Understanding the key to generosity

Last Sunday we began to celebrate our patron saint- we’re called St John the Baptist Church, so we celebrate the birth of St John- from the Gospels we understand he was around 6months older than Jesus, so it takes place at the end of June each year… Here’s what I meant to say on the day… of course the actual version is here

Generosity Quotes For Kids | www.imgkid.com - The Image ...

I’ve been asked to speak about how money- about how the way we handle our finances, is part of our Christian discipleship. It seems that today, on the first part of our celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, is a good time to do this. John knew that his life was a miracle, that he had been blessed by God, and lived his life out of that understanding- I want us to think today about what it means for us to bring that same understanding to our handling of finance.  Those of us who heard our treasurer speak at our AGM a few months ago will know that in the last year our church accounts stood at a deficit. If you’ve been around a few years you’ll know that, as a church, this is not unusual for us- fundraising for particular project, a generous legacy or a grant for work are what keeps us afloat. You’ll also know that the gap has been shrinking these last few years, due to the hard work of many of us to keep costs down, to find grant funding, and to increase income from the hall- and everything I say starts with ‘thank you for what you already give, in terms of time, skills and finance’. Without your giving, collectively we can achieve very little, and there is so much that we want to do. People in churches across the county already give over £1million to charity each year, along with hundreds of thousands of hours of voluntary service- aside from what they give to their own local churches.

Last year the gap between the church’s income and expense was just £1 per person each month… so in some ways I’m talking about small change… probably most of us could find £1 a week extra, let alone £1 a month, and that difference would enable our church to plan further ahead than paying our next bill. Today’s service is, as well as part of our patronal celebrations, a giving Sunday- a chance for us to prayerfully reflect on our giving and make a gift towards the ministry of this church. Over the next few years the leadership of our church are hoping to continue the upgrades to the hall- to develop the facility we offer to the local community, we’re hoping to further develop our work with young people and families through appointing a trainee, and alongside this the running costs of a growing church… There are giving envelopes in the back of your seats and we’d invite you to take them home and prayerfully consider your gift into the future ministry of our church.

However, fundamentally, that isn’t what a Christian approach to money means. It is much more than just whether the church accounts are in the red or not and what our church’s future plans are.

Some may question whether Christians should talk about money- it’s a material, grubby thing, not something for us to concern ourselves about. The reality is that if we don’t- if my faith and my church doesn’t help me with my approach to money (my own and others), then I’m reliant on other voices to help me… and the voices I hear around me speak loudly about gambling, grabbing money, about how money and the things it buys will bring me happiness and make my life better.

Some may question whether God cares about this- but as we read the Gospels and the whole of the Bible, we see that God, Jesus, and the early church spoke a lot about money… the passages we’ve heard today are just two out of many. In the passage from Luke we hear Jesus speaking about how giving is proportional- there is no set membership fee for those who follow God, but what Jesus praises in this woman’s behaviour is the sacrificial nature of her giving. She gave generously out of the little she had- There’s no clever parable here, no imagery: rich people giving a large amount that they barely notice; while a poor person gives a small amount that has an impact on their life… Jesus notices it and praises her sacrificial generosity. The manner in which we give is as important as the amount… we recognise that God has given us everything, so when we give to God, how generous are we?

In the Old Testament we read of the tithe- the 1/10th of the crop or the income that every family gave to God; but we also read of the wave offering, the thanks offering and the feast offerings… and the amounts given at these were varied and open ended… but they were indications of generous hearts. There is no real reason why we, today, cannot do the same- the difficulty we have is that our attitudes have, over the years, become accustomed to think that all I have is mine, and I begrudgingly hand over my bills, tax, rent etc, pay for my food, maybe something in the savings and a bit for me to have fun, and then look at what is left… and I’ll give some of that to God, and some to charity, because I want to help others and to express my gratitude to God. If, instead, we recognise that all we have is a gift from God- for it is only by grace that I am blessed with the job, home, family and health that I have, that I was born here… and so if my initial response to all I have is one of thanksgiving; and my desire is to help others and express that gratitude to God, then my first priority will be to give.

I was challenged to consider tithing many years ago by a friend- we didn’t look at whether it was before or after tax or any other deductions; the simple principle was ‘give 1/10th to the work of God in the church you’re part of’… anything else you want to give on top of that, to anything else you want to support- that is an act of generosity, but 1/10th? That’s the start point. What made this easier for my friend and I was that we were both young and single- we didn’t have 40yrs of ‘financial planning’ or a family that questioned what we were talking about. For St Paul it is part of Christian discipleship- as he wrote to the church in Corinth, we can give with joy and generosity out of poverty as well as riches- if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable to God based on what we have. And my experience is that this is true: the more generously I gave of myself and my finances, the more joy, the more purpose in life, the more freedom I have had. As I step into the freedom that comes from following Christ, my understanding of grace, of my identity in him, of how I handle my money, of what it means to be saved for this life and all eternity, all of these become less a case of the tick-list and more about my acceptance of God’s love for me- all that I am and have changes in the light of that.

John the Baptist, who’s birth we’re celebrating this week and next, knew that his life was a gift from God, and he used it to serve God- as we are inspired by him to share God’s grace and the Good News of the gospel with those around us, so let us be equally inspired to recognise that our lives are a gift from God, and to respond to that gift.

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The Kingdom of God… not quite what you were expecting

‘Ere we go, ere we go, ere we go!!’ No, not England’s performance against Tunisia in the football world cup, rather it’s another posting on my blog- yes, that is two in the last month…  And another baptism too, which brings us up to double figures for the year so far, just before we reach St John the Baptist day, our patron saint’s day.

The Church’s obsession with big crowds is so different ...

Here’s what I said last Sunday, responding to the passage in Mark 3 where Jesus tells the parables of the sower and the mustard seed… as always, available on the website here if you want to here exactly what was said, but here’s the text:

Have you ever tried to describe or explain something to someone, who has very little knowledge of what you’re talking about… the words, they know the words you’re using, but when you put them together… they just don’t fit…

How do you explain colours to a blind person? Or the sea to someone who’s lived their life in a desert?

‘Its like…’ and you find yourself reaching for something they will understand… explaining to a blind person that colours are what the eye perceives when light is reflected at different wavelengths may be true, but it’s not helpful… you need to find something that they can understand… but you also have to realise it will have its limits- Imagine the biggest oasis of water you’ve ever seen, but make it so big that you can’t see the other side or walk around it… but you’ve not touched on the tide, the waves, the smell or the feel of water…

Jesus, in the passage we just heard from the Gospel of Mark, has been trying to describe the kingdom of God… For us, today, we’re like the blind man or the desert dweller… we don’t really have a clue what this means. For Jesus’ first listeners it was possibly even more confusing, because they thought they did know… the kingdom of God was surely their country, because they were the chosen people and their kings had been the chosen leaders… they were the ones who God had saved from Egypt so many years before. God had given them the 10 commandments, had brought them through the sea and the wilderness… they knew the kingdom of God. Or they thought they did.

Jesus used simple picture stories- we call them parables, to nudge and knock at their ideas- to gradually challenge them. He used images they understood, that were all around them- plants growing in the field… but in a way that challenged their ideas- the kingdom of God is not quite what you think.

Things in life are often not quite what you think… take children for example… before you have your first, you’ve got an idea of what its like… and then folk take great delight in watching you discover that, it’s not quite what you think. And then you have another, a second delightful child… and guess what? They’re not a clone of the first… or they have some similarities, but not where you were expecting them… and then a third… and well, what if she’s a girl after two boys? Well, it won’t be quite what you think… the only way to find out what it is like, is to live through it, and in 20yrs time you’ll know.

The kingdom of God is not quite what you think. The Christian faith is not quite what you think. Baptism, God, the church and the Bible- not quite what you think… but you only really find out what they are like as you go along.

So what did Jesus mean when he said ‘The kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed’ and yet also ‘like a mustard seed’…

The kingdom of God grows… not when and how we wish it- we do not control it, but we do play a part… just like we don’t control everything when we’re trying to grow plants from seed, but we are important-

We- choose the soil, we prepare the soil, we plant the seed, we clear weeds, we water the seed

We don’t- make it sprout, control the weather, control the way this particular plant grows…

Which brings me to the mustard seed… If we use the picture of a seed about to sprout to describe something, in our mind we think of something small, that is going to grow and become huge… and we can easily fall into the trap of thinking like this when we hear these words of Jesus… but- If Jesus wanted to talk about the Kingdom of God as something huge and strong and tall… he’d have said it was like a cypress tree- they’re massive. But a mustard plant? It’s not small, but neither is it huge… sure, the seed is tiny, but frankly, if you’re trying to impress someone with size and strength, the mustard plant isn’t a great choice. And it’s not exactly a looker- a straggly bush type plant that you could just about call a tree if you felt generous. It’s a tough thing though, growing in hot and dry conditions. So what is going on? If we remember the passage, it says that the mustard plant provides shade and perches for the birds of the air… it’s a place of safety, protection and shelter, it’s tough and it can survive and grow in all kinds of places. That’s the kingdom of God.

It grows in each of us when we respond to the invitation to acknowledge the claim that God is the creator who loves every one of us. It grows in us when we make that step of turning away from the bad practices (or sins) of our own lives and turning towards Jesus as the model of how to live, as the guide, the door keeper and yes, the way to reach God. It grows in us as a community of people when we choose to practice love towards one another, to become more hospitable, to learn kindness to strangers, to feed the hungry and care for those in need.

At times we might wish for this to grow in us faster, or more easily… but our role isn’t to control how fast a plant grows, nor how quickly God’s kingdom grows in us… we encourage growth but we can’t make it happen. Sometimes we need to be patient, to wait; to have faith… sometimes things that look dead (our clematis) just need to need to wait for the right time (the Titan Arum or corpse flower at the Eden project).

In baptism of a child we plant a seed of faith… when we come to church and hear the words of the songs and the words from the front, seeds are being scattered among us…what happens next is in part up to us, and in part up to God… There is an invitation for us all- to grow, to find peace, to shelter… it is up to us, each one of us to make our own response.

The sermon I’ve been meaning to preach for years…

Ok, this year has been rather dry in terms of blog posts- lets just say I’ve been busy elsewhere.

Last weekend I was given the opportunity to speak about the Environment at 3 services. One a fairly quiet early morning service, one an all-ages family celebration with a baptism, one a busy service in the church where I used to work. I based my thinking on Genesis 1- you know, the creation of the universe, some resources I’d seen on Environment Sunday (thanks Cathy for pointing out that it was Environment Sunday!), a book I’ve just read by Ruth Valerio (Just Living- very good, but quite difficult to get to grips with at times), plus my own thinking and mulling.

PED203Health2 - Environment

I’ve been doing some thinking about the environment and the Christian engagement with care for/damage to the natural world for some time. I’ve lectured on this a couple of times but not really found an opportunity to properly preach on in, until now. If I ever write a book, this is what it’ll be about, but in the meantime, here’re some of my notes from last weekend. You can also listen to or download the talk given at Newport here or at Trinity here.

As always, these notes are scrappy, badly put together and don’t really reflect what was said…

Today is environment Sunday… it’s also the first ordinary Sunday in the year, according to the church calendar. To be honest I’ve never been entirely convinced that any Sunday should be called ordinary, any more than any person is ordinary- I’ve yet to meet one.

Trinity- One of the greatest legacies of the Pentecostal churches of the 20th Century has been its impact on worship and prayer, characterised powerfully in the ministry of the Vineyard churches and the teaching of John Wimber and others. This was centred around the understanding that God’s relationship with Christians is- based in love, living and current, includes the gifts of the Spirit. This combining of these three aspects brought God’s character, our relationship to God and how that is expressed today to the forefront of the church’s thinking, and played a part in the growth of the charismatic movement across the worldwide church. Why am I mentioning this on the back of a reading from Genesis 1, on a day when the church celebrates the natural environment? Because I want to suggest that if we can use this principle of ‘gift’ to think about the environment it can change our relationship with God’s creation as much as the charismatic movement has changed the worship landscape of the church.

Newport- Gift theology- specific and general: The gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, prophecy, healing, tongues) and the gift of the Holy Spirit (comforter, counsellor, guide); the gift of the Crucifixion & Resurrection (salvation and eternal life)and the gift of the Incarnation (Christ with us- knowing and understanding our lives, model for us); the gift of our lives as creatures that live and feel, with choice, impacted by time and the gift of life within the created universe; the gift of a child and the gift of family. We understand the notion of gifts- they are a specific thing, which means so much more.

Newport- How do we respond to a gift? Wow! Thanks! Awesome! I can’t wait to try it out! A gift is an expression of the relationship between the giver and the receiver, that shows their relationship.

People, including Christians but not limited to Christians, have over the years understood our relationship with Creation as one based on either dominion or stewardship. Both of these have some truth, but I want to suggest that they’re limited- limited in their understanding of God’s relationship with Creation, and also limited in their understanding of our relationship with Creation.

Trinity- Firstly- dominion… in Genesis we read ‘fill the earth and subdue it’. Our mind takes us to images of conquest and ownership- both unhelpful, in the same way that when we read the word ‘discipline’ in the Bible we all too-often think of the stick rather than the carrot. When we think of dominion, or sovereignty, we need to have God’s lordship in mind, and also the manner in which God instructed the rulers of the people of Israel in government- the ruler has responsibility rather than privilege but all too easily we get that the wrong way around.

Trinity- Secondly- stewardship… the problem with this idea is that the relationship is a distant one- of an employee with their employer. I will also admit, that for me, the simple truth is that stewardship makes me think of the character of Denethor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings- a man responsible for ruling a city but who will never be king… ultimately he no longer cares for the city he’s been charged with protecting… the steward has a job rather than a relationship.

So gift- God created all things, and knew them as good, simply in their creation. God’s grace- his unwarranted love, extended to his creation long before it was known by any of us. However we read the opening chapters of Genesis, whether as poem, allegory or factual account, the character of God that is revealed there is one of creativity and abundant generosity; one that does not only love the spiritual but that sees water and light as good, just as much as the living creatures and ourselves. This narrative of love is continued throughout Scripture- in the books of the Old Testament and the New. The gift of creation is how God’s character is shown in the world, and all creation sings in response. So what about us?

Response in general. If I am given something, then I respond- the specifics vary, but in general I start by saying thank you, and then I show my gratitude by my actions. In 1 John 3 it says ‘Dear children, let us not love with words… but with actions and in truth’… as my daughter recently put it- you can talk the talk, but do you walk the walk? Our response to this gift must recognise the breadth of what God has given- all human life, all non-human life, all non-living things that exist only do so because of the creator… so yes, our call to care for the vulnerable in our town, our call to speak up for justice for the oppressed and persecuted overseas (of any faith and none), our call to act to protect the forests, shores, seas, to conduct our business and family life in a manner which reflects that this (you just gestured to all of me!) is God’s gift.

What do I do with a gift? I enjoy it and cherish it. Sure, I drop it and it gets worn around the edges, but I mend it and clean it and love it all the more.

Response in the specific– at Newport… Martin on plastic free church and town, Cathy on supporting the Solomon Islands communities at risk, Andy on consumer habits- Renewable energy and fairtrade. 2 simple things that mark a step- we’ve made these decisions over the years as a church, and you may have already done so yourself- Where do the things we consume come from, and how are they produced? I want to be able to switch on a light or listen to music, but not at the expense of my children’s future or if it causes the extinction of species. I like drinking coffee, but I don’t want my preferred drink to come cheap if it means others live as slaves. There is much that we can do, and the important thing to recognise is that we can each do different things- that’s ok. For some it’s easy to reduce our car miles, for others it may be simple to reflect on the impact of our holidays… this is our individual response that reflects our individual relationship with God- it should be personal.

Essentially we have to respond to the gift in a way that is personal, because it is our expression of the relationship that we have, as Christians and humans, with the God whom we believe created and sustains all that there is. We have been given a gift, it’s our choice to cherish and enjoy it. We have been given a gift which needs nurturing and protection. We have been given a gift, which we have broken.

I’ve since then come across www.buymeonce.com which is a great website, trying to find a path towards material living that is not consumption driven.

Bishop Robert- celebrating what has been, looking ahead to what is to come

Text below is the transcript of the address given by Bishop Robert (that’s him, below) to the churches of the Barnstaple Mission Community on Sunday 18th March 2018.

BBC News - New Bishop of Exeter Robert Atwell installed

Philippians 2.1-16

 

“Is there anything of which it may be said: See this is new?” A question posed long ago by that miserable Old Testament preacher, Ecclesiastes; but pertinent for us today as we commission this new Group Ministry for the churches of Barnstaple.

 

Today is a day for giving the mission and ministry of the Church in this town a new look and a fresh vision. We give thanks for all that has been achieved, and say ‘Yes’ to everything that God is calling us to embrace in our discipleship of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

But it’s also a day for avoiding the trap of nouvelle cuisine – all style and no substance. And that will only happen if everyone here swings behind this fresh start and makes a go of it. Words by themselves will achieve nothing.

 

‘Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing to the Lord all the earth. Tell of his salvation from day to day.’ If I had a text for today, it would be those opening words of Psalm 96. The trouble is, learning a new song is never easy. If an organist ever dares to change the tune to which a familiar hymn is sung, the gripes and groans that go up from a congregation are endless, even when the old hymn tune was a dreadful dirge. It’s so easy in life to default to the familiar, even when the familiar is negative.

 

I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Gareth Malone on the television and the amazing way he draws out the musical talents of people, be they military wives, or staff in the Royal Mail or the scratch choir of a hospital in Staffordshire. He always emphasises the importance of articulating the lyrics – so that the audience doesn’t miss the message.

 

We Christians have our own special song; and in spite of our different traditions and styles of worship, we are all agreed on the lyrics.

 

The lyrics are those of God who “so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life”.

 

The lyrics are of our Saviour Jesus Christ “who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and was obedient unto death” but rose again and longs to live through you and me.

 

The lyrics are those of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to be Christ’s eyes and hands and feet in this generation here and now.

They are lyrics of glory because we sing of heaven and pray that one day we may rejoice in the vision of God for ever.

 

The lyrics are unchanging but the audience has. We live in a very different country from the days when this ancient church of St Peter was built 700 years ago or even when the late Billy Graham led his crusade in Britain in the 1960s. Our nation may not be post-Christian, but it is certainly no longer Christian in the way it was once considered to be, and we need to face that reality square on as we endeavour to get our act together.

 

What has also not changed is the call of Jesus Christ to follow him, his commission to make new disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; to go into the world and engage in the public square, whether in the Panier Market, in local schools, or in the council chamber.

 

Jesus promises to be with us to the end of time, but he bids us witness: meet, act and, where necessary, confront, especially on behalf of the poor and socially excluded in our communities. We need to expose the secular assumptions that pervade so much of contemporary living in the confidence that comes from being grounded in the transforming love of God.

 

If you are ready to answer Christ’s call, then you need to raise your sights way beyond the inward-looking agendas that all-too-often bedevil PCCs. Beware of getting bogged down with things that do not address the issues that actually matter to the people of Barnstaple, and which, to be frank, bore the pants off most church people too.

 

Because let’s be clear: unless we engage with the issues that are shaping Britain today, then we will be expelled from the public square – and deserve to be. The Church of God is not a religious club for members only: it is the Body of Christ and we’ve a job to do and a difference to make. It’s why Jesus bid us be salt and light in the world.

 

I’ve read your Group Ministry Action Plan and there is so much that I want to affirm in what you are doing as parishes and individuals in your witness to Christ. For example, I think it’s great the way you are endeavouring to make your churches fit for purpose in the 21st century. Many young parents are happy to take their toddlers to the supermarket or to the library, but don’t want their babies crawling around under a dark pew in the dirt. Regular members in the congregation do not always realise this, confusing the smell of damp hassocks with the odour of sanctity.

 

The time has come to work together more strategically and more imaginatively than you have been doing in the past. This new Group Ministry is a means to that end. Together you can do great things, but separately you will be less effective. So this morning let me set before you four areas for you to think through as you discern priorities and shape your mission to the people of Barnstaple.

 

First, young people. How can you as a group of churches, committed to working together, engage more effectively with your local schools and young people? In so many of our schools today religion is presented as essentially irrational and potentially unstable, often on the spurious basis that science and religion are incompatible.If you and I seriously long for a Christian presence in Barnstaple in the years ahead then you need to be in your schools now, listening and talking.

 

Secondly, how are you going to engage intelligently with your local health centres, hospital and hospice over the major ethical issues that are arising from developments in genetics, or with the debate around assisted suicide and euthanasia? My worry is if we opt out of these debates we will collude with the growing public perception that Christians are out-of-touch, or worse still, that Christians are only given to shrill, negative and extreme opinions. In Devon there are increasing numbers of people with mental health problems. As Christians, what have you to say about human well-being in Barnstaple?

 

Thirdly, how are you going to engage with the new housing developments that are springing up around the place? Is a joint bid for funding from the diocesan New Housing Project Fund possible? When new people arrive in a town they are eager to make friends and to bond with the local community. What an opportunity. Don’t squander it.

 

And fourthly, how can you work together to support and engage with local businesses? Is their mileage for more town centre ministry, based here at St Peter’s, but run jointly by St Peter’s and the other parishes? Please don’t retreat into a privatised world of religion. Centuries ago the prophet Jeremiah told the Jews living in exile in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city in which they lived. And God says the same thing to you today in Barnstaple. As Christian people we are committed to human flourishing and building up the community in which we live and work.

 

For all these things, and many others besides, we have important lyrics in our Christian song. Yet, sadly, most people today aren’t hearing them. Why is that? Perhaps because the words we speak come across tritely, weakly, inarticulately; or maybe they are simply not coming across at all? Can you help one another in communicating better with the local community, learning from one another about what flopped and why it flopped, and what has gone really well and why?

 

Recent research has shown that putting words to music makes the words four times more likely to be remembered. I’m not suggesting that you set the Gospel to rap and the local clergy stand outside the Panier Market leading shoppers in a sing song – though I can guarantee that would make headlines in the local paper.

 

What I’m saying is that putting across a Christian message with credibility means releasing ourselves from Meccano-like ecclesiastical structures and stale constitutions, so that the words we use together, the very Gospel message we’re about, really does become music to people’s ears. And for that to happen, our lives and our words have to marry up.

 

In Gareth Malone’s last series he put a choir behind a screen and told them to sing the words of the song they were practising, first not smiling, and then with smiles. It was easy to detect which performance was which – for with the smiles came a bounce and a joy that transformed their performance. It’s why joy is key to our missionary task. Joy is what makes the Gospel infectious.

 

I must confess that I’ve not detected an over-abundance of joie-de-vivre in the Church of England over the past decade, and I take my own part in the blame for that. But it is why we talk about ‘serving the people of Devon with joy’. Those last two words of our third diocesan priority ‘with joy’ are not an optional extra. Miserable, grumpy, burnt-out Christians aren’t a good advert for the Gospel. Without a dollop of joy, all the words we utter will sound pedestrian, constraining, and stultifying.

 

So take to heart the words of St Paul in his Letter to the Philippians which we had as our reading this morning: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

 

You have been wrestling with structures and stipendiary allocation for years. That’s now settled, hopefully for the long term. So the energy that has been directed inwards to sorting out your organisation needs now to be turned outwards to engage with the local community. And what better day to do this than on Passion Sunday when, in company with Christians throughout the world, we prepare to walk the way of the cross.

 

So let me invite you to give your best energy no longer to the organisation of the Church, but to placing all that you are and all that you strive to be into Christ’s hands. Then the words and notes you sing will become so integral to your being that the amazing truth of Christ’s vision for this world will dawn on others and we understand the meaning of his words:  “Behold, I make all things new.”

 

 

+ Robert Exon

So, it’s been a while since I blogged- actually this is my first post of the year and I didn’t even write it myself. I’ve been busy, with one thing and another- taking on a new bit of responsibility in my work, supporting a large number of bereaved families and so on, and that’s meant my notes for Sunday mornings are less fully worked out. I do want to get back to blogging, and not just posting sermon texts, but it’s one of those things that seems a bit of a luxury at the moment… we’ll see what the next few weeks bring.

What if success = trying? Wouldn’t life look different…

How have we reached the second half of November? Last time I looked around it was autumn and the kids were on half term… now we’ve had All Saints/Hallowe’en, All Souls/Remembering a loved one, Remembrance/Armistice plus visits to the church from 300 local school kids- oh, that would be how 3 weeks have passed me by…

Anyway, here we are, and what have we got? Well, if you’re from the US Thanksgiving is coming up next weekend- cool for you guys, have a great celebration. If you’re in the UK we have Black Friday week- yup, that’s what I’ve seen it called, because no one has a clue about Thanksgiving and the only aspect we’ve got is the crazed retail madness. Aaargh! It’s enough to make you avoid shopping (except that the deals are so good, and you need that stuff, whatever it is!).

Just Start | johnbolin.net

In church we’re looking at some of the things Jesus said just before his death- nice and cheery I know; but particularly looking at Matthew’s presentation of some teaching he did during the last few days in and around the Temple. Last weekend we were looking at Matthew 25, verses 14-30, known as the Parable of the Talents… here’s what I said-

When we read or hear this passage, it’s very easy to focus on one of two aspects- we either hear the ‘throw that worthless servant out and there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth’ verse, and remember a similar verse in Matthew 22 (which we heard read with such feeling a month back), or else we hear the beginning where Jesus talks about the main distributing talents and think ‘not me’… either way, we can be left thinking that this passage either isn’t for us, or just isn’t that helpful. St Luke obviously felt something similar, because in the version of this parable that he includes in his Gospel the emphasis is quite different.

So how should we read and understand this passage?

Firstly, right at the start Jesus says ‘Again…’ he’s using a second parable to explain something he’s already spoken about… this passage follows on from the story of the 10 bridesmaids, which in turn follows on from Jesus’ teaching on the return of the son of man… When the Son of God returns in glory, this is what the kingdom of heaven will look like- and the emphasis there is about being ready, even if we don’t know the timing. Not sleeping on the job, having the tools that we need.

So this passage is a warning to those who consider themselves part of God’s people. It’s addressed to us, as Christians, for sure; but at the time it was another warning, challenge, condemnation if you like, of the established religious people- the same ones who’d asked questions of Jesus were now in his spotlight- the story of the vineyard, the wedding banquet, the bridesmaids and the talents and the final section of this which we’ll hear next week, they’re all addressed to those who think they’re on the inside… time and again, Jesus is saying ‘this is what it’ll be like for those who think they’re all sorted- I’d be doing some self-reflection if I was you…’

And Jesus isn’t the first to have said this- John the Baptist called the people to forgiveness, the Old Testament prophets from Isaiah onwards warned the people, the priests and the kings of Israel, speaking to them about their place in God’s kingdom- you are the chosen people of God and look at how you live… So, yes, this is a warning against complacency, directly against the people of his own time, but it speaks to the church today.

But if we don’t like the ending, the beginning can be even worse- it’s very easy for us to hear it and conclude that it doesn’t apply to us. We use the word talent to mean skill or ability- it used to be a sum of money… about £180,000 in today’s money if I’ve got my sums right- 15yrs of a labourers wages. Either way we look at it, most of us say ‘well I’ve not been given 5 amazing skills’… or we say ‘well I don’t have that amount of money’… However if we think like that, we’re missing the point.

A man- a rich man, a really rich man is at the start of the story, and he goes away, and entrusts his servants to continue his work while he is away. He gives them resources- as much as they could need, and expects them to take the opportunities that lie before them. At its simplest, this is what the parable says-

God, who is rich in all things, gives his servants all that they need, and entrusts them with the privilege and opportunity of partnering with him in his kingdom.

That meant doing all that the Law commanded in the time of the old covenant- that’s what Jesus listeners heard, and then later doing what his Son Jesus did- teaching, healing, serving, freeing, standing up for the rights of the underprivileged and rejected… that’s what Jesus’ followers- the early church who became known as Christians heard.

God, who has given his servants all they need, expects them to get on with the task in hand, faithfully and with perseverance.

That meant, and means, holding on to the truths and the hope that the gospel brings, no matter what the weather or the cultural mood or our own situation, or how ‘successful’ it appears to be-

The church is not a business where success is judged by money or productivity- though neither of those things are wrong, but where faithfulness and perseverance, making the most of the time and opportunities we have are the measures that God uses…

In this parable, when the man returns, he meets with his servants… those who are praised are told ‘well done, you have been faithful…’- not materially successful, and the one who is thrown out is condemned by his own words- if only he’d done something rather than nothing- I was afraid and so I hid the money in the ground…

God doesn’t call us to be successful but to be faithful. God doesn’t judge us for our failed attempts but for our unwillingness to try.

The first servant, who started with a million pounds and made a million more, probably didn’t make it all in one go, and may at one point have nearly lost everything… that is the nature of trying- it sometimes goes very wrong and often feels like it will!

There are many stories about brilliant people who were nearly failures- how Edison experimented with hundreds of different filaments before he found one that would last long enough, how the post-it note was developed by a company who accidentally developed a glue that didn’t set.

There is no guarantee that if you set out on something you will succeed in any measurable way. The only guarantee is that if you fail to set out, you set out to fail.

In life it’s easy to get things ‘just so’ and then try to press pause- but this is not possible- the kids come home, the cat jumps on the table, the wind blows the grass cuttings through the door… in church it is the same, in our personal faith too…all the things we have in our church can disappear if we fail to recognise that God calls us to keep on faithfully persevering… We want and we try to do things the best we can, but we don’t beat ourselves or other up.

Persevering in prayer, persevering in serving God in our community and among the people we know, persevering in seeking to bring healing, peace, justice, freedom for those who are in need.

If you’re not sure what that looks like- then come along next Saturday to our Serving and Growing training event- the notes and keynote talks will be available online if you can’t make it.

If you’re not sure how you can join in, then start by praying for the things your church does, and inviting folk you know to come along to them- take your pick at this time of year- a Christmas Fair, a carol service, a Christmas tree festival, carol singing in the community… if someone likes one of those then they may like to find out more… in January we’ll be offering the alpha course as a way of helping folk find out more about the Christian faith in an open and inclusive way…

Sometimes we feel like we’re not being noticed or heard- but is that a reason to keep quiet? Sometimes we feel like nothing changes despite our efforts- but is that a reason to give up?  Sometimes we feel like we’re just tired, or scared, or fed up- and that’s when we need the resources that God has given us in in the Holy Spirit and the people around us here.

Like the servants in the parable, we are given all that we need to be faithful and to partner with God- to play our part. The success of our efforts is not up to us, but up to him… he calls us to be faithful.

So there you have it.

I’m aware that I didn’t start this post by apologising for not posting or for being busy with other stuff- I know I do that a lot and I figured it might get a bit old, but if you’ve got this far then you have probably appreciated this post, or just have nothing else to do. Either way, well done- you get the apology: Sorry I haven’t posted much this month. Next month is going to be just as crazy busy but lots of fun too!

Happy Bible Sunday, Happy 500th birthday to the Reformation!

So in some churches there’s loads going on about how on 31st October this year it’s 500yrs since the start of the Reformation in Europe which, depending on your point of view, marks a point in history when one group of superstitious fools became very upset with another group of superstitious fools; or the date when an individual’s right to assert their understanding of the Bible was fully asserted against the presumption that an ordained person’s view was above contradiction; or even the date when faith and politics began the journey that has led to the US, the EU and Brexit…

8 Reasons We Don’t Read the Bible - Bible Study

In other churches this same date isn’t really being mentioned- in the Church of England the Reformation didn’t really reach a climax until about 50yrs later when Elizabeth established the Church of England- several decades after her father had declared independence from Rome and the violent times that followed on. Instead, we mark this Sunday each year as Bible Sunday- one of the other gifts that the Reformation brought about was the translation, publication and distribution via mass printing of Bibles in languages other than Hebrew, Greek or Latin- not only could Christians talk to God in their own language and hear worship led in their own language, but they could hear God’s word in their own language… For us, we celebrated by having a display of Bibles in our church- some over 100yrs old, some much newer… and here’s what I said based on Matthew chapter 24 verses 30-35 and Colossians 3.12-17 (or at least most of it- there were extra bits of course, which you can listen to here

‘Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’… Jesus words, originally spoken in a language that is no longer used, first written in a language that is no longer used, then translated into another language that is gone, before finally being translated into English almost 1500yrs after he spoke them and published in the King James Bible, the first English Bible that many of us would recognise.

This autumn Churches around the world remember that it is 500yrs since the Reformation began in Germany, when Martin Luther made his proclamations that led, among other things, to the Bible becoming available in a reader’s native language- up until the reformation, and the establishment of the Lutheran and Baptist churches in Europe and the separation of England from Rome by Henry VIII, a Bible in German, French, Swedish or English was an academic oddity or heretical.  Before then, only the highly educated and privileged had access to the words of Jesus- which is great, because much of what Jesus said needed to be heard by the rich and privileged… if only they’d listen.

Jesus’ words are to teach us, and also to challenge us… to help us orientate our lives to follow him.

Today is Bible Sunday- you’ll have seen a collection of Bibles on your way in, some of you have brought your own Bible with you today…

Pop quiz- who’s ever opened the Bible outside of church or an RE lesson?

Great- so that’s a whole load of us who’re ‘Bible readers’- and are ahead of all those who, 500yrs ago had no access to the Bible in their own language.

Ok- who’s read any of the Bible this year, or if you’d say you have a favourite verse or passage of the Bible?

Now, a bigger question- have you ever read the whole of a Gospel- not listened to it Sunday by Sunday, but read it yourself?  Have you ever read the whole NT/OT or the whole Bible?

Before you think we’re onto major guilt trip time here- I’m reading the Bible this year, you may recall I said as much in January, and I’ve not managed to keep completely up to date- I’ve probably missed 3weeks over the year… mostly when I’ve been on holiday, if I’m honest… I’ve been a Christian for almost 30yrs, and this is only the second time I’ve read the whole Bible. There’re chunks I’ve read many times, and others not so much…

A bit about how to read the Bible at this point…

What does it mean to read the Bible? What does it mean to not read the Bible?

If I’m a Christian, what does it mean to read the Bible? It’s the first point of reference for my understanding of God, of Jesus, of their actions and character- when someone asks me how or why Christians behave in a certain way, it is the Bible that is my starting point… all Christian tradition- our prayers, hymns, ways of being church, much of our legal system (the expectation of justice), our scientific method (the universe is logical) stems from the Bible… it’s completely possible for me to live my whole life as a Christian without reading a verse from the Bible for myself- millions of Christians have done so… but now that it is available to us, why not read it?

It’s rather like a man who hears that a world famous theatre company are coming to perform in his home town, but chooses not to buy tickets. And then on the night of the show stands outside asking the audience what it was like… he’ll gather something of the experience, he may already know the plot and some of the characters, he may have visited the theatre previously… but he will have missed out.

Reading the Bible is how we understand God, and how we experience God- in the Psalms, Job and Lamentations we sit alongside those who’re suffering, in Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges we march through the desert and struggle for identity alongside the people of Israel in a harsh. In the Prophets we listen to the voices calling God’s people back to him when they have gone astray… throughout the Old Testament we hear God’s repeated call- if my people will but hear my voice and come back to me, then I will bless them… all the way from Abram in Genesis to Malachi in the last pages of the Hebrew Bible.

And then we encounter Jesus- the word of God that has been present but unseen throughout the Old Testament, and the promise of the blessing is widened out to encompass all people, and the invitation to become holy children of a holy God is offered to each one of us…

In our passage from Colossians Paul wrote ‘Clothe yourselves…’

For his first century listeners, becoming a Christian- a little Christ, involved taking off and putting aside certain things, and putting on new things- and this is true for us today… choosing to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient- forgiving one another… today we don’t have quite such obvious temples calling for us to worship the idols they contain, but the pursuit of money, of power, the idolisation of possessions and sex, our love of sport or even family- every one of these things has its place in life, but none of them are God… The Bible helps us to enjoy life, by helping us to enjoy life with God…

In life we need guides and role models, instruction books and how-to manuals…

If we look around the world we see a culture of arrogance, selfishness and greed, of ‘me and mine first’ and no one else matters, that denies the existence of God and the value of peace… we’re not called simply to say ‘after you’ and become doormats, but to challenge in our lives the status quo- and to do this we need to use the gifts, the tools that God has given us- the Bible and the Holy Spirit- the word and the helper.

As Paul wrote to the Colossians- ‘let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts’… as we individually and as churches pick up and use the gifts God has given us, we will flourish as his children, and his grace and love will become more apparent to those around us…

The Bible, in our own language, available for us to read and understand, is what makes it easier for us to know God, enjoy God’s presence, and hear from God…

Or would we prefer just knowing a bit about God, being aware that others are in God’s presence, hearing about others who’ve heard from God?

Preaching without notes, and claims for eco-energy with evidence

For your delectation this week- a sermon with no notes and a reblog of Jeremy Williams great post on Making Wealth History

So, the sermon- we were looking at the parable of the vineyard, also known as the parable of the wicked tenants (or the ‘I’m so glad I wasn’t standing there when he said that’ bit)… it’s a challenge to how we understand authority and the importance of knowing our past- Jesus’ listeners were condemned by themselves as they struggled to see any way of changing their place in the story, and so they ended up acting out its conclusion as they plotted and worked towards his arrest and trial. If you don’t know the passage, from Matthew 21.33-46, go and have a read; or if you want to hear some great reflections upon it, listen to the podcast of my colleague Cathy’s preach here

The challenge in this passage, and in the blog below, is for us to identify ourselves- who am I in this narrative? Am I working to create solutions to climate change, or against them? Am I aware of my responsibility to others (including God) or of my rights?

These big questions require us to adopt a long perspective, even trying to see around corners, but they do start right where we are. It’s easy to condemn someone else’s view as wrong, misguided or downright stupid, but it’s harder to avoid making the same mistakes ourselves… today, am I recognising that I have a responsibility to others?

Here in Britain, solar power is much more effective in the summer. The days are longer, and in mid summer solar PV produces five times as much energy as mid winter. Inconveniently, we also need more energy in winter, to heat our homes or to light them on those longer nights. Wind power picks up some of the slack, but we still need rely on fossil fuels to get us through the colder, darker periods of the year.

From a British perspective, it’s hard to imagine that solar power could run the world. But that’s what commentators like Jeremy Leggett or Chris Goodall suggest. Wild variations in light levels happen the further North or South you go, and the world’s population is concentrated in the middle. Most of the world doesn’t need to worry about solar being ineffective for half the year. It can provide what they need all year round.

With the price of solar panels falling so sharply in recent years, and batteries set to follow, most of the world’s population could rely on solar power, with wind and hydro power picking up the rest.

That claim was reinforced recently by a Stanford-led study that looked at the energy needs for 139 countries, and discovered that every one of them could run on 100% renewable energy by 2050. The exact energy mix varies for each country, but solar provides the majority. That’s for all energy use too, it’s worth noting – not just electricity. Transport would be electrified, and because electric forms of transport are more efficient, the amount of energy we need falls and that makes it easier to hit that 100% target.

A global shift to clean energy like this would keep climate change within 1.5 degrees of warming, save millions of deaths a year from air pollution, and be a net creator of jobs. Spread the word – a full transition to renewable energy is possible, and it has multiple benefits.

You can read more here.

Ok, next week I promise to just post a ‘normal’ blog about my preach… well, unless something else comes up.

Harvest generosity

We had our harvest celebrations this weekend- with much food consumed at a BBQ, at coffee time, at lunch. We also celebrated in our worship- giving thanks for the harvest that has come from the fields and the sea. We’re a ‘sort of’ rural community- on the edge of a small town and a largeish village, you can see fields from pretty much anywhere and there is fresh caught local fish available if you know where to look, but not that many of us rely directly on the land for our livelihood- a few, but not heaps. Harvest is, then, not so much about giving thanks that the wheat crop has come through or that the cows are calving well, though both those are present; but about the simple fact that we have food on the table. And so we reflect on and take action to help those who are struggling with that- the traditional bringing of harvest produce has become a collection of dried food goods that goes to the local Foodbank while fresh produce is given to a local charity that cooks lunches during the week for homeless and vulnerable folk. Add to that a collection taken up for Wateraid, going to fund their work building boreholes in small communities in Southern Africa, and we’re doing ok- almost smug… uh oh.

Why Should I Give My Money? | Brad Hoffmann's Blog

Of course, that’s the dilemma- do nothing about the needs of others and you either feel guilty or learn to ignore them… which is not a direction I’ll be heading in myself, thank you; or else you do something and feel a small glow of pride- I helped someone, we saved a life… and that path leads to smug self-congratulation. Some might say we should just keep quiet about the good we do- which is a valid point, but if there’s a need that I know about, is it right that I just keep quiet about it, or should I invite others to help me make more of a difference?

And in the midst of all this, you get our Bible reading for the day- someone (probably me), just googled ‘harvest’ in their Bible and shoved it in (It’s from Luke 12, this is the Message version):

Jesus told the crowd this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

20 “Just then God showed up and said, ‘You fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’

21 “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

Jesus continued with his friends, “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

25-28 “Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

29-32 “What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

So what does this all mean?

As conditions get harder for many people all around the world- whether that’s rising sea levels, drought, job security, violent conflict or anything else, we need to hang on to what we can do- the rich man in the story Jesus told isn’t berated for being rich, but for trying to hold onto more than he had- for his greed. Elsewhere Jesus talked about the generosity of a widow who gave the smallest coin in the local currency as a gift to the temple in Jerusalem- it wasn’t the size of the gift, but what it meant- she gave out of her scarcity, the rich man tried to keep more even when he had plenty.

Jesus then went on to speak of a different way- instead of trusting yourself, trust God, and then you can be at peace. Not just relax and put your feet up, but relax and not worry. I can’t make the rain come, I can’t make myself taller, I can’t affect certain things, so why am I worrying about them? What can I do, with what I have?

There’s a quote, attributed to John Wesley, which goes like this- “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Whether Wesley said it or not, it’s a great phrase, not a bad motto at all, and as we celebrate and give thanks for what we have, I can think of worse things to have in my head.

BTW, if you’re wondering what happened to the actual sermon notes from yesterday, the early morning service had a preach based on this passage that went miles from my notes, the main service had a different preacher, and the later service had a family talk about vegetables, droughts and grandmothers… and no, there were no notes that made any sense!

Generous Giving- in everything, with everything

Yesterday I preached with only around 50 words written down, and someone thought it was really good… which does beg the question of why I write things down most weeks; but then again, at least you lovely people can access the printed/posted word, whereas the stream of consciousness ideas that aren’t even recorded in one of our churches are lost/released/set free (take your pick, depending on how whimsical you’re feeling). I was speaking about how what we believe has to make a difference in what we do- how we’re called to conduct ourselves, to live our lives, in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel- of the good news of life and hope that Christians have been given. Actually that is true of us all- our lives reflect what we believe. If we project fear and anger onto the world, that is an outworking of ourselves and our perception of the world around us. Or to put it another way, if we want to see world peace, we have to start with ourselves.

Words of Wisdom for the Class of 2012 - Jillian Harris

However, last week I was speaking at the end of our series on worship- the different aspects of our gathered worship that we’ve been looking at over the past few months. And having had a reading from the life of Elijah where he’s kept alive by trust in God’s provision, and from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel about the risk of prioritising material things, we’d reached the subject of giving-

When people talk about money, there’s often a certain shuffling of the feet or a blanking of the mind. When people talk about generosity we tend to underplay our own, while sometimes gushing our thanks towards others’. As I come to speak today I’m conscious that I don’t want to only talk about money, but I want to be clear that I am talking about money in the context of generous giving. I’m talking about it partly because the PCC have asked me to, and partly because it’s a significant part of our lives, and if our faith doesn’t connect with the things that play a big part in society and our own lives, then it is rather missing the point…

What we do with our time and our money, for those who’re Christians or who’re exploring the Christian faith, needs to take account of who we say God is- We proclaim and sing that God is the one who has called the universe into being, and sustains all that is- and our response is to be thankful. We talk of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how forgiveness and eternal life are available to all who ask- and the word we use to describe our understanding of this is grace… As Rowan Williams said ‘Jesus giving his life for us is the ultimate demonstration of God’s generosity and grace’.

In this, as in every part of the Christian life, we each make our own decisions, our own responses. As I’ve talked this summer about prayer, about deepening our knowledge of the Bible, as Rose, John, Cathy and Dave have shared their experiences and wisdom, each one of us is responding at our own level- and that is how it should be. If the Christian faith is about our relationship with God, and how that is outworked in the world, it has to have our own personal response as part of it, rather than a proscribed check list or a flow diagram. However, if we are serious about exploring this faith, about living our lives as believers in and followers of Jesus, then we do well to consider those aspects of our gathered life as church, and reflect on how we’re living them out…

If we sing amazingly and love music, we love to read the Bible and feed the hungry, but count the cost of every minute and every good deed done, then we have hearts of stone and our relationship with God is limited- and similarly with all the others… if we refuse to worship, to confess, to engage with God’s word, to proclaim our faith, to pray or to live generously… any one of them, then we are chained up and held back, we cannot grow or flourish as Christians, as the people God made us and calls us to be.

Jesus says ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is too’, and ‘you cannot serve both God and money’… not disregard it, but be aware of how it affects you.  Money is a tool, that is to be used, not a God to worship or a hobby- what good can I do with the money I have? The Bible, apparently talks more about the evils of money and how to be wary of it than it does about sex- I’ve not checked, but there are a number of passages talking about how believers, in the old and new testaments, should think about money and other material possessions.

The key is generosity- God has been generous in creation, in sending his son, in our own salvation…  and has ultimately given us all we have. So let us be generous in turn.

At this point I do want to emphasise that I’m talking about time, skills, effort and so much more as well as money… but the principle of generosity applies across them all. So when I said ‘what good can I do with the money I have?’ I also mean ‘what good can I do with the time I have and the skills I have?’…

In much of life we live with a tight budget, a scarcity mentality and with the word ‘austerity’ ringing through our ears. However in God’s kingdom we see grace, abundance and generosity.

Elijah, in the middle of a drought, has finally left the stream where he’s been fed by ravens bringing him food each day, and finds a woman and her son, preparing to die. He asks her for a drink and a bite to eat, she explains her situation. Elijah’s comment is somewhere between lunacy and genius- carry on with your plan, but if you could just make me some food before you die that’d be lovely. But the following verse is crucial- ‘This is what the Lord says…’ Elijah had a deep faith, a strong relationship with God in every aspect, and spoke with authority. And God provided. The oil and flour didn’t run out until the day it rained. God didn’t turn her flour into a larder overflowing with sweetmeats and pastries… God blessed what she had, and it was enough.

When we gather together we take up an offering- maybe we should make more of that moment in the service, but we’re English- I’ve come to the conclusion that our Englishness is at the root of many problems- something we inherited from the Victorians maybe, an inability to talk about death, money, emotions or faith… anyway, when we gather together, we take up an offering- a gift of money that is representative of our response to what God has given us, and is our giving to help sustain and grow the ministry of our church both here in Newport and beyond- contributing towards churches in Devon that are in the poorest parishes and supporting our mission giving to Shelterbox, Amigos amongst others…

Now, our prayer and our faith is that God blesses and uses what we offer, and that when we give and act in faith, it will be enough.

Our understanding is that God blesses what we have, not what we don’t have, so we give out of our means rather than re-mortgaging the house for our Sunday offering. But we also give generously and sacrificially… what this all means is that there is no membership fee for a church, but we ought to notice the difference in our wallet at the end of the month…

Practically there’re ways to do this- we’ve mentioned the Parish Giving Scheme, some folk use one-off gift aid envelopes or standing order, but ultimately this is about what difference it makes to our lives- we become more generous people as we become more generous in giving of our money, time and skills- we grow as we give. Our giving isn’t just about making the finances add up, though that reduces the headache of any church treasurer, but its about us growing as people of God.

Prayer- an expression of vulnerability and trust.

There are times when you discover that you’re on the same page as God- when you’ve been meaning to speak about things for a while and everything seems to nudge you in that direction… when everything is trying to tell you something. That was yesterday- with the way that 2 sermons by different people fitted in synch with each other, and everything else, down to the unplanned comment about ‘if you want me to pray with you at the communion rail and it takes 10minutes’, which was followed by someone turning up late for the service who, guess what, needed to spend time with God. Huh. Sure, it could all be coincidence, it’s just a lot of coincidences, all happening one after another, in a week when I’m talking about God hearing our prayer. Yup.

So, as usual, what I said doesn’t match with what I wrote, but here is the plan I had at the start of yesterday morning, based on James’ letter to the Christian church and a passage from Matthew’s Gospel (Bible references are James 5.13-18 and Matthew 13.54-58). The audio version is as always available on-line here

Having just come back from the clergy conference I want to share with you over the next few weeks some of what we were talking and learning about. Not so much the details of staying at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester where prohibited items in rooms specifically mention shotgun ammo and birdscarers, but rather the nature of the diocesan priorities that we were reflecting on. If you’ve had a letter from any of the staff or been on the website this last year you’ll probably have noticed- Pray, Grow Disciples, Serve with Joy… these 3 things are the priorities that are shaping the plans and activity of the diocese. They are the means by which we hope to see churches grow in confidence, faith, and numbers. We’ll come back, over the weeks ahead to the ideas of growing disciples and serving our communities with Joy, but this week we’re continuing in our own teaching on prayer.

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Last week we were thinking about prayer for the world (which we often call intercession) and our own relationship with God that is reflected in our prayer life. As I said, how close we feel to God, how aware we are of what God is doing, how broken our hearts are for the troubles of the world, all stem out of how much we take on Jesus’s teaching on prayer- calling God Father, praying for his kingdom to come in all things and seeking his guidance in our lives.

This morning we’re thinking about another aspect of the life of prayer- prayer for each other. We sometimes call this prayer ministry, we might also think of it as a type of intercessory prayer if we’re more comfortable with that language, or just simply ‘praying for you’.

Our two readings highlight the tension that exists around praying for people we know, or having people we know pray for us- If we look at James, it’s very simple- if you’re happy, sing songs of praise, if you’re sick, get folk to come and pray with you. Mark’s Gospel is described as the blunt, Ronseal account of Jesus’ life- the short tabloid read to the lengthy broadsheet account of Matthew… in which case James’ letter to the Christian church is the equivalent among the epistles of the New Testament. Not a different letter for each church, no need to write several letters… just this- control your tongue, care for widows and orphans, be like Jesus, and here: praise God in the good times, seek help in the bad, confess your sins and you will be forgiven.

Our passage from Matthew’s gospel offers us what might be our response to this- it’s all very well to say that but- our family and friends know us too well. Just as Jesus was not able to heal many in his home town, so we know that among those closest to us it can be hard. They know our flaws, they may be wary of revealing their inner struggles or needs to us- I know there’ve been times when I’ve deliberately sought out a stranger to pray for me about something, because it’s painful or complicated to ask someone who knows the situation to pray into it… and there are times when that is ok. However, it may be that I’m simply avoiding the situation- if it’s Sandra I’ve offended or who’s upset me, it isn’t that helpful, in the long term, to ask Pete to pray with me about it… the broken relationship can’t be healed by him.

Praying for one another involves a degree of trust and faith- in God, of course, but also in each other. It involves being somewhat vulnerable, and so we must practice being trustworthy just as we must practice trusting. When I bring something to an individual who’s offering to pray for me I have to know a few things-

  • That they’re connected to God- there’re some people who I just feel more comfortable praying for me because they’re obviously on God’s wavelength; but God is on everyone’s wavelength, often it’s just me that hasn’t noticed. You may or may not have come across the results of surveys earlier in the year which show that over half our nation now say they have no religion- as far as those folks are concerned everyone here is more connected to God than them, not just those who lead prayers at the front. Also, while we’re here- the NRSV translation of James 5.16 says ‘prayer of the righteous’, so gender isn’t the issue here, its our personal relationship with God… just to be clear on that.
  • I have to know they care- being prayed for isn’t a check box, or a production line! Something is bothering me, whether big or small, and I find myself asking for prayer… I don’t want the person I ask to reply ‘It’s fine, God knows your need, sit there while I pray’… and after 10 seconds of silence, or a short catch-all prayer that God would ‘help me in all I face’ to ask me to move along as someone else want the chair… And I want them to remember they’ve prayed for me- not to shout about it the following week while we queue for coffee, but to ask how I am…

There’re other things too, when and how to pray with young people and those of the opposite sex, when to pray out-loud and when to be silent, but ultimately this is the most important thing- most of us can pray for someone, and to most of us have something going on that could be prayed for… There is no barrier of age or experience that can’t be worked through, there are no clever words…

It feels timely to me that this summer I’ve been reading several books on prayer, while at the same time both Carolyn and Cathy have been talking about having the church open for prayer and producing prayer resources to allow mid-week visitors to pray, someone’s just given me a pile of books on prayer after I’d written in my to-do list ‘create library of prayer books for the church’, I’ve been reminded of my licencing here when I said that my highest priority was to lead us in prayer.

There are some terrible things going on in the world, there are some concerning things going on in the life of the wider church, and yet, here at this time, it feels as though our response is this- we need to pray. To come closer to God so that we can carry God with us into the world. To pray for the needs of the world and for each other. To allow others to pray for us, whether in celebration or sorrow.

Later on, as we have communion, there’ll be a chance for us to be prayed for and pray for each other in several ways- first of all, as we sit and wait, I hope we’re able to take the chance to pray for those around us- I used to pray for people going up while I was waiting, and not just that they’d hurry up. Secondly, there’ll be the opportunity to be prayed for at the back of the church or at the communion rail- whichever you prefer. Stay at the rail after you’ve had wine and someone will pray with you; or go to the font at the back, and someone will pray with you there. Lastly, when the children come back in from Sunday School, they are going to lead us in praying for each other after we’ve finished receiving Communion- they might stand near to you, or walk past you- you might find a small person puts their hand on your shoulder. And after we’ve finished the service, there’s no rules that say you can’t continue to do this- turning to those near you or finding someone else and asking for prayer. There’s no time like the present.