A pause on the way…words for Adel Parish church, Refreshment/Mothering Sunday 2021

A pause on the way…sermon for Refreshment/Mothering Sunday 2021, Adel Parish church.

Today we arrive at Lent 4. It’s been quite a journey so far. We began in the wilderness, wondering how we could make this Lent meaningful, in a year that’s been a bit like one long Lent.

Then we were invited to follow Jesus, first looking carefully at just who it is we are following. Then trying like him avoid the easy fixes, recognising that this journey leads to the cross.

Last week, Jesus proved an uncomfortable travelling companion…armed with a whip of cords, and angry at how we get distracted by unimportant details, and forget our destination.

This journey’s definitely more serious hike than Sunday afternoon stroll.

As a family we’ve always enjoyed hiking. When our children were quite small, they would cheerfully walk quite long distances. But we had to make sure there was a proper stop in the middle…preferably beside a stream. Here we shed our loads for a while, and ate lunch. But more importantly the kids loved to throw stones in the river, try to dam the stream, or if the weather allowed, go for a paddle. It was important to forget for a while the miles still to be travelled, the hills still to climb.

I think the same applies to our spiritual and mental journeys, and the church seems to agree, since today – mid way through Lent – we arrive at Mothering Sunday…or Refreshment Sunday as it was before the newer celebration took over.

Historically this was a day of relief from Lent fasting. It was also a time when people were encouraged to return to their ‘mother church’. Centuries ago, young people barely out of childhood left home to work in big houses or on farms. On refreshment Sunday they had the day off, to worship at the church they grew up in, and visit their families.

I can imagine the wonderful relief of that day…no longer having to be adults…bearing responsibilities…they would go home, be fed and in a way, be children once again.

I can imagine it because I remember when I first started work…was first a mother, going home to my parents for a weekend. Walking through the door, I was somehow able to put down my responsibilities for a bit. I might take some work, or a baby with me…but we were cooked for, outings planned, decisions made. Obviously difficult stuff didn’t go away, but for a while I didn’t have to be teacher, mother, homeowner…I could just be me.

Sometimes those young people going home would pick wild flowers from hedgerows to present to their mothers, sometimes they would be allowed to bake a simnel cake to take as a gift. Perhaps it was from this that our notion of ‘Mothering Sunday’ grew.

In many cultures…many families, mothers bear much of the burden of work and responsibility. They’re often the ones who take our burdens for a while when they seem too much. So, it seems right that we keep this day, that we try for a day at least to allow mothers to lay down their burdens and just be themselves.

But I rather like the idea of Refreshment Sunday, as a reminder that we all need, now and then, to lay down our burdens and just enjoy being ourselves. It’s an idea that runs through our scriptures, from the institution of the Sabbath, to Jesus taking his disciples aside to rest and recharge after they’ve been out proclaiming the coming kingdom.

We don’t all have a mother around, or the sort of relationship that allows offloading of burdens. But those qualities are not confined to mothers. Jesus didn’t send the disciples back to their mothers; he took charge and responsibility for a while, giving them time just to be.

We can do the same for one another. Sadly, inviting someone round for a meal is still a little way off. But even just a phone call where we say ‘How are you?’, really meaning it and ready to listen, can give someone a ‘refreshment Sunday’…a chance to lay down their burdens for a while.

And there’s the idea of keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest. It gets a bit of a bad press in the gospels, as Jesus and the Pharisees wrangle over whether healing counts as work. But Jesus’ never challenges the importance of Sabbath, only its rules and regulations. Anxiety over keeping rules brings extra burdens to a day which should be about the opposite. Work is forbidden so that we’re free from responsibilities. Difficulties won’t go away, but for a day there is nothing to do but be with God.

Clergy are encouraged each year to take time out for a retreat. Not a holiday, but time away from the parish to be spent wholly on nurturing and refreshing our relationship with God.

In 2020, for various reasons, I didn’t manage this. I’ve missed it. It’s a time to put the responsibilities of the parish aside for a few days…a time just to be with God as myself.

Maybe for you, this is Mothering Sunday…you may be lucky enough to receive some gifts, or be treated however lockdown allows…you may be the one doing the treating…allowing someone a rest from the chores and responsibilities of motherhood. If so, enjoy this special day.

For some, Mothering Sunday is a reminder of difficult relationships, a time of grief. If this is so, may today for you be Refreshment Sunday. You might reach out to someone you know who needs to be asked how they really are, to share their burdens for a while, or to someone who will do the same for you.

And for all of us, let’s make the most of this space in our Lenten journey. Let’s carve out a bit of ‘retreat’ time, to spend with God, without any agenda but to be his beloved children.

Who is the Jesus we are following? Sermon for Lent 2, Adel Parish Church

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Who is the Jesus we are following? Sermon for Adel Parish church, Lent 2, 2021.

Mark 8: 31 – end

I’m very fond of St Peter…he’s such a real, three-dimensional character. I particularly love him as portrayed in this film…’The Miracle Maker’…which I used in school.

In the film we first meet Peter as St Luke introduces him…the weary fisherman returning from a night’s fishing with empty nets, only to be told by a carpenter of all people to go back out to sea…in broad daylight. I love the way he rolls his eyes, but grumpily goes along with Jesus; his astonishment as the nets fill so full they can barely haul them in; his fear and fascination as he says to Jesus, “go away, Lord, for I’m a sinner.”

And throughout the film he’s there in the thick of the action…leaping impetuously in, foot in mouth…always struggling to understand but drawn magnetically by the person of Jesus.

And so we see him in today’s gospel. Just a few verses earlier, it’s Peter who acknowledges, ‘You are the Messiah’. And yet here he is rebuking the man he’s just announced as divine! Here’s Peter telling Jesus, he’s got it all wrong…a Messiah can’t be rejected and killed.

Foolish maybe…but Jesus’ response seems a little harsh, ‘Get behind me Satan’.

I wonder, did that well-meant intervention take Jesus back into the wilderness, to those temptations? Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness working out what it meant to be Jesus the Messiah, wrestling the temptation to be the Messiah the world expects.

Surely no one would follow a weak, starving leader…so he was tempted to provide food for himself, to gratify his own desires. Surely a credible leader needs to move in the ‘right’ circles, have power over others…so he was tempted to take everything, to have everyone kneel before him. Surely a Messiah needs to appear divine…so he was tempted to stand high above everyone…and just to make it obvious, have angels catch him as he leapt.

If you’ve given something up for Lent…you’ll know 40 days is a long time. That time in the wilderness was a tough battle for a man genuinely tempted to turn from the cross and be a different sort of Messiah. So perhaps Peter’s well-meaning intervention, just as the danger builds up and the cross looms, is a temptation Jesus doesn’t want. ‘Get behind me Satan’

In Lent we try to work out what it means to be followers of Jesus, but perhaps like Peter, we first have to work out who Jesus really is.

One reason I love Peter so much is that in his mistakes he just voices what others are probably thinking – but too scared to say.

For the disciples, realising Jesus is the Messiah, then being told he must suffer, be rejected and killed, was a massive adjustment to their expectations. We come to it after 2000 years of knowing the end of the story…yet we still rebuke Jesus…try to make him into the sort of God we expect.

If he can feed 5000 with one small picnic, why are so many hungry? If he can save Jairus’ daughter, why not our children, why not all those we’ve lost this year? If he can calm the storm, what about the storms of natural disaster, war and violence which rage today?

I’ve asked those questions…and been asked them…and struggled with them. Peter is just voicing our misunderstandings. We too struggle to understand how Jesus’ suffering, rejection and death, can somehow be what saves us.

Jesus refused to put himself in the centre. He chose to give not take; to heal not injure; to show mercy not vengeance; to forgive not condemn; to love not hate. He chose it because this path allowed God to work in him and through him…overcoming even death, and giving us a way back to God.

This week Jesus invites us to, ‘deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.’ To do this faithfully, we must put aside our ideas of what a saviour should be like, and look properly at the one who calls us to follow.

I suspect we won’t understand…I don’t think Peter ever really did…but like Peter we might step out in faith…because we find in these choices, so counter cultural and difficult to grasp…fulness of life we find nowhere else.

Looking at what Satan offered Jesus, we recognise things that promise so much…but lead to death rather than life. The temptation to attend to our own creature comforts before we consider the needs of others, leads to the inequality we see all around us…and research tells us that in unequal societies, everyone is less content.

The temptation to be important…powerful, causes us to see others as expendable…only important as they feed our importance. Just look at the oligarchs and dictators of the world to see this writ large. And the person so desperate to be at the centre ends up isolated, paranoid, driven by fear and hate.

The temptation for our religion to be an outward show of holiness…rather than a relationship with the living God.

What Jesus offers instead, is the promise that if we’re ready to take ourselves from the centre…to deny ourselves…lose our lives as we plan them…then we will gain life in all its abundance.

Probably not wealth, or even better health…but the discovery Peter eventually made that in following Jesus we can give everything up only to find it given back in a new and more beautiful form. A faith community willing to do that can surely be a blessing to the whole parish.

In a moment we’ll sing that wonderful hymn ‘Will you come and follow me?’, which asks…

‘Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?

‘Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare?

‘Will you use the faith you’ve found, to reshape the world around?’

A pretty good prayer for today as we seek to recognise Jesus as the Messiah he really is – and still deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Seeing things as they really are…transfiguration…Sunday next before Lent – Adel Parish church.

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Seeing things as they really are…sermon on the Sunday next before Lent 2021, for Adel Parish Church.

Mark 9: 2 – 9

I’m not quite old enough to remember the first space flights and moon landings, although I’m told my Dad, very uncharacteristically, stayed up all night listening to the radio coverage. It was, after all, an amazing moment in human history. For the first time we were venturing away from our planet, out to new worlds.

We sent astronauts to the moon wondering what they would find…life? little green men? cheese? But strangely, what blew their minds was looking back at earth from space. It seems that travelling out of their ordinary places enabled them to see the earth as it really is.

From Yuri Gagarin onwards, astronauts who see this view have experienced a sudden awareness of the fragility and unity of life on our planet.

Today’s gospel tells of a similar experience for Peter, James and John. They too step outside normal life. Mark is not a great one for descriptive details, but he makes sure we know Jesus led the three up a high mountain…apart, by themselves. Maybe the first century equivalent of going into space.

And they too have an experience which changes their perspective. They’d been with Jesus daily, they’d listened and watched…but, away from the ordinary, for a moment at least, they encountered God. Dazzling whiteness…old testament prophets…the voice of God…combined in the revelation that Jesus is God.

Most of us will only ever see the earth from space in photos and films. But what of transfiguration, an encounter with God? Is that just something to read about?

Not necessarily…but I think we have to be willing to go to the mountain top. I know…’chance would be a fine thing’, but although mountains help, I think it’s more about finding a way to step out of the everyday. And about openness…entertaining the possibility of something more…the possibility of encountering God.

It could happen anywhere, but for me there’s something important about being apart, away from distractions. I’m looking forward to the going on retreat again…but in the meantime I find the space by going to church for morning and evening prayer.

I know, it’s easy for me – I can put it in my diary as work. If you’re juggling home-working and home schooling it may sound like an impossible luxury. But if you do anything this Lent – perhaps try to find a moment each day or even each week, to be somewhere slightly different, even just a different chair, with nothing to do but focus on Jesus.

There’s no promise anything will happen…I’ve not been dazzled, or heard God’s voice…but just occasionally there’s an almost physical sense of encountering God through the person of Jesus. Our modern world doesn’t have much time for things we can’t explain rationally. But perhaps as people who confess, however tentatively, that Jesus is truly God, we should be ready for the mountaintop experience.

Because those experiences are life-giving and life-changing. I don’t think Peter, James and John were taken up that mountain just for their own well-being. I think it shaped them as disciples.

Many astronauts who view our beautiful planet hanging in the vast darkness of space are profoundly changed. Apparently, they experience three things: first, a realisation of the insignificance and fragility of life; then a sense of how we are all connected to, and responsible for, one another and our planet; finally, they’re struck by a desire to fight for the future, to protect our shared home and all its inhabitants.

It’s as though, from space, they see the earth as it really is…a precious home shared by one common humanity…and it makes them want to act.

I think something similar happened to Peter, James and John. Their first desire is to stay in that amazing moment…‘let’s build 3 tents for you’…but Jesus leads them back down. It’s not what they find on the mountaintop that matters, but how it changes their view of what they left.

This glimpse of Jesus’ divinity stays with them as they follow Jesus to Jerusalem, Gethsemane and the cross. It helps them grasp the impossible idea that God chooses, by all human measures, to be a failure.

They didn’t go up the mountain to discover a superhuman Jesus, but to see more clearly the Jesus back in everyday life. Jesus loving the outcast; Jesus praying in sweat and terror in the garden; Jesus mocked and humiliated; Jesus dying as a common criminal, abandoned by his followers.

That mountaintop experience gave them the confidence, in the end, to stop looking for a saviour coming in glory…and recognise that this is where we find God. It gave them confidence to proclaim this new way of living and form the early church.

I think, sometimes, we need to rediscover that perspective. Time and a different culture can make crucifixion look heroic, exotic. It wasn’t – it was commonplace… mundane, a cruel way of getting rid of the troublesome. In a memorable phrase from Herbert McCabe…’Jesus died of being human.’

And in the end, this is perhaps what the dazzling vision prepares us for…God choosing to be utterly, but perfectly human. Someone who got tired and weary as we do, someone tempted as we are, but who refused to exploit power, to hide behind illusions, to meet hatred with hatred. Someone who, whatever happened, trusted in God, forgave and loved.

Jesus who teaches us what being truly human looks like…

In some ways, living through this pandemic has been a kind of transfiguration experience. We’ve been forced out of normal life…and begun to see it as it really is. Like those astronauts, we’ve seen how we are all one, how we all depend on one another. We’ve seen very clearly how unequal society is.

So this Lent, let’s open ourselves to an encounter with God’s mystery. Let’s use it to give us courage to follow Jesus’ example. And as we become more truly human perhaps we will give others the chance to live more fully too.

‘The light shines in the darkness’…but what if we can’t see it? Rediscovering the language of lament. Sermon for Adel Parish church 7th Feb 2021

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‘The light shines in the darkness’…but what if we can’t see it? Rediscovering the language of lament. Sermon for Adel Parish church 7th Feb 2021

John 1: 1 – 14

That has to be one of my favourite bible readings. It brings me out in goosebumps; it transports me back to countless carol services or Midnight Masses…candles lit against the darkness…sharing once again in the miracle of incarnation.

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’

It has been with me when times are tough. I’ve offered it to others as comfort – most memorably in the funeral of a teenage suicide victim. I believe it.

But where does it leave us if we can see no sign of the light shining in the darkness, when the darkness does indeed seem to have ‘overcome’?

Depression is something we tend to avoid discussing…although things are improving. Perhaps that might be one good to come out of this pandemic. I hope so, as stress and isolation have probably increased levels of depression.

I suspect churches have been even worse than wider society at making space to discuss it; perhaps because we struggle to bring it in to our faith story.

I’m sure we reject the idea that enough faith should prevent Christians becoming depressed. But even if we’re sure that’s wrong – we’re not sure where it leaves us when the Christian narrative is one of ‘sure and certain hope’.

First, I think we need to listen to those who’ve experienced depression…because it’s so baffling from the outside. We might see a person who has many reasons to feel ok; who appears physically healthy; who is loved. Who may well believe in Christ…the light in the darkness.

And they can probably list these things too; they know what they should do to make things better…but those same things are impossible.

Here are a few descriptions given by people who know:

‘depression is like an ice pit that you cannot escape from; everything is frozen including emotions; it’s too slippery to climb out.’

‘It’s like eternally grieving for something and never quite being sure what that something is.’

‘It’s a kind of active nothingness, and it feels like it’s consuming everything else.’

‘Depression is a sinking feeling every morning that you are still alive and have to somehow get through this day. Utter exhaustion – lack of ANY joy.’

Hopefully, we’re ready to listen with compassion, just to be there when needed; but where do we find the language, when the story of hope seems to fail?

Actually we do have that language in our faith tradition. Read the psalms and you hear the voices of people in utter despair; people who feel utterly abandoned by God.

Psalm 6: ‘Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths where there is no foothold. I am worn out calling for help; my eyes fail looking for my God.’

Psalm 88: ‘You have taken me from friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.’

There are many more; and these are worship songs, written to help us talk to God. Often, they end with a verse saying…’and yet I will trust in God’…but not always. But they are not statements of disbelief, they are cries to the living God.

There are countless stories in scripture of God’s hiddenness: The psalmists, Isaiah, Elijah, Job. It’s a thread running throughout the bible, the paradox of how God can be so present sometimes and yet so absent at others.

Then there’s the ultimate cry of despair, from Jesus himself on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know, of course, that God had not forsaken Jesus. We suppose that Jesus, who is divine, must know that too.

But Jesus’ cry is not that he ‘feels’ abandoned, in that moment the abandonment is real. Because God did not take Jesus off the cross. Jesus cried in utter despair – and heard no answer that he could recognise.

Yet he cried to God. Somehow his statement of God’s complete absence comes with the presumption of God’s presence. This is not about loss of faith.

So we have this language of lament – we’ve just got out of the habit of using it. St Paul tells us one of the fruits of the spirit is joy – have we somehow come to feel this means Christians should be generally cheerful?

Christian joy though, is not happiness. In our Advent course we struggled with Paul’s instruction to ‘rejoice always’, as if we can be joyful on demand. We can’t of course, yet sometimes we find ourselves hoping people suffering depression will somehow do just this. We made sense of it by reframing joy as knowing Jesus loves us.

John Swinton, in his book, ‘Finding Jesus in the storm’, suggests something similar…joy as an act of resistance against the forces of despair. Joy not as feeling better after the struggle – joy as deciding to struggle. Because, he says, Christian joy isn’t a feeling at all, it’s the presence of Jesus.

Perhaps all this gives no help at all to those in the pit of depression. But it reminds us that feeling God’s absence is a normal part of faith. Our scriptures are full of it, even Jesus experienced it.

Faith isn’t always feeling God’s presence, sometimes it’s hanging on to the memory of his presence…the possibility of his presence. The language of lament gives us words for these times…words that shout at God for being absent, words of despair, but not of disbelief.

This doesn’t take away the horror of depression, or suggest it’s just a worse version of a bad day. But it says depression is not outside the experience of God’s people. Christians struggling to see the light in the darkness – but hanging on to their faith – are perhaps living that faith more fully and more faithfully than when they’re well.

It’s part of many faith journeys – we should be able to acknowledge it and talk about it.

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.

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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.

 

 

 

2020 – a Christmas like no other? A sermon for Adel Parish church.

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2020 – a Christmas like no other? Sermon for Adel Parish Church.

(With thanks to Malcolm Guite)

Usually, at this time of year, a well-loved member of our congregation helps Father Christmas out by standing in for him at a school the other side of Leeds. This year of course – he couldn’t go. The children were sad, and worried that with all the restrictions Father Christmas himself might not get to their houses this year. So, our Father Christmas recorded a video – assuring them that even these strange times wouldn’t stop the deliveries on Christmas night.

It reminded me of another Christmas memory I read recently, from the early 60s…of a British child brought up in Zimbabwe, who travelled ‘home’ by ship once a year. One year, unusually, they travelled over the Christmas season.

The young Malcolm was worried; they would be way out at sea…what if Father Christmas couldn’t find them? There was a Christmas Eve party, but what of the man himself?

Suddenly that party was interrupted by conversations on the bridge accidently broadcast over the tannoy.

Malcolm writes…”we heard an alarmed call from the navigator: “Something on the radar, sir. North-north-west, approaching swiftly. Shall I take evasive action?” “Hold your course steady,” the Captain called. “Let’s see if I can get a sighting through the binoculars.” Down in the dining room, we all held our breath.

“Oh yes, yes, it is!” came the Captain’s jubilant voice. “It’s him!             Slow and steady,” he called to the engineer. “Bring her over, and cut the furnace for a moment; we don’t want too much heat and smoke when he comes down the funnel. All right, everybody, prepare to take on an extra passenger.”

And of course, a slightly sooty Father Christmas was soon ushered into the party – with presents for all the children. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like a ship out at sea stop Christmas.

There has been talk this year of ‘Christmas being cancelled’. Even limited plans had to be altered at the last minute, leaving some very upset…perhaps this year it’s not only the children who need reassuring. All the usual certainty and family traditions…Christmas day with this part of the family…Boxing Day with that…sprouts – or not…cramming into church for Christmas services…meeting old friends…none of it possible in the usual way.

But if we think about the Christmas story…in a way it was always one of changed plans and making do.

I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt…their plans for an ordinary, respectable wedding dashed…their lives no doubt challenged by unkind talk about this mysterious baby. Perhaps they thought God might have made his announcement a little more widely, told the neighbours at least, to avoid the stigma of this unexpected arrival.

I wonder too, what they thought as they trekked from door to door in Bethlehem, desperately looking for a safe place for his birth. Might they have expected God to plan more carefully for this special child? No room at the inn, and then no home as they fled from Herod, becoming refugees.

What of their parents? No doubt they’d imagined the arrival of their first grandchild: respectable, safe at home, with family around to share in the joy.

And the religious people of the day…faithful Jews, longing for the coming of the Messiah…doing their best to follow the law…assuming the saviour would come into the midst of those traditions…come first to places of worship…recognisable to those expecting him…

But no. We may have tamed it with our beautiful Christmas carols, clean and tidy nativity scenes, traditional round of services…but that first Christmas was a mess of altered plans and dashed hopes…played out against a background of fear and anxiety in an occupied country with a volatile King.

And so it went on…shepherds settling down around their fire to an evening of storytelling perhaps…confronted by a host of angels forcing them away from their sheep, down into the busy town…Shepherds who normally kept to the edges…finding themselves the centre of attention, sharing their news.

The Magi, wise men…I don’t know what their plans were, but I don’t suppose they included a trek of hundreds of miles, following a star to an unknown destination.

In fact, this 2020 Christmas of disrupted plans, of being out of our comfort zone, of making do, is far more faithful to the event we celebrate.

Christmas was never about the traditions – although they help us connect with the mystery. Christmas is God’s statement that he is with us in times of darkness and uncertainty. That can’t ever be cancelled…not by the disapproval of society…not by the danger of a busy town and a dirty stable…not by Herod and his soldiers. Not by a global pandemic.

Christmas is a reminder that God’s presence doesn’t depend on carefully laid plans, and following traditions…that he comes to be with us particularly where there is chaos and fear.

I trust that many worried children will find this year as always that Father Christmas somehow manages…because he is propelled by the love and sacrifice of anxious parents, and the compassion of strangers.

And I pray that we, as we gather at the crib…in the churchyard…in church…in our own homes…in our hearts…As we gather with a few loved ones or alone…in joy or grief…in despair or with hope…will find that Christmas is not cancelled.

This Christmas is not easy – but with everything else stripped away it might be a time to accept God’s gift of being with us in the darkness, of sharing the pains, joys and uncertainty of human existence…the gift of love.

‘Joy is a new baby…’ a sermon for Adel Parish Church – Advent 3

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‘Joy is a new baby…’ a sermon for Adel Parish Church – Advent 3

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-end; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

“Happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby.”

“Joy is stronger than happiness.”

Preparing for this sermon on joy, I trawled through various learned books on my shelves…but ended up, as I often do, returning to some of the best theologians around – our children.

“Happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby.”

“Joy is stronger than happiness.”

The first, a quote from a school assembly when I was curate; the second from our own Callum Holmes when year 3 came to church last week.

To try to tease out the meaning of ‘joy’, we were looking at how it differs from happiness…and why joy, not happiness is our Advent theme.

It’s not an easy thing to put into words and I’ve been wondering what it is about those two statements that hit the nail on the head. I think perhaps it’s something about trust, endurance and promise.

Trust…it can be difficult in today’s world. All around the world people are bombarded with fake news…statements made just to keep people happy…with little regard for the truth. ‘The virus is nothing to worry about’, ‘climate change isn’t real’, ‘we’ll be fine by Christmas’, ‘our country is doing just fine’; and promises to do the impossible if only one is elected.

Some of the time it works, at least for some people – there can be too much hard stuff to face, especially at the moment…we might well be happier ignoring it. But this happiness won’t last – because it isn’t based on the truth.

Today’s readings also contain joyful messages of wonderful things to come; but both concentrate on the authority of those bringing the good news. The prophet Isaiah begins, ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news’. John the Baptist is very clear that he’s not the Messiah, nor Elijah; he’s the voice crying in the wilderness foretold by Isaiah, sent by God, he’s there as a witness to the coming of Jesus. These are messages from God, messages that can be trusted.

Callum suggested ‘joy’ is stronger than happiness – perhaps this is because it’s always rooted in the truth. Joy comes when we trust the good news we hear, even if things are not so good at the moment.

Perhaps joy is also stronger because it endures. Even genuine happiness tends not to survive difficult times; but joy is strong enough to withstand the darkness.

Advent comes at a time of darkness and shadows, when days are short, the weather often poor. This year we can add anxiety, the weariness of isolation, grief made worse by separation, fears about the economy. But Advent is also when we hear the good news that God comes to live as one of us, to share the darkness and shadows of even the worst human life. So Advent brings the news that we are unconditionally loved…by God. We can know this to be good news even in the darkest times. Happiness may be difficult at the moment – but joy endures.

Of course, happiness can be very real. This summer held many happy moments enjoying nature, on holiday, with friends. And I well remember the happiness of a new bike – or other longed for toy when I was a child.

Yet I immediately recognised the truth contained in that statement: ‘happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby’. And I wonder whether that truth lies in the promise and potential of a new baby. Unlike happiness that comes from possessions or holidays…a new baby holds the promise of a lifetime of growth, development and interaction. It’s not just about now – but about what is to come.

I was bowled over by the birth of both of our children…but I have to admit to finding tiny babies a little boring. The joy of being a mother unfolded as they smiled, laughed, began to ask endless questions, and shared their childlike wisdom with me. The joy is still unfolding now they are adults and our relationship grows and changes.

That child in my assembly chose the image of a new baby because there was one in her house; but we could equally talk of joy being a deep and lasting friendship. I suspect, I hope, we all have people who bring joy into our lives by their companionship, the phone call or text when things are hard, the offer of help. And friendships aren’t static…bonds gradually deepen as, bit by bit we share ourselves more fully. Again, the joy comes in the promise, of love given and returned, of an unfolding relationship that is always new.

Advent joy comes from the promise that Christ can be born afresh in us this Christmas. And it’s joy rather than happiness, because it’s not just a day of recalling Christ’s birth, but the start, or the deepening of a lifelong relationship.

Advent is traditionally a season when, despite the business of preparing for Christmas, we try to put time aside to wait quietly for God. This year I’m doing that partly with this book on the poems of R.S. Thomas. Advent is quiet, sometimes solemn – but it’s still a time of ‘doing’.

Perhaps trust, and promise bring enduring joy rather than fleeting happiness because they call for a response. In Advent, even in the darkness and difficulties we are asked to trust in God’s steadfast love. To trust that God really does want to share even the darkest parts of our lives.

Then we are invited into a relationship, with Christ. As with every other relationship, the more time and effort we invest in it, the more its promise will unfold, and the more joy it will bring.

Advent joy is stronger than happiness because advent joy is a new baby. As we await the birth of the Christ-child we are called not only to come and adore him, but to stay and grow with him. Amen

Judgment as love? A sermon for Advent 2 – Adel Parish church

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Judgement as love? A sermon for Advent 2 at Adel Parish Church

Isaiah 40: 1 – 11, Mark 13: 24 – end

Advent means a new church year. It also means a change in our Sunday gospel readings. Last year we mainly heard from Matthew – this year it’s Mark.

Today we heard the start of Mark’s gospel, and he starts as he means to go on – abruptly! This isn’t Luke’s beautiful nativity story or John’s soaring poetry introducing Jesus.

No, for Mark, ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ’ comes through John the Baptist shouting in the wilderness, and a baptism of repentance…owning up to what we’re doing wrong…judgement if you like. Judgement – perhaps not the first thing we expect from ‘good news’.

In the past though, advent sermons traditionally tackled the themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell. In recent times we’ve moved to ‘softer’ themes: hope, love, joy, peace; so today you’re expecting love rather than judgement. But actually, in the good news of Jesus Christ, I don’t think judgement and love are that far apart.

For me, Christianity is all about love…since God is love. But it’s an active kind of love: not just a beautiful feeling for a baby in a manger; but the challenging sort of love found in Mark’s Jesus; who comes to shock us, to show us who we really are, and who we ought to be. Jesus who says that entering his kingdom involves facing the truth about ourselves and changing the direction of our lives.

A group of us have been using the ‘Pilgrim course’ to explore some of the foundations of our faith. We’ve reached the ten commandments, the traditional standard against which lives are measured. This week we were challenged by Jesus’ comments on them. ‘Never mind don’t murder…if you’re angry with someone that’s just as bad. Never mind adultery…don’t even look at another woman.’

This sounds very judgmental, almost impossible to live up to – and not much like love. But as we explored Jesus’ words, they altered our view of the commandments, from a list of remote ‘do nots’, to a framework that leads us into fullness of life. Judgement, yes; but judgement that helps us to grow.

‘Don’t murder’, ‘don’t commit adultery’, ‘don’t steal’, can be taken for granted. Of course they’re important, but for most of us keeping them doesn’t impact our lives much. They’re about what we don’t do, more than how we live. Jesus challenges us to go further, to judge our own lives, and address the anger, lust and envy they contain. And these are things that hurt us as much as they do others.

The Pilgrim course asked us to consider the ten commandments as ‘a firm and friendly arm around the shoulder saying, “this is how to live”’…that seems to me an example of judgement experienced as love.

Mark’s good news is that Jesus Christ is coming…that he’s coming to shock us, to show us who we really are, and how that’s not who we should be. But Mark’s good news is also that Jesus judges with love…that he loves us just as we are – but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.

So, our Advent love is a challenge. Preparing to welcome the Christ child into our lives involves having a good look at those lives. Christ’s judgement comes to us as love – but love that offers us some hard work as we try to become more like him. Advent love as tough love perhaps!

There are places in the bible though, where judgement is welcomed not feared. The announcement ‘Here is your God, he will come with vengeance’, is seen as an occasion for rejoicing in song and dance.

‘Your God will come with vengeance’, hardly seems like a cause for joy – unless perhaps it’s spoken to the oppressed, the wrongly imprisoned, the enslaved, the poor and needy. If you’re wronged or exploited by the system – then judgement is indeed a reason to rejoice, judgement might be felt as love.

American philosopher Cornel West says this about love: ‘tenderness is what love feels like in private; justice is what love looks like in public.’

We’re all individual followers of Jesus, who hope to feel his love tenderly working in our lives. But we’re also Christians citizens of this community…country…world, who are called to make his love known to others. ‘Justice is what love looks like in public’, so justice is also part of Advent love.

You may have seen on the BBC news this week a film of two vicars in Burnley almost broken by the burden of feeding the hungry and listening to desperate people. It put the problems of my job into sharp perspective. It also, I think, demanded a response.

One vicar said ‘I go into homes with families; there are children ripping open the bags to get at the food as I come through the door.’ This surely demands justice not charity. In a society as rich as ours, even a global pandemic shouldn’t result in starving children.

For me, sharing Christ’s love must involve actively working for a society where everyone has the right to food and warmth, even when jobs are scarce and some industries struggling. It must involve working against injustice wherever we find it.

We’ve been rightly proud of Adel’s response to our Advent Foodbank appeal, but I think we should also be doing all we can to bring about a time when such an appeal isn’t needed.

Today Esther/Joshua/Ted lit our candle of love. This Advent I pray that we all experience the tender, challenging love of Jesus who comes in gentle judgement to help us change and grow.

Today n lit our candle of love. This advent I pray that we share Christ’s love – working for the justice that is its public face. Amen

‘You are the potter’…being shaped by Advent.

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‘You are the potter’…being shaped by Advent.

Sermon for Adel Parish Church – Advent 1

Isaiah 64: 1 – 9; Mark 13: 24 – end

How are your plans for Christmas coming along?

I imagine – could I see you – there will be wry smiles, or people throwing things at the screen. Planning anything at the moment feels like aiming at a moving target.

We find that hard don’t we? We like certainty, we like to know where we’re going. Uncertainty makes us anxious…it’s hard to look to the future when we have no idea what it will be like.

Today we bring that uncertainty to the first Sunday of Advent, with its theme of hope. Perhaps we’re left wondering what it is we’re hoping for.

Of course, we know Advent is about preparing for the coming of God, the birth of the Christ child. We know it’s not about shopping, presents, stuff. But without the music which helps us enter the mystery, or the special people in whom we encounter Christ our hope to meet Christ this Christmas might feel dimmed.

Those words we heard from Isaiah, spoken for a people in exile, seem especially relevant today when we feel exiled from normal life, from a normal Advent and Christmas. Isaiah struggles to reconcile the ancient stories of God’s powerful presence, with the people’s experience of God’s absence.

‘Come down, like you used to do’, he implores God. ‘Come and sort out our problems and rescue us.’ Our prayers might well be similar…’send a vaccine…make this go away’. I’m sure these are good things to pray for…but there’s a verse at the end of the reading that I think tells us more about Advent hope.

After his demands for God to act, Isaiah says: ‘Yet Lord, we are the clay, and you are our potter.’

‘We are the clay and you are the potter’, a beautiful image that alters my picture of how we might live in hope this Advent.

The focus is moved from passive waiting for God to come and sort things out, to creative waiting, a time of being changed by God.

From what I know of Adel, there’s probably at least one expert potter listening to this, and most of us will have seen a film of a potter at their wheel…the miraculous turning of a lump of clay into a beautiful, useful pot.

It’s quite a slow process, the potter has to be patient and work with the clay, slowly shaping it into the pot they’ve planned. Sometimes it goes wrong, the pot collapses, or the wheel becomes unbalanced. But all is not lost – the potter picks up the clay and starts again.

Those are two images of hope I’ve found useful at the beginning of this strange Advent.

Firstly, we might hope and pray for a sudden drop in cases, the quick roll out of a vaccine before Christmas. But whether or not that happens, God can be at work in our lives, moulding them gently and patiently into lives where there is room for Jesus.

We’re not just waiting, passively for Christmas to arrive or not. If we submit ourselves to God the potter, he can begin to change us into people ready to accept Christ, people who might begin to turn our bit of the world into a place fit for Christ.

Secondly, like the potter with the clay, if things go wrong, if our lives go astray from God, he will always start again with us. Advent is not just a new church year; it’s a reminder that God waits for us to make a new start with him. Whether this Advent is the first time you’ve really thought about welcoming Jesus into your life…or you feel you come with the same old faults you’ve asked God to help with time and again…God the potter is ready to work with whatever clay we offer him.

That’s a real story of hope.

If, like me, you’re of a certain age, the words ‘potter’ and ‘clay’ may have brought to mind the famous ‘potter’s wheel interlude’ from the early days of BBC television. Back then, breakdowns were frequent. The BBC needed to reassure the audience their TV was still working, and hang on to them until the programme could restart.

They needed to fill the gap – with something people wouldn’t switch off – but that they wouldn’t mind leaving once the fault was fixed. They chose a potter at a wheel, making a pot.

There was something almost Advent like about that waiting. To paraphrase Mark’s gospel…we didn’t know the moment when the programme would restart. But in the meantime – we were drawn into something creative.

In these uncertain times, it’s perhaps good to be reminded in Advent that we aren’t waiting passively for a God who comes down in power and might. We’re hoping for a baby in a cradle, who comes to invite, to teach, to persuade, to love us into new people.

Advent hope is about letting God the potter gently mould our lives so we’re ready to hear the message Jesus brings.

And that means making ourselves available.

We have some offerings that might help…

…our ‘Advent windows’ on the side of church – a different personal reflection each week on our Advent themes, put together by some of our artistic members.

…our Advent course – a chance to reflect with others – please get in touch if you’d like to be involved.

Or you may prefer to find your own resources – bible readings, poems, paintings –  find a quiet space to sit and let God in.

Whatever you do – I hope Advent will be a time of creative waiting.

A final word about that BBC potter’s wheel: apparently ‘Viewers who stayed alert noticed that the potter never finished the pot, but just kept remodelling it.’

Perhaps a good picture of Advent hope as the beginning of a lifetime journey. A journey of letting God gently make us more Christlike.