Burning last year’s palms…a challenge and an analogy for repentence? Ash Wednesday sermon for Adel Parish Church

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Burning last year’s palms…a challenge and an analogy for repentance. Words for Ash Wednesday – Adel Parish church.

Since this is my first incumbency – becoming Rector of Adel has involved a steep learning curve. One of the more esoteric skills I’ve had to master is that of turning last year’s palm crosses into this year’s ash.

It turns out to be considerably harder than you might think – and also not a bad metaphor for the Lenten journey of penitence we begin today.

First the ash has to be made from last year’s palm crosses – you can’t just go burning anything. So you need to prepare – to announce an appeal. Thank you for finding so many. I suspect some of us failed to find one – mine doesn’t seem to have survived the house move – but others appear to have been stock piling them for years!

I think that rooting around the house for palm crosses, rather than burning anything to hand is a good picture for penitence – saying sorry. There’s a temptation not to bother looking – to assume we’re ok, that we don’t really have anything important to say sorry for. Or we can overdo it – think that we’re so bad we end up almost wallowing in repentance, thinking that the more things we can find to feel bad about the better…feeling worthless.

Neither approach is much use. Repentance is meaningful if we look carefully, and consider seriously what in our life that needs to change. Repenting means turning…back to Christ from the things that separate us from his love. It needs us to take time to review our lives in the light of God’s love, so we know what we really need to turn from.

Well the first stage went wonderfully well, and I had a stack of palm crosses. A survey of friends who’ve already tackled this challenge came up with a number of steps: heat the palms in the oven to drive off any oils; cut them into small pieces; put them in a flame proof container and do your best to burn them. We don’t own the kitchen blowtorch suggested by one friend, so I had to make do with a gas lighter.

Genuine repentance takes effort too. Although we know being sorry doesn’t make us perfect, there’s not much point in saying sorry if we’re just going to go and do the same again. Having identified what’s wrong in my life – I need to think carefully about how I might start to put it right.

Sometimes that might be as simple as saying sorry, or reaching out to someone I’ve fallen out with. But it might mean serious thought about how I might stop making the same mistakes over and over. It might mean definite changes to my lifestyle.

Since I decided to attempt my ash making last Saturday, in gale force winds, I had the added challenge of making sure I did have some ash at the end, rather than it being spread across Adel. If you’re interested, I retreated to the garage.

We need that ash – as a powerful symbol in today’s service – but also as the useful bit from our sin. True repentance is hard work – because it means changing our lives. But I don’t think it means erasing what went wrong from our lives.

Our lives are littered with mistakes; because they’re the way we learn. Repenting means spending time with the guilt, so we want to avoid it in the future. It means developing some understanding of what went wrong and why. Serious repentance should leave us with ash, with valuable experience to help us grow in Christ.

By the end of Saturday afternoon I had enough ash for a couple of Ash Wednesday services and a visit to school. I also smelled as though I’d been at scout camp for a week. The smell rather followed me around, so that I couldn’t sit down anywhere until I’d had a shower, washed my hair, and put all my clothes in the washer.

And that’s the thing about Lent and repenting. It should end up with us feeling cleaner than when we started. It’s a time for recognising sin, thinking deeply about what’s wrong with our lives and how to put it right. It’s a serious matter – that’s why it lasts 40 days. But it doesn’t end with horrible guilt, it ends with God’s forgiveness.

So tonight we come for ash – to remind us of our sin and need for forgiveness. But afterwards we come to Christ’s table, knowing that sinners are welcome, and that if we’re truly sorry, there’s nothing God cannot wash away. We are beginning 40 days work of serious Lenten repentance…but we know it will end with Easter hope and salvation.

 

 

“If only you had more faith…”dangerous words? Sermon for evensong at Adel Parish church, Sunday next before Lent.

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“If only you had more faith…” dangerous words?

Sermon for evensong, Sunday next before Lent, Adel Parish Church.

2 Kings 2: 1-12; Matthew 17: 1-23

Today we hear of the transfiguration of Jesus – when he is revealed as truly God – in glory that’s too much for the disciples even to look on. Jesus is God – the bedrock of our faith.

Then we come back down the mountain to be faced with one of the greatest challenges to faith…someone is ill, they are prayed for, and nothing happens.

Even worse…we have Jesus telling the disciples that they failed to cure the epileptic boy because they didn’t have enough faith.

So where does that leave us when our loved ones…or those we come across…are ill? Do we pray for their healing – knowing that in our experience, and that of those around us, miraculous healing is rare? Do we pray for their healing and then feel guilty because our faith was not enough?

Like the boy in the story, our daughter Kate has epilepsy. I’ve come across lovely, genuine Christians who have suggested praying with her for healing. I’ve fended them off.

Because I don’t have enough faith that such healing is likely? Possibly.

Because I fear she’ll end up feeling the epilepsy is somehow her fault, to do with her lack of faith? Definitely.

So what do we do with such bible passages? Mostly – I don’t really know. But for what they’re worth – here are a couple of thoughts.

There are many stories of Jesus healing people. There are stories of the disciples healing people. But neither they nor Jesus healed everyone around them. The crowds were enormous. Some will have gone away disappointed, many will never have reached Jesus or the disciples. And we know that we can’t all be healed indefinitely – death is part of life.

So I trust that these stories are not about some mechanism whereby faith reaches a certain point and healing follows. Rather they are about Jesus bringing life in all its fullness – and this first being shown in healings and other miracles.

Perhaps Jesus, the man in whom all the fullness of God dwelt – as we see at the transfiguration – could not help but heal people. Perhaps the power of God just flowed out of him.

Perhaps healings by Jesus were the only way to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God had arrived in Jesus. Perhaps healings by the disciples showed that God’s power is available to others.

It seems that when Jesus first sent the disciples out, they were amazed by their ability to heal – but with Jesus absent for a couple of days up a mountain they seem to have lost their nerve, their faith. May be Jesus’ exasperation is to do with the urgency of spreading the news of the kingdom, and the need for them to understand the power of faith.

So what about now? I know there are examples of miraculous physical healing following prayer…although I haven’t witnessed it. But on the whole it seems rather less simple.

I do pray for Kate and others who are ill. But I don’t pray expecting a miracle. I pray because I’ve found that prayers are answered in ways I don’t expect. That faith ‘as small as a mustard seed’ can somehow help me get through things I didn’t think I could cope with. That, mysteriously, receiving life in all its fullness, doesn’t mean no suffering, no illness.

Of course I could just be trying to explain away a bible passage I find difficult…but that seems better than ignoring it, or interpreting it in such a way that blames the sick for their lack of faith.

After all, Jesus didn’t tell the boy that if he’d had more faith he would have been healed. Jesus never suggested that someone’s illness was to do with their sin or lack of faith.

On balance – when I meet Jesus I would rather have to explain my lack of faith, than how I made others feel their illness was their fault.

So I pray holding together a paradox. Holding together the belief that prayer does something, with the certainty that the God who has found me wouldn’t wait for someone to have enough faith before healing them.

And I pray, with the promise those disciples had yet to discover – that whatever the mystery of suffering in this world – Jesus has conquered death. So in a way I cannot yet grasp, all will be well.

 

 

 

Like stained glass…thinking about the transfiguration.

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Like stained glass – thinking about the transfiguration.

A sermon for the Sunday next before Lent – St John’s Adel

Exodus 24: 12-end;     2 Peter 1: 16 – end;      Matthew 17: 1-9

Since the New Year, being Rector seems to have consisted largely of taking funerals…and I have a confession to make.

I love taking funerals.

I don’t love the fact that they’re needed, but there’s enormous privilege in celebrating a precious life. Often before the funeral there’s a special time with family, sharing, perhaps for the only time, the whole of the life we’re remembering.

Of course when we’ve just lost someone we tend to remember their best features, but families are usually very honest. With love they recall the person ‘warts and all’: they remember the hard times; the poor choices; the difficult bits of their character.

I read a beautiful description recently of what clergy do in the funeral address – the eulogy. It was described as ‘holding up fragments of a life like stained glass and trusting the divine light will shine through.’

And it does. The address always follows a bible passage. And when we put the whole life together, next to a story of God and his love for us, we find the one shining through the other…we find, perhaps in a way we hadn’t seen before, a person who, despite their faults, showed us something of God.

In our gospel today we heard of another human life held up to the light of God. At the top of a mountain, in a strange experience, the disciples somehow saw God through Jesus. And because Jesus is one with God, it’s as if he is transparent, the light is overwhelming – the disciples seem to look straight into the heart of God. They began to understand that Jesus somehow was also God.

The transfiguration, as it’s called, told them something about Christ, but I think it also teaches something about all of humanity.

At my priesting, someone at Whitkirk gave me this book by Rowan Williams. It looks at Orthodox Christian icons and what they tell us about Jesus.

Icons are stylised images. They’re based on the belief that the divine and the human in Jesus can’t be separated. They seek to show the divine life in Jesus acting on the human nature, shining through it – transfiguring it if you like.

Icons are not just paintings – they’re meant to be gateways to God. We’re not meant just to look and admire – they’re to be used as prayers – as ways of encountering God through the picture.

Icons of today’s story – the transfiguration – have the disciples sprawling on the ground, shielding their eyes. They show Jesus, dazzlingly bright against dark circles that don’t seem to have an end. These represent the eternal life and love of God…life and love that seem to be able to pour into and through Jesus.

Icons of the transfiguration, Williams says, tell us that the eternal life and love of God can somehow dwell in a human life. That the Jesus we meet in the gospels is, in human form, the same Son of God who was with God ‘in the beginning’ and always will be. The disciples are left sprawling because it’s an idea almost too big to handle.

But perhaps those three disciples needed to see Christ transfigured, to see all the glory of God in human form. Because later they are the ones with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before he died – as he prayed in agony…not something they expect to see God doing.

If they could remember Christ transfigured on the mountain-top, they might realise that God’s life can dwell in every bit of human life including the fear and doubt of that garden. Including even the terror and death of the cross.

The transfiguration then is much more than a reminder that Christ is truly God. It says God can dwell in every part of human life. Which also means, I think, that there is no human life in which God cannot be found.

So I think it means we should expect to find God in other human lives. Christ’s transfiguration says that all human lives can be transfigured – can let the light and love of God shine through them.

There’s a lovely line in one of the prayers I use during evening prayer. It asks God ‘may the people we have met today bring us closer to you.’

When I think back over the day in prayer, I can often see where God has shown or taught me something through the people he’s sent my way. This week though, thinking about the transfiguration…about God choosing to inhabit every bit of human life…I’ve been carrying this prayer around with me.

If I start the day praying ‘may the people I will meet bring me closer to you’, I find myself looking for the place in that person where the divine light shines through. They sort of become icons as I look beyond the surface and find through them a way of encountering God.

Of course I’m not very good at this. Too often I forget and look at people in my light rather than Gods. I look for how they can help me, or I see only what irritates or annoys. But as with many things – practice helps.

And the more I look for God in others, the more I find him. And, I suspect, the more God’s light can shine through my life too.

Perhaps the transfiguration says that if God dwelt in one human life – all human lives are somehow made holy.

So let’s not wait for the next funeral to hold up the lives of those around us and look for the divine light shining through them.

 

 

It’s not about the cat…but liturgy matters.

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Sermon for Adel Parish Church – 3rd Sunday before Lent.

Isaiah 58: 1 – 9; 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12; Matthew 5: 13 – 20

There was once a wise and holy man who every evening sat down with his disciples to meditate and worship God. One day a young cat joined the community. It wandered through the temple during worship, mewing and distracting people, so the holy man ordered that the cat should be tied up at the door before worship began.

This went on for many years. The holy man died, but the cat continued to be tied up during worship. Eventually the cat died…and another cat was bought so this important ritual could continue…learned scholars wrote books about the significance of the cat in worship…

I guess some of things we do could seem as odd as if we tied a ceremonial cat to the door at the start of the service. In our first reading, Isaiah warned of empty rituals that made no difference to the way people lived.

And yet we still do them. One of the many things that attracted me to this church was the fact that we celebrate the Eucharist, with a priest in vestments, on Sundays and midweek; that we have a robed choir and server, a gospel procession, that we stand, sit, kneel, turn to face different ways…

…that’s because the rituals, the liturgy, the stuff we do has been very important in my adventure with God.

There are lots of words in our worship – and they’re important. But in the end they’ll always be approximate, inadequate. God is transcendent…beyond and greater than any words. Symbols take over where words are not enough.

It’s not only our brains we bring to worship, but also our bodies and emotions, our whole selves. I think we learn about God in what we do as well as what we say and hear. So for me the things we do are important, not because they please God, or because we’re ‘getting it right’…but because they change us.

Of course some people feel it’s all old fashioned, that we should find more modern ways to worship. But part of the power of liturgy is that it is ancient. It has deep meaning because its meaning is in a way outside of time, outside the ‘fashion’ of the day. People have done these things for hundreds of years because in them they have found God.

Sometimes it needs a little explanation. When I’ve read the gospel, I put it back open on the altar for the week. Perhaps I should’ve said that I do this because in hearing it – and in exploring it in the sermon and prayers we’ve broken open the gospel. We’ve let it out of the book and into our lives. It’s open to remind us that it’s not just words on a page, but truth to be lived.

Sometimes though, the liturgy can’t be explained – it’s much better experienced.

Soon we’ll be entering Lent, Holy Week and Easter…when the church provides us with almost an overload of stuff to do. I will be ‘going for it’ whole-heartedly – and would like to invite you to do the same.

Why? Because I’ve found that when I do that stuff, Holy Week is about much more than remembering what Christ has done for me. It becomes a way of taking the journey with Christ.

On Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent, we have ash put on our foreheads. It asks us to recognise what’s wrong with our world, that we are with Christ in the wilderness – and need him to lead us out.

On Palm Sunday we sing ‘Hosanna’ and process waving palms…we say ‘Jesus is our King’ – knowing how fickle we are – how soon cheers turn to spite.

On Maundy Thursday we come to the last supper and share bread and wine as if for the first time. I’ll be looking for 12 volunteers to have their feet washed as the disciples had theirs washed by Christ. I’ve been one of those 12 – slightly embarrassed, but moved as my priest replaced robes with a towel, knelt and washed my feet – and I imagined Christ doing that for me.

I’ve also done the foot washing…reminded of my place washing feet rather than standing in the pulpit…but also conscious of the grace of those people…we’re British…we’re uncomfortable with stuff like this…but people agreed to have their feet washed so we could learn together about Christ’s way.

Then we strip the altar, take away everything but the consecrated bread…and sit for a while as Jesus prays desperately in the garden; trying not to let our minds wander…trying not to fall asleep. And then we go…leaving him to face the court alone.

On Good Friday – we kneel before the cross – think about the agony – perhaps about our agony – or of those who suffer today around the world.

Then we come at 6am on Easter morning. Hear the story of God and his people – come with the new light brought into a dark church. Sing…shout ‘alleluia’ because all the cruelty, fear, failure has not overcome the love of God.

It’s very different to just hearing the story. There’s a posh Greek word for it…anamnesis. It means an active remembering where the past gets drawn into the present…and we find in it truth for every time.

Somehow in the doing we experience with Christ…popularity, anger, fellowship, love, fear, betrayal…even doubt. We realise those are our experiences too and that becoming like Jesus is about finding the way to cope with what life throws at us.

So whether it’s all new to you, or has been part of your life for years, please come, and let’s travel this journey together. Humour your new Rector…volunteer to have your feet washed – or to read a lesson at dawn on Easter Sunday!

I will finish with some advice from our next Archbishop of York on ‘A Good Holy Week’ – a book I heartily recommend…

He says:

Attend everything.

Go for broke.

Just be there, be part of it and see where you are taken.