Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Waterstone's Candlemas Apostrophe

The grammar police amongst you this morning might have heard that in recent weeks that the chain of bookshops - Waterstone’s - has gone through a small, almost unnoticed and yet significant transformation - they have become Waterstones. It sounds the same, but someone has smuggled away the apostrophe. Before we know it, they’ll be selling book’s! To notice the change, you have to see it.

As we pack away the crib with the figures of the wise men and the Holy Family for another year, do the community living and working around our church buildings and us as church people, notice? As our celebrations of Christmas formally end today - the world shaping news that God has left His heaven and quietly, almost unnoticed come and dwelt among us, has it made a jot of difference to the landscape of our lives or to our community?

As Mary and Joseph made their way into the Temple with the child Jesus to do for him what was right under the Law, I suspect that they too wanted to remain unnoticed - a child born out of marriage, having had angelic, and then unclean and then Gentile visitors, with much being said about their son - I suspect the Holy Family were happy to be nameless and faceless in the crowds.

Yet like all of the poor and downtrodden, the nameless and faceless in society, the Holy Family were seen by God through the eyes of Anna and Simeon.

What was it that made Anna come rushing up. What was it that made Simeon and Anna notice this one child in the middle of the crowd? What was it that made Simeon sing his song?

Well, we have to remember as we try to answer these questions that Simeon and Anna had been there for years, praying and getting themselves ready.  Ready for the Kingdom to come.They were waiting, watching and looking for something to happen. For God to happen.

They waited with open eyes. Eyes searching the crowded temple, eyes, though old still looking for a greater revelation of God’s love.

And what did they see? Well, they saw a baby. Just a baby. An ordinary baby.  Yet, the readiness that Anna and Simeon came with that day, helped them to see that this was something special.  They saw that the king of heaven had been born into an ordinary family who could barely afford the right sacrifice.

They saw because they were looking. They saw it because they were the ones with open eyes.

Remember the heart of Simeon’s song – “My eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready” My eyes have seen… They say that seeing is believing, and for these two elderly believers, it was true. They saw through open, expectant hearts.

The drama of this morning’s Gospel, the revelation of God born as one of us, meets us in the midst of the worship of the Temple.

In the East, this feast that we celebrate together is not called the Presentation of Christ, nor Candlemas, it has a name which is simple and in a way more profound. It is called “The Meeting”, or “The Encounter”.

The impact of our worship on our lives must no go unnoticed. For as we hear the Scriptures read, as we sing and pray and as we share bread and wine, we encounter God in Christ Himself in our midst and that encounter cannot leave us unchanged if we come to him as Simeon and Anna did, patiently waiting to encounter Him with expectant, open hearts.

You see, there's no point in worshipping at all, if we don’t encounter Christ. It doesn’t matter what time or day, what we say or sing, if we leave that time not changed or challenged by something God has said to us as we have prayed, heard or sung. If we leave the church door, the same person as we entered it - we need to ask what have we been worshipping?

As Christmas formally ends today we need to remember that there is no point in worshipping Christ in the manger if we ignore him in the streets, no point in celebrating the coming of Light into the world, if we still choose to linger in darkness, no point in hoping for changed lives or communities if our life and world is not transformed by the life of Christ in Word and Sacrament.

We can't do anything to take away that darkness, even for those whom we most love... but we can shine the light of Jesus on all those dark situations, and that's what today is about.

Today at the end of the service we will carry our candles, and fill the church with their light as a reminder that Christ the light has come into the world.

But when we leave this building, - that's when the light we carry must really begin to act. It's the light of faith and the light of good works.....the things we believe and the ways in which they lead us to live a different kind of life.

Light to be kindled with the flame of love...our love for God and God's love for us.

Light to show up whatever is grubby or broken or sad...but light that also, gradually, pushes back the darkness so that it is as if it had never been there.

That's the light we are each given to carry in our lives.  Light that shines through our own acts of love and kindness.  Light passed on to others in a kind of loving relay, just as when we light our candles here we send the flame from one to another til at last the whole place is full of love and light again.

That's quite a goal, - for us, and for our community. But I truly believe this is the point of our being here, the outcome of our worship of God. As Ben, Eden, Gillian and Virginia receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist for the first time with us this morning, Christ fills us - people who may otherwise go unnoticed - with light to shine with the love of God so that our friends and neighbours can't help but notice, and be drawn in their turn to the light and love of God beyond anything that we could imagine or attain on our own.

Today Christmas is over – but the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never put it out. The light from the stable is indeed, as Simeon proclaimed, a light to show God to the nations, and to bring glory to God's people... And that light is ours to carry into God's world every day of our lives, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


I am indebted to Kathryn and Kevin for some pointers and ideas in this sermon. Thank you.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wedding Wine

I am meeting as many of 2012‘s wedding couples as I can this week to do some initial preparation with them for their weddings. As I meet with them, I will very much have this morning’s Gospel reading in mind.

All too often the church tells the loving couple how their wedding services should happen - you have this music or that. You have to have this or that and so on. I can see the rationale - the church is an expert in providing worship, and a wedding is worship, and so that being the case, we’ll tell you how it should be and what we will or will not allow in the worship to celebrate your wedding in the sight of a God who loves you.  Yes this morning’s Gospel reading flips this totally on it’s head - Jesus is not invited to this wedding at Cana to officiate at it. Jesus is an invited as a guest.

Just as answering the question -  what makes a good wedding - will provide as many and as as varied answers as there are people, so there are many ways to understand this well known story of Jesus’ first miracle.

Firstly, we can read of a God who transforms the ordinariness of water into the specialness of wine, paralleling his transformation of people from sinners needing him, into citizens of the Kingdom of God and introducing the enhanced, improved, better, more full life that God has pomised since the prophets first opened their mouths and spoke.

Secondly we could focus on the transformation of the water in the water jars used for rites of purification called for by the Old Testament Law, into wine; the new wine of the Kingdom. first drunk by Jesus at the last Supper and referred to again in Revelation, implying the replacing of the old Law of Moses with the new, brought in by Christ.

Thirdly, another way of understanding this story centres on the the waiter’s ‘joke’ about saving the best wine till last (unheard of at a Jewish wedding clearly!), perhaps we are to understand that God has done a surprising thing by saving his best up till last - his very best gift to Israel and the world was not Moses and the Law, but his Son Jesus.

Fourthly then, there is the volume of what Jesus produces, in his later tradition of loaves and fish and the parable of the sower.  Jesus transforms 6 stone water jars holding gallons and gallons of water.  In so doing we rediscover the extravegant grace and generosity in love God shows his world - more than we will ever ever need.

Finally, in Jesus’ words to Mary, ‘My hour has not yet come’ there is a reference not to his unwillingness to provide for people’s physical need in great abundance, but that his greatest hour, the crucifixion and resurrection, has not yet come.  He will only act when God wills it not when she wants. 

Whatever you have taken away from this story in past sermons or your own reading and understanding is all almost certainly good, true and life-giving.  Whichever interpretation works for you, there is always an element of God celebrating, of rejoicing like at a wedding, of all that Jesus is doing or will do to forge a new relationship between him and people.

So it is with our worship.  It is is our worship of God. It is all to easy for our worship, especially as Anglicans, to be prescribed - for us to offer what our tradition or what the Vicar tells us. But it is our worship - individually and together - and what we offer must not only be our best but also be what and where and when suits us the best together enabling us to forge a new relationship with Jesus Christ present as a guest with us veiled in bread and wine.

This is the central message of the Church - that God celebrates all that Jesus is doing to forge a new relationship between him and people, revealed supremely, but by no means exclusively in our worship.

We are not asked by Christ, following tsunami and famine to go and debate whether the God of philosophy exists; we are not called to just be the compassionate or even the good people in society; we are certainly not called to retreat behind the safety of closed doors and carry on in private.

The Danish philosopher of the 19th centuray Soren Kierkegaard said ‘Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something more difficult, it has turned wine into water...’  It is, if you excuse the pun, a very sobering thought.  Have we, by the things we say, the way that we live, the way that we worship, reversed this miracle so much that when people come to church or come into contact with us as Christians they taste, not  the best wine (good worship done to the best of our ability, love between us as people, the presence of God himself), but water which is either flavourless and dull or at worst stagnant which has to be thrown away.  Have we made the message we have been sent to tell the people of our community in our day, once so full of rich and sweet flavour, now so flavourless so as to be not just unappealing but pointless?

The Greek word for Church in the New Testament is ekklesia, literally, called out.  We have been called out of family relationships into a new relationship with God and with each other as disciples - HERE.  Here in the security of this room we learn and worship together, here we get to know one another.  BUT, from the safety of a room, God empowered the first disciples with the Holy Spirit and sent them out with is same message.  He has does the same with us.

From Cana’s water in wine to Calvary’s blood and water, in this sweep we see Jesus’ whole life as one miraculous event, an invitation into an eternal relationship of love.  I believe that in this Gospel my friends, God is offering us a challenge to be his Epiphany people again which begins with our worship. It is a challenge that calls us to share the sweet and rich wine of the Gospel with our community through some new things that we will do together this year - to work and worship ever closer as a parish; to make sure we communicate with the local communicate as effectively as we can whether via a website, posters, or personal invitations; or through the warmth of the welcome that people receive we they worship with us.  God calls us to prove Kierkegarrd wrong.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Word as a Wordle

Here is a wordle of the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Epiphany from John 2:1-11 - the story of the weding at Cana...

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Come and See!

A little later on this afternoon I shall be leading another baptism service, one in an increasing number. We are booked up until March with one enquiry already into the early Summer! It’s also fantastic that we are booking to do more baptisms here at St Thomas’ too. It is a reminder to us that people are still seeking out the ministry of the church even in these increasingly secular days.

As I prepare the families for the service, I always ask them why they want to have their child ‘done.’  They usually clam up here and look a bit vacant, but they sometimes talk about wanting God involved in their child’s lives from the beginning or wanting a grounding to help them to grow to be a good person, and involvement with the church seems to fulfill that. They hardly ever talk about having faith in God themselves, the Baptism for them as a family being an expression of a living faith. More often it is a chance to say thank you to someone or something and to acknowledge the gift of life.

In the service, at the declarations, I ask the parents and Godparents on behalf of the child - ‘Do you turn to Christ?’ They respond, ‘I turn to Christ.’ There is sometimes a look of fear in the parents’ eyes... what are they committing themselves to? Is this some sort of Divine Contract between God and them that they are being duped into verbally signing? No, they are being invited to do what Nathaniel and countless others have been done over the centuries - to come and see, and make up their own minds as to who Jesus is.

This morning we hear of Jesus heading out to Galilee where he meets Philip. We know nothing of the detail that encounter with Jesus, other than Jesus invites Philip to follow Him.  What we do know is that because of whatever accompanied those two words, Philip leaves enthralled and enthused and has to go and tell someone, anyone about what has happened to him and who he has met.

The encounter with Jesus also convinces Philip that Jesus is the Messiah. As he looks for someone to tell, someone who will understand his excitement, Philip finds Nathaniel. Out tumbles the story - he has found the one whom all Israel has longed for in Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth. Nathaniel is skeptical, to which Philip invites him to make up his own mind.

We too are invited to make up our own minds as to who Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth is. As we gather Sunday by Sunday, Thursday by Thursday we are, as each week passes, making up our own minds.

Why do we come to church after all? We come to meet our friends. This is really important and for some of us, this is the only time we may see each other from week to week. This building of community is such an integral part of coming to church. Even Jesus himself sought to build community by calling people to follow him.

We come to church though primarily though to offer Christ our worship. We come to meet with Him in the reading of the scriptures, the praying of prayers, in the making of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Marriage but supremely in the Eucharist. As we eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Jesus, He hounours His promise to be with us always. If we let it, this encounter, this communion with Christ, as Philip discovered, is utterly transforming. Through it, we become sure of who He is.

Friends last week I sent you all a letter. In it I asked us to realistically consider, together, how and when we worship, when we meet with Christ.

On Tuesday the PCC began to grapple with this issue. How can we have a pattern of worship that allows worship to happen in all three churches, in such a way that I can lead it? We have not yet come to a point where we can offer you some workable suggestions, but these will come. What we have become aware of though is it will require all of us to be prepared to change what we currently know to allow that to happen.

Our worship must not become the provision of something by me or others. Over the time I have been with you as your Priest in Charge, I have become all too aware that we cannot worship together at the moment with out our worship being reduced to that, the provision of something by me for you, before I have to leave to do the same elsewhere & I miss out on one of the things I imagine you value about coming to church at the moment - having the opportunity to see your friends, build community after worship.

I know you know that I cannot lead worship in more than one place at once unless we have someone else bought in. But you might say to me, well get over it, but as a result I am not being given the privilege to minister as your priest and get to know you.  As a result worship can become something that happens to you, and not something that we, priest and people, can offer together. The pattern we have friends at the moment I believe is just not sustainable by one priest without having to continue to seek the resources of others from elsewhere, however willing or capable they may be. In those senses what are we doing as we worship? Are we giving ourselves the time to meet each other and encounter Jesus Christ?

Worship is not the provision of something by me, but time for an encounter with God for ourselves. Philip’s encounter with Christ changed him in such a way that Nathaniel had to go and find out more for himself.

Our worship must be about opportunities to deepen our friendship with each other, but it must also be about meeting Jesus Christ for ourselves and leaving that communion changed and challenged.  Our encounter with Christ in worship, like Philip’s, should see our words and deeds bearing witness to Him. As a result, does the worship in our churches and congregations help people see Jesus for themselves in this parish? Friends I believe that this will only increasingly happen if we cease to allow worship to be something that is done to us, but something that we priest and people offer to God together, that spills out in  our friendships with each other and into every word and every deed. Amen.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sunday Podcast - Epiphany Sunday

The Worship of the Magi... And us...

It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A  pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.

Those words are by Malcolm Guite - a poet and priest - and they take us to the heart of the mystery that we celebrate today: the regal baby born in squalor, the re-imagining of God from local religion to the life of the whole world, and our inbuilt desire to search for meaning, for joy, and a need to worship.

Worship lies at the very heart of the journeying of the Wise men. These astrologers/astronomers from other lands and cultures have their attention drawn to the God of Israel, to see the new thing that He is doing. They are so struck by God’s power over the world so as to be able to reorder the stars to reveal His glory, they set out to worship him.

We stand on the cusp of a new year and as people from different places and communities, we too have our attention drawn to the God of Israel, to continue to see the new thing that He is doing in our midst, and so we gather here to worship Him.

Let’s not lose sight of these Wise men though. Like us so often, they began their Godward journey purposefully and with good intention, but they get distracted.  Looking for the Jewish Messiah, God’s coming king, they get distracted by royal palaces, fine robes and the trappings of regal power and influence with Herod. Yet, as they sought to worship God come to us, heaven in the ordinary, it is God Himself who refocussed their vision away from thrones in palaces to the glory filled thrones of a manger and a cross.

Let’s also not lose sight of the strange gifts they travelled with so far to give. These highly prized gifts reveal as much about the baby who would recieve them as the givers themselves.

The gift of gold brought to honour a king - acknowledging His might and power. The gift of frankincense brought to honour God - acknowledging His holy presence. The gift of myrrh brought as a healing balm or to embalm the dead. The mostly costly of gifts, protected carefully with their lives in transit over many months and many miles. In giving, the child is revealed as God’s king with His might and power. In giving, the child is revealed as a priest offering the world to God and God to the world and in so doing forging something new. In giving, the child will offer healing to many and indeed will offer their very selves, their life, for the healing of the nations.

Let’s not lose sight of the reaction of these Wise men as they reached the place of the presence of the Christ child. They were overjoyed as they arrived at the end of their journey, it’s fulfillment and purpose. They knelt in humble obedience, acknowledging who they were and who He is, and they offered Him from their own riches, their very selves.

Friends our worship is not a series of rapid one-off sorties we individually make into Divine territory, at best, on a weekly basis. Our worship is the journey we make through life to God in Christ. Like the Wise men, it should be guided and purposeful and not a meandering. It is not just about a particular place, a particular time, for however long, but an orientation of our hearts to discovering God for ourselves. The Wise men saw the star and followed no matter for how long or how arduous the journey.

What do we expect as we worship? The Wise men, expected to find God Himself doing a new thing, present in their midst, in the Messiah. Do we gather for worship with the same expectancy? Do we joyfully set out in worship ready to meet Jesus the King?

The much travelled and treasured gold, frankincense and myrrh were expensive and will have cost the wise men much.  Similarly, our worship must be the very best singing, interceding, playing, praying, & preaching that we can offer. It must cost us time, effort and talent to prepare and offer because we are offering it God and it is all we can offer Him - from ourselves.

I enclose here the letter I have written to the parish:

Dear friends in Christ, 

It doesn’t seem possible that I have been your Priest in Charge for some six months or so now. Over that time we have worshipped, prayed, read, learned and discovered together and there is still much to do and a way to go together and with God. 

When I first came to you, I said that things wouldn’t change too quickly and I hope you feel that has been the case. I’m also on record as saying that when change did come, we would talk about it, pray about it and decide together a way forward. 

Over the time that I have been with you I have been ably and capably supported in leading worship by willing and gifted priests like David Smith, Martin Bannister and Charles Parry and many others lay and ordained. I am very thankful for their ministry. 

I have become aware that the pattern of worship that we currently have is only providable with the help of others. As your Priest in Charge I am unable to worship with you all on any given Sunday. I cannot preach and preside at two services most Sundays at 9.00am for example. We need to have in place a pattern of worship that is providable by me. 

Following the PCC meeting next week, we will try to discern a pattern of worshipping life that meets our needs and is providable by me. I have ideas as to how we could do this, but I don’t have all of the answers and I will not just drive through what I want. We are Christ’s church here together and we will seek a way forward together. 

None of us like change, and perhaps especially in things that matter to to us, but I hope that you see the need to look at these matters afresh. 

If you have ideas as to how we can have a pattern of worship on Sundays across the parish that I can provide, I would like to hear from you. We will have a period of consultation regarding this matter which will run from 14th January-18th March 2012. If you have any suggestions as to how we can worship together in the churches of the parish with me leading you, and build up our friendships and community together, please let me know by letter or email only. 

In the meantime please do continue to pray for me and each other as we seek to follow where God is leading us.

Our worship should be like Gold - for the king, regal, our very best offered, in humble obedience. Our worship should be like Frankincense - to God and for God alone, mysterious, otherworldly, spiritual. Our worship should be like Myrrh - that heals our hurts, renews and restores us, refocussing our lives on God’s purposes for us and His world.

Worship must not be about embalming the dead and dying - older congregations in decreasing numbers, the church becoming some sort of cultural museum piece of a bygone era; nor should it be about rigid regal formality - worrying more about the mechanics of how it happens that we forget for who it happens; nor should it be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use - sounding and looking beautiful on the surface but failing to draw us closer to Him whom we worship. Our worship must be about offering life in all it’s fullness through an encounter with God himself, always in surprising ways and sometimes in surprising places. Amen.