On pew cushions and apostles…

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Sermon for Simon and Jude, Apostles – St Mary’s Whitkirk

If you’re sitting comfortably…then I’ll begin. And you should be wonderfully comfortable…cushioned pews…new heating regime…

So I’d just like to remind you of the characteristically thoughtful blessing Matthew wrote for those cushions…”we pray that these cushions might bring comfort – but not too much.”

Actually this is one of the many occasions when I’m convinced God has a sense of humour. This morning – in a wonderfully Anglican way – we bless new pew cushions and celebrate Simon and Jude, apostles.

‘Lord give us comfort – but not too much’…it might almost have been the strap line for the 12 apostles. May be not what they hoped for – but certainly what they got.

Simon and Jude – fairly obscure apostles. Their names come at the end of the list. They’re remembered mainly for who they are not. Simon is not the more famous Simon Peter…Jude is not Judas Iscariot…the one who betrayed Jesus.

We know very little else about them. Simon is sometimes called the Zealot – suggesting he had sympathy with the idea of a violent Jewish revolution against the Romans. Jude is recorded once, in John 14 asking why Jesus didn’t just reveal himself to the whole world so everyone would have to believe.

So they hoped, in a way, for comfort. For the comfort of a powerful movement from a powerful God showing that they’d backed the right horse…that Jesus was the one to follow.

What they got was Jesus; whose only weapon and whose only message is love. What they got was a promise that the world would hate them and persecute them for following Jesus. What they got was a command to testify to Jesus – in other words to go out and make the case for him to those they met; to explain who he is and why they follow him. To speak his words into the situations they come across.

As far as we know – Simon and Jude did just that. Legend says they travelled together for around 30 years, apparently on missionary journeys to Persia and Armenia…and – you guessed it – that they were killed for their faith.

‘Lord, give us comfort but not too much’…so where was the comfort for Simon and Jude?

Well when Jude asked his question…”why don’t you just reveal yourself to everyone?”…Jesus replied, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

So God won’t force himself on us – but if we invite him he’ll make our lives his home.

And with the command to testify comes the promise of the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit…who gives courage, hope and the words to speak about Jesus.

In the gift of the Holy Spirit; in Christ’s words, perhaps remembered after his death and resurrection; Simon and Jude found enough comfort to disturb them from their comfort zones and send them out to testify to Christ.

So what of us? There’s nothing wrong with comfort in church. We want to worship properly – not distracted by cold or a sore backside. We want this building to be welcoming. But if we get too comfortable we might not want to leave. We might forget that Sunday is the first day of the week, not the last; that church is the starting point not the home of our faith. That worship should send us out into the rest of the week to testify to Christ.

‘Lord, give us comfort but not too much’.

I was very moved this week when, on the way back from a meeting, 2 of our young people said that church is where they can be truly themselves. But I hope it also challenges them to be truly themselves in the rest of their week.

At that meeting we were reminded of the crisis of despair facing many young people, and that 95% of young people today have no connection with church…no one telling them the good news that Jesus loves them.

The previous week at Deanery Synod we heard of the terrible food poverty on our doorsteps. We heard of children in Leeds sitting down to an evening meal of porridge made with water, with a tin of chick peas stirred in. We heard that in Seacroft, where our food bank donations go, members of the small congregation run the food bank and café every Tuesday, and provide a hot meal every Saturday for those who otherwise might not eat.

Yesterday I read that the life expectancy of a homeless man in London is 47, for a homeless woman – 43. This is lower than average life expectancy in any nation of the world.

These facts alone should make us uncomfortable as we worship the God of love, and gather round his table. So let’s hope these new cushions give us just enough comfort to be able to focus on Christ, to really hear the words, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

Perhaps we can know, with Simon and Jude, the comfort of letting God make our lives his home. And perhaps with them we can also learn the discomfort this brings as it forces us out of our church and into the world to testify to Christ.

Whether this comes in the form of prayer, words or actions…perhaps it would be good to ask ourselves occasionally “When was I last uncomfortable for Christ?”

So as we sit comfortably we also pray…

Lord our God send us comfort, but not too much. In this place disturb us from our comfortableness and send us into our broken world to love and serve for the sake of Christ who died for us. Amen.

 

Sometimes it is all about money…

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Sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk giving campaign – Oct 14th.

Honestly, today’s gospel was not our choice – it’s in the lectionary – make of that what you will! So we have a rich man hearing he’s as much chance of entering the kingdom of heaven as a camel has getting through the eye of a needle.

Camel…needle…not much chance then!

Of course there are other ways of interpreting this. I’ve a lovely children’s book, where a very grand, heavily laden camel tries to get through a tiny gate – conveniently called the needle’s eye. He only manages when he’s willing to be unloaded until he looks very ordinary…and then wriggle in a very undignified way.

We could say it’s really about pride, and love of money, that Jesus spoke to this particular man…who did many good things…but was a real miser. Actually though, Jesus made a general point: “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”

I’m afraid it is about money.

Because entering God’s kingdom isn’t firstly about being or doing good, it’s about being willing to have God as king. So it’s about giving up control and trusting in God…it’s about being rescued from slavery to things that don’t bring life. Following Jesus gives us life – money stops us receiving that life fully. “Sell what you own – then come, follow me”; Jesus says this because he knows money gets in the way of following him.

And I think in our hearts we know Jesus is right. We know the poor are often the most generous…that once we have the security of some money we can’t help feeling that we need just a little more to keep us safe. It starts as common sense, making sure we can keep our house, aren’t a burden on others, can help our children out. But we so easily move on to thinking…if some money is good – more money must be better.

We struggle with today’s gospel because it seems to suggest having money is wrong. But here is a good man. Jesus loves him – but knows his wealth is a barrier between him and God.

And we don’t know whether he did sell all he owned…we just know he went away grieving because it was a very hard thing Jesus asked of him. And, camels and needles aside, we know exactly what he’s feeling. Of course we do – otherwise I wouldn’t be preaching this sermon, surrounded by banners urging us to part with our money.

In the last year we’ve needed new servers, cleaning teams, flower arrangers – people have volunteered for all of them. I know when people are ill or lonely because you care enough to find out. When I visit – one of you has been there before me.

You work tirelessly for the kingdom of God in Whitkirk – but we’re still struggling to pay our parish share. And it’s the same story all over the diocese.

“It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” There’s just something about money…

So many Christians give time and effort until they’re exhausted…give generously to one off collections or appeals…but struggle with committing to regular giving into the future. Why? Money’s not bad – but it does seem to be dangerous. I don’t think it’s about being mean; it’s about control over our lives. We don’t know what’s round the corner, but we reckon whatever it is – money will help.

There are two things I’d like to say to that…firstly, I’m not suggesting you sell all you have…I’m not even sure Jesus really expected that. But I do believe Jesus was talking about money and how it gets in the way of life with him. We end up trusting money first and God second…which might give us security – but doesn’t give us life.

So secondly I’d like to ask you a question…a question I was once asked during a similar giving campaign…a question that challenged my faith as well as my giving.

“Would you notice the difference if you doubled your giving?”

At the time I was giving about £10 a week…but I’m not suggesting I was being generous – far from it. My giving wasn’t something I’d really thought about, let alone prayed about – it definitely wasn’t part of my relationship with God. I’d arrived at that weekly offering simply because it I didn’t even have to think about its impact on my life.

“Would I notice the difference if I doubled my giving?”…would I have to think more carefully about going out for a cup of coffee?…would it alter what I could put in my trolley at the supermarket?…would we have to change our summer holiday plans? When I thought about it honestly…the answer was no and I felt quite ashamed.

But it was still a scary thought: double my giving? Scary because money really does develop a hold over us and I was being asked to loosen that hold; but life-giving because it helped me deepen my trust in God.

So I offer you that question as you consider your giving prayerfully this week.

“Honestly – would you notice the difference if you doubled your giving?”

The answer may be yes…I know some of you give to the extent that it already makes a difference to your lives. If it is, unlike me, you don’t need that question. Thank you, both for your generosity and for your vision.

Because it’s not just about not having to worry about Parish share (although that will be lovely)…it’s about being part of God’s Kingdom.

Our parish share does seem huge – but by asking for it, our diocese is giving us a gift…an opportunity to deepen our life-giving relationship with God…an opportunity to be part of God’s kingdom…a kingdom that will surely include a Christian presence in every parish…speak to the needs of the city…feed the hungry…give people hope.

‘Most of all, that love has found us…’

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Words for St Mary’s Whitkirk – as we celebrate harvest and consider our giving.

Around this time, schools up and down the country will be holding harvest festivals and I’d be willing to bet many will be singing ‘Cauliflowers fluffy and cabbages green’. If you don’t know it…be thankful. I’ll just say…it’s a lovely autumn poem…but certainly in a church school I wished for at least a thank you for the apples, plums and broad beans we sang about!

Second in our school harvest chart was, ‘Autumn Days, and the grass is jewelled’. Another fine description of autumn…and at least this one reminds us to say thank you…although not who we’re thanking.

So, thank you Giles for choosing our next hymn…No. 138, ‘For the fruits of his creation’. It’s a harvest hymn…so it starts with gratitude for what God provides. It moves on to the importance of sharing those gifts…but for me, the last verse says something wider and more profound about receiving and giving.

‘For the wonders that astound us,

for the truths that still confound us,

most of all, that love has found us,

Thanks be to God.’

Recently Matthew and I were lucky enough to hear Rowan Williams speak. He described the Trinity as endless self-giving between the Father and the Son. And he suggested that prayer, our relationship with God, isn’t something we have to initiate…rather that we are invited to step into this eternity of love.

‘most of all, that love has found us, Thanks be to God.’

This goes much deeper than harvest gratitude for the ‘stuff’ we have prompting us to share with those who don’t. That can be to do with duty…finding we are truly, unconditionally loved calls much more from us.

It makes some sense of the passage from Matthew’s gospel we heard tonight…‘Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons…take no money, no bag, no spare tunic, no sandals, no staff; oh, and by the way they’ll hate you and probably flog you’…Not asking much of the disciples was he? But they went…why?

Well Jesus wasn’t offering great wages, or fame and gratitude. He didn’t inspire them like so many human leaders have done – by uniting them against a common enemy, giving them someone to hate…think of the crowds shouting ‘crucify’, or of Hitler.

No. Jesus told stories; showed compassion; denounced people for what they did, not who they were; taught forgiveness and love. He said – people will ignore you, or hate you, but share the message anyway and move on. And they went…

I don’t think it can just have been the stories – startling though they are – or even the miracles. In Jesus they encountered something much bigger, something they didn’t understand, but somehow knew to be truth. And they encountered love…they saw others loved by Jesus; they felt his love for them. In Jesus they saw complete love for God and from God and realised they could be part of it…

‘For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us, most of all, that love has found us, Thanks be to God.’

Being found by love that doesn’t depend on anything other than our being there to be loved…that’s something worth sharing.

U A Fanthorpe, in her poem ‘Getting it Across’ has Jesus say of the disciples “I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives.” The poem continues with him describing the consequences for those men…

“Dying, ridiculous and undignified,

flayed and stoned and crucified upside down…

…that might, had I not touched them,

have died decent, respectable, upright deaths in bed.”

What about us? Well when we share in the Eucharist, are moved by the beauty of music at Evensong or the gift of peace at Compline, when we’re touched by this holy place, or find in St Mary’s a loving community…I think we too recognise truth even when we don’t understand…we too know that love has found us.

Through all of these, Christ is ‘tattooing God on our makeshift lives’, showing that along with all the harvest gifts, we’re given complete, unconditional love. Love we don’t earn – but are given anyway.

Real love asks for nothing, expects nothing in return – but somehow demands everything from us. Our response to God’s love may not be painful, or life threatening like the disciples’, but I think it should be costly. The command ‘You received without payment, give without payment’ is surely meant for us too.

Over the next two weeks we’re asking everyone to look particularly at their financial giving to the church. We English are not very happy when the church talks about money, as Archbishop Welby found out recently. But in England in 2018 sharing the love of God requires money.

I hear daily how lucky you feel to have Matthew as your vicar…I’m sure you want to hang on to him. But I’m also sure you would like other parishes to have equally well chosen properly resourced priests to love and inspire them. But that needs money – the same amount whether the parish is relatively rich (as we are here) or poor.

Jesus loved everyone…but most of all he sought out and loved those on the margins. Those who today, despite giving generously out of the little they have, need our help just to keep a church open so that others can be found by the love of God.

So please take the pack about our giving at St Mary’s. There is information about how our giving fits in with the rest of the diocese and what it’s used for; there’s a form we would like back, to tell us what you have decided to do…and there are 10 days’ worth of bible readings and prayers to remind us of the incomprehensible, wonderful, unconditional love we are given…and one way in which we can respond to that love.

‘For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us, most of all, that love has found us, Thanks be to God.’