The burning bush – would I have noticed? Sermon for Adel Parish church – Aug 30th 2020

Burning bush

The burning bush – would I have noticed?

Sermon for Adel Parish Church, August 30th 2020

Exodus 3: 1 – 15

I am notoriously unobservant.

After a couple of months as curate in Whitkirk, talk turned to the possibility of using the grand piano instead of the organ to accompany a service I was planning.

“Where is the piano?” I asked – only to find I’d processed past it at the start of every service…a grand piano…

So, rereading that familiar story of Moses – I had to wonder…would I have noticed the burning bush?

I began to look at this story differently some years ago – when during a discussion of the passage someone said, ‘I wonder if the bush had been burning for years…but no one noticed…’

With that thought, the story changes. No longer God more or less forcing his call on Moses, at that particular time; could it be that God called – and waited for someone ready to receive the call? Or maybe it was always Moses God was calling…for years before he was ready to notice, to respond.

I suppose a burning bush should be even more difficult to miss than a grand piano. But it got me thinking about where we tend to look for encounters with God, and how we perhaps ignore things that threaten to take us out of our comfort zone.

We could hear this story as an encouragement to be ready to receive God’s call. And we might try to do this by spending more time in prayer, in meditation, in church. I know from experience that all of these bring me closer to God…and when I’m closer to God I’m probably more ready to hear his call.

But this could also lead us to expect the call to come, the burning bush to appear, when we are praying, meditating, or in a holy place.

Reading the passage this week though, I realised something new. Moses was at work when he spotted the burning bush. He was a shepherd, tending the flocks of his father in law, and had led them to Mount Horeb, presumably looking for good grazing. This, for Moses, was an ordinary day at the office. His mind would’ve been on the safety of the flock, the availability of food and water.

I wonder how ready we are to spot the burning bush, the call from God, when we’re about our daily work, paid or voluntary. We’re part of a Christian community, we pray, worship and study to deepen our relationship with God. But we live out most of our lives at home, work, in the wider community. These are where we’re called to be followers of Christ, so it shouldn’t be too surprising if this is also where God chooses to speak to us, where he puts the burning bushes. The question might be whether we’re ready to notice them…or, having noticed them, choose to investigate.

Moses saw a bush that was blazing yet not consumed by fire. It was something outside his experience or expectations. It stopped him in his tracks, forced him to take a second look. Then he had a choice – he could have hurried on. Things totally outside of our experience can be scary, they hold the promise of lives changed.

I’m pretty sure there’ve been times in the past when I’ve seen a burning bush; something that was beyond my expectations, not part of my plans. And I’ve hurried by, for fear of getting involved, in trepidation of where it might lead me.

Moses, at this point in his life, seems ready to take the chance, “I must turn aside to look at this great sight”, he says. This turning aside gives God the chance to speak to Moses, to show how Moses can become part of God’s work on earth. And Moses finds himself on holy ground, face to face with God himself.

In some ways, I suppose, Moses had it easy: the actual voice of God; God so present he had to hide his face; at least he was in no doubt to whom he was talking. I suspect it’s unlikely ever to be so clear for any of us. But living in the expectation that God may speak to us in our everyday lives is a start…

Then, when the burning bush appears, we have to be ready to turn aside, to look. We have to be ready to join God’s plans, possibly even to have our lives turned upside down. Which means we are ready too, to have life in all its fullness, life as God intends for us.

I’d like to finish with part of a poem I came across by Jan Richardson, which captures the challenge and the joy awaiting us in the burning bush.

You will have to decide
if you want this—
want the blessing
that comes to you
on an ordinary day
when you are minding
your own path,
bent on the task before you
that you have done
a hundred times,
a thousand.

You will have to choose
for yourself
whether you will attend
to the signs,
whether you will open your eyes
to the searing light, the heat,
whether you will open
your ears, your heart
to the voice
that knows your name,
that tells you this place
where you stand—
this ground so familiar
and therefore unregarded—
is, in fact,
holy.

Amen.

 

 

 

The keys to the kingdom? Sermon for Adel Parish church 23rd August 2020.

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The keys to the kingdom? Sermon for Adel Parish church 23rd August 2020.

Matthew 16: 13 – 22

A life-long Methodist turns up at the pearly gates. St Peter smiles and says ‘Welcome to heaven, go to door 10, but when you pass door number 2 be very quiet.’

Next a Baptist arrives. St Peter says ‘Welcome to heaven, go to door 17, but please be very quiet when you pass door number 2.’

Next in the queue is a Roman Catholic. St Peter says ‘You know the drill – door 6 but very quiet past door 2.’

This woman asks ‘Why the silence around door 2?’

‘Ah’, St Peter replies, ‘That’s where the Anglicans are, and they think they’re the only ones here.’

You could, of course, substitute any denomination…and no one really thinks like that do they?

In today’s gospel Jesus tells Peter that the church will be founded on him – and he will be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. That phrase has given us the picture of St Peter, at the gates of heaven, controlling who gets in. But it’s also led to churches down the centuries, feeling it’s their task to say who is in and who is out…who’ll get to heaven and who won’t.

There are churches which trace their authority back through generations to St Peter himself…and feel this gives their leaders the ‘keys to the kingdom’.

There are churches that feel this is all wrong, that authority doesn’t lie with individuals, it comes from God…so they start a new church, replace people with creeds and confessions, and use these to decide who is in and who is out. The bewildering number of denominations shows just how many times that’s happened.

It happens because people take faith seriously, and want to defend it against the world around. But I think it also happens because we remember only that authority is given to the church – not what this authority is based on.

So, let’s go back to that conversation between Jesus and his disciples. After asking what society is saying about him, Jesus asks them directly – ‘Who do you say I am?’

Peter blurts out what he’s perhaps just realised, ‘You are the Messiah, Son of the living God’. It’s this confession that makes Jesus call Peter the rock on which he will build his church. And, Jesus makes clear Peter has received a revelation from God.

The church, then, is based not on a perfect authority figure, or a set of rules, but on a flawed human being who, with God’s help, realised true life comes from Jesus Christ.

Actually, I’m happy to belong to a church with recognized figures of authority. I’ve been very grateful for the leadership provided by our bishops during this pandemic. For me the problem comes when we and they, forget to look beyond them to Christ.

When, having come to an understanding of some aspect of faith, we begin to think that if we are right, everyone else must be wrong…and that means they can’t be part of the Kingdom of heaven. And the church starts to look like an exclusive club – where some are not welcome.

 

Our understanding of Christ is always flawed and incomplete…because we’re human and he is God. But sometimes we forget we’re followers of Christ, and become defenders of our idea of Christ. And this can too easily be a Christ we’ve created in our image, to reflect our understanding of Christianity.

I used to teach RE to year 6 classes. At 10 or 11, they’re starting to question things, trying to make sense of faith for themselves, and they say some revealing things. Once, one began a question, “Miss, you know how our God is white…”

“…you know how our God’s white…”, I’m sure none of us think like that, he was 10 years old after all. But he had perhaps picked up our tendency to assume God is like us…that God will hold similar opinions to us on contentious issues.

And sadly, once we think we know what God thinks, we seem unable to listen to others, to contemplate that we might’ve made a mistake. Then churches are torn apart over issues of gender and sexuality. Or become so convinced of their authority that crimes are covered up, or prejudices such as racism become embedded.

And rightly or wrongly, people outside the church see Christians as people mainly concerned with whether others conform to ‘right’ ways of thinking and behaving.

Yet the rock on which the church stands is the recognition that Christ is the son of the living God…that Christ is the way the truth and the life. The church should be a community of people recognizing that for ourselves. And then working out together – in all our diversity – what that might mean for how we live our lives.

And since Christ rarely talked about rules or doctrine, but about costly forgiveness and love; since he defies attempts to box him in and tie him down but constantly surprises us; we should perhaps be wary of putting our words into his mouth.

As Christians we are called to apply our faith to the way we live, the way we earn and spend, the way we vote. We should take our faith and how we practice it seriously. We have to make decisions about what we think Christ’s followers should do. But I think we should be very wary of thinking we know who is in and who is out – in the Kingdom of God.

Here’s another St Peter joke to finish with.

2 flat-earthers (people who insist the earth is flat) go to heaven. They’re allowed to ask God just one question. So, asks the first, ‘Was I right?’…’No’ says God. Turning to his friend the man says ‘This goes higher than I thought.’

Again – nonsense – but also perhaps a warning against making God in our image, and losing our ability to be surprised and changed by the one we confess as Christ, Son of the living God.

 

 

Be bold…a lesson from the feeding of 5000. Sermon for Adel Parish church 2nd August 2020.

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Be bold…a lesson from feeding of the 5000.

Sermon for Adel Parish church 2nd August 2020.

Matthew 14: 13 – 21

The feeding of the 5000…when I hear that story, I’m transported immediately back to Greenbelt festival in the summer of 1984. If you haven’t heard of Greenbelt – it’s a Christian music festival. It’s definitely not my sort of thing…but at 19 and at University I was somehow swept along…

Looking back now, the only things I can remember are the queues for the loos, and the feeding of the 5000. It was the gospel at the Sunday service…and it was brilliantly told by someone pretending to phone home with an eyewitness account…breathless, amazed, puzzled…it was a great bit of acting, and it stuck with me.

I haven’t the skills to reproduce it, especially without an audience…but there is something very powerful about an eyewitness account…so, let’s go back to that day with Jesus in the wilderness.

Let’s imagine we’re his disciples…with Jesus we’ve just heard the news that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. Jesus, weary with teaching and healing, now overcome with grief, just wants to get away. He takes a boat to a deserted place.

But the crowds follow, bringing their sick, desperate to hear more of his life changing teaching. We want to turn them away…’can’t you see, he’s just lost the cousin he loved…can’t you leave him alone?’

Jesus though, stops us. He looks at the crowd, hungry for love and direction. Tired as he is, he has compassion. He heals and teaches for another long, exhausting day. And, following his example, we look at the people in compassion. We imagine how hungry they must be, and remember how far we are from any village. Tentatively we suggest that Jesus sends them away to buy food.

But Jesus does what he so often does…takes our idea and turns it into something much bigger and bolder. ‘If you care for them…why don’t you give them something to eat?’ he says. And we do what we always do…we make excuses. ‘We have nothing here…nothing to give them.’ But perhaps because we know Jesus knows…we qualify it with the truth, ‘Well…nothing except 5 loaves.’

And because we really do want to help Jesus in his kingdom building, we bring him the little we have.

Then comes the bit that made such good drama at Greenbelt all those years ago…Jesus looks up to heaven praying to his Father…he blesses the bread, like he always does…then he breaks it, like he always does…then he gives it back to us…

And we hand it out, and hand it out, and keep on handing it out. And people eat and eat, and still there’s more to hand out…but people start refusing it…too full to eat another morsel. And we collect up the left overs…12 baskets full…

And we know Jesus has done something amazing…but also that we seem to have had quite a big part in it. In Jesus’ hands, our meagre offering has achieved something huge.

I think in the last few months we’ve experienced something similar. Life changed very suddenly. Almost overnight, ‘church’ was not possible in the way we’ve been used to. We knew we wanted to keep faith and hope alive. We knew we needed to find new ways to worship, pray and care, but perhaps felt we had little to offer.

We did offer what we had though…in a panic, not really knowing what we were doing…apologetically, not really thinking we had the skills…anxiously, thinking it could all go horribly wrong.

And Jesus seems to have done what he did with those 5 loaves…taken our small, tentative, nervous ideas, and turned them into something much larger, bolder…and more use in building his kingdom.

We’ve found we can write prayers, read lessons, produce services online, coordinate an online choir, lead children’s groups, lead services, share our faith in words and pictures, turn our churchyard into a place of prayer…we’ve found ways of socializing, celebrating, sharing and supporting.

Which is wonderful, because I suspect the next step in this journey is going to be equally challenging. From 13th September we will reopen for actual services in church. ‘Hurray!’

With current restrictions, we’ll have 9 pews and 2 choir stalls available…hmm.

I spoke recently to someone who’s been unable to access our online services. Someone who is desperate for physical services to start again. He understands the challenges – but said to me ‘Be bold’.

‘Be bold’. What a great phrase to take into this next stage. We’ll probably need extra services…we’ll need to keep our online services going for those who can’t get to church…we need to work out what to do about music…Junior church…social events…fundraising.

So, we’ll need stewards, cleaners, extra readers and pray-ers, musicians…people to help with Junior church…and probably all sorts of other things we haven’t thought about yet.

It could feel like an impossible task. Or we can remember the feeding of the 5000. We can each bring out the little we feel we have and offer it to Jesus. And perhaps if we do that in trust and hope, he will take it, bless it, maybe break it…and give it back to us.

And maybe we’ll find our nervous offerings have been transformed into something wonderful, something much bigger and bolder than we dared to hope.

Since mid-March, I’ve been deeply grateful for the people who’ve quietly been doing the jobs they’ve always done…the people who’ve found new ways to do the things they used to do…the people who’ve come forward to try new things they never thought they could…the people who’ve emailed or rung to say how much they appreciate our efforts…and the people who through all of this have been praying…for me…for the church…for the community.

The next months hold at least as much challenge as the previous ones. And we will have to find solutions within our community. But today’s gospel reminds us that if we offer whatever we have, Jesus can transform our offerings. So together – let’s be bold!