Archives October 2005

Sermon: Ordinary 31, Year A

Sermon: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Texts: I Thessalonians 2:7b-9,13; Matthew 23:1-12

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

I am not going to spend any time on the significance of Matthew 23:9 “Call no man Father”, as I have written extensively before on it in both the parish magazine and the little leaflets “Why do they do that” which you can still obtain from the Narthex at the ludicrously cheap price of 5p a sheet; If you still have difficulty in calling a man under 40 Father then you need to understand that it is not me who is Father, but the Christ whom I represent at that altar.

No, today I want to look at Matthew 23 Verse 12: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

For I believe that we really have got it all wrong.

Our values for success in society are really messed up. The first thing we do when we encounter someone at a party is ask them “…and what do you do?” and usually use that as a way of judging their worth, either to society or to ourselves.

We equate greatness with the size of our pay packets, prestige with the number of hours we work, our worth in the eyes of others.

And as a result, we are really not happy.

And we need to ask ourselves whether this unhappiness can be addressed by a pay raise, a promotion, a bigger car or a DVD recorder.

We really have got it all wrong.

This is a foretaste of what you need to start doing – bring your own copy of the Scriptures to Church, for if we are going to be a people that walk with God we need to walk closely with the Scriptures. So, I will be asking you to turn to the book of Ecclesiastes 2:4-11 (NIV)

4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.

5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.

6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.

7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.

8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well— the delights of the heart of man.

9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour.

11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

The writer of Ecclesiastes, the preacher as he is often called, had great success but it turned out to be meaningless: a chasing after the wind.

The preacher realised he had got it all so wrong.

Charles Schultz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip wrote this (which I have anglicised slightly). He asked:

1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
2. Name the last five Epsom Derby winners.
3. Name the last five winners of the Miss World competition.
4. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize.
5. Name the last half dozen Oscar winners for best actor and actress.
6. Name the last decade’s worth of FA Cup winners.

So, how did you do? I don’t expect you to do this now, but you get my drift.

The point is, none of us remembers the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.

Here’s another quiz. See how you do on this one:

1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.
2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.

Easier?

The lesson: The people who make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones that care.

We really have got it all wrong.

Paul took another, alternative view: turn if you can to his letter to the Philippians 4:12-13

12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Paul has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and seen that what really matters is “I can do anything through him who gives me strength”.

Take this scripture to heart: “I can do anything through him who gives me strength”, and we all know who him is, don’t we?

The values of the wider Society are not the values of the Christian, and are not what we are called to. This walk with God that we are engaged on is for the creation of a new society, one that breaks the mould of conventional wisdom and has done so since Our Lord first proclaimed these truths. They may not be new truths, but they certainly are radical, the humble exaulted, the exaulted humbled. Paul could see how such a topsy-turvy kind of thinking had legitimacy. In America, some have taken an obscure part of the book of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 4:10) and used it to justify their greed and abuse of the third world and Paul sees right through this and showed that something else is both possible and necessary through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.

As you are aware, I have been walking with this parish for a year now. It was just over 12 months ago that the Bishop and the good people of Southsea were trapped on the other side of a police siege and a roadblock while I waited outside with the rural dean for the signing of my license here as Priest in Charge. Last week, I took the opportunity to review these first 12 months in a document, to analyse Sunday attendance figures at the 10am Mass, to look at initiatives and prayer opportunities, courses and fellowship events.

I promise I will share that document with you shortly, after the PCC have had the opportunity to consider it. But, the overall summary is promising: numbers at Mass are up, the eucharist offered during the week, the church open twice daily for the offices, coffee, lent and advent courses, it all looks good…

…and then I read something else on my email which drew me up. Just after I had completed the review for the standing committee, this email quoted someone and said:

“Many are so used to counting success by the ABC’s – Attendance, Buildings, Cash, and we have got it so wrong. We should not be counting Christians, but weighing them – judging success by the depth of our Christian engagement, not by the volume of our headcount”

We really have got it all wrong.

I really did get it all wrong.

• If one single person comes through these doors, and engages with God, for just a moment, whether in the sacred quietness of midweek, or the bustle of the Mass, then we will have done the Opus Dei, the work of God.

• If someone comes here to this Mass, either willingly or reluctantly, and thinks actually, that meant something for just a moment, and this begins them on a journey with the sacred, then we will have done the work of God.

• If someone who has been coming for years, who has settled into a comfortable let’s-not-think-about-it sort of religion but finds a spark of faith which revitalises the habit of many years, then we will have done the work of God.

• If the truth of the Gospel dawns on just one of you here, and your engagement with God is enriched by juts one little bit, then we will have done the work of God.

Sometimes we have to realise, that just being a part of the whole is not enough to not be a part of the problem. In our Gospel text, Our Lord speaks out against the Pharisees who wear the proper uniform of piety: big tassels on the prayer shawl, and these strange things called phylacteries which are little bits of Scripture placed in a box. It’s strange that the Torah forbade the wearing of all tattoos, as the Cananites would tattoo the name of their God on their bodies, but the Pharisees thought this was somehow different and somehow acceptable.

The phylactery is more to do with outward piety, a bit like praying on street corners. Look at Matthew 6:5

5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.

than it is to do with adherence to the faith. Coming to church is not enough, I’m sorry. We are called to go a little deeper, to engage with God, to rediscover the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, to live in the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, to make our faith, which may be just as little as a mustard seed (Luke 13:19)

19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.

To make our faith, little as it may be, weigh, like rich fruit.

So, think again about Society’s values, and how much of a slave we are to them. Think about Charles Schultz’s criteria for achievement, and what is really more valuable to both our lives and to our society.

Maybe we have been getting it wrong. We can see the benefit both to our selves, our lives, our society if we get it right. We have that opportunity to turn it around.

Amen.


One thing I have not done from the parish profile…

• There is a need to develop a non-communion family service on a regular monthly basis to encourage non confirmed families with children to participate in the church.

On this matter I have resolutely refused, as it is based on an assumption of faulty theology; and I will have no truck with it.
It assumes that the Mass cannot be accessible, and that each and every act of worship has to be at the baseline – instantly explainable – to be accessible. Where in that is the scope for awe, wonder, mystery, symbolism and a drawing close to the heart of the sacred?
For me, the Mass is a missionary tool. I point you to two books: Pete Ward edited the seminal book Mass Culture which places the eucharist at the heart of our evangelisation and explores how we might want to use it, as narrative, as mystery, as an exploration of the intimate relationship between God and his people.
Another book worth reading on this stuff is The Rite Stuff which has an excellent Chapter in it by Maggi Dawn. I sent her an email saying how much I liked it, but she ignored me; perhaps I’m too lowly for the likes of high-flying College Chaplains like her, or I’m simply not emerging enough. No matter, it was a good chapter.
What’s odd about these books is that all these post-evangelicals and emergents are saying “Oh look, ritual works!” Duh! That’s why the Church has engaged in ritual worship since the last supper! That’s why Zechariah censed the holy of holies and met with the Angel, and why David put on a ephod (a kind of hat) and danced before the Lord – it’s ritual guys, and we do it for God!.
The Mass is at the heart of this – “we break this bread to share in the body of Christ although we are many, we are one body, because we all share in the one bread”, and the synaxis of God and people as he hides under an ordinary piece of bread is nowhere more real.
If we offer non-eucharistic worship as some form of condescension, we are really saying the same as the deacon did traditionally before the synaxis in the Liturgy of St Basil “Away catechumens, depart heterodox!” and we keep this secret to ourselves rather than share it. I believe deeply in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, that by methods unknown, God transforms bread and wine into real body and real blood using me as a part of that mechanism, but I also believe that he does this to share – to come amongst us and to be part of us – all of us. I feel compelled to share the sacrament with everyone – I want to administer this sacrament to everyone, not just in Church but everyone – I feel compelled to stop people on the street and offer them “The body of Christ, the blood of Christ”, and then let God work in them. It doesn’t matter that many of them will not see it with the same reverence as me, the same theology as me, the same understanding as me (but do any of us have an understanding of this mysterium this sacramentum?).
But even in Church there are many who come faithfully week after week and will not receive. There are children who have a yearning for God in our midst but who are denied the sacrament (but any child who puts out their hand like little 2-year old V gets given a bit of her Mum’s host from me – I can see God calls her) by an old-fashioned guarding of the sacrament.
It is the sacrament of salvation, it is the mystery of God. Administer the sacrament, let God do the work, draw the people of God closer to the heart of worship and receive the body and blood of Christ, and, as the BCP used to say, be thankful.


Sermon: Ordinary 28, Year A

Sermon: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 22:1-14

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

Our gospel lesson this morning is another parable in a series of parables that Jesus taught about the kingdom of heaven. Because of Harvest we missed the parable about the father who had two sons: he asked one to go into the vineyard. He said no but then changed his mind. When he asked the other son and he said yes, but in fact did not go as he promised.

And then there was the parable about the other vineyard where the tenents did not want to give the fruit of the vineyard to the owner’s servants. And the vineyard was taken from them and given to others.

And this week’s parable also deals with the nature of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is so unlike what we can envisage that Christ uses examples that we may be familiar with: vineyards, banquets, mustard seeds and so on, but still has to give them a twist, to make them unfamiliar and challenging; for the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom so unlike anything else we have encountered before, and is something which will challenge us, challenge us to our very core…

Jesus says the kingdom of God can be compared with a king who gave a marriage feast and invited special guests. But the guests were too busy to attend, so the king told his servants to go out into the streets and invite anyone they see.

The king gave a banquet and the invitations to the chosen guests were rejected.
All the invited guests had excuses not to attend the banquet, almost as if they were not interested in attending.

The scribes and the Pharisees as the religious rulers were not interested in the Kingdom of God that Christ was proclaiming: they made excuses!! They asked by what authority did Christ do this. They asked: “how can a son of a carpenter be the Son of God?”

They came up with excuse after excuse not to believe in the Kingdom of God which was being made known through Jesus Christ.

There is an Arabian fable which tells about a man who went to his neighbour and asked to borrow a rope. “I can’t lend it, because I am using it to tie up a pile of sand.” his neighbour answered.

“But,” the man came back, “you can’t tie up a pile of sand with a rope.”

To which his neighbour slyly replied, “Oh, yes you can.. In fact, you can do anything with a rope when you do not wish to lend it to your neighbour.”

Excuses!! Excuses, excuses!!

And in this day and age, people find a hundred and one excuses not to be in the kingdom of God, too.

There may be many different excuses not to be in church on a Sunday or on any day – for the Mass is not only said on Sunday here in this parish: we worship a seven-day God not one just reserved for Sunday Best.

You may wonder why the Mass begins with the words, ’In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen”, and why this sermon is preached in those same words: We invoke the powerful name of the Trinitarian God so he will be present with us: in word, in sacrament, in his real presence. We are invited, and we in return invite God in return into our worship, our reflection of the heavenly banquet.

The invitation is given to everyone to be present at the feast – to be part of the Kingdom of God. But sadly, it is so easy, so tempting, so beguiling to find an excuse not to be present.

A priest decided to tackle this head-on and came up with No Excuse Sunday. I know you have all come today, but how often do you hear the excuses of others?

In order to make it possible for everyone to attend Mass, they planned a special No Excuse Sunday.

• Cots would be placed in the Narthex for those who say, “Sunday is my only day for sleeping late.”
• Eye drops would be available for those whose eyes are tired from watching TV too late on Saturday night.
• Steel helmets would be provided for those who believe the roof will cave in if they show up for Mass.
• Blankets would be furnished for those who complain that the Church is too cold. Fans on hand for those who say that the Church is too hot.
• Scorecards would be made available for those who wish to count the hypocrites.
• Some relatives would be present for those who like to go visiting on Sunday.
• There would be TV dinners available for those who claim they cannot go to Church and cook Sunday Lunch too.
• One section of the Church would have some trees and grass for those who see God in nature, especially on the golf course.
• The sanctuary would be decorated with 30 Christmas poinsettias and 30 Easter lilies to create a familiar environment for those who have never seen the Church without them.

We are all invited guests and if we do not show up, the Kingdom of Heaven will be given to someone else.

But look even more closely to this parable: there is a warning to the guests who do come. A warning that one needs to be dressed appropriately.

It is true that in this sacred space, God accepts you as you are: he doesn’t expect you to wear a suit or what used to be called “your Sunday best” because we know from the first book of Samuel:

The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

The clothing that this parable is concerned with is the putting on of Christ. In the letter to the Romans, Paul says that we must put on Christ (Romans 13:14), and that our relationship with Christ must be as intimate as our nether garments. One translation I came across translated that verse from Romans which we use in the Baptism service when we enfold the child in a white robe:

Let the Lord Jesus Christ be as near to you as the clothes you wear
(Romans 13:14)

Look at the Greek and the key word: ενδυσασθε (en-du-sas-thay) from en-du-oo:

“(in the sense of sinking into a garment); to invest with clothing (literally or figuratively): – array, clothe (with), endue, have (put) on.” [Strongs Greek

Put on, sink into, κυριον ιησουν χριστον (kuri-on yay-son krist-on) – the Lord Jesus Christ

It is not enough to simply turn up to Mass and then say “that’s it, I’ve done my bit, I have received the sacrament” and then return to a life of envy, bitterness, malice and other facets of modern life.

You have to let the power of the sacrament transform you. You have to let the word of God seep into your life; you have to let the grace of God refresh and replenish you and then it won’t matter whether you are dressed in a tatty old pair of jeans or an outfit from Armani or Prada. Then you will be properly prepared to take part in the heavenly banquet, of which this eucharist is a foretaste.

So, come. Come and let God do his work within you. By God’s grace we are made worthy to be here, and through openness to his power, through putting on Christ, we fulfil our invitation.

No excuses. Come.

Amen.


When you begin to suspect things might just be working…

Yesterday saw the baptism of four children at an 11.30am service. This was three families-worth and our tiny church was packed.

For about nine months now, we have implemented the deanery policy and required all families to come to church at least three times before the baptism. This enables us to get to know them (and makes the baptismal preparation visit so much easier) and more importantly, them to know us, to understand where we are coming from and to get an insight into the faith which underpins what is for many just a social occasion.

This has really started to bear fruit, and God can clearly be seen behind this. These kinds of baptisms are always a challenge because most are unchurched, and so I take great pains to explain all of the symbols behind baptism as I go through.

At STE we now use all five symbols of baptism:
• The oil of baptism
• The water of baptism
• The oil of chrism
• The robing in a white cloth
• The candle of baptism

This gives us a richness within which to explore the wonders of salvation. I don’t think you can overdo the symbolism of something so special as bapstism. Here is a transformative event, here was the spark of my own faith journey, when I stood and made the promises on behalf of my own child and thought

“blimey, I believe in this! I suppose I’d better do something about it then.”

…and look where God’s sense of humour has led us to now. Baptism is a hugely missionary activity because you are doing something in front of a largely mystified and unbaptised group of people. It is therefore our role not merely to do it for them, but to use it as a tool to explain why, to explore what for, to engage, to enthuse, to sell, if that’s not too strong a word to use.

A couple of older people said “I don’t remember all these oils and things” which reminded me of how bland the BCP and ASB Baptism services are, how small-minded as only the Anglicans can do. In the words of the prophet Martin Smith: “God is bigger than / the air I breathe”. Breathe in your symbols and exhale the breath of God.

Afterwards, the church looked like an explosion in a paper factory: screwed up gift aid envelopes (why DO people do that?), which despite pointing out the back of the baptism service book which speaks of Gift Aid and mentioning it while the photographs were taken there is still a large number of people who refuse to have anything to do with the damn envelope. There were also service sheets just dumped (and who did they think was going to clean the place up – ME of course) – it’s like the tip of the cinema when you leave – all popcorn and discarded mass leaflets) and our new “Welcome Pamphlet”. Cleaning up took half and hour. What a waste.

At least they responded to the teaching of the baptism.

That afternoon we went off to Burgess Hill for the n:vision event “Adore” which saw 1200 young people come to worship with Matt Redman. We did the AV again, and Liam ran the Easyworship for most of the gig. Ed did the primary video mixing and I called the shots and covered for the both of them. We were a team, and Liam was just fantastic – I am so proud of him.

Matt Redman was excellent – fired up and passionate with a tight band. The RC Bishop of Arundel, and the Anglican Bishops of Horsham and Lewes (Suffragans in Chichester and both deeply committed to youth minstry) all came on stage and prayed for us at the start.

The preacher, Stef Liston, however, was awful. He was a pastor in Peckham and he spoke so fast that you couldn’t hear ore than a word in five. When I could hear him, it was tripe. He spoke about being a creationist which set my fundamentalist alarm bells ringing – if you are literal on that one how likely are you to apply a critical hermeneutic to the rest of Scripture – bad news. Even Liam turned to me at one point in is 35 minute rant and said “he needs to get the log out of his own eye first” – which was a pretty cool comment from a 13 year old I thought.

They called for Ministry Time at the end, but then went straight on with the gig, unlike last year with the Brazillians which although freeky was at least deeply spiritual. They should have more emotion in these events (which is why Matt Redman was so good, so passionate) rather than trying to preach the Gospel with more words than emotion. It simply does not work. I don’t know how that bit worked out, but it needed to be a bit more carefully planned and employed.

Overall a good gig, and how else can you see Matt Redman for only a fiver?