In praise of age and experience…words for Candlemas, Adel Parish Church.

simeon and anna

In praise of age and experience…words for Candlemas, Adel Parish Church.

When our daughter was small – one of her favourite books was called ‘Staying with Grandpa’. It told of a small girl enjoying visits to her grandparents…and the ‘monkey business’ that always took place. I think Kate loved it because it was an only slightly exaggerated version of her own stays with her grandparents. Even as an adult – one of the things she’s missed most this last year has been ‘staying with Grandpa’.

There’s often something beautiful about the relationship between young and old. It’s one of the joys of the parish church system that because it’s based on place, churches are spaces where different generations from a community come together.

Today – Candlemas or the presentation of Christ in the Temple – we celebrate a famous meeting of very old and very young. In the Eastern church it’s called ‘The feast of the Holy Encounter’…and I think it reminds us to value age and experience.

Two key players in today’s story are Simeon and Anna. The main things we learn about them are their great age, and their closeness to God. Here are two people who have lived long and experienced much. In their later years at least, when life was perhaps less busy, they devoted themselves to God.

It’s a beautiful story of the wisdom of age, of the fruits of years spent with God. Simeon and Anna are steeped in the Jewish faith…longing for the promised Messiah. I guess, like many others, they were expecting him to come in glory, bring freedom from Roman oppressors and take his place at the head of a kingdom. Yet when he comes in the form of a tiny baby born to poor parents…they know him straight away.

Far from the stereotype of elderly people unwilling to change, the time they’ve spent with God makes them more, not less able to recognise this radical picture of salvation.

Mary and Joseph were probably still trying to work it all out…still wondering how that tiny, vulnerable scrap of humanity could be God’s message of salvation.

At that moment they needed Simeon and Anna…they needed the support and recognition of those whose age and experience lent weight to their words. Today’s gospel celebrates the place age and experience have in the Christian story…and it’s just as true today.

At the start of this pandemic, with its particular threat to older people, I know many of our more mature members, stuck at home, felt frustrated and even ‘useless’. For some (though definitely not all) the move to new technologies has made it harder to feel involved.

Yet, since then I’ve been reminded many times of the value of wisdom and experience.

When the first lockdown began, many younger members linked up with older people…to offer practical help…to reduce isolation. But I’ve heard again and again how it’s proved to be a blessing both ways.

Resilience, optimism and faith, developed over decades has supported younger, newer Christians through these difficult months. Chats and exchanges of letters have not only brightened lonely days – but also provided a listening ear. They’ve helped ease anxieties over childcare, home schooling…elderly relatives.

I’ve found the same. I make pastoral phone calls…and find I’ve been ministered to. The optimism, and faith I come across give me hope and renewed energy.

In these times where the ground is constantly shifting, we find ourselves feeding off the grace some people have developed over years of faithful worship.

This is also true in the corporate life of our church. The last year has been a time of new technologies, of finding new and different ways to worship and to be a church. But they only work because they grow out of traditions faithfully practised over years.

In our gospel, Luke is at pains to show the continuity of the Christian story with the faith of the Old Testament. Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the Jerusalem temple to ‘do for him what was customary under the law’…that is the Law of Moses. Though poor enough only to afford a sacrifice of pigeons – they still journeyed to Jerusalem to fulfil a tradition…to be part of a wider faith story.

Jesus brought a new and radical gospel – but he saw himself as building on, not wiping away, the faith history that came before.

Sometimes (rightly) we become frustrated with the slow pace of change in the Anglican church. It can feel that the weight of age and tradition stops us moving on…stops us engaging with today’s issues, and especially with the young. Today reminds us how the best of the new grows out of the old.

Candlemas itself is one of the oldest feasts in the Christian calendar. From at least the 7th century, people brought candles to church to be blessed. Candles were processed around the church, some were left burning in church as a sign of worship. Others were taken home to be lit in storms or when people were ill, or placed in the hands of the dying to light their final journey.

Superstitions from a simpler time? Perhaps. But there is grace and beauty in the reminder that the blessings we receive in church are meant to spill over into the rest of our lives. We may have the wonder of virtual services, but I think we still need the ancient wisdom that says Christ can come to us in physical things…in traditions shared for generations.

Today – on the feast of the Holy Encounter – we have a picture of the church at its best. A place where the grace and wisdom of years helps the community recognise Christ their Saviour…where the faith if the elderly nurtures a young family. An occasion celebrated down the years for what it teaches us about Christ.

As we share today in the ancient traditions of Candlemas, I pray that we will continue to value wisdom and experience; that new ways of sharing God’s love will develop from treasured traditions…that our church will truly be a place of Holy Encounter.

Know yourself loved. Sermon for Adel Parish church on the feast of the Baptism of Christ.

prodigal-son-wayne-pascall

Know yourself loved. Sermon for Adel Parish church on the feast of the Baptism of Christ 2020

Mark 1: 4 – 11

It was near the end of my first year at University – exams had just finished. They had been a bit of a shock…hard. People around me seemed much more confident than I was about how they’d gone. I rang home for my weekly chat from the rather public payphone in college…and told my Mum I thought I’d probably failed.

‘Ok’, she said calmly, ‘and..? What other news? What plans have you got now the exams are over?’ She didn’t talk about what would happen if I did fail, or try to persuade me all would be well…but I came off the phone feeling that in a way it didn’t matter…because I knew that our relationship didn’t depend on how well I did in exams…I was her daughter and she just loved me.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, and we’ve just heard Mark’s account of it. In this gospel, the baptism itself is mentioned only briefly. Mark focuses on what happened next. Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending…he heard God’s voice from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth…this is before he’s resisted demons, healed, preached, walked on water, died on a cross. God looks on him and loves him, totally and unconditionally, just because…Jesus has no need to prove himself, that has nothing to do with it.

The way Mark tells the story gives the intriguing thought that perhaps only Jesus heard and saw these things. Presumably – because we know about it – that wasn’t the case. But the way it’s recorded suggests what happened was for Jesus’ benefit, not for those around him. Jesus is being addressed here – not ‘this is my son’, but ‘you are my Son’. Not an announcement about who Jesus is – but a moment of pure love between the Father and the Son.

But in an important way we are more than just onlookers, it does concern us too – since we too are baptised or can be in the future. Baptism reminds us that, amazingly, Jesus’ death and resurrection give us the possibility of becoming children of God too.

As the introduction to the baptism or Christening service says, ‘In baptism we are clothed with Christ, dying to sin that we may live his risen life. As children of God, we have a new dignity and God calls us to fulness of life.’

So we can hear those words…’you are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased’, as meant for us too.

This is nothing to do with our actions…I was only 4 months old when I was baptised…I hadn’t had chance to do anything much. No, God just loves us totally and unconditionally. Incredibly, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do that will make him love us less.

There is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do that will make him love us less…I don’t think we remember this often enough. Just imagine for a moment those words being said, by God, about you. “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

This doesn’t mean we don’t have to try to be better. I don’t think it means God will never be sad or angry at our actions. But I do think it can make a big difference to how we face the world. Jesus heard these words at the start of his ministry: as he went out into the wilderness to face temptation; as he began the journey of love that would lead to the cross.

We too, are once again at a frightening and difficult point in our lives. And unlike last March, it is cold and dark, and we are already weary. We are facing another period of home schooling, of not seeing friends, of feeling isolated, of worrying about friends and family, of being annoyed by restrictions, or by those who don’t stick to them.

We’re facing challenges that will not always bring out the best in us…which sometimes make us feel we are failing…or not considerate enough…or just can’t manage. Which is exactly when we need to hear those words. “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

When I was training at Mirfield I loved to go into the church and sit on the floor by the font. There was a particularly good bit of underfloor heating there – but also the beautiful font reminded me of my baptism.

Now is not perhaps the time for going and gazing at fonts, and we certainly can’t boast underfloor heating, but there are other symbols of our baptism to hand at home.

You might like to get a small bowl of water – dip your finger in it and trace the sign of the cross on your forehead…remembering that Christ claims you as his own.

You might like to find a candle; some incredibly organised people may even be able to find their baptism candle – but any will do. Light it and sit quietly looking at it…and hear God’s words spoken to you…”You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

May be that will give us the courage and energy to, as the baptism service puts it, ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’, or maybe it will just help us get through the next day or two.

One last thing – important as fatigue and anxiety make us less patient with those around us – remember just as God says to you…”You are my child, my beloved”…he says it to the people around you too.