‘…another country…they do things differently there…’ Sermon for Christ the King – Adel Parish Church.

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A sermon for St John’s Adel – Christ the King – 2019

Colossians 1: 11-20; Luke 23:33-4

Our Iranian friends, Solmaz and her two boys, have been on my mind this week. They worshipped with us for only a few weeks, but they made an impression on those who spent time with them.

My inability to speak anything but English made communication difficult…I didn’t learn much of their history, but their time in England must surely have been very disorienting.

On arrival as asylum seekers, they were placed in the Parkway hotel on Otley Road. Pleasant enough I’m sure…but what an odd place to find themselves. No community, probably no one speaking their language, no school, college or work to fill their days. With no money for buses, they had to walk along Otley road, probably in the rain, just to find this church.

And just as they’d begun to know a few friendly faces – including the wonderful Maryam who could speak in their own language – they were uprooted and sent to Ashington, on the edge of Newcastle. I hope they’ll find another welcome – but the landscape will be totally different, not to mention the type of English spoken!

Whilst remembering them in prayer – imagining their disorientation has been a useful picture for me on this feast of ‘Christ the King’.

The celebration began in the 1920s to counter the rise of secularism and remind us that as Christians, Christ is our King – and Christ alone. It sounds obvious – but what does it really mean? Today’s New Testament readings give us an idea.

Paul wrote to the Colossians, ‘God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son.’ In Paul’s time, this language of transfer from one kingdom to another spoke of refugees rounded up after a battle and taken to the victor’s land…marched far from home to live in a kingdom completely different in geography and culture. Here the ruler is different, the rules are different, even the ideas that make sense of how life is lived are different.

Becoming a Christian, says Paul, is like that. Not a case of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking; because as Christians we’re deported from one kingdom to another – from one way of living to another. Nothing should be as we’ve known it. If you like, we are asylum seekers…and if we venture out into our new land everything should be a shock.

Why so shocking? Because of the King we follow. Paul continues with a description of Christ our King…‘He is the image of the invisible God…in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.’

Don’t try to fit this king into your existing ideas, Paul is saying…because this king is God. He’s not one king amongst many; he’s the king of all things. His rule is over all things. It should take first place in our lives, with the secular world fitted around it. Just as our Iranian friends will have to work out how to fit their lives into this new place…we should be working out how our lives can be lived in this new kingdom.

And just in case we’re not disorientated enough, ‘he is the image of the invisible God’ is followed in today’s readings with ‘they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.’

‘Here is your King’ we’re told…this man, a good man, a man who did nothing but love…humiliated, tortured, dying. Image of the invisible God – yet at the same time, a man who couldn’t look less like the sort of ruler the secular world demands.

The onlookers couldn’t cope with the disorientation – they tried to fit him into their world. Even as he was dying they tried to make him into the right sort of king, the sort they understood. “If you are the King of the Jews, the Messiah, save yourself.”

Instead we have is King committed to being truly human, but who doesn’t meet evil with evil…a king who loves and forgives, and goes on loving and forgiving whatever the cost…a king who, in the depths of humiliation and pain, has time for a dying thief.

‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, a famous and brilliant opening to a novel that I’d like to steal today. ‘Christ’s kingdom is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’

As Paul wrote about Christ – image of the invisible God: ‘through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, through the blood of his cross.’ This is a kingdom where victory comes not by fighting evil with evil, but by loving and forgiving. This is the king we’re offered on this Christ the King Sunday.

There’s a modern hymn, ‘Meekness and majesty’, that seeks to put into words the shock and disorientation of Christ’s kingdom. It’s number 226 in NHSW and the choir will sing it during communion – you might like to follow the words – but here are a few of them:

‘Lord of eternity, dwells in humanity, kneels in humility and washes our feet’

‘Suff’ring to give us life, conquering through sacrifice, and as they crucify, prays ‘Father, forgive.’

‘O what a mystery, meekness and majesty, bow down and worship for this is your God.’

If this is the king we follow, the rules are different. When we encounter Jesus here on a Sunday, or during the week through prayer or bible reading – the contrast with the world should be a shock. We should feel perhaps like refugees or asylum seekers – bewildered by the differences, having to work hard to work out the rules.

But just as people want to come to Britain for the peace and religious tolerance – once we’ve glimpsed Christ’s kingdom – and felt his love and forgiveness – we know it’s a place worth leaving home and travelling to.

Knowledge of good and evil – blessing or curse? Sermon for evensong at Adel Parish Church

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I Kings 3: 1-15       Romans 8:31 – end

A sermon for evensong at Adel Parish Church Nov 10th 2019

“Ask what I should give you”, says God to Solomon in tonight’s reading.

That’s quite an offer – and the basis of many stories from King Midas onwards. Sadly the choice usually ends in disaster – in the hero discovering, too late, what is really important. Having everything you touch turn to gold, for example, includes those you love…If we come across the offer of ‘anything you wish for’ in a book or film, we generally know it won’t end well.

Solomon, it seems, managed to avoid the pitfalls and made a wise choice: being able to discern between good and evil. Rereading it this week though, I was reminded of another story. I’m sure you know it…

”You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

For Adam and Eve, the same choice led to disaster. So is this knowledge of good and evil a good thing or not?

Amongst other things, the story of Adam and Eve seems to grapple with the mystery of how knowing good from evil, having free will we might say, seems to lead inevitably to our separation from God.

You would think knowing good from evil would help us make the right choices. But I bet we can all identify with St Paul’s anguished statement in the previous chapter of Romans: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want.”

Making the wrong choices seems to be an inevitable part of being an independent person. We see it in our children. When they’re tiny, they might snatch a toy from another child because they’re hardly aware of the other child’s existence. But although they gradually learn that it’s wrong – this always doesn’t stop them doing it.

Children rely on parents to teach them right from wrong – but it doesn’t mean they always follow the teaching. As with Adam, Eve and the apple tree – being told we shouldn’t have something or do something seems to make it all the more desirable.

Hopefully as we grow up we learn some self-restraint. We rely on friends and family to tell us when we might be going astray. We accept that on the whole the laws of the land are there to help us behave well. But – unless you’re all far more holy than me – we still do, or say, the thing we know to be wrong.

Even for Solomon – famed for his wisdom – it didn’t all work out well. He governed wisely, but in the end his private life was not so virtuous. God gave him the ability to discern good from evil – yet even he was unable always to do the right thing.

It’s a mystery that led to the concept of ‘original sin’, the idea that somehow we’re born in a state of sin. We may not accept the link of this with Adam, Eve and the apple, but the fact that we just tend to do the wrong thing is something I guess we’re all familiar with.

And for Christians there’s the bigger problem that we come to know Jesus – we’re shown even more clearly the difference between good and evil – but still we do the wrong thing.

For Paul, this in a way is what Christianity is all about. The experience of meeting Jesus Christ – such an overwhelming one for him – didn’t immediately make him sin less. But it did make him more aware of his sin. He knew his need of forgiveness, his need of God.

And he saw that in the mystery of God’s relationship with the world, that was enough. The glorious passage from Romans we heard tonight comes after 8 chapters exploring the reality of human guilt and sin. And what Paul’s experience tells him is that despite all that, nothing can separate us from God’s love shown in Jesus Christ.

Knowing good from evil doesn’t necessarily make us live better lives – in some ways it’s perhaps just what makes us human. But knowing God loves us whatever we do, feeling his forgiveness – that makes us aware of our sin in a way that helps us try to change. I hope I am becoming, one tiny step at a time, more like Christ – it’s knowing I am loved unconditionally that makes it possible.

So for Christians the offer of ‘anything you wish for’ is unnecessary – outdated. We already have the only thing that really matters – the promise that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us…that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And all we have to do is accept that love.

 

 

 

 

Refuse to hate…sermon for Remembrance Sunday.

Burma Railway re-union

Words for Remembrance Sunday St John’s parish church Adel 2019.

“When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.”

A famous verse: used on many war memorials.

It captures something of the flavour of Remembrance Sunday – when we remember those lost in wars, especially the vast numbers of young men who died in two world wars.

Today we bring our remembering into church – where our readings remind us that death is not the end; that as St Paul wrote: ‘Christ, through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope.’ Faced with the deaths of countless young people – we need that hope.

Because when young people die it seems a life has been wasted. We need a way of feeling they didn’t die in vain. We need to know all that suffering and death was for something.

In 1918 there was perhaps a hope that remembering the horror might help us avoid war in the future. In 1945 there was the feeling that evil powers had been overcome – that the deaths at least had some purpose.

But what of today? With hindsight we question the slaughter of the First World War –and even some tactics used against Hitler’s Germany. Wars are still fought but we’re much more likely to ask why.

“When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today?”

What does that say to us in 2019, beyond a feeling that we should honour the dead?

Well there aren’t many things more precious than the gift of life in a free country. If we want to honour those young people who believed they gave their lives in the cause of freedom – then that epitaph should make us think. How will we use that gift of ‘our tomorrow’?

In recent years numbers attending services like this have increased. Perhaps due to the centenary of the Great War…or because the number who can actually remember is dwindling. But I think there’s a danger that we stop remembering the horror, honouring the sacrifice…instead we look back longingly to a time when we were united, when being British seemed a ‘good thing’.

The sort of unity we get in times of war though, is being united against something. And because we’re human – we might start by uniting against fascism or the occupation of one country by another – but we so often end up united in hatred against a whole nation. Sadly there’s nothing quite like stirring up hatred against other people to unite humans.

When Mussolini sided with Hitler in 1940 – we united in hatred for all Italians. Ice-cream parlours were attacked and middle aged men who’d spent their lives selling ice cream to British children were imprisoned in camps.

During the First World War German soldiers were shown on posters as monsters – murdering babies. Yet the men at the front – those we remember today – often saw things differently. There were the Christmas truces of 1914, when soldiers stopped shooting and approached each other – finding young men missing home and loved ones, just like themselves.

And some of the most poignant poetry to come out of war talks of coming face to face with dead or dying ‘enemies’ and finding oneself in them.

There’s Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange meeting’ with it’s haunting words: ‘I am the enemy you killed my friend’.

And the more prosaic – but equally moving ‘Only a Boche’ by Robert Service…

“The dying Boche on the stretcher there has a queer resemblance to me.

And confound him, too! He wears, like me, on his finger a wedding ring,
And around his neck, as around my own, by a greasy bit of string,
A locket hangs with a woman’s face, and I turn it about to see:
Just as I thought . . . on the other side the faces of children three;”

“When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.”

How can we use the precious gift of ‘our tomorrow’ in a way that honours those who did their duty and gave their lives whilst managing not to hate? Perhaps the challenge for us is to stand up for what we believe is right, to do our duty, to support our country…but refuse to hate.

To think seriously about how our country should be run, about how we will vote in the General election. To be willing to give our opinions, and to listen to others…but refuse to hate those who disagree.

To work hard to provide a good standard of living for ourselves and our families. To engage with the debate about how many migrants or refugees the country can support…but refuse to hate those who come hoping to provide for their families.

To live out our Christian faith and share it with those we meet. To find out about other faiths. And where we find beliefs difficult, to ask, to listen, to challenge…but refuse to hate or demonise those who follow a different path.

We’re here today because we are followers of Jesus, who spoke up fearlessly for truth – and even when this took him to the cross – refused to hate. Jesus, who truly gave his today for our future hope, told us to love even our enemies.

Today is a reminder that sometimes we face almost impossible moral decisions. Sometimes the evil being done drives good people, Christians, to think war is necessary.

But we do not have to hate. On Wednesday I will take the funeral of a 101 year-old gentleman, whose 6 years’ war service convinced him to respect every life and work for reconciliation.

The men and women remembered today came from many political groups, from every class and background, from every race and faith. They gave their lives in the hope that it gave us a better future.

Let’s use their gift of our tomorrows to fight for a society where disagreements are aired and wrongs challenged but where hatred has no place.

Conversations remembered…words for the Memorial service at St John’s Adel.

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Sermon preached at the annual Memorial Service for St John’s, Adel 2019

“We followed the woodland trail, marvelling at the autumn colours. And I thought, ‘Mum will enjoy hearing about this’. Then I realised she wasn’t there any more…there would be no more conversations.” An experience shared recently by someone who has just lost his mother.

I guess it’s a familiar experience to most of you. It’s one of the things that brings home the reality of death – the end of our conversations. It’s one reason we find the death of a loved one so difficult; we struggle to imagine our lives going on without their words and their listening ear.

But if someone has been special to us, the conversations never really end. They continue in our lives because little things will often remind us of their words. And more importantly because they will have helped to form the people we are.

When I meet people to prepare for a funeral, they very often remember favourite sayings or phrases of the person who has died. Sometimes funny, sometimes wise advice, these have shaped the lives of the relatives remembering them.

I now have trouble recalling my Mum’s face without a photograph to help but I can still hear her. Two conversations particularly stay with me.

One was repeated many times, especially as I struggled as a new mother…I would pour out the latest panic…child refusing to eat, child wetting the bed…she would say – “It’s just a phase. It will pass.”

The other at the end of my first exam week at University, when everyone else seemed so much cleverer. I rang home to say I had probably failed everything. There was a silence on the other end of the phone…then Mum said “O.K. What have you got planned for this week?”

It’s a long time since I’ve been able to have a conversation with my Mum. But when things are difficult she still speaks into my life…telling me things are not usually as bad as I think, and that even if they are, I am still loved.

In a way those conversations with our loved one do go on – when we hear what they might have said in the new situations we face.

Of course not all the conversations we recall are positive…sometimes people die with important things unsaid. Sometimes hard words were exchanged…or silences allowed to fester. We are left feeling guilty or angry because hurts were left unforgiven, wrongs not righted – the conversation was not ended properly.

We who come to this holy place week by week do so because we have found in God, love that can heal such rifts. Love that gradually reshapes us, and our conversations.

And our readings tonight remind us that with God, death is not the end…but the point when we come face to face with that love. For us, who cannot yet hear the end of the conversation, death looks like destruction…for those with God ‘they are at peace’, ‘their hope is full of immortality’…they have l suppose learned a whole new language.

Jesus tried to explain to his disciples what this looked like. A house with many rooms, he said, with a space especially prepared for each of you. A house – the place of the everyday conversations we miss so much.

And if those readings sound exclusive, perhaps that’s a reminder of the limitation of words. Like us, the writers could only imagine what happens after death. They knew though, that in conversation with love itself everyone must be changed.

For many of us – by the end conversations are not possible. Many final illnesses rob us of speech – but love is shared and known, through touch, through just being there.

In the end too, our Christian hope comes down to love. In Christ’s life, death and resurrection we are promised that all people can be reconciled to God. That in Christ our words, and those of our loved ones go on.

So we continue to remember our loved ones who have died. I guess often we continue to talk to them. We remember their words, good and not so good. We carry forward into our lives the conversations that changed us for the better – and hand to God the words, theirs and ours that we regret.

We trust they are now safe with God, but they stay in our prayers because we need help to put the conversations that shaped us and defined them into God’s wider conversation of love.

 

 

 

 

God’s grace in unexpected places…words for All Saints’ Day, St John’s Adel.

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Finding God’s grace in unexpected places…sermon preached at Adel St John’s for All Saints’ Day 2019

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. So, can anyone tell me who became a saint on October 12th this year?

Any advance on John Henry Newman – Anglican priest, later Roman Catholic priest, theologian, scholar, poet? What about: Dulce Lopas Pontes, Marguerite Bayes, Giuseppina Vannini, Mariam Mankidiyan? Four women pronounced saints on the same day.

I wonder why our news outlets only mentioned Newman…because he was British? …dare I suggest, because he was male? I’ll just leave that thought hanging…

The Church’s introduction to this season of remembering says: “No Christian is solitary. Through baptism we become members one of another in Christ, members of a company of saints whose mutual belonging transcends death.”

A wonderful thought, that we don’t have to try to be Christians on our own, because we belong to a fellowship that stretches back, and forwards in time. Faith isn’t just something personal – our faith is fed by others…even those no longer alive.

The church also says: “All Saints’ Day celebrates men and women in whose lives the church has seen the grace of God powerfully at work.”

The Church of England doesn’t go in for pronouncing Saints as the Roman Church does – but still our calendar remembers many people – famous and less so – whose lives showed God’s grace. This book ‘Saints on Earth’ contains their biographies.

It’s a fascinating read…showing a huge variety of saintliness. From Agnes…Roman child martyr…through Russian mystics…to bishops and priests of all times and nations.

I’m sure there’s a saint in there to suit everyone. A saint to inspire us, whose struggles we can identify with. If you were here last week on Bible Sunday – you probably gathered I’m rather fond of William Tyndale who gave his life so the people of England might have a bible in their own language. A man who thought everyone should engage with scripture for themselves.

I wonder – do any of you have a favourite saint? Perhaps there’s an idea there for a magazine article!!

But if we go back to the question I began with…why we didn’t hear about those women saints from other lands…perhaps finding our ‘favourite’ saint is not the best way of making use of this tradition we inherit.

If we look for saints with whom we identify, might this just reinforce our picture of God’s grace…of what it looks like…of how it appears in human lives? And might that reinforce our picture of God…as perhaps a particularly good version of ourselves?

When I have time, I try to read the relevant pages from this book. It’s given me food for thought. There are some saints I just don’t get, and some where even the writers of the book seem to struggle a little to see God’s grace in the lives they record.

King Charles I…convinced of the ‘divine right of Kings’, who used the belief he was appointed by God to suppress church practices different to his own, to punish harshly those who disagreed. But who ‘was punctual and regular in his devotions, so that he was never known to enter upon his recreations, though never so early in the morning, before he had been at public prayers.’

Thomas More…in the face of criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and the search for a new way of being Christian: ‘More had no sympathy with either the reformers or their beliefs. He endorsed the burning of heretics.’ But who refused to support his King against the Pope – at great financial cost, and eventually at the cost of his life.

John Calvin…one of the great reformers who taught that God has already chosen who will accept his word – and who won’t…who will be ‘saved’ and who won’t. Him I really struggle with – and yet many found faith through him, and his faith led him to support hospitals and new industries, and care for the poor and infirm.

At my licensing service I chose the reading about Elijah finding God not in earthquake, wind or fire, but in the silence…to remind me that God is always bigger and different to what I imagine.

Perhaps All Saints’ Day is a good time to have our vision enlarged. To think about how other people might see God’s grace. How God’s grace might be demonstrated in ways we haven’t imagined. Those ‘difficult’ saints might be a way of enlarging my vision. And the internet makes it very easy these days. You won’t have this book, but you can sign up to a daily prayer from the Church of England that reflects these diverse but holy people.

The church though has an even wider understanding of what saints are…people who profess Jesus as Lord and try to follow him. So look around you – here’s a whole bunch of saints…people in whom the grace of God is at work. Perhaps more powerfully on some days than others – but at work never the less.

And here’s a wonderful challenge and opportunity…to look at the people who are different to us…the people who express their faith in a different way…dare I say it…the people we sometimes find hard work. To look at them ready to see God’s grace at work through their lives.

And if it’s not immediately obvious – look again. Maybe we need to get to know them better; maybe we need to pray for them, and for the grace to see them as saints.

At the end of last week I spent two days on retreat with my prayer group from training. I didn’t choose them…and initially found the range of theology and personality hard. But they’ve become one of my most important supports. We laugh lots and they constantly surprise me with different glimpses of God’s grace.

Let’s use the prompt of All Saints’ Day to be surprised by God. To be surprised by where God’s grace has been recognised – in people different to us. To be surprised by the way God’s grace is shown by the people around us in church this morning