Saturday, 26 September 2009

Fall (otherwise known as Autumn)

My answers to questions from Friday Five at RevGalBlogPals:

1. Share a Fall memory

It has to be the leaves. I grew up in a household with five children in Northern California where we did have the season of Fall. All five of us would muck in and do the raking of the leaves each week. We had several large trees on our ¼ acre – I can remember maple, walnut, and plum – there were a lot of leaves. First we would rake them into a maze shape over the front lawn. Sometimes we would shape them into a floor plan with several rooms. We’d play in that for a while, then rake them into a huge central pile and jump into it. Sometimes I would get pretty severe allergies raking the leaves, and have to go inside while the others had all the fun.

Second memory was carving pumpkins in the kitchen - the smell, the texture, the seeds, the competitive nature of my stepsister to carve the best one (and hers always was the best one).

2. Your favourite Fall clothes, past or present?

I love sweaters (or as they say here in the UK, ‘jumpers’). I prefer autumn over summer for clothes as they hide a multitude of… chocolate. When I was younger, I liked to mix contrasting colours, so I might wear bright orange on top and purple on the bottom. I see my daughter doing the same thing, nowadays.

3. Share a campfire story, song, experience, etc…

We camped a lot when I was growing up, usually in the Sierra Nevada mountains or foothills. It was mainly in summer, though, not in Fall. But definitely, s’mores were a regular feature (my English friends won’t know what s’mores are – they consist of a toasted marshmallow stuck between two ‘graham crackers’, which are like digestives, sort of, and also with a piece of thin chocolate in there, which melts due to the marshmallow – yum - I want some more...). That, and catching crawdads from Lake Tahoe using raw bacon on a string. And singing around the campfire. My stepfather played guitar and had a lovely voice. Folk songs: Blowin' in the Wind, Tom Dooley, Camptown Races, If I had a Hammer, Scarborough Fair, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Alice's Restaurant - you get the picture.

4. What is your favourite thing this time of year?

The colours of the leaves. And it is a pretty good show here in England, so long as we don't get too much wind.

5. What changes are you anticipating in your life, your church, family… whatever…as the season changes and winter approaches?

Every day is bringing changes at the moment. Over the next month or two I anticipate doing things I’ve not done before in church ministry terms, and becoming more experienced in the things I have already been doing. In family life, we’re gearing up for my son to take the 11+ in November and deciding which schools to put in which order on the preference form. My husband and I celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary in October. And I really must get out into that neglected garden…

Bonus: what food says ‘Autumn’ at your house?

For me, it is squash and pumpkin. But I’m the only one in the house that likes squash and pumpkin.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Sermon for Morning Prayer with Baptism

Mark 9:30-37

With sincere apologies to fans of Strictly Come Dancing,
it’s X-Factor season!!!

Everyone knows what the term ‘X-factor’ means: that hard-to-describe quality that makes the difference between someone who’s ordinary and someone who’s great. I love watching the X-Factor programme, especially when one of the contestants belts out an amazing voice. I have to admit, it sometimes even brings tears to my eyes! You can feel their joy of singing and practically taste the hope they have to make it big one day doing something they just love to do.

I like watching the contestants as the weeks unfold and their talent improves. Confidence builds and so does their hunger to win the coveted £1 million recording contract. To win, they have to be better than the competition. They have to be the best.

We human beings, we enjoy competition, don’t we? Sports, business, academic success – even just keeping up with the Jones’; we love to succeed, and we admire greatness in others.

In the bible reading from Mark’s gospel, which we heard this morning just before Eve was baptised, the disciples of Jesus (who were very human beings) were enjoying a fair bit of competition with each other along the road to Capernaum with Jesus.

“What were you arguing about on the road?” Jesus asked them. And of course they had to hang their heads in shame on that one. They had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest disciple of them all. I can just picture these guys, the disciples, behaving a bit like overgrown schoolboys, puffing their chests out! They’ve been taught by none other than the Son of God for months and they still didn’t ‘get’ what he was on about! It seems at every turn their journey with Jesus held surprises for the disciples.

Jesus turned upside down their idea of what it means to be the greatest at following him. Instead of needing to be the biggest to be the best, Jesus tells the disciples they need to be less full of themselves. He asked them (as he asks us) to look out for other people who might need a helping hand - - a hand to shake in welcome; a hand to hold in times when the road of life gets tough.

In baptism we begin a journey that lasts a lifetime and beyond. It is a welcome into Jesus’ family, and we’re a family who are called to serve our neighbours. It isn’t a competition of who is the greatest at serving others, but we do have our own version of the ‘X’-factor –ours is called the cross-factor - and we’ve all been given the prize! It’s the priceless gift of a relationship with the creator of all things. It is an incredible journey with an incomparable travelling companion who really does have the X-factor: Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for you and for me.

The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said the cross had to happen, and they were afraid at the time to ask him about it. But we can ask him about it. We can come to the living God in prayer and ask him what his dying on the cross meant for all of mankind (yes, even for Simon Cowell!). And we can ask him in prayer what his rising to life again means for us.

The X-Factor contestants improve over the weeks by disciplined practice. It isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy, either. If we want to grow in our Christian faith, we have to put into practice the disciplines of prayer and reading our bible. And through prayer and the bible, we come to learn more and more about the love of God, which is the meaning of the cross and the resurrection.

Today marks the beginning of a journey for Eve. Baptism and the Christian journey are about new life and new beginnings – we walk in newness of life, by the grace and mercy of God, because of the ‘cross-factor’. So welcome to the journey, Eve. And welcome to the Family of God.

Loving God, thank you - for the gift of new life, and for the joy of knowing that you promise to be with us throughout the journey. Bless Eve today on her baptism day. And throughout her life, bring Eve, and all of us, to a deeper understanding of the cross and the resurrection, and of our relationship with you, as we travel through this life. Amen.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Facing the GAP

Last night I went to my first Deanery Synod meeting. We had a speaker from the diocese talking about GAP. For those who don’t know, GAP is the Growth Action Plan process that the diocese is asking all parishes to undertake. I have to say, I left the synod meeting feeling discouraged. It wasn’t the speaker – as one of the diocesan Mission Development Officers, he was enthusiastic, informative, and encouraging. Can’t fault him at all. It wasn’t his presentation – a good speaking style and the right mix of speaking, visuals, books passed round, and time spent in group discussion.

No, it wasn’t the speaker or the presentation - it was us. I don’t exactly mean the ‘us’ who were present at the meeting, I mean all of us. Christians. The Church. OK, this is a rant. I might as well be up front about that. I feel frustrated (to put it mildly) that we need this GAP process in the first place. It all just seems like common sense to me: ‘SWOT’ analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in relationship to growth and mission); ‘Vision’ (this is obvious, isn’t it?); and SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, resourced and time-related steps to take).

The speaker pressed home the need for churches to be clear about what a healthy church actually is, because so many people have never really been in a healthy church. That made me feel sad. I mean, what is wrong with us?! There is no health in us! It is sad, but it is really a symptom of the churches’ failure to follow Christ, to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others. Please don't get me wrong - I include myself as part of the problem.

Here are the marks of a healthy church, taken from The Healthy Churches’ Handbook by Robert Warren, which I heartily recommend:

- Energized by faith
- Outward-looking focus
- Seeks to find out what God wants
- Faces the cost of change and growth
- Operates as a community
- Makes room for all
- Does a few things and does them well

The ‘faith’ mark is essential because without faith, the other six marks won’t be based on the right foundation. To get from here to there begins with individual faith and motivation, but it is essential that the whole body (of a parish) is brought to the place where it can begin to function and move forward as a whole body. I guess I’m not very patient with all this, and probably I’m rather naïve, being relatively new to church leadership. But what is our problem?! I think the problem is that we aren’t really willing to put God and his mission first in our lives. The result is that we are failing to carry out his mission. And all around us are the results – people have turned to false gods and false prophets. Once again, like the rebellious Israel, we have got to repent – to turn back to God. And pray.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Sermon for Choral Evensong

Exodus 18:13-26 & Matthew 7:1-14
Critics of the bible might enjoy pointing out that our two bible readings this evening appear to present a contradiction: in the Exodus passage Moses is serving as ‘judge’ for the people who come seeking God’s will in their disputes. But in the gospel reading from Matthew 7 we hear Jesus saying ‘Do not judge’. So what’s going on here?

People today like to declare the well-known saying, ‘judge not, lest ye be judged.’ Our postmodern culture is anti-judgmental and tolerant of everything but intolerance. Relativism is another typical postmodern view - that there is no absolute truth by which things can be judged. So is Jesus promoting relativism here? Absolutely not!

There are many places in the Old Testament where God entrusts people to pronounce judgment. The book of Judges, for example, presents twelve leaders raised up by the Lord, who judge the tribes of Israel (my personal favourite is Deborah, and you can read about her in Judges ch. 4 & 5).

In the New Testament, it’s remarkable what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6: ‘If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!’

If this is the case, why then does Jesus say, ‘Do not judge’ in the beginning of Matthew 7? Well, there’s a difference between types of judgment. The judgment that Moses and Deborah carried out, and the judgment which Paul refers to, is judgment between right and wrong; between truth and falsehood. That kind of judgment is our duty, and it should be done with wisdom, honesty, common sense, and discernment. But the kind of judgment that Jesus speaks against, in Matthew 7, is about condemning people. It’s judgmentalism; it’s superficial, self-righteous, dishonest, and hypocritical.

Throughout the gospels Jesus condemns hypocrisy - pretending to be something that you’re not, or pretending to be better than you are. Matthew 7 verses 3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? …You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.”

Christianity itself is often judged by those outside the Church. Their verdict is that the Church is full of hypocrites. Some people outside the Church believe that Christians think they are ‘perfect’ people, or ‘superior’ in some way. It’s not really true that the Church is full of hypocrites. The truth is that the Church is full of sinners. The hypocrites in the Church are those who would deny that fact, or who don’t include themselves in that fact, but they do love to condemn other people. And for some reason, we are quick to identify hypocrisy in other people, but not so quick to recognise it in ourselves.

American telly-evangelists seem to be particularly prone to hypocrisy - of not practicing what they preach - which has led to the public downfall of many. But at least as far back as 2 Samuel 12, there’s a good example of King David being called on self-righteous hypocrisy, when Nathan the prophet tells David a story of a rich man who steals a poor man’s precious lamb and kills it for his own use. David pronounces sound condemnation on the rich man in the story, while Nathan’s intention all along was to point out David’s blindness to his own sinful behaviour with Bathsheba.

In Matthew 15, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, [saying] ‘these people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’’ In the gospels, Jesus reveals many ways in which the Pharisees practiced a hypocritical religion - ways which are sometimes practiced by people today who deceive themselves and others into thinking they are Christian.

Here are a few examples from Matthew’s gospel, ch. 23: ‘everything they do is done for others to see; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; ‘Woe to you… you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices… but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel… You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence… on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’

This is especially challenging for those who are called to lead by example: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach.” But aren’t ALL of us Christians called to practice what we proclaim? By our fruit we shall be known.

Christianity’s claim that there is an absolute truth and an ultimate judge is not popular today. But God’s judgment is righteous, just and merciful. And that is how he wants us to judge. In the letter of James ch 2 v.13, we read that ‘judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; [and] mercy triumphs over judgment.’ And similarly in Matthew 7 v. 2, ‘For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’

There is no contradiction here. Yes, we must judge between right and wrong and between truth and falsehood. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul advises to ‘weigh carefully what is said’. And in 1 Thessalonians 5 he says to ‘Test everything. Hold on to the good. [And] avoid every kind of evil’. But we should not be judging the status of other people, and especially their status before God. Romans 14:4 – ‘Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls’. And verse 13: ‘Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way’.

Jesus tells us the gate is small and the road is narrow that leads to life. Many obstacles can block that gate and divert people from the road. God forbid that we should be that obstacle for another person.