Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday and a dieu...

What follows is my sermon for tonight, Ash Wednesday. It will be the last thing I preach pretty much for 3 months as I take Sabbatical leave. It you want to keep up with me you can follow my Sabbatical blog here.


It is going to be a very strange Lent for me. As many of you give up alcohol, chocolate or crisps for the holy season of Lent, I am giving up church. Well to be more precise, I am giving up being part of the parish of Leverstock Green and the Team Benefice of Langelei as I take Sabbatical leave for 3 months. It is time set aside for reassessment, refocussing and renewal for me.

As the time stretches out in front of me I feel a sense of bereavement setting in - not being part of a regular worshipping community, not partaking in the Lentern pilgrimage of prayer and worship, not preaching, not presiding at the Eucharist. My identity is blurring, fading, ashen, ashing...

I was reminded this morning that whilst Lent has associations with austerity and looking inwards, the word Lent actually means spring. Spring of course being a time when look for signs of new life, new growth, fresh starts and a looking outwards and forwards to where this all leads.

Throughout the ages, throughout the pages of the scriptures we read an agonizing love story. God saying to people again and again - I love you, I long to be with you, will you be with me? We hear some of that story in tonight’s readings. All too often His love is unrequited and it must break his heart to see that which is most precious to Him turn our backs on him, metaphorically slap his cheek, speak ill of him and walk away.

Lent then is a gift of love from God to us His people. It is a time to do a spiritual spring clean, to have a long hard look at the part of us where our motives and drives reside, our hearts. The traditional Lenten tasks of fasting, praying and almsgiving are not a pennance, but a a means to slow down, make time to have a long hard look at our inner worlds and to declutter our hearts and lives. In so doing to make room for a God who loves us, who does move heaven and earth for us in Jesus Christ, to allow our lives become fertile soil for Resurrection life to grow in us at Easter. Lent is a God-given gift, a chance to spend some quality time with one who loves us. It’s about re-aligning ourselves with Him and his purposes in our world; about reminding ourselves that all we have is a gift from God in any case.

So just three quick things that are interesting to notice about the traditional Lent fast.

The first is that it was uniform – everyone gave up the same things, rather than choosing something appropriate to themselves; something idiosyncratic – like quail’s eggs or beluga caviar. And it reminds us again that Lent is NOT about self-improvement, giving up things that are bad for you, punishing yourself for sin, trying to make yourself more holy, or trying to be better than the next person. Lent is first of all about remembering our humanity – our connection with others – and our dependence on God.

In a moment we will share Eucharist with the Imposition of Ashes – having the ash of last year’s Palm Crosses pressed onto our foreheads. This Ashing is a symbol of the fact that we are dust. We cannot make ourselves like God. We’re human, fallible, weak.  The words that accompany the ashing are reminiscent of a funeral:  “Remember that you are but dust. From dust you came, and to dust you shall return. Turn from sin, and follow Christ.”  We are “at the end of the day” flesh and blood, fragile, broken creatures. So the season of Lent earths us – gets our feet firmly on the ground. 

The second thing that’s important about the traditional Lent disciplines is that it is about giving up essentials – staple things - NOT luxuries or vices. The traditional Lent fast was about everyday necessities: staples; essentials, not vices. Giving up something that significantly affects everyday life focuses us on the fact that we are dependent upon God for life and breath. Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. So giving up something that is an everyday necessity is a daily reminder of our dependence upon God, and that all the good things we have, even life itself, are God’s gift to us. On his fast in the wilderness Jesus said "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Our daily subsistence isn’t separated from our spiritual journey; we are whole beings. The mystery and wonder of the incarnation is that we have an embodied faith - Christianity is a holistic religion - mind, heart, soul AND BODY are all involved here.

Giving up essentials is also a reminder that we worship in the everyday, not merely out of excess: if our fast focuses on luxury items - perhaps we’re misleading ourselves to think that worship is in the realm of leisure, or luxury? God calls us to worship him in the everyday, the ordinary patterns and rhythms, and not just when we have a bit of time to spare; not just when things are going well The worship that Jesus calls us to is the recognition that we depend upon God for every breath we take; and that our whole life needs to be grounded, earthed in the knowledge and love of God.

And then the third aspect of the traditional Lent discipline is its association with social justice and the redistribution of wealth. For as well as abstaining from certain foods, people were also traditionally encouraged to fast altogether for certain periods of time – like only eating one meal a day, for instance. And the money saved was not to be used for oneself, but was to be given to the poor. Following Jesus, Lent starts with a withdrawal into the desert God is inviting us to say “Yes” to him during this Lent Yes to his plans and purposes for the world, where we’re brought back into a relationship with God – forgiven, restored and made whole.
Yes to the promises made in our baptisms about following him as his disciples and living accordingly. And more importantly God invites us to say ‘yes’ to the coming of his kingdom in our daily lives, where we fret about doing it our way and getting what we want; where saying Yes to God is so hard.

So much in my life, if I’m honest (looking back), has been about seeking influence, power, success - and popularity. But this baptismal way of Jesus is the way of “hiddenness”, powerlessness and littleness. It doesn’t seem a very appealing way in today’s celebrity culture, does it? Yet when we enter into true, deep communion with Jesus we find that it is this small way that leads to real peace and joy – as we allow his Spirit to make his home in us. My prayer is that this Lent is a time when we hear God speaking to us personally – and try and hear this intimate promise taken from Isaiah 43 for yourself – put your own name in where you read Jacob or Israel:
“This is what the Lord says – he who created you Jacob; he who formed you Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour…Because you are precious in my sight and honoured and I love you I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life...’

Thursday, February 04, 2010

For better, for worse...

I decided that it was time to write a new wedding sermon. The old one had been in circulation for a few years now.

I also decided that it was time to write a new one because the first wedding of the year is of the oldest daughter of a member of the choir, and she has heard the old one many times now!

I enclose both addresses for your delectation and delight below. I have kept the final paragraph the same in both, mostly because I feel that it says what it needs to, but feel free to offer an alternative should you wish...

Sermon 1: 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a
I want to leave you with a few thoughts based on the readings that we have just heard before you come to make your vows to each other.

The theme of both of that reading was love. We are gathered here today because you love one another. Love can be elusive and hard to find and each one of us, if we are honest spends our entire lives looking for people to love and be loved by, in our friendships as well as in our families, and each one of us is gathered here this afternoon to celebrate that you have found love in each other.

St. Paul who wrote that reading, records love’s eternal characteristics - he tells us that it is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude, it does not insist on it’s own way, it’s not resentful and it does not celebrate all that is wrong in the world. That’s a fairly demanding list, and your love for each other needs to be expressed in those sorts of ways. Try not to worry when life gets hard and loving is difficult, because St. Paul also tells us that true love bears, believes, hopes and endures everything that life throws at us. You are committing yourselves to each other today for the rest of your lives through good times and through bad; through joy and tragedy each one of us here hopes and prays that you will always remember the love that unites you today, and allow that to carry you through life together.

N I wonder how you express your love for N? N I wonder how you express your love for N? Perhaps you can't always easily verbalize it, but you can express it most powerfully in a touch or a kiss. When true love comes it often does so with a power that we cannot control, it leads us to do things that we never thought that we were capable of. Paul writes of love with a purpose. True love gives us each and inner strength and an inner drive. True love has lead the two of you from your families to each other and eventually here today as you make your vows in the presence of your friends and family and in the sight of Almighty God. I think is particularly apt as the love that unites the two of you is the highest of all human emotions as it is through loving and being in love, we emulate God himself - as I read at the beginning of the service “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

Love perfectly describes what God is like, and in sending of Jesus into the world - through his living, dying and rising again - God demonstrates to each of us the depths of his love. God’s love is something that is available to us all every day, not just the 2 of you on this your wedding day. God loves us like a parent loves their child, no matter who we are, where we are, or what we do.

You are a gift of love from God to each other. So N take care of that special gift of love that you have in N. N take care of that special gift of love that you have in N and that way with the help and support of your friends and family, over the years, your love will change, deepen and grow. As it does we all pray that the both of you, and all those who know you will experience the profound depths of your love for each other in it’s source, in God. Amen.

Sermon 2: Colossians 3:12-17

A Lego Wedding...

- Lego uses the ordinary to make the extraordinary. Whilst individual Lego pieces seem quite ordinary, small and insignificant by themselves they actually have incredible potential to create amazing things which are only limited by ones imagination. The same is true for N and N who are in the process of building an amazing relationship which is exciting for us as friends and family to watch grow.
- Lego's strength is its diversity. Its pieces are all different shapes, colors and sizes. When these diverse pieces come together they actually create some dynamic things. The same is true for N and N who are two unique people. You have different personalities, you have had different upbringings, experiences, struggles, achievements etc. Today as you continue the process of 'becoming one' you do not cease to be two - you don't ignore your individuality, but rather your differences are to be celebrated and looked at as strengths. The challenge is for you to give each other space for your individuality to blossom and to encourage each other to reach your potential.

- Lego is designed to connect. Today N and N take a further step in becoming one - they commit to this connection for life. This doesn't just happen with Lego - for it to come together it takes some intentionality and work. The reading that we heard from Colossians 3:12-17 which talks about putting on (like clothes) kindness, compassion, forgiveness etc. None of these things accidently happen. Just like N and N, you took time/energy/money to choose your clothes for today and to get dressed in your finest, it takes time and energy to grow your love.

It takes a third party to put Lego together - someone who sees the big picture and who knows how the pieces fit together best. Today N and N, you are surrounded by a community who can play a part in your growth and relationship. The encouragement is for us all to help foster growth in our your marriage. Not to dominate it or tell you how to do it, but to encourage and support you. More than that we have a God who made you individually and who sees the bigger picture for you individually and together. This God desires to be a part of your formation and shaping from this day forward, for better for worse... His big picture isn't to limit you, but to help you enter into your potential in love and in life. And the love we celebrate in you is a gift from God.

You are a gift of love from God to each other. So N take care of that special gift of love that you have in N. N take care of that special gift of love that you have in N and that way with the help and support of your friends and family, over the years, your love will change, deepen and grow. As it does we all pray that the both of you, and all those who know you will experience the profound depths of your love for each other in it’s source, in God. Amen.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Baptism in stormy waters

What follows is a lengthy (read that as too long - it will be shortened by Sunday) address on Luke 8:22-25 at the Baptism of Esther and Elijah Masters...

It has been a week of high emotion in our house...

Firstly, to much delight, my sister gave birth to a healthy and beautiful baby girl - Isabel at 1.35 am on Sunday 31st. Her arrival is such good news, family-enriching, smile-inducing, love-sharingly wonderful and there is a spring in my step because of her.

Our kids are just so delighted because they are the youngest cousins in the family, but no more! The delight, especially on our youngest's face at being 'a big cousin', is nothing short of life-affirming. Beautiful, isn't she?

And then on Sunday night, I heard from a friend with news that almost shook the joy out of me. A man who I had known in another place, in another time, had decided that he could cope no longer and met his Maker on a railway line... My rejoicing at new life and love was then overwhelmed by the dark shade of death. My earlier 'wows' were turned to 'whys.' This morning’s Gospel challenges me to accept that Jesus is with me in the peaks and troughs on life’s sea...

How Jesus can sleep through a storm is beyond me! I have reasonable sea legs, but sleeping in what would have been a smallish fishing vessel seems a little unlikely. We also need to remember that amongst the dispels were some experienced fishermen so they would have handled all sorts of weather out on the lake before - they were concerned for their safety and that of the boat so it must have been very rough. They wake Jesus and instead of helping steer the boat, or maybe even bail it out, instead he commands the winds and the waves to stop and they obey - this sort of mastery of the elements is something that only a god could do - who is this man? Prior to this event, the disciples had been experiencing the profoundest mystery - Jesus the teacher, Jesus the healer, Jesus the miracle worker - whilst a man, Jesus also clearly possesses something of the creator God about him. It strikes me that the disciples had every right to be frightened whether Jesus was awake or asleep!

The disciples needed Jesus when faced with danger and the limits of their mortality. They, like so many people cry out to God in Jesus, when in danger. They recognised that the only person or thing that could save them was God. Once awake and all is calm, Jesus asks the disciples - where is your faith? Did they really think that God would let them and Jesus die like this? Did they really think that this was it? Even though God was with them, agreed asleep, in fear of their lives they forgot that he was there and they assumed that they were alone.

Your actions define who you are. Jesus’ actions and words reveal him to be the friend of fishermen, but also creator of the universe with power to control the physical world for good and the will of God. The disciples’ actions and words reveal their lack of understanding of the great love story of God and humanity running from the moment of creation and reaching it’s high point in Jesus. Their actions and words also reveal a very real understanding that the only person who can help them when confronted with danger, uncertainty and ultimately death is God himself in Jesus.

Your actions define who you are. This is true of us. We say and pray and sing that we are following Jesus, listening to him teach, and trying to live it out, and yet all too often we leave all of that however good intentioned, at the church door. As we re-emerge from church into the storm of Monday to Saturday we assume that Jesus is still sleeping on the cushion in the boat. We like those disciples forget all too easily that here we have spent quality time with a friend of fishermen but also with creator of the universe with power to control the physical world for good and the will of God. All too easily we forget that from Monday to Saturday we live no differently to anyone else - only calling on God is crisis situations. We all too easily forget Jesus words, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’, ‘I am with you always till the end of time’ and ‘the kingdom of God is among you...’

Your actions define who you are. Mark’s account of this story tells us that the disciples took Jesus out in the the boat just as he was. I guess that means they took Jesus out onto the lake in the boat where he had spent most of the day teaching. But, it’s a strange phrase ‘just as he was.’ Yet Jesus teaches in parables from this boat just as he was, telling stories about birds, seeds and trees and most people went home scratching their heads wondering when they would see a miracle.

The disciples took this man who is God just as he was into the storm and their actions defined who they were in terms of their faith, and his actions revealed that there was more to him that met the eye. But they took him out just as he was nonetheless. Our continued challenge is to do one better than those disciples - to look at this man and nevertheless see God on Sunday and take him out ‘just as he was’ with into a world filled with storms. We need to trust that he is with us always and his kingdom is among us.

Jesus asked his disciples ‘where is your faith?’ a question he asks us too in times of suffering, turmoil, doubt and darkness. Where is your faith? Either we believe in a God who can act and who can break through and change the present, or we hold on to some sort of myth, but that sort of God makes no difference in our world.

C.S Lewis is put it so eloquently...

‘...I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to...’

We have to make a choice, Elijah and Esther have today through their baptism. Are we aware that Christ is with us, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, just as we are, in joy and in tragedy? We are called to become so aware of His presence so when we are faced with crisis we let His life in us define who we are. Amen

The Word as a Wordle

The Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday before Lent from Luke 8:22-25... the stilling of the storm...

Luke 8:22-25 - Jesus Calms a Storm

22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, 23and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’