“Light is sweet and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun”…words for Evensong, St John’s Adel

runswick-bay

Sermon for St John’s Adel, Last Sunday after Trinity 2019

Well, tonight’s readings weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs were they?

We have Timothy receiving advice on how to share in the suffering that being a Christian is going to send his way. And then we have Ecclesiastes…

I find this book very difficult to listen to…it seems almost like a ‘stream of consciousness’…a list of apparently unconnected thoughts. Unlike most other Old Testament writings it doesn’t tell the story of God’s plans and designs, humanity’s difficulty in following them, and the predictable consequences.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”…the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests that the ways of God are not clear…bad things happen to good people…we don’t know what disaster may happen next on earth.

But then he ends with traditional wisdom…”fear God, keep his commandments…God will bring every deed into judgement.”

I struggle with this book – but I like the fact that it’s in our Bible, and that portions of it appear in the lectionary…so we get to hear them at evensong…

It holds together the tension we have to live with as Christians in the real world. Tensions we can’t ignore if our faith is a real, living thing that we try to integrate into our lives. The tension between knowing, sometimes very clearly, that God is almighty, good, and loving…whilst at others we look with incomprehension at news of cruelty, disaster and almost random suffering.

This tension is found in another favourite of mine – the poetry of R.S.Thomas – Welsh poet priest. Many of his poems speak of his doubts, even of the existence of God, yet they also contain the inexplicable moments of certainty that underpin faith.

Here, a few lines from the poem ‘Folktale’…

“Prayers like gravel

         flung at the sky’s

window, hoping to attract

         the loved one’s

attention…

         I would

have refrained long since

         but that peering once

through my locked fingers

I thought that I detected

         the movement of a curtain.”

Thomas’ poems are certainly not full of joy…but however he describes them, the glimpses he had of God must have been life enhancing enough to keep him searching, to keep him working as a priest.

I think, amidst his despondency, the writer of Ecclesiastes must also have had moments of revelation. They don’t stop him questioning and wondering, but they maintain his faith that God is, and that God is good.

In the middle of tonight’s gloomy reading is the verse: “Light is sweet and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” It stuck out for me because of its beauty…and its truth. Light is sweet – sunny days lift the spirits.

It’s a great reminder that being a Christian, striving to know God, doesn’t mean everything will be wonderful…but it does mean there will be times, moments, of beauty and joy. Times of knowing we are loved…even beyond any human love. Times of knowing we’re right.

“Light is sweet and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun”, reminded me of a day spent with my Granny when she was quite elderly. Pete and I took her to Runswick Bay one summer. We wandered on the beach, had a good pub lunch and left her sitting in the sun looking out to sea whilst we had a walk. On the way home she said “Thank you for a wonderful day. I’ll store it up – it will last me through the winter.”

This reading made me think about learning to recognise the moments of revelation, of God’s nearness, and using them to help us through the wintry times when we’re not so sure.

Such encounters might happen as we enjoy the glories of nature, or in a beautiful service in this ancient, holy place. But they might equally happen at work or during household tasks. For me lately they have come as I visit and get to know you.

Whenever…whatever they are…stop and acknowledge the nearness of God. And if, someday he seems so distant you can hardly imagine his existence…remember that encounter and use it to help you through.

 

 

 

Finding ourselves in the bible…words for Bible Sunday, Adel Parish Church

GreatbibleI

Sermon preached at St John’s Adel for Bible Sunday 2019.

This may sound odd – but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a church with so many bibles. Of course for the early Rectors of Adel – that wouldn’t have been true at all. Before the printing press books were incredibly expensive, and rare. And the bible, then only available in Latin, was thought to be something only priests should read.

Only priests had the bible, they chose which bits the people should hear – and how it was presented. I can’t imagine you accepting that – and things weren’t so different in the 16th Century.

One key player was William Tyndale who believed everyone should read the bible for themselves – in their own language. Despite it being illegal – he began to translate the bible into English. He was hounded, eventually arrested, and put to death; but not before copies of his translation had been smuggled into Britain – and read widely.

The tide was turning, and four years after Tyndale’s death, the King ordered an English bible be present in every parish church. Not locked away in the hands of the priest – but open on the lectern. Actually…chained to the lectern…but only to stop theft. The bible was finally available to anyone lucky enough to be able to read.

Why did Tyndale give his life for a bible in English? Why did others risk theirs by owning such a thing? I guess because they’d discovered that when they heard the Bible in their own language, they found their own lives within it.

Scripture, when we read it for ourselves, turns out to be far more than instructions on what to believe or how to live. It’s something we encounter.

We’ve often struggled, as Christians, to know how to deal with the Bible. Some try to take it as literally true – almost like an encyclopedia of God. I suspect it’s done out of a desire to protect the Bible – perhaps even to protect God – but I think it diminishes both.

I’m not knocking encyclopedia…as a child I spent hours reading them…but if I want to learn about myself, if I want to grow and mature, an encyclopedia isn’t much use. A good novel or a poem is much more challenging and revealing. An encyclopedia gives me facts about things…novels and poems explore human life. And the Bible is full of stories and poems.

Rowan Williams says scripture isn’t words dropped from heaven, a simple and transparent picture of God. It’s the record of an encounter between humanity and God. The Bible, he says, contains God’s desire to communicate with us…and our inability to hear and understand properly…it contains our resistance to the message…and beautiful moments where God is glimpsed and people understand.

Bible Sunday began in 1915 out of a desire to make the Bible available in as many languages as possible. Perhaps people saw what Tyndale did – that when we have the bible in our own language we find it speaks the language of our lives.

And if we spend time with the Bible, we find that even in 21st century Britain, it has something to say in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Sometimes – in desolate times – we just need to know that God’s people have felt like this before. Many of the psalms are songs of lament. They might give us the words we need to tell God how we feel. They give us language to rant and rage at God…yet still, tentatively, to hold on to our trust in him.

There was a particularly low time in my life when almost the only Bible passage I could cope with was Jesus on the cross crying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I wasn’t ready for comfort, or even hope – but knowing that Jesus himself had been where I was, kept my faith alive.

At other times though, we are ready to read on. To spend time with a story, a psalm or a parable and let it rub up against our lives. If we see the Bible as an encounter, a wrestling almost, between God and God’s people…then we can consider what it might mean in the context of our lives. We can make the story our own. Maybe we can consider what our lives mean in the context of the Bible.

For me, that’s what makes the Bible so compelling…even if bits are totally baffling. All of human life is there – so we are there. It meets us where we are…because whatever we’re going through, whatever our situation, God’s people have been there before.

Even more importantly, it’s the story of how God interacts with people in all those situations – what God seems to be speaking into those situations. An encounter with God never leaves people the same – their lives, or their perspective on life, are always changed in some way.

So the Bible might meet us where we are – but if we engage with it seriously – if we make those stories our own – it doesn’t leave us where we are. The stories of Jesus especially, challenge the values we’re offered by the world. They give me a different narrative that, when I spend time with it, makes so much more sense.

If the Bible is to change us though, we need to give it time. The page numbers of the weekly readings are on the pew sheet, bibles are in the pews – if you’re ever here early you might like to read one of them before the service starts.

I’d also suggest to taking the sheet away and reading them again during the week. Take the words and stories out of church and into your lives…see what they say. You may find a conversation takes place between a bible passage and your life…which leaves your understanding of both enlarged.

 

 

Thanking as a way of life…

ten-lepers

Sermon for St John’s Adel Trinity 17…on thanksgiving and faith…

When I was a young – and I’m afraid – rather earnest Christian, I had a great liking for what I thought were profound little phrases or prayers. I used to collect them in this file…sad I know…

For a while my favourite was ‘Faith is watching the sunset and knowing who to thank.’ Now, I wonder if it’s just rather smug…and whether it ought to be ‘whom’? But it’s clearly stayed with me – because it popped into my head when I read today’s gospel…a story of thanking.

Here are 10 lepers, 10 people with a terrible skin disease that means they’re cast out from their homes, families, society. They’re objects of fear and revulsion.

Despite this, stories of Jesus the healer seem to have reached them – and they’ve dared to hope he can heal even lepers. Jesus just says, “go and show yourselves to the priests” (only priests could pronounce someone free of disease and safe to re-enter society)…and on the way they find they’re healed – ‘made clean’.

I’m pretty sure they all knew whom to thank…after all they approached Jesus, they followed his instructions…and their disease went. They all knew whom to thank – but only one actually turned round and did the thanking.

We could read this just as a story about gratitude, but carrying it round with me this week, it seemed also to be about faith. When that one leper returns Jesus says, “your faith has made you well”. Odd – since all 10 were already made clean, so he can’t be saying the disease went because man had faith.

No – Jesus seems to be talking of something other than the physical cure. The disease was already gone – but turning round, worshipping at Jesus’ feet and thanking him is apparently what really changes the man.

This is a picture often found in our scriptures. It’s the ‘turning round’ that matters, the reorientation of a life towards God. In recognising that Jesus should be thanked – the man admitted his need of God. He realised Christ offered not just freedom from disease, but a healing and saving relationship that would change his whole life…that would truly ‘make him well’. And he reckoned that relationship was something worth pursuing.

Many of you, like me, will have seen prayers for healing apparently not answered. That’s hard and I certainly don’t believe it’s to do with not having enough faith. But I have found that a relationship with Christ brings life in unexpected and different ways.

So that rather glib phrase from my teenage years…‘watching the sunset and knowing who to thank’…is just the beginning. What matters is doing the thanking…real faith is not something we have – but something we do. Thanking is important; because exploring what we have to be thankful for and spending time thanking deepens our relationship with God.

Our prayer book – Common Worship – contains a prayer called ‘A General Thanksgiving’. It’s adapted from our ancient prayer book – the Book of Common Prayer. It’s beautiful – and illustrates how ‘thank you’ is for the Christian not a matter of good manners, but a way of life. I’d like to read it now…

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,

we your unworthy servants give you most humble and hearty thanks

for all your goodness and loving kindness.

We bless you for our creation, preservation,

and all the blessings of this life;

but above all for your immeasurable love

in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,

for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

And give us, we pray, such a sense of all your mercies

that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful,

and that we show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives,

by giving up ourselves to your service,

and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 ‘Give us such a sense of your mercies that we show forth your praise not only with our lips but in our lives’…stopping to remember what God gives us through Jesus should feed into our everyday lives…should help our faith grow and change us.

‘Watching the sunset and knowing who to thank’ says there might be something to this God-stuff…but faith is much more than a one off decision to believe in God. It’s entering into a life-giving relationship with the one who gives us life.

Knowing whom to thank is just the beginning of a journey, an adventure involving every aspect of our lives, an adventure of a deepening relationship with God. Hopefully that happens, at least sometimes, on a Sunday, but even our Sunday or Wednesday worship, vital and wonderful though it is, is just part of our journey of faith.

I’m sure many of you have found things to help your faith journey. Bible notes…one of the apps now available…I know the members of our home group find that a challenging and exciting way to bring their faith into their everyday lives. If you’ve found something…share it!

I’d like to offer something that’s nurtured my faith over the last three years –Morning and Evening Prayer from Common Worship. It’s 20-25 minutes of set and individual prayers, psalms and readings. It’s a daily encounter with God.

I’ll be in church saying Morning Prayer at 8am, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; and Evening prayer at 5pm, Monday to Thursday. The door will be open – it would be lovely to have some company. You can join in, or just sit and listen.

Those times will be no good for many of you, I know and it’s available online if you want to fit it into your day. There is, though, something beautiful about praying together, so if you’re free come along and give it a try.

Sometimes I concentrate better than others – but I always leave feeling closer to God in some way. It frames my day, reminds me to thank God, and in thanking let my faith into every aspect of the day.

 

 

Harvest festival…a time to repent? First sermon at St John’s Adel.

Climate change

Sermon for our harvest festival.

Coming to Adel, leading worship in this church – it’s impossible not to be aware of the history of the place. Standing here I’m reminded of the long line of Rectors who have preceded me.

Celebrating harvest is something else with a long history…much longer even than our church. As soon as farming developed the harvest was a matter of life or death – of getting through the winter or not. It’s not surprising then that rituals developed, like sharing a harvest supper – a celebration of ample food and rest from labours.

Like many community occasions, the church saw that it was good – and stole it. Harvest Festivals began to be celebrated in churches. They no doubt…sadly, became slightly more sober affairs – but were still thanksgivings for a shared experience that was essentially a matter of survival, of hope for the future.

As we become more detached from the land, and the memory of winter starvation fades, Harvest Festivals have become a time to remember those less fortunate. Offerings of fruit and veg joined by tins and packets – our gifts today will help local food banks, a sad reminder that people go hungry in Leeds in 2019.

I think though, that we’ve come to a new phase for this celebration. We’re realising the danger of being detached from the land. In our drive for ever-cheaper food, and year round availability – we’ve stopped viewing the yearly harvest as a miracle, a gift from God. The land has become a commodity to be exploited for ever rising living standards…and we’re beginning to see the cost.

I’m in no position to lecture…there’s nothing quite like moving house to show how much unnecessary stuff you have. Unpacking it all, against the background of global climate strikes, was distinctly uncomfortable.

I began to feel perhaps Harvest should be a season of penitence like Lent. A season to repent of what our demand for ever-greater harvests is doing to God’s creation.

I suspect many of you heard Greta Thunberg speaking to the UN summit on climate change. Whatever your feelings on children missing school – I imagine like me you were moved…perhaps like me you felt shamed by her ‘How dare you?’ But she doesn’t want our sentiments.

She said this…“Adults keep saying, ‘we owe it to the young people to give them hope’, but I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel everyday. And then I want you to act…I want you to act as if your house is on fire…because it is.”

“Blimey”, you’re thinking “are all her sermons this miserable? So much for a harvest celebration.”

Actually – not miserable. Serious – yes. Urgent – yes. But not miserable – because although I understand Greta’s fear and support her message to world leaders; as Christians we are in the business of hope.

The penitence of Lent is driven by the hope of Easter. The joy of the resurrection is the joy of being reconciled to God. It’s knowing we’re forgiven that gives us the reason to change our ways, the hope for the future.

So as Christians we should be offering hope…to Greta…to the young Australian woman who said she won’t have children because she’s too scared of the future they might have.

Easy to say, but how do we bring something different; the true hope of Jesus Christ rather than more false promises? Well as Christians we have a different narrative to offer…one that says fulfillment doesn’t come from stuff, from having more.

In our gospel reading the crowd are following Jesus because he fed 5000 people with one picnic. They’re excited by the abundance of food – of stuff. They’re focused on food for today. Jesus challenges them to see beyond today’s perishable food – to hope for the future – to himself – the true, life-giving bread from heaven.

We’re in the business of hope because we gather each week around his table to share that life-giving bread. Around this table – with all our imperfections and disagreements – we are one body in Christ Jesus. We are, for a moment, what we were created to be…stewards of the earth…at one with God and with all creation.

For me that morsel of bread and sip of wine are hope for the future, because they are a place of reconciliation with God. But if that reconciliation is real – it demands change. It challenges us perhaps, to see ‘food that perishes’, as the lifestyle we now know can’t last – and to work for sustainable living that offers a future for all.

So what? Well I believe that being stewards of creation includes forcing whichever political party we support, and whoever ends up in Government to take the climate crisis seriously.

I believe it means taking Greta’s “How dare you!” seriously. We have to look at our lifestyles – we have to make difficult decisions about plastics, buying new, whether we need that ‘stuff’ at all, and most urgently – about car use and air travel. The answers will look different depending on our circumstances – but the questions must be faced by us all.

This isn’t about the moral high ground – which after all won’t be much use against rising sea levels. It’s about being the body of Christ – and remembering that those already affected by climate change, and generations to come, are also part of that body.

The Christian Aid Harvest slogan is “help turn despair into hope”. They’re talking about fantastic projects working in individual lives. But I think it’s a pretty good phrase for us all this harvest…seeing despair on the faces of our young people is a powerful wake up call.

In addition to our material gifts let’s make some genuine commitments to tackling the climate emergency. It’s going to be a hard road – but when we act in Jesus’ name, we do so in the power of the resurrection. Let’s “help turn despair into hope” this harvest by showing that the courage Greta Thunberg finds through her fear – can be ours through hope in Jesus Christ.