A matter of Grammar…and life. Sermon for Adel Parish Church 27th September 2020.

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A matter of grammar…and life.

A sermon for Adel Parish Church, 27th September 2020.

Philippians 2: 1 – 13

Mrs Battye is a good teacher, although she’s very weird…Mrs Battye’s a good teacher because she’s very weird…

These two statements may illustrate the differing opinions of my pupils. They also illustrate one of the challenges of teaching children to write well…explaining the difference between although, but, so, because…and why it matters.

The rules of grammar are often beyond the grasp of young children, but they understand examples. There wouldn’t be much point telling them, ‘if we use although it suggests something unexpected…if we use because it gives a reason’. We could however have a fruitful discussion on whether my weirdness helped or hindered my teaching…

I was reminded of that wrestling with grammar as I studied the reading for this week, and the various ways of translating it.

This morning we heard what is thought to be an ancient Christian hymn – describing how Christ, who is God, became human. I’ve heard that passage many times – usually in the version we had this morning. It tells us that Christ, ’though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.’

Though…although Christ was in the form of God. I think that’s the picture I’ve always had…something unexpected. Jesus is God, almighty, powerful…and yet despite being God he somehow chooses to give up all that power and might to become human.

But this week I’ve looked at other translations – I’ve found that word ‘though’ isn’t there in the Greek…so we could miss it out. You’re now probably thinking you didn’t come to church for a grammar lesson…but bear with me. It’s really quite exciting!

If we remove the word, ‘though’, we get something like, ‘Christ, who was in the form of God, didn’t see this as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’

That suggests Christ didn’t go against his divine nature in order to come to earth and save us…he did it because this is what God is like.

So the passage could go…‘Christ, because he was God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and was born in human likeness.’ That’s what God does – he doesn’t cling onto power.

That’s a mind-blowing thought. God who takes the form of a slave…not although he is God, but because he’s God. A slave…someone whose life is entirely in the hands of others.

So when, in the wilderness Jesus is tempted to use his power to make others follow him, he’s being tempted to follow his human nature. He’s being tempted to find his identity and authority by holding on to power over others.

Instead Jesus chooses to reveal himself as God by taking the form of a slave. He puts himself totally into our hands, even though we push away the love he offers.

Why does this matter? Well for me, partly because it enlarges my understanding of God a little. But more because we should try to be like Christ.

As Paul says in the previous sentence, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.’ This emptying, this giving yourself completely to others isn’t just something to wonder at in Christ, it’s something to copy in our lives.

And Paul tells us one way to do just that. ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit’, he says, ‘but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’

Well, as with grammar – examples are easier to understand than rules, so I’d like to give you two from my life. Two people rooted in God’s love, who don’t need to hold onto power to find their identity.

First, Ella. In 2002 I went to help at a Beaver Scout group…and 3 months later found myself running it. I knew nothing about Scouting – but Ella did. She’d been Scouting for 40 years. She came every week – stayed in the background serving drinks, washing up, clearing up at the end. She gave ideas when asked and regularly told me  I was doing a good job. She asked for no recognition, but it was thanks to her that I survived and grew to love Scouting.

Ella – helped me to grow not although she was a good scouter herself…but because she was.

Secondly Matthew, my training incumbent at Whitkirk. He gave up hours to my training, answered endless questions, picked me up when things went wrong…but mostly he was generous. He gave away parts of ministry he enjoyed, things that were important to the running of his parish, so that I could have a go.

Although he gave plenty of constructive criticism, he didn’t fret when things weren’t done quite the way he would have done them. And when things went well, he rejoiced for me and with me. His identity wasn’t threatened by my growing identity as a priest, because his identity was rooted in God – who is always giving. A great trainer not although he is a wonderful priest himself, but because.

A couple of examples from which I try to learn.

I find the thought of God emptying himself and putting himself totally in the hands of others, almost incomprehensible. I need examples to help me understand. But when I find these examples – in Jesus’ life, and in the lives of some of his followers, I can see how this emptying gives life to others.

So, although I’ll go on wrestling with scripture…trying to understand, I’ll also seek to be an example bringing Jesus’ life-giving love to others. Jesus who took the form of a slave not although he is God, but because he is God.

Forgiveness…a lesson from some children. Sermon for Adel Parish church 13th Sept 2020

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Forgiveness…a lesson from some children.

Sermon for Adel Parish church 13th Sept 2020

Matthew 18: 21 – 35

They were the sort of class you get once in a teaching career. Sparky, creative, with enough lovely kids to affect the behaviour of the whole class. They weren’t all perfect, or clever, but somehow together they made something very special.

Then, a new child arrived. A difficult start in life had left her angry, frightened, and lashing out at anyone – especially other children. Lessons were suddenly punctuated by nipping, punching, spoiling of work.

Those children were amazing. Every morning our newcomer was greeted with smiles; no one avoided sitting by her. They didn’t ignore her poor behaviour…they told me…and they expected me to do something about it. But once action had been taken, it was finished with.  The injured party would happily work with her…she was never short of a playmate.

And they did this again and again and again.

It was the best example of the power of forgiveness I’ve ever seen. By seeking justice but never revenge, that group of 6 year olds showed how true forgiveness changes us. How it’s not just about doing the right thing, or being kind, but allows the forgiven person to grow and flourish. How it enables a person to confront and accept their own sin, knowing it won’t be made to define them.

Our new child, let’s call her Amy, wasn’t labelled ‘the naughty child’, she was just Amy. She was allowed to learn that upsetting people doesn’t make you happy, but being kind can. By October half-term you could rarely pick Amy out as ‘troubled’, she was just part of a lovely class.

I think that example of forgiveness within a community illustrates something of what Jesus was saying in today’s gospel.

As usual, Jesus paints a ridiculously exaggerated picture to make a point. Ten thousand talents represent an impossibly large amount. That a slave could owe so much, that he could ever pay it off, that a king would just forgive the whole amount, would all have seemed incredible.

So, the slave’s next action, his refusal to forgive a tiny debt, comes as a shock. It seems outrageous because instinctively we know, as my class did, that true forgiveness changes. We can’t imagine that the first man – forgiven so much – would not forgive in turn.

Perhaps Jesus is saying to Peter – if that story seems ridiculous, it’s because you already know the answer to your question. As my followers you know just how much God has forgiven you.  You know the change being forgiven has brought to your lives…so surely you can’t imagine being like that slave and not forgiving others.

It seems to me that Jesus teaches us to forgive one another over and over again, not because it is ‘good’ in some abstract sense, but because it allows each of us to grow and change. It’s not about ignoring wrongs; it’s about facing them and moving on. Being part of a community based on forgiveness is to be part of a community where people can change.

Had ‘Amy’ been met with hostility, I suspect she would have become more defiant, convinced herself others were the problem. But being met only with forgiveness gave her the chance to change quietly and without a fuss. She was able to accept that her actions were wrong, without feeling that she was a bad person.

That story is a good reminder to any group of Christians of how we should behave towards one another and ourselves. I’m sure Adel Parish church isn’t full of people bearing grudges and wanting revenge…but I suspect there are people who struggle to forgive themselves, or accept that God can forgive them. And most of us have times when we don’t want to admit we need forgiving.

Sometimes it’s hard to accept we need forgiveness because it means admitting guilt. We live in a society where people are quick to condemn, and one poor choice is used to define people as bad. Confronting our need for forgiveness makes us vulnerable.

I’ve experienced this powerfully in my response to racial injustice. Recent events have brought home that Racism is not just a problem of the US or extreme rightwing groups…it’s a problem here. This means it’s my problem too but it’s a difficult one to face.

I’m realising that growing up in a world where ‘white’ is normalised as right…as somehow superior…means I’ve internalised these ideas without ever choosing to. It’s uncomfortable to admit…because racists are really bad people, aren’t they?

A group of us from Adel church have begun to listen, read and consider what our response should be. Our first session, sharing a very non-confrontational video by a Methodist minister proved surprisingly emotional.

One person, watching the clip, said, ‘I’ve discovered I’m racist.’ One friend was reduced to tears at the same thought.

Facing it together as a group of Christians though, means acknowledging our need for forgiveness in a place where our sins don’t define who we are. We’re able to explore and admit to difficult things because we already know we can be forgiven.

I’m not talking about forgiveness from non-white brothers and sisters – that’s not a matter for me. I’m talking, as Peter was, about forgiveness within a Christian community. I’m talking about the power of an atmosphere of forgiveness rather than condemnation…power that allows us to admit and accept our failings…which then allows us to change and grow.

I’ve focused on that issue, because today is Racial Justice Sunday, and because it’s live for many at the moment. But whatever issue faces us – this is a model of what a church community should be…a community based on forgiveness, which enables those who join it to grow and change.

I pray that Adel St John’s will always strive to be a community of forgiveness, a place where followers of Jesus, new and old, can face their sins together whilst never being defined by them; where, surrounded by love and forgiveness we can grow and change together.

 

 

Where two or three are gathered…Jesus’ promise remembered in a new age. Sermon for Adel Parish church, 6th Sept 2020.

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‘Where two or three are gathered’…Jesus’ promise remembered in a new age. Sermon for Adel Parish Church,  6th September 2020.

Matthew 18: 21 – 35

I am an ex-teacher and the child of teachers. For me, the year will always start in September. Early September: the anticipation of a new term; new children to get to know; exciting activities planned. Even in the church it feels a little the same as we restart activities after the summer break and look forward to events such as our Harvest Festival.

But this year things are different. Our first physical get together for months will happen this afternoon (weather permitting) outside. We’ll have to keep our distance. It’ll be great to see people…but we can’t shake hands or share a hug.

Next week church services restart. But we’ll be a small gathering with most of us wearing masks; there’ll be no Junior church…and no singing. We’re having to ask people to book…at a place where all should be welcome.

It feels all wrong, it feels almost worse than when lockdown hit, the church was closed and we started to grapple with online worship. Many of us, I think, are weary. And it’s hard to see pubs and restaurants re-opening when we can’t worship as we wish.

We know the restrictions are needed…the importance of protecting one another from Corona virus…but still it seems hard.

We may struggle to imagine worshipping without singing…worry about how empty the church will feel, how sad it’ll be not to hear the children rushing back in from Junior church – keen to share what they’ve been learning.

But that is why we need to hear again Jesus’ promise, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

I’m sure one day we’ll worship together again in a full church, but I fear that may not happen for months. As we restart after the holiday break, we’re not ‘getting back to normal’, but still finding new ways to be church.

So, this Sunday it’s good to hear those words of Jesus – not just as reassurance – but a reminder of why we meet at all. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

We gather in Jesus’ name, to be fed by word and sacrament, but also to be a place where the presence of Jesus is found. We meet not just for ourselves, but for our community. We gather to be one way in which Jesus is ‘Emmanuel – God with us’.

When we meet for worship, it may be strange and even difficult…but Jesus has promised that if we gather in his name…he will be amongst us.

Because we don’t have the space to make it safe – Junior church will for the moment remain online. I am sure parents and children miss getting together. Watching a video with your child, or even joining a small group on zoom loses something special. But however we gather…Jesus has promised to be with us.

Any studying we wish to do will also have to remain online – or in very small groups. Home group, bible study, looking at the issue of racial justice – mostly forced onto Zoom. It’s not the same is it? No tea and cake for a start, and somehow there’s less laughter. But if we meet as pilgrims on our journey of faith…Jesus has promised to be with us.

I’m not a great lover of new technologies. When we were forced to embrace online worship, it felt a very poor replacement. But the last 6 months have shown that however we gather, Jesus’ promise holds true. I’ve felt very aware of his presence in our midst. In some ways we’ve become even more a place where the presence of Jesus is found.

The shakeup has enabled people to find new roles within our community of faith. Being already outside our comfort zones has given people the courage to contribute in new ways. In some households there’s been more discussion of faith. Children are taking the lead: in our services and in their homes.

Moving worship online forced us to think about those who couldn’t ‘get to church’ – in a way we perhaps hadn’t done before. The limitations, and empty hours of lockdown encouraged people to join study groups and talk about their faith in new ways. Online worship has given new people a chance to explore faith in the safety of their own homes.

So, as we restart after a summer break let’s do so with Jesus’ promise in mind. We gather to meet him in word…in sacrament…in each other. We gather to be a place where the presence of Jesus is found…from where his love, joy and peace can spill over into the community.

I hope we can do that not as people ‘sitting it out’, waiting to get back to normal; nor people ‘making the best of a bad job’. I’m truly excited at the way time and talents have been offered…at the way faith is being shared and discussed.

Next Sunday at 9.30am, the Paschal candle will be brought into church…only 5 months late…as a reminder that we are an Easter people. Let’s step out in faith as people who believe in the resurrection.

Please consider joining a study course, or our group facing together the vital issues of racial justice. They may have to be mainly online – but if we gather in Jesus’ name, to learn more about him – he has promised to be with us.

If it’s not safe for you to come to church – please continue to worship online. We’re committed to keeping this going even when restrictions are lifted. COVID has taught us that Christians can gather in many ways – and Jesus’ promise still holds.

But there will be opportunities to worship together, to share the Eucharist, and hopefully before too long, the timeless words of Evensong. If it’s safe for you, please come. It won’t be what it used to be – it will be a new thing – and Jesus has promised to be with us.