of a man who had spent time in prison, who looked to all intents and purposes like someone you would cross the road to avoid. His walk with God began when he met another who looked even harder and more embittered than himself in the Gym, muscles and tattoos – you get the idea – but this second man exuded such calm and inner peace, the sort of calm that can only come through Christ, that this formerly dangerous man thought “I’ll have some of that” and he was transformed.

Each and everyone of you has the power to do that. To take your relationship with God – even if it feels at times a bit shaky or fledgeling –and to share it with others, this is the work of evangelising I ask you to do.

So, the harvest is rich. The labourers are – well, growing, but still few. Go out into the harvest field – the mission field of Elson and Hardway and bring back into this building a harvest of people, a sheaf of souls.

So, who will you invite next week?


Baptism, the Eucharist or just let God get on with the work…

It may be my outrageous traditionalism, but I do like Godparents to be baptised. I can live without the requirement for them to be confirmed, although it is nice (but Oh, so rare). However, if someone wants to be a Godparent, then I’ll baptise them – no problem – no question. Also (and I wonder whether this is the wrong bit) – no preparation – just dive in and swim with the sacrament.

So last night at 6.30, at the end of a loooong and already tiring day, I am in Church with 2 blokes in their late twenties, the parents of the child they will next month be Godparents to, one of their wives and a ‘mate’ who at the beginning was smirking at the whole idea.

We could have had a couple of weeks of preparatory talks, an Alpha Course, a full RCIA-type preparation, but would that have changed anything? God will work in these people regardless of what I do beforehand, and I had the curious sensation that it wouldn’t have worked anyway. So, administer the sacrament, speak of it, teach it as you do it and see what God lets happen.

…and do you know what? It was fantastic. It was transformative. In this small huddle of people, we spoke of God’s love, of salvation, of the eucharist and baptism. We administered the oil of baptism, the water, the oil of chrism, the white robe and the candle (never scrimp on the symbols of salvation I say) and it was quite lovely. In hushed tones, we spoke of God’s redemptive love for his people, and even by the end smirking boy was not smirking anymore. but had gained an insight into something special.

There are times when we become too formulaic about mission, when we are too prescriptive about the way we administer the sacraments, and there is a temptation to shut God out. So many times in the book of Acts, they did the work first – baptised and then taught. This is not a pattern for all, but in this case it was right.

For families we ask people to come to Mass at least 3 times before we baptise. It was formulated as a deanery policy, but I strongly suspect I am the only one in the deanery who actually implements it (which I did immediately after Mondaye III). No matter, it works for us: families have a much better idea of who we are and where we are at, and they are consequently much more relaxed, and it starts to spill over into Mass attendance as well.

Christ was free and easy with his distribution of the sacraments, because the grace of God was free and available to all; both the sinners and the virtuous received God’s love equally. Now all I have to do is to follow these two up and keep them in…

…and that will be the challenge!


Sermon: Ordinary 24, Year A

Sermon: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

A great friend of mine at Mirfield had come to study all the way from the Melanesian Islands in the South Pacific. His name was Brother George and he was a Priest and a member (indeed the Novice Master) of the Melanesian Brotherhood, a monastic order on the Solomon Islands. He told us of a tribe on one of the many islands which has only 3 numbers: 1, 2 & many – beyond that the numbers are irrelevant: one pig, two pigs, many pigs.

Much in the same way, as we encounter in this morning’s Gospel, in terms of the amount owed, the numbers are irrelevant, in terms of forgiveness, the numbers are irrelevant.

For the benefit of simple and barely literate fishermen, Seventy times Seven is probably about the biggest number Peter could possibly conceive. The number itself is irrelevant, it is the action of forgiveness that we should concentrate on.

I don’t know how many times… in fact I have lost count of the number of times that I have fallen into sin, and that is just this morning! Seriously, as the Psalmist says in Psalm 51: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” – Time & again we sin, almost without realising it: one sin, two sins, many sins, just like the Melanesians and yet, time & again we are forgiven. And this forgiveness is demonstrated nowhere more fully than with the core symbol of the Christian faith – paraded as we entered this morning, glorious above the altar and seen everywhere you look in this building: the Cross.

On Wednesday of this week, we celebrated the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, and it is with today’s theme of forgiveness that we can properly place into context the true significance of that triumph. At the time it occurred, of course, the death of Christ at the hands of evil men appeared to be a disaster, a humiliation, a death in the manner of a common criminal and in the words which seep through the humiliation of the psalms, a sign of reproach for all. And yet, from those depths, comes victory, comes the overcoming of death and the symbol of our hope in Christ. In the topsy-turvy world that is the Christian faith, what appeared like folly to the learned Greeks, was revealed to be more than wisdom, as St. Paul wrote.

The meaning of the Cross, therefore, was not humiliation, but victory, a genuine triumph, and the cry from the cross of Our Lord – “it is completed” is a statement of fact, not a personal admission of defeat – not “I am finished”, but “It is completed”. It was not a transaction or a barter with a jealous God, but a demonstration of his love, a witness to his preparedness to give to us.

The triumph of the cross is an outpouring of love: that forgiveness for our sins, far beyond seventy times seven is what enables us to meet with Christ in this Mass and at every other Mass celebrated in this church.

A Chinese Prime Minister was once asked what he thought the historical consequences of the French Revolution were. He paused for a moment and replied “Hmmm. Too soon to tell, I think”. We have yet to see the full historical and theological impact of the incarnation of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour on this earth, although it was an event of more than two thousand years ago, its repercussions are still being felt. And we are part of that. We are the ones who continue to be the reverberation of faith across the centuries, we are the ones called to love and to forgive. The triumph of the cross was not a historical act of the past, but a living reality of the present; at the heart of which is the forgiveness God shows to us.

Forgiveness does not negate justice, and Christian forgiveness between us does not mean that one has carte blanche to do what one wants, but it does mean that retribution has no place in the Christian vocabulary.

Those who claim that the invasion of Iraq was a natural response to the attack on the twin towers, which was 4 years ago today are seeking retribution, not justice: the removal of a dictator they themselves propped up; there are those who demand mob justice for paedophiles or terrorists, but forget that it was a lynchmob which handed Our Lord over…

How many times should I forgive my brother? Seven, Seventy-Times Seven, One, Two, Many? Let God in his majesty, on his throne of glory sit in judgement on all of us who sin, and leave it up to him.

Amen.


Sermon: Ordinary 24, Year A

Sermon: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 18:5-20

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

“If he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector”

How should we treat the tax collector? How should we regard the alien in our land – the Samaritan in our midst?

Whenever Lou and I go up to London, to revisit that central part of London in which we trained as nurses we often pass Oxford Circus on our route. You often find someone in that area (in fact, it’s always the same bloke) with a megaphone and a placard. Amid the teeming throngs of people, you hear the occasional word though the megaphone: sin, judgement, hell and Jesus.

As we pass we notice that not one person passing is engaged with what is being said. Everyone has shut the words out. To be honest, it simply isn’t working, and frankly, it is giving out a completely perverted interpretation of what the good news about Jesus Christ is all about. All of this condemnation, all of this disapproval and hate directed at others is not what it is all about.

Remember that story where the woman is caught in the act of adultery: the Jewish leaders have essentially already condemned her to death and Jesus turns to her and says “I DO NOT CONDEMN YOU” (John 8:4-11); and that is what makes Jesus Christ so fascinating – he never stops insisting that God loves you exactly as you are, loves you from were you are. Isn’t that what draws you to his engaging presence – it is what fascinates me.

The man with the megaphone may think that his Gospel of condemnation is the truth and the good news: declaring with absolute certainty that homosexuality is the gravest of sins but that it’s okay to eat shellfish (prohibited in the same book of the Torah (Leviticus 18/19), but it doesn’t come over that way, it doesn’t appear that loving. Beware of anyone who declares the will of God with absolute certainty.

Jesus says that loving God and loving others is what defines us (Matthew 22:37). Everything hangs on those two. The defining mark of a Christian is love.

John writes in his first letter that if you say you love God and don’t love others around you then you are a liar (1 John 1:10). How you love others is how you love God. Paul says that even if you have enough faith to move mountains and don’t love, then you are just like an empty clanging vessel (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).

The man with the megaphone is trying to coerce people into his religion, not share his faith: bullying them into fearing some image of a vengeful and jealous, remote deity rather than becoming aware of the love of a close, intimate, loving God which is what Christ sought to bring to us. The YHWH of the old testament is, frankly, not a very nice character, but I suspect that is just poor Public Relations – a spin placed by writers of the Hebrews which reflected the sense of loss and alienation of the Jews in exile in Babylonia rather than the loving, embracing God which Christ reveals.

By trying to bully people into Church all we will do is alienate them, because it goes against people’s innate understanding of God – a God who loves without exception. God loves us without agenda, without reservation, and so we should love without agenda or reservation. If you love someone with an agenda, then it isn’t really love is it? Any movement which condemns, hates or marginalises is not, cannot possibly be of Christ.

It doesn’t mean of course that we cannot disagree, that we must put up with injustice or oppression or things which are clearly not of the love of God. It doesn’t mean that we cannot have a spine or stand up for what we know to be right; but we are called to do it with love and respect.

Jesus told us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). When you love your enemies, something powerful happens – something transformative, something of God, which cannot be denied or perverted.

And yes, God does indeed love everyone: he loves you, and he loves me. He loves axe murderers and child molesters and he even loves those who don’t think that he exists, or those people who think that God loves only them and hates everyone else. God is love (1 John 4:8).

The apostle James said that God shows no favouritism (James 2:1-10) – that he loves without condition or exception and because God so loves the world, so a Christian should too. Rejection and condemnation has no place within the Gospel.

These words may challenge you, and call you to a fresh take on things which you have never ever contemplated in your life before, and what I am saying is radical and dangerous (that is certainly what they said of Our Lord was it not?) or you may be sitting there thinking “at last”. But I need to ask: what are we doing to challenge the perspective of those hundreds of people in Oxford Circus who think that Christianity is that man with the megaphone, who think that fire and brimstone from homophobic African bishops or rich evangelical churches in the home counties is what makes Anglicanism; or who find websites like “godhatesfaggots.com” and think that it is what God really thinks (the site exists, I am ashamed to confirm – it is a terrible and frightening perversion of the faith).

The media love to report on splits in the Church of England, from the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, to report on its perceived decline and it infighting rather than its true purpose of proclaiming the name of Jesus as Lord and God in Elson and Hardway.

People think that rejection and condemnation is what makes Christianity and forget that Jesus said in the Gospel of John “I come that you may have life and life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10).

Our faith is not something to be jealously hidden away from all others who fail the soundness test, but is something worth sharing; not something which causes us to sit in judgement of others, but calls us to open our hearts to those who need it. There are so many negative stereotypes of our faith, and it is only us who can change them.

Are those who preach rejection of the young, the homosexual, the addicted, priests of a different gender or race, are they so far from those who blow themselves up in a religious frenzy on the underground? It is all fanaticism in the name of religion, not of faith. A famous American Evangelical leader by the name of Pat Robertson only this week called for the assassination of the left-wing president of Venezuela – that is not, cannot possibly be of Christ. Does that not make him just like Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qieda? I have a cartoon here from a US newspaper which makes exactly the same link…
My purpose for coming to Elson, I believe, is to help shape this community of faith into a praying, spiritual community of people who strive to reach out to God. Amazingly, I have been here almost a year, and I recognise that many changes have taken place, much of which I hope you will consider to be for the better and which build upon the spiritual direction that I sense the parish was already taking. Prayerfully we come together to share in God’s Holy Sacraments. Conscious of God, we reach out to him. Through these we are able to reach out to others.

As we journey together in faith, we need to consider how we can embrace that call to love that God makes to us: to provide an environment for the disadvantaged, for the young and homeless, the refugee, those of a different culture than us; for the isolated and alone and those of different lifestyles, sexualities even, than us. That is the challenge; that is what the Inclusive Church movement is all about: the inclusive love of God for all regardless of colour or lifestyle: that is what we should be working to build.

“If he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector”

You know now what that means. Love them.

Amen.