“He has gone ahead of you to Galilee…” Words for Easter Sunday at Adel Parish Church.

Angel at tomb

“He has gone ahead of you to Galilee…” Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020, Adel Parish Church.

Matthew 28: 1 – 10

What do you get if you pour hot water down a rabbit hole? A hot cross bunny!

Easter morning – a morning for jokes and laughter…a morning for laughing at the jokes even if they aren’t very funny…a morning for just reveling in the existence of laughter.

Today we probably feel we have less than usual to laugh at. Today for many people, tears will feel more appropriate than laughter. But that will have been true for some every Easter.

Matthew’s gospel tries to show us how there is cause for joy – in spite of everything.

Matthew’s resurrection story is a vivid, fantastical description…a great earthquake, an angel of the Lord – his clothing white as snow his appearance like lightning, the stone rolled away, the guards felled…

…is Matthew perhaps saying there is no ordinary way of speaking of the resurrection? Normal human descriptions don’t work, because it isn’t about what’s possible for humans…it’s purely about what God can do.

…angels appear rarely in Matthew’s gospel…announcing Jesus’ birth…at his transfiguration…and here, announcing his resurrection from the dead. They appear only when heaven and earth intersect, when God’s presence in the world is especially felt.

What else does Matthew tell us?

Both the angel and Jesus say, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid of the strange awesome happenings…for here God breaks the boundary of life that we call death…here God does something completely new. Here God shows us there is nothing can separate us from his love.

The angels say, “Jesus will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Galilee – where Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, reconciling took place. Galilee, where Jesus showed what God’s kingdom on earth looks like.

The angel at the tomb says, “He is not here, he has been raised.” Jesus cannot be contained even by a tomb.

In these times our closed church can seem something like a tomb – empty of prayer and praise, empty of singing and sharing. But we are being reminded in new ways that important though our building is – the church is the people.

We will return to our beautiful, holy building and find God there. We will squeeze in; stand shoulder to shoulder; share the peace. But perhaps we’ll do so with a renewed awareness that Jesus is risen and goes ahead to Galilee – to be found in our community wherever healing, feeding, teaching and suffering are shared in his name.

We have perhaps walked the way of the cross more closely this year – we might have to work harder to hear above our worries, the wonderful story of what is possible with God. But it is Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

“Do this in remembrance of me…” called to wash feet…

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“Do this in remembrance of me…” called to wash feet.

A sermon for Maundy Thursday for Adel Parish Church.

Some of you are perhaps feeling very relieved at this moment. Had this been a normal Holy Week, containing what I’d planned – this sermon would be followed by me washing some of your feet.

There would, I suspect, have been some arm-twisting along the way. Foot washing has always been part of the Maundy Thursday service where I’ve worshipped, and it’s often been a challenge to find 12 ‘willing’ people…

I wonder why…

“Do this in remembrance of me…”; these words of Jesus are only recorded in Luke’s gospel at the last supper, and in slightly different wording, in John’s gospel we heard tonight. I wonder why churches have shared bread and wine regularly from that time to this – but the foot-washing bit happens, somewhat reluctantly, on Maundy Thursday or not at all.

The disciples were no keener than we are…Simon Peter probably speaking for them all with his protestation…”you will never wash my feet”. Yet for the writer of this gospel, there is no mention of bread and wine – foot washing is the focus of Jesus’ final evening with his followers.

And it’s more than just a loving final action. “Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks the disciples. On the final evening of his life, foot washing is the message Jesus wants to leave…and through the story of Jesus’ actions and the disciples’ response John tries to answer that question. “Do you know what I have done to you?”

Peter at first refuses, but Jesus says, if you want to follow me this isn’t something you can get out of. It’s that important. Just as important then as bread and wine.

Peter typically then leaps in with the idea that if washing is good – more washing must be better – “wash all of me then” he says. Perhaps he thinks the washing is to do with being made clean, having sins washed away.

But one of the most moving parts of this story for me is that it includes Judas. Jesus knows that Judas has decided to betray him; he knows his mind will not be changed – yet he washes Judas’ feet with the same love and care.

This then is not a ritual act of cleansing; it’s not an anointing of disciples for their future role…it’s simply an act of humble love and service…no more, no less…as Jesus takes up the role of a slave, and does one of the least pleasant jobs of a household.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” What does this uncomfortable act mean for us as we try to follow Jesus? As one of my books put it…’It’s a sermon to the world about how to love.’

More specifically perhaps it’s a sermon to Jesus’ followers about the love we’re offered by God, and the love we’re told to share with others.

Do we perhaps avoid the foot washing because we struggle with what it means for us?

First there’s the difficulty of letting Jesus wash our feet. I don’t know whether you have ever tried imagining it. I have – and I find it asks me to put myself totally in his hands. It asks me to surrender to his love – to be willing to give up control of my life to him.

Then it asks us to accept that we have a king who kneels and washes smelly feet. This is the person we’re to proclaim as Lord – this is the person we’re to follow. We don’t have a leader who uses conventional power to protect his followers. We aren’t part of a ruling group, safe in our position, looking down on those on the outside. This is what glory looks like in the kingdom of heaven.

Which means, as Jesus said, that this is what we are called to do as his followers. This is what sharing the love Jesus looks like. We are asked to take off our ‘outer robes’, put on a simple towel, kneel, and clean smelly feet.

Of course for us the foot washing is symbolic – it’s not a common need in modern western life. But it is symbolic of doing the jobs that seem most demeaning, least important. It’s about doing those jobs in love for anyone who needs us. It’s about doing those jobs for the ‘Judas’ we come across – who is unlikely to be grateful, who won’t repay our love.

As this state of lockdown continues it means still being willing to help our neighbours when the first flush of enthusiasm wears off. At the start of this I received many offers of help…I’m grateful to those who are still answering requests.

It means being willing to do the inconvenient jobs for the awkward and ungrateful, as well as jobs we enjoy doing for those we love. Again I am very grateful to those who are helping the church to respond to everyone who asks – regardless of who they are.

Tomorrow we will stand at the foot of the cross and see the depth of Christ’s love for humanity. Today we are shown what our response should be. Most of us will not be called to die for Christ, or for our friends. All of us are called to wash feet.

On his last evening with his disciples, Jesus didn’t just talk, he washed feet. Jesus message is not about foot washing, it is foot washing. And it’s such a profound and radical message – that I for one find the physical act helps me to answer Jesus’ question “Do you know what I have done for you?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Unbind him and let him go…’ Thinking about Lazarus in today’s world. Sermon for Adel Parish Church

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‘Unbind him and let him go…’ Thinking about Lazarus in today’s world.

Sermon for Passion Sunday – Adel Parish Church.

Romans 8: 6 – 11; John 11: 1- 45

It is slightly discomforting that today’s gospel is the raising of Lazarus…but I love the characters of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

Not in the chosen group of twelve disciples…not on the margins of society…not characters exaggerated for the sake of a good story…just ordinary friends of Jesus, perhaps like you and me.

It seems from a previous story, that theirs was a house Jesus went to for rest and companionship…to get away from the crowds. They were, first of all, his friends…only gradually did they come to recognise him as their Lord.

When difficult stuff happens to us – we turn to the friends we trust the most – the ones who will know what to do. So when Lazarus becomes gravely ill, his sisters send for Jesus. He’ll know what to do…more than that…he can do things other people can’t. They trust he’s from God…they trust that if he comes, somehow everything will be ok.

But, it seems, he arrives too late.

Martha rushes out to him, still glad to have him there…but full of grief….and like so many of us when we lose loved ones – filled with ‘if only’.

“If only you’d been here – he wouldn’t have died”.

Mary in her turn says the same. They have enormous faith in Jesus – but for them death is the end. More than that – Lazarus has been dead for 4 days. In Jewish belief his soul has left his body after hovering around for 3 days. In practical terms, his body has begun to rot. The sisters have seen Jesus’ power, but death is surely more powerful still.

Perhaps Martha has a glimmer of hope…”If only you’d been here”, she says, “but even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

I don’t think she’s expecting a miracle though…even when Jesus says…”your brother will rise again” she understands it as an attempt to comfort her. Her faith already told her that at the end of times there would be a general resurrection.

But here Jesus makes an astonishing claim “I am the resurrection and the life,”…not at the end times – but there and then.

This is a strange story, about so much more than the miraculous bringing to life of a dead man. Loads of people must have died during Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t bring them back to life…sadly today we face the death of loved ones, of members of our community. We’re seeing death on a scale most of us have never experienced.

Frankly, the bringing back to life of one friend of Jesus is not much use to us if that’s all it is. Great for that family – but what do we do with it?

Firstly there is that famous verse…’Jesus wept’. Why? He knows he’s going to bring Lazarus back to life. He seems to be affected by the grief of Martha and Mary, by the suffering of Lazarus. This story isn’t about removing grief…or removing death. But it is perhaps about Jesus working and healing in the midst of grief…Jesus acknowledging the reality of death and of our grief and wanting to share it.

Then, when Jesus orders the gravestone to be moved, there’s Martha insisting, ‘but it’s 4 days since he died – it’s going to smell.’ This reminder that Lazarus is 4 days dead tell us that for the people around him – he is now gone – out of reach.

But Jesus has the stone removed anyhow – and commands, “Lazarus come out!” And Lazarus does. Death has not put him beyond the reach of Jesus. This story doesn’t say there will be no more death…no more grief…but it does give us the promise that when our loved ones die they may be out of our reach for now – but they are still with God.

Finally, there is the strange statement…’The dead man came out.’ I suppose I’d always assumed Lazarus came out alive…but ‘the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth.’

Then Jesus says ‘unbind him and let him go’. Does this say something about the Christian life and what encountering Jesus can do for us now? Before Jesus can bring Lazarus truly to life he needs unbinding from all the things that stop him living life fully…not just the disease that killed him. We don’t know what those were for Lazarus…I guess they’re different for each person. But at the moment fear, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, the ease with which we become self-centered, may well be binding us…restricting our life.

Our Christian faith doesn’t offer us answers to all our questions at this time – but it does offer us a life giving relationship with Jesus. Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life” – resurrection and life are found in the person of Jesus.

This is not just the story of one person miraculously given some extra time with his family, this is a promise that Jesus can free us from all sorts of grave clothes that bind us – anxiety, fear, oppression, loneliness, pride, greed…

We’re living through times different to anything we have experienced before. But through prayer, and reminding ourselves of his words and deeds, we have the hope that encountering Jesus brings. We’re having to find new ways to pray and spend time with Jesus – especially if it’s something we’ve done mostly in church. But many of us have more time on our hands…please share anything that’s working for you.

I pray that in the difficult times to come, we are all unbound and let go…into new life with Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

Mother church…words for Adel Parish church on Mothering Sunday 2020

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‘Mother church’ Sermon for Adel Parish Church at a Eucharist celebrated on behalf of the parish  – Mothering Sunday 2020

Exodus 2:1 – 10; 2 Corinthians 1: 3-7; John 19: 25 – 27

When I started work as a curate – the problem arose of what title I should use in the schools of the parish. The vicar, Matthew, was referred to as ‘Father Matthew’…not too formal, not too familiar.

So what were the options available to me? Just to annoy me, Matthew liked to refer to me as ‘Mother Ali’…but it never felt right. As Mothering Sunday approached I have been pondering why this was.

I suppose it was because I am a mother of two, and I have a completely different relationship with them to anyone else. I certainly hope our school pupils wouldn’t be quite so rude to me…

In fact my reaction was similar to my discomfort in some ways with the whole idea of Mothering Sunday. It seems to take really important roles then recognise and celebrate them in just one person. Good mothers help us work out who we are; they teach us right from wrong and forgive us again and again; they feed us; they give us a place in a family…but those aren’t things only mothers can do.

Mothering Sunday is always a difficult day for many. We can’t all be mothers, some of us don’t want to. Some of us have lost mothers or children; relationships with mothers aren’t always good. This year it’s going to be difficult for everyone as we face the unknown with fear and anxiety.

So perhaps this a good time to rediscover one of the early meanings of Mothering Sunday – when people returned to their ‘mother church’.

How does our church provide ‘mothering’ and what does this mean to us in these times?

At the back of church we have our font – where for many the Christian journey begins. In baptism we join the body of Christ. We come as frail, fallible humans and are given a new identity. The words Jesus heard from God at his baptism are for us too “You are my child my beloved – I am pleased with you.”

Whilst our world changes about us: jobs and finances uncertain; children no longer in school, we can’t visit and care for people in the same way…that identity as God’s beloved children becomes more important than ever, because it is an identity nothing can change.

When we come to church together, we often begin with prayers of penitence – saying sorry to God, in front of each other, for the wrongs we do. We think about where we’ve fallen short, in the hope we might begin to do better. More importantly we then receive God’s forgiveness. We know God loves us even when we fail – and that gives us courage to try to do better.

As we face what this emergency exposes in our lives…the temptation to stockpile food, perhaps just a little, because others are…the urge to stop giving to food banks or other charities because life is no longer normal…the temptation to ignore rules on distancing, because we are not at risk…the way our patience is surely going to be tested…we can offer these to God, knowing that we are forgiven, and receiving the strength and encouragement to try to be more Christ-like.

Week by week, in this church, we share in the Eucharist, the bread and wine. We bring our hunger…for love, acceptance, faith, hope, peace, joy…and are fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

In this meal we’re assured that Christ is with us, making us truly alive…giving us love, acceptance, faith, hope, joy, peace. In this meal, begun just before Jesus went to his death – we’re reminded that he chose to experience the worst as well as the best of human life – that he suffers with us.

Through this meal we have hope that even death is defeated so that whatever happens, we and those we love are held in God’s hands. You cannot physically take part in this Eucharist – but you do so spiritually just as much as if you were here.

Finally – at the end of our services we are sent out to ‘love and serve the Lord’. Hopefully transformed just a little into the likeness of Christ, so that we can become what we are…the body of Christ.

This Mothering Sunday comes at the start of frightening, challenging times. But mothering has never been just for the good times. I reckon one of the most important things good Mums do is help us through the tough times. However much we argue – when things are bad it’s often Mum we want. Good mothers sort of say ‘Look – we’ll get through this, because I’m here with you.’

Jesus knew that – even as he was dying on the cross. He knew once he was gone things were going to be tough for the tiny, new church. He knew some good ‘mothering’ was going to be needed. So, as we heard in our Gospel reading, he created a new family…with his mother and his disciples…a new place where mothering could go on. A community to bring hope when things were tough.

So whatever challenges today brings to you – remember Mother Church…

  • giving us our identity as things change around us
  • reminding us of God’s forgiveness and love
  • satisfying our hunger for love, faith, hope, joy, peace

And remember – we are the body of Christ – so we are all called to give this sort of mothering to one another and the wider community.

 

 

 

Following Jesus…best job in the world?

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Following Jesus…best job in the world? A sermon for evensong, Lent 2 at St John’s Church Adel.

Numbers 21: 4 – 9; Luke 14: 27 – 33

The other day I saw an advert for the teaching profession. Called ‘every lesson shapes a life’ it showed teachers making a difference to children’s lives. It showed children who were struggling suddenly see the light…angry children calming down and achieving.

It showed the best bits of teaching. It didn’t show the ridiculous hours, the mounds of marking, unreasonable parents, a class of 6 year olds when a wasp gets into the classroom…

…of course it didn’t. It was hoping to persuade people it’s the best job in the world…and it is, most of the time. Well – perhaps the second best!

Similarly when you were advertising for a new Rector – you mentioned the welcoming congregation, the wonderful lay support, the beautiful building. You didn’t mention…of course there are no drawbacks to being Rector of Adel…but you get the point. When we want to attract people – we accentuate the positive!

Jesus however, goes about his advertising in a rather different way. He seems to be making sure people know about the worst bits of following him…carrying your cross…giving up all your possessions.

The only other time I’ve heard that sort of invitation is in Winston Churchill’s famous speech of May 13th 1940 as he formed a coalition war government.  “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, he said – as he invited the House of Commons to support him.

I suppose he was saying – this is a serious thing we’re about – so serious that you need to know from the start just what the cost might be. And that’s perhaps what Jesus is saying too. Following him matters…it matters so much that he doesn’t want people giving up the minute it gets tough.

You wouldn’t start building a tower without making sure you could finish it he says. You wouldn’t go to war without being sure of the outcome. I’m not sure humans have always followed that advice – but we get the gist…when something is really important, we try to make sure we can follow it through, even when things get difficult.

So Jesus seems to be saying – be ready for things to get difficult – because what I’m offering is important – not something you should give up at the first hurdle.

Churchill was offering blood, sweat, toil and tears because the alternative appeared to be the destruction of civilisation, the end of freedom. Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him, because the alternative is separation from God.

But it’s still quite a challenge – “no one can be my disciple unless they give up all their possessions”…that rules me out – you too I suspect! Well, as so often, I think Jesus exaggerates for effect. And not just because I can’t give up my possessions…

…the verse before this reading says “who ever doesn’t hate father, mother, wife, brother, children, life itself, can’t be my disciple”. We know Jesus doesn’t really want us to hate our families and our lives – that contradicts almost everything else he said.

He exaggerates for effect – to the crowds flocking to see a miracle. Don’t suppose you can be my disciples just by following me around in the good times, I think he’s saying. Following me needs to be the most important thing in your life – more important even than family, possessions, your life. You need to loosen your hold on these a little if you truly want to be ready to follow me.

A challenge! But the good news for us is that although following Jesus can indeed be a hard road, the rewards are worth it. The Jesus we meet in the gospels doesn’t spend most of his time warning what will happen if we don’t follow him, as Churchill had to do in 1940 instead, like those teaching adverts, he tries to show what we will find if we do.

Jesus feeds and heals and breaks down barriers. He promises bread that gives life, and water that satisfies our thirsts. He shows us that God is love and loves each of us.

Jesus shows us how to be truly human – and gives us a glimpse of what life will be like if we start to live our lives that way.

Today we hear his challenge – but unlike Churchill ‘only offering blood, sweat, toil and tears’, we can also remember his promise of life in all its fullness – not just one day – but now.

 

 

 

The birth is only the beginning…being ‘born from above’.

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The birth is only the beginning…being ‘born from above.’

Sermon for St John’s Adel 2nd Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12: 1 – 4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17

Anyone a fan of ‘Call the Midwife’? I’ve come to it rather late – so since Christmas I’ve been catching up on the early series.

Apart from being an amazing social history of post-war Britain, it’s also a reminder that childbirth is a messy and violent affair.

Since it’s really the story of the midwives, frustratingly we never hear the rest of the baby’s story…we don’t see them grow up. Occasionally there are glimpses – a young policeman will appear and say to a nun, “I’m one of yours – you delivered me during the blitz.” But mostly, it’s the birth that matters.

Today’s gospel is also about birth. Jesus tells Nicodemus no one can see the Kingdom of heaven without being ‘born from above’…often translated ‘born again’…

I wonder…what does that phrase mean to you? I’ve always belonged to churches where it’s either not used, or regarded with some suspicion…an idea used by rather dogmatic, overenthusiastic evangelicals.

And I’ve done placements in wonderful churches where it’s seen as vital…those who aren’t ‘born again’ perhaps not really regarded as proper Christians.

I guess as usual we’ve both missed the point. Firstly – I’m pretty sure Jesus chose the picture carefully. Birth – wonderful, but not gentle. Watch a couple of episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ back to back and you soon realise that.

But Nicodemus seems to be hoping it is. I think he’s realised that in Jesus he’s somehow encountering God but he comes to Jesus by night. As a Jewish leader he’s not ready to commit himself fully by coming openly during the day.

Does he come hoping for reassurance that he can have a private faith in Jesus, but go on with the rest of his life as before? That’s not what Jesus offers him. No, Nicodemus is told that following Jesus is like another birth – a huge change. It’s like moving from the comfort and safety of the womb, the life we know, to the scary space of the outside world.

Nicodemus is invited to bring his faith in Jesus from the secrecy of night, into the daylight where he can see it better.

Becoming a follower of Jesus means change. So those Christians who make much of the idea of being born again are right in a way.

I think the problem is that it’s come to mean a once in a lifetime happening. A sudden massive change from not believing to being certain that Jesus is Lord. That’s a wonderful thing that happens to some people…but for many, me included, it’s a much more gradual process. It’s not all about the birth.

Mark Oakley, a favourite writer of mine, says Christianity involves two conversions. The first happens when suddenly this idea that God loves us, and shows this love by sending Jesus…this idea starts to make sense, and something stirs inside us.

Something stirs…for most people it’s not a sudden certainty – not a point where we say, I wasn’t a Christian and now I am – we may not even remember it. But at some point we start to take faith seriously enough for it to invade the rest of our lives – we bring it out into the light.

Like childbirth, though – it’s not an end in itself. It’s the beginning of something…of that second conversion…a conversion that is the rest of our life…as we slowly, sometimes painfully, try to adjust to this different way of being human, to live in this different light.

So, although the ‘being born again’ matters – I think the second conversion matters more. We don’t want to be a ‘Call the Midwife’ church, just sharing birth stories – we want to be the spin off stories of how those babies grew up!

Which is why the chance to get involved and share our faith is so important. For me, growing in Christ has always involved discussion: trying to put my ideas into words and having them refined by the thoughts of others.

So there will be increasing opportunities to do this here at St John’s. There’s the Lent course – last week we had two very different but valuable discussions…ask the people who came. It’s not too late to join in.

In June Bishop Paul comes to confirm Christians here. If you haven’t been confirmed…if this Jesus stuff is starting to make sense, and you’d like to explore it further – speak to me about confirmation. You can come along to the discussions without committing to anything else.

In April we’re starting up a new group for older children – year 4 and up. A chance for them to be together without parents, to have fun, but also to start asking questions –discussing this Christianity stuff for themselves.

I know this sort of discussion is not for everyone – it can be a little scary. I would say though – if you’ve never tried it, give it a go.

But there are other ways to journey together as Christians – by getting involved in serving at the altar, and so perhaps learn a little more about the Eucharist.

By reading the lesson or leading the prayers, and so perhaps engaging a little more deeply with the service.

By joining the team who welcome people on a Sunday morning, or who serve coffee afterwards and so thinking about what welcome in God’s name looks like.

Or if you’ve done those in the past, but can’t at the moment – by taking the pew sheet home and praying for those listed on it. Praying for others is a great way of growing closer to God. Whatever you do – I think it’s good for all of us to think about new steps in our Christian journey.

So for us, being ‘born from above’ may not be the violent, messy affair so beloved of ‘Call the Midwife’, but it should hold the same promise of a whole new life ahead as we try to live in the light of Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Like stained glass…thinking about the transfiguration.

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Like stained glass – thinking about the transfiguration.

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

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

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

I love taking funerals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says:

Attend everything.

Go for broke.

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