Some helpful thoughts from a wise colleague…

This week my colleagues have been putting some really good things online, and I’m happy to share them- this comes from Bishop Sarah-

This week in Manchester we have unfortunately seen the NHS and emergency services at its best and Lucy Easthope in the Guardian online talks about how the emergency response of Monday night has been planned over many years. The planning has included “training people to sit patiently with a mother and ask her gently for permission to […]

via We need to admit how much this hurts — Contemplation in the shadow of a carpark

If I’m in a corner, which way will I jump?

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I like to think I have integrity- I know how to spell it, I know what it means (or at least I think so), and someone once said they thought I had it… but I don’t know for sure.

There are times when I fade under pressure, keep quiet to blend in, don’t say things for fear of upsetting folk… and in your heart you tell yourself its wisdom, its building relationship for future opportunities, and all that, but there’s another voice saying ‘but were you true to yourself- do you still have integrity?’

I’m not talking about major things (like, say, telling everyone you won’t call a general election and then changing your mind (sorry, no more politics for the rest of the post), or cheating on taxes, lying to friends or whatever), but the difficulty I face with little things makes me worry- what if I ever faced a biggie… how would I respond?

Acts chapter 4, if you’re not familiar with it, has Peter and John (that’s Peter the guy who denied knowing who Jesus was, remember?), pulled in front of the religious authorities (that’s the guys who got Jesus killed, remember?) and told in no uncertain terms to shut up talking about Jesus… or else. And their reply is pure gold- ‘Judge for yourselves, whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’  in other words ‘You guys, the religious leaders, help us out here- what would you do? We can’t help ourselves’… Boom! Take that Mr High Priest and your assorted cronies… But the big question it raises for me is, how would I speak in their shoes? Would I be like them, confidently taking on the authorities because I know I have God in my corner? Or would I back away, intending to lay low and spread the message subtly, or at least telling myself that? I know what I’d like to do, and I hope I’d be able to, but…

The truth is, I just don’t know. And part of me is afraid to find out.

(If you’ve reached this point and are still wondering about the image at the top- it has nothing to do with Peter, John, the book of Acts, or integrity in particular, but is the album cover of a band I quite liked in the early 90’s- I saw them supporting the Charlatans when I was at school, and then a few years later on their final tour saw them again with a band called Oasis as their support act…)

Speaking strong words gently

I was about to post my talk from last Sunday today… but the thing about blogging is that you can, and should, respond to immediate things. So this morning the meeting I was at didn’t start on time, because we prayed. Not hugely surprising for Christians to pray at the start of a meeting, you might say, fair point, but we prayed for Manchester, the city where I used to live, and for all those affected by the attack there last night in which 22 people died. We also prayed for the places we haven’t heard about in the news today, for the unnamed and unknown. We prayed for the injured, the mourning, the scared, the security and medical personnel, and yes, we prayed for those who would attack children and young people. I’m not asking you to be impressed, I’m just saying we did something slightly different, because we needed to.

So, if its ok with you, just stop reading here for a few seconds, and pray (if you like) or think of (if you prefer to call it that), those affected by terror attacks at the moment. And if you’d like to, then plan to do something different as a result of your thoughts and prayers- whether its going to Manchester to help practically, or to be friendly to the next random call-centre person who phones you from an 0161 number in case they’ve been affected, or to make sure you don’t act in fear or hatred to someone who’s ethnically different from you…

(here’s the bit where you stop)

Thanks. You can carry on now, if you want to

And the other thing that struck me was that we carry on doing the same things as normal… we don’t give up… so here’s my sermon from last Sunday as normal…based on Acts chapter 17 when Paul visits Athens.

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Paul is at the Areopagus- summoned there by the citizens to present his case… I have wondered whether he was being given the opportunity to speak- a visiting speaker with interesting ideas, or the chance to defend himself- a stranger with some concerning  views- was this a pre-trial hearing or a preview of what he’d teach if given permission? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Paul has explored the city, having visited Phillipi, Thessalonica and Berea, and has begun to debate with Jews, God-fearing Greeks and anyone in the marketplace who would listen… and so he’s been brought to the Areopagus- the meeting place, not quite such an important place as a few hundred years before when Athens was chief among the Greek cities, but still…

As we look at Paul’s message here, we can learn as much about how to speak of God from it as we can learn about God- and for us, this probably something we need to look at- the chances are, if you’ve been coming along to church for a while, you know some things about God- from our prayers, the creed, our Bible readings, our hymns… you know God is the righteous and holy judge, who forgives although he could condemn; you know God is the creator and sustainer of all things, who loves and takes joy in his creation, you know that God has given humanity a role within creation, and that Jesus has given Christians a role within humanity… though you may well say or think you know very little, if you sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down your thoughts on what is God like, you’d be surprised how much you’d put down. Paul’s message is very simple- there is a God who created the universe. He knows you. He sent Jesus to die for you.

But are we able to share that with others? I’m not asking for all the evangelists to stand up and wave, but rather, are we, all of us, able to share what we know and believe with others?

Many Christians might feel that they don’t know what to say, or that its not their place, or that it’s not appropriate.

Lets start with that last one- there are times when it isn’t appropriate, and there are times when it is. When someone asks you, as Paul was asked, what you believe about God, and how you’ve come to believe that, then they deserve an answer.

Secondly- ‘it’s not my place’- if not yours, then whose? If Paul had said, wait here while I sail back to Jerusalem and fetch Peter, that would have taken many months. He was the man on the spot, the one who was asked… We’re not all Paul- we don’t take off on missionary trips around the Mediterranean (though now I think about it like that…)- we don’t have his gifting etc. But lets remember that Paul was not only clueless about Jesus, he was for his early life totally wrong. When he discovered the truth he immediately began to tell others… Very often in life we are the person in the right place, at the right time, having the conversation, and no one else could be there. Yes, there are times when we can reasonably say ‘I think you should talk to…’ or ‘I think you’d be helped by coming on an Alpha/Start course’…

Lastly, ‘I don’t know what to say’. Here’s the bullseye. Lets have a look at this passage from Acts. First of all, before Paul even speaks, we read ‘I walked around, I saw…’  He observed and got to understand something of where he was- if you know someone, you’ll know how to talk to them, and when to, and also you’ll have listened to them. When Paul finally does speak, he gives an Old Testament type preach- God as creator, humanity as offspring of God- he’s making a connection with Greek ideas but also challenging their practices of worship at the same time…He doesn’t really mention Jesus until the end… its not that Paul doesn’t think Jesus is important- just read his epistles if you doubt that, but that he realises how far his listeners need to journey before they can hear him speak about Jesus. So Paul listens and understands. He has spoken with a few people, but here he has been asked to speak, and so he does. And when he speaks, he starts where his listeners are- with things they understand- the unknown god and their poets, and relates them to his understanding of God as revealed in his people’s writings… You know the people around you better than I do, you’re already in friendships with them- that’s why you’re the best people to share the gospel with them.

Sometimes when we talk with others about God and the Christian faith, they may fire off a cheap shot, or make a joke about something, and we can be fearful… we aren’t good at arguing our point, we don’t remember clever things. But we are, each of us, experts in one thing- ourselves. Our own lives and experiences. Often folks will tell you about the God they don’t believe in… and sometimes you’ll agree with them- I wouldn’t believe in a God like that… but can I tell about the God I do believe in, and how my life has been? When Paul speaks, elsewhere in Acts, to Jews and tells them of his experience on the road to Damascus, there is no logical argument to be made against him- its just a case of believing him or not. When you or I speak of our own story, our testimony about our faith, it is our experience, our response to God, that speaks. Often its not even the words themselves, but the spirit in which we say them, that speaks most strongly into people’s lives.

Most often, we’ll be having a conversation with someone, rather than making the sort of presentation that Paul is, but what Paul finds is that at the end of his speech people have varying responses- you may have read the following verse ‘after he said this some of them sneered, but some of them asked to hear more’… When we share our faith with others, they may not respond as we’d like them to, but they may….

And its that ‘maybe’ that needs to grow in our hearts- we need to be like that boy, desperately fearing rejection, but who plucks up courage to shyly ask a girl if she’d like to go for a walk. Like that artist who eventually puts a painting into an exhibition, or the singer who finally shares a song. It may not work out how we hope, but if we’re always too afraid of what might happen, then we’ll never find out if it will.

Borrowed wisdom

Sharing a post from my friend Ash Leighton Plom… further thoughts on Acts and yesterday’s talk will be posted tomorrow and in days to come, but I thought this was worth a read-

Today’s blog is from Martin Goss, Diocesan Environment Officer for Exeter:

 

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Five years ago the Diocese of Exeter submitted plans to construct six small-scale wind turbines on its land in three different parishes in north Devon.  These were part of an overall strategy for the Church of England in Devon to reduce its Greenhouse Gas carbon emissions.  In the event the planning applications were withdrawn amidst an ambience of acrimony and unpleasantness.

 

In retrospect, it was agreed the process had not been well handled and there were lessons to be learned.  However, the continuing legacy of the whole process was to release dubious forces of animosity and division which last to this day.

 

This pervasive ‘nastiness’ was, on the whole, invoked by people’s fear and uncertainty about the future, and therefore triggered a reaction which was fully self-motivated and self-protective.

 

I sense that the same kind of bitterness is now threatening to engulf us all as we head towards the 2017 General Election.  The country is painfully divided and frightened, and extreme reactions are magnified through the media, unsettling us all. Racism, xenophobia and cultural hostility are on the rise. Cynicism prevails and lies become acceptable. All this, and more, is extremely nasty – especially if you are on the receiving end.

 

This is not to say there should not be political challenge and cut and thrust debate, which are both fundamental parts of our evolving democracy.  But when the entire election seems to split people or communities and we are apparently possessed by a spirit of the ‘uncommon bad’, we need to ask deeper questions. Feeling bitter is not necessarily a healthy motivator for change.

 

SCREEN GRAB POPE FRANCIS TED.COM

Pope Francis, in his recent TED talk, speaks rather of the need for a ‘revolution of tenderness’. Love is the tenderness which starts in the heart and extends to the eyes, ears and hands to shape a different future. “Tenderness is being on the same level as the other” he said compassionately.

 

To politicians and decision makers he adds, “The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, and the more responsible you are for acting humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other”. Prospective Parliamentary Candidates please note!

 

Through public elections people of faith are called to remember that they are also citizens and therefore have responsibilities for both the local community and the wider society in which they live. We are invited to make choices that will have consequences not only for our civilisation now but also for the future. The decisions of politicians  today will determine life in this world for generations to come…

 

The media and others will pressurise us into voting for those who say they will deliver good things for us – actions which will enhance oursecurity or safety, policies which favour our communities and our households.

 

Yet deep at the heart of the Gospel is a message to be concerned and caring for the most vulnerable people in our world – those whose human growth is stunted by disease or poverty or oppression. All Christians have a moral duty to look beyond their own interests and speak up for justice and kindness in a broken world. For us there is a vision of a different kind of society where the gifts of all are included,  and the needs of all are met. Some of us recognise this as the Reign  of God, in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first; in which peaceful means of managing conflict are preferred to violence and war, in which strangers are welcomed; and in which people are enfolded in kind-heartedness at times of real uncertainty.

 

We therefore vote not only for ourselves but more for others, voting out of tenderness not bitterness.

 

‘Everything begins in mystique and ends in politique’ said spiritual writer Charles Péguy. So to speak up for the poor, the planet and the future are central actions that grow out of a prayerful life which may begin in the mystery of God but always ends in political action…

 

May these sentiments influence the choices we make more than the clamour of appealing to our selfishness, greed or fear. In the end we are judged not by how we feather our own nests by how we care for the other.

 

All best wishes – Martyn

 

The future of humankind is in the hands of the people who recognise the other as a ‘you’, and themselves as part of an ‘us’   (Pope Francis)

Life to the full- woop woop!

Last weekend was an odd one… Wonderful wife plus two other stars were taking the main service and my boss was coming to preach at later service… so I had the day off? Not quite, as we still had an early morning service, there was a worship group to play in (yay, got to play bass in church!), and still needed to lead worship… so a light morning’s work that lasted 6hrs, but definitely no complaints- a good day was had by all.

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The passage we were thinking about was from John’s Gospel, chapter 10, which contains one of my favourite verses- ‘I have come that you may have life to the full’- verse 10. I love it, its both challenging and inspirational… Hope you don’t mind sentimental cheesy pic of wonderful wife out on a walk later in the week- living life to the full.

Here’s what I said at our 8am service…

 Jesus has just healed a blind man, the religious authorities have been called to investigate and have ended up throwing the man out of the synagogue for being cheeky, Jesus then finds the man who recognises him not only as a prophet of God but accepts him as the saviour… a blind, ill-educated man gets in a flash what the ‘proper’ folk have been waiting for and can’t see right under their noses. Who is really blind here? He goes on, in the passage we heard, to talk about the importance of the answer we give to ‘who is Jesus?’ or ‘what authority does Jesus have?’… The idea of sheep knowing their master’s voice sounds at once alien and attractive to us- it’s a nice image but not one we know from our own experience. We might remember the record shop HMV with its iconic picture of the dog listening attentively to ‘his master’s voice’… we might recall how a child can be calmed by a word from a parent when no one else will do… but we need to know the cultural resonance that the image of a shepherd had for Jesus’ listeners- they’d been shepherds since, well, forever- Abraham was a shepherd, Jacob and his sons were shepherds when they went to Egypt, Moses was a shepherd, David was a shepherd, and throughout the Psalms we read of God as a shepherd…and on the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds were on the hills- the role of a shepherd, while maybe no longer such a respectable job, was still significant.

When Jesus says, there are those who enter by the gate and those who climb in another way it’s clear he is saying that there are some who should not be followed, and some who should be- the sheep know the difference. There’s a relationship here- the sheep know their shepherd by voice and the shepherd knows their sheep… the shepherd is thinking of them- again, a different context for us where sheep are primarily farmed for meat, historically their milk (and cheese) and wool would have been more important- you grew the flock to fill the land… a context, a way of life that is less centred around short term profit and more about longer term care… The image is of a leader who cares, who puts themselves out- what we might call a servant leader… this is who Jesus is… his authority doesn’t come from the volume of his voice, but from how he speaks… a shepherd who’s flock know him and trust him- as Jesus disciples followed him they came to trust him more and more- as we live our lives as Christians today we find there are times when it’s easy to trust, and times when it’s hard, times when we forget someone is guiding us, and times when we cling to him…

In life there are many things that we might say we follow- a football team, a hobby, a band, an artist, a political party… at various points in our life we’ve probably each done so- but there is one similarity that carries across all of those- although you can see them, and although following them has its rewards- I remember going to obscure gigs and seeing my heroes close up, those things that we enjoy to not love us the way we love them- the way that Jesus loves us. They do not know us- despite the clever algorithms and cookies on websites they don’t know us, they do not have that self-giving love that Christ spoke of and demonstrated throughout his life and in his death. He is in this, both the shepherd and the gate- the one calling us to follow, and the means by which we are able to cross over- he is our personal saviour and Lord AND the saviour of all creation who stands at the right hand of the Father.

For us, we’re called to be sheep- to follow our Lord where he leads us, and we’re called to be sheep that somehow look like the shepherd- you know the way that dogs and their owners have a likeness? Just as Jesus came and lived among us so we’re to be like him to those we meet… not trying to replace him, but pointing others towards him by our words and our actions- by our prayers and our work amongst those in need.

And the outcome of all of this? Not a life lived in a holy tower or a ghetto, but life lived to the full- including the things we love- those hobbies, that desire to see the world changed, that love of the outdoors and those people we care for… but a life that isn’t limited or constrained by them- a life with a perspective that reaches to eternity and includes the whole world as our neighbourhood.

So, wherever you find yourself, live life to the max- not in splendid isolation from the rigours of the world, not blindly denying the truth of what is around you or missing out on the beauty of the world for fear of getting bruised along the way, and do what you can to help others live more fully.

Cheers.

 

Roadtrip with Jesus

Last Sunday we were looking at the passage in Luke’s Gospel where two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to a nearby village, on the afternoon of the first Sunday. It’s known as ‘The Road to Emmaus’ because, well, they’re on the road to Emmaus… you can find the passage in Luke 24.13-35 here, and this is what I said (or at least planned to say… as always the two are never quite the same).

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In this passage we see something of the impact that an encounter with God can have on people’s lives… but most importantly we see the how that encounter needs to be understood- eyes need to be opened, minds need to come to terms with things…

The two disciples, on the road to Emmaus- possibly going back home after the events- the excitement of the arrival in Jerusalem, the tension between Jesus and the teachers, then the seeming catastrophe of his arrest, the farce of the trial and the nightmare of his crucifixion. And then nothing. In times of crisis there are moments of in-between- waiting for the exam to start, for the news from the doctor, waiting for the girl to finish reading the note, for the phone call after an interview… and sometimes your mind is in a fog, you can’t think properly because you can only see one thing, and nothing else really makes any impact on you… the people of Jerusalem were convinced that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, so he must be a blasphemer, a rebel, a danger… the disciples were convinced that Jesus was dead, so the news that they’d heard about the empty tomb wasn’t good news, it was another twist of the knife…

Sometimes we need to have our eyes opened, our horizons raised, our perspectives changed… but even when that does happen we may well not have the language and ideas to understand what is happening… When people use the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ they often mean that they have had, or want to have, spiritual experiences, that they believe in what is beyond the physical… but that they don’t want to be told what it means, or how to make sense of it by any form of organised faith community- they want the spiritual, but not the religion… which is ok, except that it can lead to a situation where everyone interprets an event themselves, and no one interpretation has any more truth… which is where our disciples on the road to Emmaus were… they just didn’t know what to believe- who was Jesus, was he alive or dead, what should they do? And so, they were just heading home- just as Peter and some of the other disciples… fishing etc…

Jesus joins them on the road- as with so many of our own encounters with God, we can mistakenly think that we have sought and found God, but in reality God has found us- often because we have stopped running or hiding… Jesus joins them where they are- they explain what they know and what they are unsure of, and then Jesus begins to speak, ‘explaining to them…’ and then finally Jesus joins them in real life- at the table, in a home- not in a worship time or a church, and they knew he was the Lord…

They still don’t have the language, but they can’t ignore what’s happened, so they get up and walk for two hours in the night… ‘were not our hearts burning within us’…

Article in Christianity last month- a young student from a damaged background, ended up in church having seen how becoming a Christian had changed a friend… not sure what’s going on, not connecting, when invited back gave a ‘sure’ but not meaning it, and then somehow finding themselves there for the evening service, and ended up being prayed for… and felt their heart burning within them, with no knowledge of this passage or having ever heard of Wesley’s ‘heart strangely warmed’… without having the language to describe it, she knew she’d met God…

Acts- Peter explains- this is what has happened… this is what is means, this is what you should do…

Our job, our privilege is to help people understand their spiritual experiences, their desires etc… not to control them, but to free them and give them peace… to point them towards Jesus to help explain and make sense of things, to help them process them in a way that brings the supernatural and spiritual (yes, there is a God almighty, and a Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the Son of God, and because of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice I can be filled with the Holy Spirit) into the everyday and the earthly (yes, I can pray at the kitchen table, about things that are happening in my life, and God can help me to cope with the stresses I face today)… The promise was not just for those who met the risen Christ or who heard Peter at Pentecost, but is for all who would listen.

Later this month we’re going to be reading through Acts together as a church, and I’ll be posting reflections on those readings- probably not every day but a bit more frequently than over the last while… If you fancy getting hold of a commentary/guide to Acts yourself, we’re using Whitney Kuniholm’s ‘Essential Question’ or you might prefer Tom Wright’s ‘Acts for Everybody’, both available in good bookstores and various online places.

What I would have said…

Sometimes on this blog I post some notes, or thoughts, from a talk that I have given; often with a ‘well, this is what I planned to say, but it didn’t quite come out like that…’ note. I think this has to be a first however- What follows has not been used as a talk at all, or given as an address- not even with a few changes or alterations.

I was, last week, ahead of the game- everything was prepped for the weekend by 5pm on Friday so that I could take some time off for the kids on Saturday- all good… until the phone call on Saturday afternoon… I’m not working so my wife picks up, listens, talks a bit, and then says ‘well, I think you’ll need to speak to Andy’… and calls ‘Andy, its your boss on the phone’. Fortunately, it wasn’t THAT kind of a phone call from the boss, but the other one, where he rings you up and says ‘hey, do you want a lie in tomorrow, I’ll take your early start if you like, come along and lead the main service but I’ll do the 8am’….. You bet! And then as I put the phone down, it hits me- firstly, I have 3 children, a lie in? and secondly that I have a completely sorted talk that’s going begging…

Anyway, so here is the premier unveiling of my… unspoken talk, based around the first 11 verses from chapter 5 of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.

If it doesn’t make sense, well, sorry… I haven’t road tested it yet.

‘Therefore’… Paul has been building an argument over the last few chapters of the letter to the Roman church, and he continues to do so… ‘you see’, ‘since’… This is not an image-laden passage, not his testimony or a powerful metaphor… this is Paul in full logical argument mode…

Justification- being made right with God, comes through faith… by believing in Jesus we are at peace with God- or as John puts it- to all who received him, to all who believed in his name he gave the right to become children of God… as believers we are now in the unique position of being able to stand before God- but only because of his grace and Christ’s saving sacrifice…

Suffering for the sake of future peace- we have hope, and so we persevere, which leads to greater hope…

When people talk about favourite passages of Scripture, they may refer to a story- a parable, because we can retell a story, they may refer to a passage from the Psalms or Proverbs that is evocative- the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it… or a short verse that helps us understand God’s will and work- Romans 5 verses 6-8 is just such a passage…

It emphasises the role of God- at just the right time while we were still powerless…

It clearly describes the action of God- Christ died for the ungodly

It challenges our easy acceptance of this- very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man (but haven’t we just been described as ungodly?)

And then it comes back round to the starting point- but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us…

That single verse contains so much-

The nature of God, the relationship that God desires for us and him, the relationship between Christ and God, the nature of sin and redemption…

In some circles the theology of redemption isn’t very popular- particularly penal substitution, which suggests that not only did Christ have to live and die for us, but that it was as a punishment that God the Father either could not or would not rescind… Now, that doesn’t sound loving or merciful to us, but we have to remember that we, us sinners, are the ones needing redemption… and that we cannot save ourselves. Unless we can… If somehow we can lift ourselves out of our sins such that we are saved from God’s wrath by our own actions (maybe inspired by Jesus?), then we don’t need redeeming… but if that’s the case, then why did Jesus die?

It seems, from the Gospels and from passages such as this in Romans, that there is an essential need for some kind of redemptive action by God- that Jesus chose to take on life so we could know God more fully, and that he chose to die so that all who believe might be forgiven… and rose to life again to show his power over sin, and death… God demonstrated his love in that Christ died, God demonstrated his power in that Christ rose again…

Under the covenant that God established with the people of Israel in the Old Testament, if you read Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, we see repeatedly the idea of substitution- where someone sins, there is something they can do or give to atone- to make up for what they’ve done… and there are specific things… there is a clear indication of the necessity, established from the moment of the Passover, for some form of substitution… things can’t simply be forgotten but they can be resolved… God creates a way for the mess that we are, and the mess that we are in, to be redeemed… while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…

And what this means for us, as Christians, is expressed most fully in the final verses of this mornings passage- this is how much God loves us- he allowed his son to give his life so that we might be reconciled- before we were actually reconciled… and so now we in are in that relationship with God… one that he conceived before we knew of his existence, one that he acted to make possible, one that he continually restores us in when we blunder, slip or march headlong back into sin…

This is the God we worship, the one we are called to follow as we serve Him in this world, this is the Gospel we have received and are called to proclaim as we grow and make disciples. This is the relationship we have, and can grow through our own prayer life and our study of Scripture. So let us pray that this week we may do all we can, each day, to make this true in our lives.

 

 

Ready salted and shining like a star!

Yesterday we didn’t have a sermon in our main service… shock horror. Instead we figured one out ourselves- we had some crisps and breadsticks (as well as tortillas and rice cakes), candles, fairy lights and torches, a whole bunch of discussion and a reading from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus talks, yup, about salt and light…

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It was an amazing time, led by a wonderful woman of God, who put an immense amount of thought, prayer and effort into the service along with her team (and I know this because I watched her plan it during the previous two weeks). I may be biased, but I thought my wife rocked- there aren’t many occasions when joining in the prayer of confession and hearing the words of forgiveness brings me to tears, but it did yesterday.

So, if that’s what happened at the main shebang, what am I going to post? Well, fortunately we have the early morning service, and I got to share some thoughts with the folks there… so here they are, for once, something similar to what I said…

I came across an online discussion last week- someone had found something in their grandmother’s cupboard, in an unlabelled jar, which looked like salt… problem was that it didn’t really taste like salt and when used to make sauerkraut it ended up producing mouldykraut…

Salt is for preservation- for salting… it has purpose. It wasn’t just a bit of flavouring as we often use it today. If you tried to use some salt and it wasn’t salty, it was useless. Light is for seeing in the dark- to give light to people, so they can see, and move, and live without injuring themselves and others…

Jesus here says its ok for others to know about our deeds- but is very clear that the outcome of that should be that God is praised… when we do something that is good, we risk two traps- one is that we take any praise for ourselves- elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel there is a very clear judgment on this- that’s all the reward you’ll get… but there’s also the tendency towards dismissiveness, or self-deprecation- it was nothing, anybody would do the same… actually, not everybody would, and it was something… but if you know you’ve given to the poor, fed the hungry, housed the homeless, welcomed the stranger, stood up against injustice or healed the sick because Jesus has called you to follow him- because you are a disciple of Christ, then acknowledge it. When I was involved a number of years ago in a free café over at the Pilton Festival, the biggest problem we had were those serving explaining why it was free- those coming expected to pay, and we were often quite used to charging… and so it was quite something to say ‘actually this is free- it’s a gift, we’re giving this away as an act of compassion and generosity…’ in the end we made napkins with the text we wanted to say printed on them- the team could all give out a napkin and say ‘read what it says on there’… ‘This cake is a small expression of love, it was made and given for you by members of the local churches, as a tiny way of showing God’s love for you. If you’d like to know more, speak to one of the team’. In the first instance we were giving away cake- and not to those who were starving. However it was more than that.

When we run Mini music, Cake Club, the Youth Club, when we go to visit Park Lane Nursing home or to the schools, or any other outreach event, the purpose is always twofold- to respond to a need, but to show God’s love as we do so. When we have special collections for overseas or UK charities or give a portion of our annual giving, we do it to help, but also to show God’s love as we do so. Churches aren’t just money funnels or finance managing groups, just as much as they aren’t just cafés or nurseries, however the Church has been supporting those in financial need, those who’re hungry, those who need our practical help long before we ever started writing down our prayers and forms of worship. This is the tradition of the church, this is the fulfilment of the law of Moses- this is what it looks like to love our neighbour as ourselves.

As disciples we do this in our individual lives, and as the church we do it on a larger scale, and so on…

We encourage one another, we strengthen each others voices, we sharpen one another…

We spent some time praying that we’d be able to do this more in our lives, and so I guess that’d be my prayer for you too this week.

What are the chances?

Last week has been a challenging week- in politics and in individuals lives. A good friend passed away just under a week ago, Donald Trump made his mark as president, other folk I know have had a tough time for all sorts of reasons… and yet.

And yet outside my front door the first shoots of spring flowers continue to creep up, the angle of the sun across the window moves day by day… the kids play (or fight) and the sun and rain come and go.

And in the midst of change, constancy, joy and struggle, God is still present. Some things fluctuate, others remain; some things seem unpredictable, while others are certain.

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Last Sunday morning we heard the passage from John’s Gospel where Jesus attends a wedding and they run out of wine… a fairly well known passage, with lots of drama… and here’s what I said- of course, you can also listen here on our website.

What are the chances? A phrase we use when really, the chances are slim… but we live in a world where things are topsy turvy- a year ago, certainly two, ‘what are the chances of Donald Trump taking office as the President of the US?… but it’s happened. What are the chances of the Berlin Wall falling was a question oft asked in the 40yr history of East Germany, of the Iron Curtain tumbling, or of Man making it to the moon? when you look at things through the lens of statistics and data, the chances shrink down- it can drive you to stop and give up. What are the chances of winning a competition? So small, you may feel, that there’s no point in entering… and yet someone has to. My Godmother always used to win competitions, or so it seemed to me as a young boy- however the truth is that my Godmother always used to enter lots of competitions, particularly ones that were free to enter and included a tie breaker- you know, complete the sentence in 20 words… she understood that someone has to win, and that if you don’t enter, you definitely won’t win… it also helped that she had made her living as a writer… and so she had carriage clock after carriage clock, and so on.

You can’t win, unless you enter. If you don’t try, the chance of success is zero.

Jesus is at a wedding, and they run out of wine- what are the chances? Its not a good start for the married life of the family, it won’t be one of those funny stories that are remembered with a smile… its not like people will switch to beer, or go for the apple juice… this is it- no wine, no drink for the rest of the feast.

When we look at this passage we often focus on the final verse- this was the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs, that pointed towards who he was, and his disciples put their faith in him. This morning I want to look just a few verses earlier- where Mary speaks to the servants- ‘Do whatever he tells you’- now, if you were a waiter at a party in this situation, and someone told you a guest could sort things out, phew, what a relief… ok what do we do? Where are the barrels of wine you’ve got stashed somewhere? At this point we don’t know how much the servants knew about Jesus- did they know that he was anyone other than a normal guest? His ministry has barely started, but John has already testified that he is the Son of God, and others have heard and responded to his teaching… Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip & Nathanael, John (and most likely James) are with him… are the servants just obedient, or do they know something?

Whatever the case, their response is that they do as they’re told…

We’re not like that. We’re just not. If someone asks you to do something, you want to know what will happen… you considering the likelihood of it, the ripples and repercussions, and so on (well, you might)… We want to know what the result will be before we take action. When you’re in a shop and they ask for your email- is that so you can send me mailing offers? Is the question on my lips… Except for those times when we are already in motion, have already committed- times when you’re in the flow- sailing, fishing, singing, playing sport, dancing… often there’s a mix between knowledge, experience, intuition and gut feeling… ‘this will work’… but you have to commit before the result becomes apparent.  Several years ago someone tried to teach me to crew on a sailing boat with a trapeze- the basics are simple enough- it’s the application that is hard. And I got very wet, many times before I realised that you have to commit before the sail is full, otherwise its too late… The real pro will say it’s a step-wise thing between you and the sail- of filling and leaning… but done fast it looks as though the crew is leaping out of the boat… the feeling when you get it right, of the boat lifting out of the water and almost beginning to fly… but you have to act before the result is clear.

And because of their obedience, they witnessed, and were part of, a miracle. Their willingness to obey- their faith in the person giving them instructions, came before the miracle. Look again at the passage- they filled the jars with water, they drew some from them and took it to the master of the banquet… there’s no mention until that point that the water is anything but water… they acted in faith and obedience, but there was also a risk on their part. With faith there is always risk. Show me the risks you take and I’ll show you the faith you have. That faith can be misplaced, misguided, over-estimated- certainly when we put our faith in humans and human structures it is often the case, but if we never take those risks, then we never allow faith to grow, and those of us who have taken risks in faith, have acted on our faith in God, would say that he does not let us down.

Faith comes through action, yes, but it is shown in obedience. The servants had faith in Jesus, and they saw a miracle. If they had not been obedience and had faith, they would have witnessed nothing.

If we want to see our faith grow, then we must start with ourselves- yes, as we said last week… our own personal discipleship, our relationship with God, nurtured by our part in his Church and demonstrated in our live and our worship… but if we want to see our faith grow- if we want to see miracles of transformed lives around us, if we want our own lives to be transformed step by step, then the place to start is with our obedience to God. Sometimes that obedience will be a nudge to talk to someone… to call or visit when you could easily not. Sometimes it will be the mention of your faith, or that you pray in difficult times… sometimes it may be holding back when others around us are wading in with hard words against another… it may be speaking of what you believe when asked… it may be the practical helping hands reaching out in love…

He has shown us his love in this- that when we were still sinners God sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for us… and this is foolishness in the world, but is the wisdom and power of God- how can a dead man be the way to eternal life? But he is. And so we know this truth, that starts with a response to that love, and grows out of obedience- this relationship is not an intellectual assent or the outcome of an analysis (though it may include those things), but is the response of our hearts, that leads to our hands and feet.

You can’t see a miracle unless you act in faith. If you don’t, the chance is zero.

You may not see miracles every day, but you’ll see a whole lot more than none.

Disciple, grow thyself!

Last Sunday I was meant to be listening to a friend share their reflections and thoughts on a passage from Matthew’s gospel, and how it related to our engagement with issues surrounding homelessness… I was hoping to hear about the problems of compassion burnout and insularity which our society breeds in us, the tension between friends who’re always there for you and the unnamed stranger who we’ll leave, literally, out in the cold… I was particularly looking forward to hearing these insights from someone who’s full-time job is to work alongside the homeless and vulnerable in our town on homeless Sunday. Unfortunately for all of us, my friend was poorly sick that night and had to pull out. Mildly unfortunate for me, most probably very unpleasant for her, and really unfortunate for our congregation who had to hear me speak…

As is the way, I just happened to have a sermon in my back pocket, and I even used some of my notes… you can, of course listen to what I actually said on our church website (or even download it from i-tunes here or else just plain read it below…

The main headline which I would want to emphasis is this- if you want to grow in your faith, then you have to take steps to grow… if you want your church to grow (however you prefer to measure this- and there’s a whole load of things we could say on that one word, but fundamentally, if the church is a place of life, then growing in some way should be expected) then, once again, it starts with you… if you’re wondering why your faith in God’s love for you is fading, or why your church isn’t booming, then at least part of the responsibility lies in the face you see in the mirror each day.

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Anyway, I’ll let you read for yourself-

 This last month we’ve had readings from both John and Matthew that describe the events leading to the start of Jesus’ ministry, and have been thinking about and here it begins- John has been imprisoned (probably in Jerusalem) and Jesus goes to Galilee where he will spend much of the next three years. Some of us are real Bible geography buffs, or may have been to the Holy Land and seen these places for ourselves. For those who haven’t, however, Jesus travels around an area smaller than Devon for his whole life- the towns of Nazareth and Capernaum are less than 20miles apart with various other places we know from the Gospels in between.  Because of the variety of names and their foreignness to us we can get confused and the whole area seems much larger to us than it really is, but essentially we could think of it that Jesus spends most of his live in North Devon with occasional trips to Exeter… Although Jesus was the Son of God, and came to bring salvation for all mankind, for much of his day to day life he was incredibly focussed on the smaller scale- on individuals in communities. Over time this commitment helped people to see his integrity and consistency, that his words and his actions were in alignment with one another, and with God. And he called those around him to a new way of life- offering a light that shone in the darkness, offering healing, preaching the good news, and calling some from among them to come with him.

We’ve begun this year hearing the message of hope and expectation that is contained within the Gospel, and the importance of simplicity- of keeping our faith real and grounded in our daily lives.  Jesus words are rarely said to cause deliberate confusion- to make his listeners and us think, yes, but not to confuse or wrongfoot us.

So when he speaks to people living in an arid place of the water of life… they know what he means. In this chapter of Matthew the people of the hill country of Galilee would know what it was like to live in the shadow of a hill, would know the swift transition from day to night as the sun dropped behind the horizon in a way that we, with our lights and our long evenings just don’t see every day.

The fishermen- Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John- they were fishermen, and they would have understood that for them to become fishers of men would mean relearning all their skills- just as a boy who learns to fish with a rod must relearn all he knows when he becomes a boatman… and then as Jesus moved on, away from the lakeside, so his stories change- from nets and fish to seeds and harvest… so they followed Jesus, and over the next few weeks we will journey with them, as we hear again the accounts of teaching, of healing- miracles beyond our experience and understanding… they followed and learned, and then they were sent out for a brief time and ultimately sent to ‘go and make disciples of all men, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…’ They learned their faith as apprentices- following their master, and they lived their faith as themselves- each in their own way- Andrew bringing Peter as we heard last week, James and John with their passionate hearts, Matthew with his careful exactness, and so on, to Paul the great missionary and preacher (who may or may not have baptised certain people)…

Someone asked me just the other day, what is the single biggest factor in the growth or decline in churches in our area, and the answer, I feel, is this- our discipleship. Our own, personal journey of faith. When we and other believers know ourselves to be loved and called by Jesus, as the first disciples did, then his priorities become our priorities- we know we are called to be disciples in our workplace, our street, in the pub, in the shops- we know that our discipleship shapes how we support the things we can’t do ourselves in prayer, it shapes how we welcome visitors to our church on a Sunday- or a Saturday… it’s the driving factor behind our willingness to go from where we are comfortable- whether that means a style of worship or our building…

For the next month or so we’re going to be looking at passages from Matthew’s gospel that demonstrate how the first disciples grew in their faith, and as we journey through this year, with our hopes as a church and the things of our own lives, its our prayer, for each other, that we might all grow in the depth of our knowledge of God’s love for us and our outworking of that… that we would grow as disciples of Jesus.