Monday, April 22, 2013

A Vocation to Love

(This is a version of Sunday's sermon - but it's the anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence today. Please continue to pray that his death was not in vain and work to sypport the transofrming of the lives of all our young people


It is hard believe that it will be 20 years this week since the death of Stephen Lawrence. Twenty years since that young life of promise and hope was senselessly snuffed out like a candle. But when confronted by such a high profile case - one would like to think that he had not died in vain and that lives of such promise would be allowed to flourish and grow into fullness in our day.

But no - 20 years on I could read you a litany of senseless slaying. The lessons learned from such a murder are not that they should not happen and that society changes for the better, but rather that death can be brutal, it is certainly final and it often utterly crushes those left behind.

And it’s not just in the UK, but in the US since Columbine - many a young life has become a half life of unfulfilled dreams whether in Aurora, or recently in Sandy Hook, or in Boston, or in West in Texas.

But not all death is high profile whether by famine, genocide or tsunami. The impact on a home, a family, a community, a street, a school, a work-place is no less significant.  Death in Afghanistan is not somehow death magnified.  Death is not nothing at all - it’s the ultimate something.

Tabitha died. She’d been ill and died. She was mourned by those whom she loved and by those who she gave of herself to.  Her death, like all deaths, to them was the ultimate something.

Her name means ‘gazelle.‘  They are beautiful creatures. She may have been physically beautiful but her love and care for the lowest in society - namely widows - was certainly beautiful.

She had a beautiful home. Joppa, the city where she lived may well mean ‘beautiful’. It was a majestic place built on the shores of the Mediterraean about 40 miles NW of Jerusalem, modern day Tel Aviv. Joppa was beautiful because, unnoticed to many perhaps, Tabitha was alive there.

Tabitha was beautiful because she was was alive and she loved. We know nothing about a husband or partner, but she is called a disciple - God had whispered to her that she was loved and she heard and believed. She may have been a convert of Philip’s who had preached & taught around that region but she became part of a community where the social order of the day was turned on it’s head - where fishermen preached, where the paralyzed are standing and changing lives and where this beautiful woman cared for the poor of her city.  And to them her death was the ultimate something.

In Tabitha, God was outworking the topsy-turvey values of the Kingdom where the lowly poor are raised up - cared for, protected and loved. The widows were on society’s bottom rung - no husband meant no income, no security, no safety, no food. These are the ones Tabitha has devoted her life to caring for and as she dies, her work dies, which causes a crisis in the community, so Peter is called for.

As Peter arrives he’s taken upstairs to where Tabitha lies - to confront the ultimate something. The garments that the widows show demonstrate Tabitha’s abilities with a needle and thread as a seamstress, but they also show the golden thread of the love of God weaving Tabitha and the lives of these together with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

We do not know Peter’s motivation for doing what he did next - either way, through it, God demonstrates that whilst the church He calls to life inverts the natural order of power and status, it is a place where even life itself is inverted and death, whilst the ultimate something, is a gateway to life.

Peter called the assembled to show that Tabitha was alive. But God had called her first.  He had already called her by name and loved her and in being loved she loved others especially the unloved with the love of God Himself.  Even in death Tabitha truly lived.

God loved Tabitha so much.  He loved her so much that He raised her to life, not when Peter prayed or commanded, but when Jesus brought the glory of heaven to live and die and rise amongst the ordinary, amongst the widows, the poor - all those whom life kicks in the face - and to share that glory, that life with us.

She was called Tabitha, but she was called by God, and she was called to life by God but the life she was called to, was the life of God in His Kingdom - where the mighty are brought down, the proud are scattered and the lowly poor are treated with ultimate respect and care.

Tabitha’s death would have been one of billions not splashed across the headlines of history had it not been that she was living again.  Even after being raised from the dead and Peter showed her to be alive - God had already demonstrated that love and life in it’s fullness because of the resurrection of Jesus was at work in and through her - and the poor saw and felt it.

Today is Vocations Sunday and today many a sermon will rightly be preached asking us to prayerfully to consider whether any of us are called to the Priesthood or to serve the church and community as a Lay Reader.  Tabitha reminds us of what many of us will have heard or will hear from the Bishop in the Confirmation service “God calls you by name and makes you his own” - that calling begins long before we are ready to stand and make an adult commitment to our faith... From the very beginning the God who searches and knows us has a particular work for us to do.  Whatever else He calls us to, each one of us is called by name in love and we are called to love others in turn, especially the unloved, with the love of God Himself that scatters the proud, that brings down the mighty, that raises the poor - a love that is seen and heard and felt, just as Tabitha did. Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Change of Direction - Priest in Charge APCM report 2013

Brian Greenway was a Hells Angel. He was violent and drug dependent.  He had been a hardened criminal for many years, guilty of a whole range of serious offences.  Rather than being ashamed of what his life had become, he had had the word HATE tattooed on the four fingers of his left hand as a visible sign to everyone of the sort of life that he was living.

Whilst serving time in prison he found a yellowing copy of the bible.  He remembers picking it up and thinking that this book should explain everything he ever wanted to know about God.  But was the blurb true?  Miraculously though, through reading it, he came to faith.  He describes what happened:

As I lay on my bunk, I felt that Jesus was ready with open arms to receive me and that he was saying to me: You need only ask me, and I will change your life for you. And that was what I was wanting, more than anything else. In a loud voice, I said: Change my life, take away all the filth and make my life worth living. Instantly, I felt all the rotten-ness and the poison inside me leave me. All the frustrations and anger which had kept me locked-away, for the greater part of my life, disappeared. At the same moment it seemed as if a window opened in my head and the love of God streamed in.

For the first time, I was experiencing love and it was the pure love of God. I burst into tears of joy, and went to the floor on my knees, thanking God for being joined to me. Afterwards, I fell peacefully asleep, at peace with God.

After this change, the more he thought about it, the more his conscience told him that he should now take another very important step. He asked the prison authorities if he could be admitted to the prison hospital at Dartmoor so that the surgeons could carry out an operation on him. When permission was granted, he was delighted, although perhaps a little fearful when it came to the actual day.

It wasn't because he was suffering from a serious illness & needed treatment; rather, he longed for those four angry letters to be removed from the skin on his hands. In his newfound faith, he no longer wanted that to be the message that people heard from him, but rather to be a witness to Christ. The operation proclaimed at last that he was free of the old hatred and hostile way of life, and was a changed man.

This friends is the hope revealed this season of Easter. This is the hope revealed by God in Jesus Christ always and everywhere. This morning’s readings speak of it too - that God does not take and use that which is perfect - both Paul and Peter stand in a long line of very imperfect people who have met the Risen Jesus for themselves and seen their broken and imperfect lives   transformed.

Over the last year there have been 6 weddings, 29 baptisms and 22 funerals (5 of which have taken place in church). As I said last year these are some of the most significant ways in which the Risen Christ meets the people of the parish where they are. Whilst I said last year that I hoped numbers would go up, (and I am confident that they will) all of those numbers are down from last year but not significantly. This reflects a national trend. The anecdotal feedback that we have from those who receive this ministry from me or others is very positive indeed and at this point I would like to take this opportunity to thank Anne Peat, Richard Hickson and the choir, Ann Short, Tricia Fryer, Elaine Dobbs, Margaret Sykes, Alison Sealey and others including members of the In Touch group whose ministry supports all of this.

This year has been about consolidation and growth.  Since our last APCM we have discerned key priorities for us as a parish and produced a Mission Action Plan along with every other parish in the diocese.  This is and opportunity for us to ensure that the Risen Christ is defining and leading our priorities.  From our MAP we established 3 working groups to develop and work on 3 priorities centering on communications within the church and in the wider parish, on study and nurture - opportunities for us to learn and grow into deeper faith, and on worship.  These groups have prayerfully worked hard over the last year - highlights of their work include a new look Chronicle, a toddler space at the back of St Peter’s, the Posada during Advent, a study of Jesus’ parables, a book study and discussion group, the Lent prayer card, and renewed liturgies for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.  I am sure you join with me and the PCC in thanking them for their hard work complete and to come.

This year has marked some growing engagement with children and their families - I have continued weekly collective worship at St Peter’s and Maple Cross schools and serving as a Governor at both but some really great work with both Arnett Hills and Shepherd school has begun latterly this year too. There has also been bigger work with a whole day of craft and spirituality being led at St Peter’s school on Ash Wednesday. There has also been renewed engagement with Cubs locally with 2 very worthwhile church visits. There has also been a very successful Light Party with Mill End Baptist church and Good Friday workshop again.

Play and Praise began in September and has gone from strength to strength with numbers stabilizing at up to 40 over the 2 days and attendance for many being weekly. This is not a toddler group as such but church for toddlers and their parents/carers and I am especially grateful to Alex for her incredibly hard every single week - thanks also to those who have committed to making refreshments - we still, need you to support this very important work.  This, along with the local food banks which have fed 171 individuals since November, and the often unseen leading of worship in our local care and nursing homes, is one of the most important pieces of outreach that we do as a parish.

Worship continues to be a key resource for our life and growth together. We have trialled a new pattern of worship over the last 6 months or so which has enabled me to worship with you as much as possible and to stay for post-service chat and refreshments where possible.  The PCC recently agreed to adopt this pattern on a permanent basis subject of course to the changing needs of our worshipping life.  There have been some fantastic special services including the Christingle, Thanksgiving for Marriage, In Touch service, Thanksgiving for Harvest, Advent Carol service amongst others such as our ongoing relationship with the Chiltern Hundreds choir and Chorleywood Chamber Orchestra.

There are some very real challenges ahead of us though - we need to take seriously that at the moment we provide no programme of support or nurture for our young people; another significant challenge is that there is a gap between what we believe God is calling us to do and the resources needed to do it - both financially and in terms of human resources; whilst the programme of building work at St Peter’s and St Thomas’ is being addressed and is in train we must ensure that it happens! In all of these we need to trust that God will take us as imperfect people - as He did with Paul and Peter - and use even us to reveal something of His love and glory in this parish and to His people here.

Look what happened when Paul did trust when confronted with the Risen Jesus in person in a dramatic, immediate and life-changing way - the church was resourced and grew and burgeoned. Look what happened when Peter trusted the Risen Christ - after years of listening and learning the penny finally dropped for him: he was challenged to trust afresh, he was fed by Him, he was forgiven and entrusted to forgive and to feed and care for Christ’s flock - people like us. But he was ultimately called to follow Christ.

Some of us might have a dramatic turn-around experience of Christ that reorientates our lives, for many of us it’s a growing experience of listening, trusting and growing.  Either way, Christ encounters us where we are. He doesn’t call us to perfection for if He did there would be nothing in us to be saved, to be redeemed, to be transformed by His love and grace. No, like Paul and Peter, He accepts our brokenness, calls us as we are to follow so that even through us something of His love may be felt, something of His hope experienced and as He transforms us - something of His light and glory might be revealed.