Sunday, May 05, 2024

On Friendship - A Sermon on John 15;9-17

I like going to hear live music whenever I can. I know that some of you will dispute that it actually is music, but that’s a conversation for elsewhere! On occasion when I have headed into a venue I have come across another famous musician whose music I love, who has come to see the band that I have because they are also a fan. Those meetings have often only been fleeting, a thank you for their music, a photo, a hug. Other times that gratitude and fan-boying has led to something more and now I call a few of those musicians friends. I’ve transitioned from - thank you for the music - to how are you, do you fancy lunch sometime? And surprise surprise, our heroes are just normal people, with the same struggles and joys as the rest of us.

What kind of friendships do you have? You might be a friend of a local community group. Some people here are members of the Friends of St Thomas’. On Facebook, people probably ask you to be friends. You might, by virtue of membership, be a ‘Friend of the Earth’. You might still be in touch with a few friends from school, even if you haven’t seen them for years. Perhaps you have a weekly meeting with friends at the pub, or at weekends, with another set of friends, you go to watch your favourite sports team. Some friendships are deep and lasting and you pick up where you left off when you see each other, others come and go. There are different kinds of friendship. But I wonder as Jesus calls his disciples friends, what kind of friendship do you have with Jesus?

In John’s Gospel, we are now into what is known by some bible scholars as the farewell discourses (chapters 14-17) - in the convoluted language that the Gospel writer uses, Jesus prepares his disciples for his leaving of them; his return to be with God in heaven; and prior to that, the giving of the Holy Spirit to enable them to undertake all that he calls them to. These chapters of teaching, as we have them, happen round the table of the Last Supper. And maybe it is most appropriate, that as we gather for the Eucharist this morning, we hear them in a similar context.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you...'

Harper Lee is right - you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. And each of us here this morning knows the truth of that saying. At this point in what I preach I’d often tell you a short story or anecdote, something I’d read or heard, or something I’d found on the web to illustrate my point. I know friendships go deep. I wanted to illustrate that. I typed ‘friend’ into the search-bar of the BBC news website and up came 29 pages of stories of transformative, deep, and loving friendships - of friends who raised money for charity in memory of a friend who died; of German prisoner of war who found life-long friendship with a family in Devon; or places and spaces that are seeking to become accessible to all especially those struggling with dementia. Friendship cuts across age, gender, sexuality, race etc. 

The only person in the whole of the Bible who is called ‘the friend of God’ is Abraham. So for Jesus to call his followers friends and to entrust them with knowledge of God’s will and purposes is nothing short of remarkable and it reminds me at least of how extrordinary is Jesus’ love and trust of me, of you. And that friendship is based on life laying, of putting others' needs and desires before our own, it is not phylia (love between people) that Jesus speaks of here. but agape - servant-hearted, self-giving love.

The disciples haven’t chosen to be friends of Jesus. They did not choose him, but he chose them. As ever, the initiative is God’s: ‘not that we loved God but that he loved us’ (1 John 4.10). And the purpose of the friendship is that the disciples bear fruit. It’s not yet clear what this fruit will be at this stage. We must wait until after the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit to see that. But we are told what the mark of this fruitfulness will be: the love they will have for one another. Time and again through history, love for fellow human beings has been the touchstone of fruitful lives lived as friends of Jesus Christ. Tertullian, in the third century, imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, ‘See … how they love one another.’ Would that it were always so.

So, what about us? A crucial question to ask when reading the Gospels is, ‘Where am I in this passage?’ The writer of the Fourth Gospel, in particular, has the ability to draw us into the narrative. We can imagine ourselves being there with the disciples, listening to Jesus. It might seem presumptuous to place ourselves alongside them. But they were a mixed bunch too: convinced believers alongside instinctive doubters, a betrayer and a denier thrown in; and that’s just the apostles, to say nothing of the many others – women and men – who formed the wider group of disciples. A motley crew of all sorts and conditions; why should we not place ourselves with them? 

If, then, we are there with the disciples, it is to us too that Jesus speaks those words. We are to keep his commandments, to love one another, to abide in his love and know ourselves to be his friends.

In Catherine Fox’s third novel, Love for the Lost, the central character, Isobel Knox, suffers a crisis in her life and seeks the wise counsel of her bishop. He asks her whether she sees herself as a child of God, servant of God or friend of God. As which of these do we see ourselves? Child of God? We are clearly part of God’s family, but children know their place. Servant of God? Servants are entrusted with important work but don’t know the employer’s mind. Or friend of God? Chosen, taken into confidence, and in a relationship so close that, like Abraham and like Adam and Eve in the garden, we walk and talk with God: the easy conversation of friends.

God chooses us not primarily as servants, nor even as children, but as friends. And God chooses not someone else but you and me. I wonder how, this week, we can see each other and all those we encounter, as those beloved and chosen by God and how will we demonstrate that love for us in our loving, of joyfulness, our peacemaking, patience with other, kindness to all, our always seeking the good, our gentleness and control of our emotions and perhaps above all in our faithfulness to those amongst whom we live and work - otherwise known as a our friendship.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Billy, Philip, and Water in the Desert.

Perhaps one of the most famous stories is of an invitation to Billy, a young farm boy, to drive a vegetable truck packed with youth to a tent crusade. He joined the others inside and the evangelist made such an impression that Billy felt called to become an evangelist, even though he had had very little formal education. Little did he know that he – Billy Graham – would preach to millions, including presidents and world leaders, and many churches would be reinvigorated by those who responded to his call to get out of their seats and come up front.

Probably our own encounters will not be so dramatic as that, but you never know what the God of surprises has in store for you. However, if the journey we take this week will forge a new friendship, give you fresh insight through a chance conversation, or simply bring solace or hope to a lonely person, that journey will have been worthwhile.

We catch up with Philip in this section of Acts after some extraordinary turmoil. Stephen, a Deacon in the early church, is seized and taken to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council. There he testifies to Jesus in an extraordinary speech (you can read it in Acts 7 and 8) and he is stoned to death for his beliefs and this is witnessed by Saul, who we know better as Paul. Saul persecuted the early Christian community to the point where they scatter, but as they did, they continued to make Jesus known. Philip flees to Samaria - the home of the Samaritans (outsiders as far as the Jews were concerned) and many come to faith through him there. God then tells him to head south, on the desert road which is where we encounter him.

So we have heard the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch this morning. And it would be all too easy to preach something about the church being sent where the spirit wills and preaching the Gospel to those there especially the outsider like a eunuch. Standard stuff.

But that isn't quite what's going on here. The eunuch has status and authority as they hold charge over the Queen's treasury. In some senses in that sense they don't need of good news - they have status, wealth, and authority. Despite their status in the court, they were socially excluded because they are incomplete, they were considered to be less than human.

But there's more going on here still. The eunuch is already searching for God as they are reading about the silent sacrificial lamb in the prophecy of Isaiah, the lamb which is traditionally understood as the person of Christ.

The Lamb does not open his mouth and is silent but Philip opens his mouth and interprets the scripture for the eunuch. So far so predictable. You might now expect Philip to encourage his hearer to affirm a new faith in the Lamb of God at this point. But there's more going on here.

The Law says that eunuchs were forbidden from entering the Temple. The eunuch's searching faith was so strong that they were not only reading scripture but had gone to Jerusalem to worship, even though the Law designated them an outsider.

Guided by the spirit and by interpreting scripture, Philip extends a welcome to the excluded eunuch into the presence of God. Christ's tent is enlarged to include the excluded. But there's more going on here.

In response, the eunuch notices, that journeying along this desert road, there is water nearby. All that is needed for baptism. It is the eunuch who spots water in the desert. It is the eunuch who is thirsty for God's grace, having sought it perhaps after years of knockback & exclusion. And Philip's response? To oblige

And then I'm left wondering who includes who - eunuch or Philip? Who extends the tent of Grace? Philip interprets scripture and reveals Jesus to them. The eunuch seizes the opportunity and invites Philip to include them in the family of faith by Baptism. It is the eunuch who sees water along the desert road. They take hold of that hope in Christ with both hands. 

And then it got me thinking - I'm the father of an enby (non-binary) child. They have experienced exclusion from many sections of society and all sorts of institutions and especially the church.

How many times have they, despite it all, shown me water in the desert? How many times, as they have stood up for justice and welcome, not for them but for others oppressed & forced to the edge, how many times have they shown me the water of grace in places that seemed dry. dead, barren?

We, the church, continue to need the stranger, the outsider, the excluded to show us the water of grace on the road that is our life. We need to remember our Generous God, doesn’t just pour His love on those on the inside of the tent of faith, but the eunuch reminds us this morning, that God’s generous love is poured out and available to all.

I wonder what the same angel that sent Philip on that desert road, might be saying to us? We have been hearing wonderful stories about some of the outreach our parish is undertaking in recent weeks, and we will continue to hear those stories in the weeks to come. Those stories are designed to be an encouragement - to hear of the way that our church communities are responding to God's leading to make known the love of God in Jesus through friendship, fun, learning, community, and so on. But those stories about the work of these groups are encouragements to each of us to be generous with our hospitality - to encourage someone we know to come to something we are putting on and to experience friendship, fun, learning, community and so on and in so doing experience something of God through us. But it goes both ways - Philip interpretted scripture and the eunuch showed Philip the means of grace. The eunuch saw water in the desert and Philip baptised. The eunuch responded to what Philip shared and showed because they had been looking for years to be included in the community of faith and Philip responded to the request for baptism. Who might be searching like that, who we are already traveling with?

Pray - LIving God, Philip included the eunuch in the story of faith. The eunuch included Philip by revealing the means of Your grace. Keep us wide-eyed and open-eared to those we journey with - and when asked for an affirmation of faith, and to be included in God’s grace - let us say Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Homo Sapien/Homo Fabula - a sermon for Passion Sunday

Clara Barton, was an American nurse. She began her career in hospitals during the American Civil War, but she also worked as a teacher, and a patent clerk. Since nursing education was not then very formalized and she didn’t attend nursing school, she provided self-taught nursing care. She became well known for doing humanitarian work and civil rights advocacy for the poorest and most excluded at a time before women had the right to vote. Following the end of the Franco-Prussian war, having seen first hand the extraordinary work of the International Committee of the Red Cross, she petitioned the US Government to recognise it. She was subsequently recognised as the founder of the American Red Cross.

Once, a friend of Barton’s brought up in conversation a cruel deed someone had done to her. Barton claimed she did not remember the deed done. Insistent, her friend exclaimed, "Don't you remember the wrong that was done to you?'

"No," she answered, "I distinctly remember forgetting that."

We’ve all heard the expression forgive and forget. We get the principle but can we get the practice as it were? It seems that Clara Barton managed to.

The new covenant that God speaks of through Jeremiah, which we heard about in our first reading,  is characterised by a relationship based on remembering and forgetting: remembering that all of God’s dispirited people are taken by the hand and married to God. It’s tender and beautiful stuff and God forgets all the times that they have been out of step with God and his will and purposes for them. The covenant is new because it is not linked to the activity of God at Mount Sinai or in freeing God’s people from slavery. It is new because God will make it with his much-loved people after they return from exile. After they make a choice to return to Him

‘...But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on

their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…’

Ben Bullock, an ex Burnley miner, moved to Dewsbury in 1868 and began selling boiled sweets in Dewsbury market. In 1876 he formed his own company and began increasing his range of products. One of these new products was the first example of lettered rock. Ben turned out his first batch of lettered rock which sold like magic at the West Riding markets but bigger things were yet to come. 'The discovery of a paper which could cover the sticks of rock and yet be removed easily coincided with Ben's decision to take a fortnight's holiday in Blackpool. Shortly afterwards a few hundredweight of Blackpool lettered rock was sent to the resort and the novelty so caught the public’s attention that the Dewsbury firm was inundated with orders from seaside resorts all over Britain. Ben Bullock's fame spread abroad and demands for lettered rock arrived from all over the world.

When you buy a stick of rock at the seaside it’s easily identifiable. Running through it is the name of the place to which it belongs: ‘Blackpool’, ‘Hunstanton’, ‘Brighton’. Wherever you break the rock, however much or little you eat, at every point it has its identifying feature - the name of the town where it was purchased right at its core. In the new covenant, God says that God’s law will be within people, written on their hearts, at their core – running through us like the name in a stick of rock.

Through Jeremiah, God promises that His covenant will become knowable. God becomes knowable through the Incarnation, in the person of Jesus. But through Jeremiah, God promises more. Even with the best teachers, preachers, prophets and priests, God’s people were not learning the lessons of the Law. The new covenant that God offers His people will require no work on the part of the people to receive or adopt it. God will write on their hearts; God will place it within them; God will write it at their very core - it will run through the people like a stick of rock.

Friends Passiontide begins today. What I’d like to do is encourage you to come and join us for as much of the worship as you possibly can. Coming and sharing in the worship of the church over the next fortnight is really important because we are telling each other of the suffering, death, and ultimately resurrection of Jesus once again. But we aren’t just retelling a story of tragedy and hope; of disappointment, death, and then life. Whilst this story does in many ways mirror that of our own human experience; as we retell the story of Passiontide, the story indwells us again, and we rediscover the power of the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus lying at our core, written on our hearts. We are after all, as the poet and novelist Ben Okri put it, not just homo sapien (wise people) but homo fabula (storytelling people).

As we retell and hear the story of God this Passiontide, God through Jesus places his covenant love written at our core every time bread is broken and scripture is opened. But we hear that story for a purpose - God’s covenants have always been marking out people as much loved by Him and calling them to live distinctively in and amongst the people they are set. As we live amongst people beset by tragedy, God’s love calls us to live as people of hope; as we live amongst people facing disappointment God’s love calls us to be people filled with abundant life.

Friends, return from the exile that our lives can some times feel they are, sometimes far from God, sometimes far from our neighbours and friends. Return. Hear the story again. Become homo fabula again. But don’t just hear the story - be the story. Live it.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Bush, the Professor, and the Cross

I walk our dogs Pip and Peggy, usually early in the morning. We are taking the same route daily at the moment.

On the walk I pass the same things each day - people on their way to wherever; fellow dog walkers; immovables like street lights, bus stops and houses. I pass a coniferous bush on this route. It is pretty unremarkable as bushes go - it marks the boundary between the garden and pavement. Somehow on Thursday’s walk, it emitted a scent that was the essence of conifer - the dictionary definition of lively green freshness. It was so vivid an experience, that I was dragged from my audiobook, back into the present moment, to look at and marvel at it. The experience was arresting. Here was a bush somehow being the most perfect version of that bush that it could be at that moment - and all I could do was wonder.

I would love to be like that bush. Even for a moment - the most perfect version of myself - the way God longs for me to be - that I can. Perhaps you feel the same? I hope it doesn’t shock you at all that I am far from Christlike sometimes. All too often I succombe to living out versions of myself that I willingly put on like a favourite jumper, but that aren’t necessarily the best version of me. I sometimes live and minister from a place of the expectations that are put on me or that others say about me, or based on the images I have of myself from my past. We all do it. The cross that Jesus invites me and each of us to take up again this morning is both a sign post and a milestone - a signpost pointing us on from the decision that we each need to make about which version of ourselves we are going to live out today towards Christlikeness; and a milestone that starkly reminds us of that decision - marking that place or moment of change. Both direction and decision are Christ.

Throughout this chapter of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, Jesus encounters hungry people: the crowd of four thousand, hungry to hear Jesus but without food; the Pharisees, hungry to discredit Jesus and to be right, demanding a sign; the disciples in the boat with Jesus crossing the lake, hungry to understand; the blind man hungry to have his sight restored. And Jesus meets us here this morning - part way through Lent, hungry to understand, hungry for a deeper knowledge, hungry that this gospel good news is true. Jesus points out that miraculous feeding, deeper knowledge, power, understanding and healing and restoration are all good but they are not a means to an end. They all encourage us to make an assessment of who Jesus is and the truth of what he teaches about God and the ways of the Kingdom - and then it’s about what we do as a result. We are called to follow To walk behind him, as was the traditon, and to do as he does, to speak as he speaks, to behave as he behaves. It is about a decision and a direction.

‘...‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it….

I heard a story about an American English professor from his student days - his own English professor had been an inspiring teacher. He wanted his professor to know how deeply his lectures had affected him so he went to his office one day to tell him. The professor asked the student whether he liked his classes, to which he replied with an emphatic yes! Well, why? asked his professor. There was powerful question. The student went on to speak of how his professor’s classes on Kafka has enabled more self discovery in him than three years in high school. The professor asked him what he had learned. He wanted to know how the lectures had deeply changed this student - it was a real question which deserved a real answer. ‘I guess the main thing I learned is that I am a complete idiot’ the student replied. Don’t feel bad, the preofessor relied, our country manufactures idiots. There’s no way you could have escaped it.’ So what do I do now, the student asked. How do I stop being an idiot? Just stop being one the professor replied.

That story and Jesus’ teaching and healing up to this point feel similar to me. What have you learned from my classes? I'm an idiot. What should I do? Stop being an idiot. What have you learned from my feeding of hungry people? You’re the messiah. So what should I do now, now that I know that? Follow me.

The thing is - stopping being an idiot isn’t an easy end goal, but you can do it with practise. Following Jesus isn’t an easy end goal, because it hit me as I read this this week. We haven’t listened to Jesus here at all have we? We haven’t practised.

Jesus tells his disciples, the crowd and us that to follow him in the Way, we need to deny ourselves. The issue is that that’s tough. Denying ourselves involves putting the needs and wants of others before our own. What we are good at is denying others. We catagorise people by their difference to the majority. We deny people who are different the rights and access available to the majority. We deny others their politics, their creed, their race, their gender, their sexuality, their age all too easily instead of denying ourselves to ensure their need to be in the reach of the love of God is met.

We all too often we take up the cross seeking to faithfully follow Jesus but instead we use it to crucify all those we deny. Instead of remembering God loves all - and so should we - we make the cross, a barrier not a bridge to God’s unconditional love for all. Come to join us we say - but I can’t because my wheelchair can't get in the building; I need large print orders of service; I am gay; I’m an ex con;  I don’t feel good enough; I’m not worthy; my child will be a distraction. We continually  try to make our buildings and resources physically accessible, but as someone once said - crossing the threshold of the door of the church is harder than climbing Mt Everest - especially if you feel you are not welcome the outside of it by the local or even the national church.

Oh, and one more thing. Notice, what Jesus says about the ownership of the cross we are to take up… not His, ours…

So I wonder what Jesus is asking of us as we take up our cross this morning? What am I denying in myself and putting to death on the cross, that will ensure that someone else’s needs are met? How am I using that cross as a bridge - to enable others to see and experience God’s love for them in my actions and words; is the cross I carry being twisted to keep some out - who is not here this morning from our wider community who could be but is excluded by me and my words and actions, or by us and our words and actions?

There's a thought. It's our cross. If we are serious about Jesus the miracle worker, teacher and healer and are convinced that God is accessible in a new way through Him - how can I go out of my way this week to use my cross to deny my need, and include someone. How can I use my cross this week as a bridge not a barrier to invite someone to join us. How can I ensure that as I carry my cross, others see Jesus in me and not just me.

Let us pray - this week - teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve; to give, and not to count the cost, to fight, and not to heed the wounds, to toil, and not to seek for rest, to labor, and not to ask for reward, except that of knowing that we are doing your will.