Sunday, 20 June 2010

Sermon for 20th of June, 2010

Yesterday I was ordained as a priest! It was a special moment in time for me. The photograph above was taken today just after I presided at the Lord's table for the first time, with Lesley our Reader, who also assisted with distributing Communion - another special moment in time. What follows is taken from the sermon I preached today. The readings were 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-end, and Luke 8:26-39.

There were a lot of photographs taken yesterday at the Cathedral. These snapshots will have captured some of the excitement of the moment: the joy of the ordinands and the support of family and friends. Photographs are snapshot images of moments taken out of time. They’re moments that have been taken out of their original context. Each Sunday our scripture readings are kind of like snapshots in this way. What we get is only a small picture of what is really a much wider landscape of events and meanings. The task of the preacher is to develop the picture in some way. But it can never be the whole picture, because ‘the word of God is living and active’, as St. Paul says in Hebrews 4:12. God is still completing the picture, for us and with us.

I’d like to consider just a couple of themes from our readings this morning. The first comes from the Old Testament reading, 1 Kings 19, of Elijah’s experience of the presence of God in a “gentle whisper”; the ‘still, small voice’ in some translations. God is both meekness and majesty. In the Old Testament, God’s presence is sometimes signified by thunder, clouds and fire. But here God’s presence is signified by gentleness, quietness and stillness. God works in his own way, and in his own time, and not always in the ways we expect. And if we busy ourselves too much in the noisy stuff of daily life, we can miss the still, small voice of God.

For a few days last week, those of us who were ordained priest yesterday were made to go on retreat. This took place at the Diocesan Retreat Centre, which is surrounded by woodland. I found the most refreshing part of my retreat experience was time spent walking in the woods, serenaded by birdsong. The blessing of the retreat centre is for all of us in the Diocese and I recommend it to you for a quiet day or a couple of days retreat.

Stillness, quiet reflection, and prayer are so important if we want to become more aware of God’s intimate presence with us, and his purposes for our life. What might God be saying to you, in a gentle whisper? In some cases, he may be reassuring us; in others challenging us or calling us to a new direction in our lives. Whatever the message may be when we make the space to listen, in our desire to respond, God will equip us for the next stage of our journey.

The next theme I’d like us to think about is from our second reading from Galatians chapter 3. It’s that remarkable picture of inclusiveness in Christ. Verse 2: ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. It’s a picture of a world where there are no exclusion zones. In the new creation there are no categories in which people are boxed in or kept out.

Is there someone or something we would rather exclude from God’s grace? Remembering now our Gospel reading from Luke 8, picture the demon-possessed man, a horrific picture of distorted humanity, being healed by Jesus. Irenaeus once said, ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. And God’s grace makes that possible, even for the most distorted of lives. No one is beyond the reach of Jesus.

And God’s grace makes reconciliation possible even in the most hostile of situations. Reconciliation is God’s work. And through Christ, by his Spirit, the ministry of reconciliation has been given to the Church. Going back to what St. Paul says in verse 27 of Galatians 3, ‘All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ’. And being in Christ, as his body the Church, we are to be a blessing to the world. All the baptised are ‘ordained’ to do this.

And all the baptised are ‘set apart’ to a ministry of serving Christ by serving others in the world. Jesus set this example for his disciples when, in John’s gospel, chapter 13, he washes the disciple’s feet, and says to them, ‘You should do as I have done for you’. In the body of Christ, in whatever role we have as laity or clergy, it’s an immense privilege to serve our amazing God. And I want to say today, as I preside at the Lord’s Table, how humbling this privilege is. As we say in the ‘prayer of humble access’, none of us are worthy even to gather up the crumbs from under his table. And yet, Jesus says: ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’.

Jesus gives his very self for the whole world. And the still, small voice of God calls all who are ‘clothed with Christ’ to take part, in this sacrament of thanks and praise. The Eucharist is a thanksgiving meal and it’s a memorial meal. And the act of taking bread and wine, blessing and breaking, taking and eating – this simple act contains a much wider significance in its whole context, some of which is simply beyond our comprehension.

But at its heart, the sacrament of Holy Communion is about participation, sharing, and fellowship – with Christ and with each other. By his Spirit, we share Christ’s body and blood. By his Spirit, we are clothed with Christ on the outside and Christ lives within us. By his Spirit, we share in his mission and in his servant ministry.

Jesus gives himself to us, and we make our response by giving ourselves to him. As St. Paul urges in Romans 12:1, ‘...brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, ...offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship’.

So as we come to the Table in gratitude for what Jesus has given us, let us also come to offer our lives afresh to God. And let us seek God’s purposes for our own life and for the life of this community; not by listening to the loud clanging drums of special interest groups, but by listening to God’s ‘gentle whisper’ – that still, small voice. The voice that says ‘be still and know that I am God’. The voice that says ‘Do not be afraid’. The voice that says ‘I am with you always’. It’s the voice of truth. It’s the voice that sets us free.

Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, thank you for giving to us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for including us among your children, and at your Table. Speak to us afresh today, Lord. As you know our inmost thoughts and deepest needs, comfort us, and challenge us; to the glory of your name. Amen.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


As it is, I am an ordained deacon. As of Saturday afternoon, June 19th, I will be an ordained priest. The wonderful people in my parish ask me if I am excited, or if I am looking forward to it. Definitely yes, and yes. But that is mixed up with a whole cocktail of other emotions as well.

This time last year when I was ordained as a deacon, I couldn't imagine being ordained priest. Gradually as the year has progressed, with experiences gained and much prayer and seeking after God, my imagination has been stretched. The composition of my being seems increasingly perfused with 'priestly' qualities. And the formal ordination service marks the point at which I will be able, with authority given by God and by the Church, to use those qualities in profound ways to serve God and to serve people.

Not too many years ago, I was fairly anti-priestly-authority, fairly anti-church-heirarchy and institutionalism. I still am, on many levels. I've always believed in the 'priesthod of all believers' (1 Peter 2:9). I long for the 'priesthood of all believers' to be full-on enabled and released into ministry. I wonder if the ordained priesthood as a stipendiary office would even be necessary if the priesthood of all believers were fully engaged in the world.

What does it mean to be a priest in Christ's church, when Christ himself is our High Priest (Hebrews 5)? In the Old Testament, a priest was a mediator between God and his people. There was a curtain in the Temple through which only the priest could pass to access God in the holy of holies, where the Ark of the Covenant rested. When Jesus was crucified, the temple curtain was torn in two (Matthew 27:51). Jesus opened up the way to God for us all, by his death on the cross. No longer is any earthly mediator required for any of us to have access to God; our heavenly mediator is Christ, and we ourselves live in Christ through his Spirit.

This is why I've never really liked the title priest to describe what we do today, because it can confuse the role that priests should fulfil in these post-resurrection days. But this is what they are called in many denominations, and so long as the role is clear and not abused (which sadly, it often is), then I can just manage to get my head around it. For me, being ordained as a priest will be a commissioning, a releasing, to be and to do what God has put me on this earth to be and to do. I just pray I will be faithful to this.

So the role is about both being and doing. But if there's no longer any need for the Old Testament priestly function, what do priests today do? I came across this incisive poem about being a priest, on the blog of an ordinand who seems also to wrestle a lot with the notion of priesthood and ordination. I'm so grateful we have a God who doesn't mind our wrestling with him and with the mysteries of his purposes (I've always loved Genesis 32:22-32 where Jacob wrestles with God).

Yes, I am very excited about Saturday, and about Sunday, when I will preside for the first time at Holy Communion, and be able to say the Absolution and the Blessing. It is a great privilege to be able to do this kind of work full-time. Please pray for me and for all those who are called to ordained ministry of whatever form. I pray that in our ministry, the name of Christ will be honoured above all else; unto him be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

By faith, through grace

Galatians 2:15-end / Luke 7:36 – 8:3

I’ve been spending some time recently with the Sea Cadets in my new role as their chaplain, and what an amazing unit it is! The volunteer staff are so dedicated to serving the young people who attend – fuelled by a deep belief that what they are doing benefits these young people immensely. And for many cadets, especially those who are from disadvantaged or disorderly backgrounds, being in the Sea Cadets is a real life-changer. Their belief in themselves grows through the skills and disciplines learned.

Believing in ourselves and in others, learning to trust ourselves and other people is a very healthy thing. But it’s not the whole thing. You’ve probably heard the phrase that there’s a ‘God-shaped hole’ in every human heart. And we do seem to have a need to believe in something. It’s that natural inclination of human believing that the Holy Spirit uses when people respond to the gospel. The Holy Spirit takes the power of human love and transforms it into a godly love. The same is true of hope. God takes the human hope which is found in every person and transforms it into the hope for ‘life in all its fullness’ – into the hope for eternal life. Likewise, God takes the natural faith or believing that is deep within all human hearts and transforms that human believing into belief and trust in Jesus.

A famous quote from the Bible is: “I believe; Lord,help my unbelief.” God wants to cure our unbelief. What God wants from us more than anything else is that we would have faith in Jesus Christ - belief in Jesus Christ; trust in Jesus Christ. Not just to believe in positive thinking. Not just to believe in the power of believing or have faith in the power of faith. God wants more than that. We are invited to put our faith in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. That’s the core of the Christian faith. God wants to transform the power of human belief in all of us into a personal faith in Jesus Christ, so that we trust the promises that he has made to us through Jesus.

Our first reading this morning was from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, ch. 2: Let’s think about the churches in Galatia, in ancient Turkey, in Paul’s time. There were deeply religious people there in Galatia who couldn’t grasp that God raised Jesus from the dead, that all our sins are fully forgiven by his death on the cross, and that his followers, his disciples, are to live a life of love. Those Galatians didn’t understand the gospel.

They also didn’t understand what God wanted from them and wants from us. The very core of Jewish morality was to obey hundreds of laws that said, “don’t’ do this and don’t do that.” When Jesus came, that changed. What God wants from us more than anything else is that we would have faith in Jesus Christ. The essence of Christianity isn’t to obey rules and regulations but to have faith in Jesus Christ.

Surrounded by evil and suffering, our faith demands that we trust in God's ultimate judgment and protection. No matter what happens to us in this life, we trust in Jesus as ultimate judge and our saving grace. Faith trusts the promise of God that we will live forever with Jesus, who suffered and died at the hands of evil, for our sake.

And faith involves a leap, a letting go, because there is no proof that God exists. It’s a risk. There is no proof that there is a God or that God will catch us when we fall. So there is a leap of faith, a letting go of the need for proof. Even with everything we see in nature – or in human courage, kindness, and love – ultimately we believe in that which is not seen.

And we are justified in the eyes of God, not by adherence to any Law or Doctrine or Dogma, but by faith in Jesus. The Law by which we are justified is the law of grace – it’s the law of love, laid down by the life of Jesus. And What God wants from us more than anything else is that we would have faith in Jesus Christ.

The other day, I was approached by a man who was what we might call a ‘down and out’. He saw my clerical collar and held out his hand to me and told me his name is Tony, that he is a believer, and that he prays every day. He said he no longer goes to church. I told him that the most important thing to God is that we have faith in him. And Tony told me that he does have faith.

And even though he was a ‘down and out’, Tony had a quality about him. A resilient and open quality about him. Even though things might not be going so well for him in the material context, maybe Tony has found that no matter how far he’s fallen, somehow his basic needs have been met – out of the goodness of others, or out of an inner strength that he’s been able to draw upon. Maybe I’m a soft old fool, but I believe him when he says he has faith – I could see it in his eyes. Tony asked me to pray for him, and he told me he would pray for me, too.

I pondered this encounter the next day. I wondered what our reaction would be if someone like Tony came in here to worship with us. Would we welcome him in with open arms? Or would his presence in this congregation disturb us? Would the smell of beer on his breath and his unkempt appearance make us want to avoid him?

I wondered whether we subconsciously make judgements that the sin of people like Tony is somehow greater than our sin, and therefore he shouldn’t be in here with us. Remembering our second reading this morning from Luke 7, that is just the kind of thing that Simon the Pharisee thought of the woman ‘sinner’ who came into his house and anointed Jesus’ feet.

Martin Luther wrote that ‘Christ is a Lover of poor sinners, and such a Lover that He gave Himself for us. Now if this is true, and it is true, then we are never justified by our own righteousness’.

The Pharisees were self righteous people with an inflated sense of moral and spiritual superiority. They maximized everybody else’s sins and minimized their own. They felt they were two or three cuts above everybody else in the world.
But Jesus says, ‘Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. Whoever is forgiven little, loves little.’

It’s easier to extend forgiveness to other people when a person has personally experienced a deep forgiveness himself or herself. When a person realizes the number of stupid mistakes they’ve made in their own life, then that person is more willing to forgive others who also make stupid mistakes in their life.

When we realize our own sinfulness, and the gift of forgiveness, we’re set free to show compassion to others – compassion for all people - even our imperfect family members. We’re set free to show compassion to marginalised people – like those with mental health issues - and for every other kind of group that we’re sometimes prejudiced against. We’re set free to show compassion for down and out’s like Tony. Jesus says that there’s a connection when we realize our own sinfulness and the measure of his forgiveness; there’s a connection between that realisation and our degree of compassion for others.

There are many people out there who have faith in God but don’t feel ‘good enough’ to belong in here. We have to ask ourselves why. And we have to make sure that we aren’t the kind of church that holds up a measuring stick, only allowing those who ‘fit in’ to have a place here to belong. As Christians we must have faith that God can release us from our fear of the other.

What God wants from us more than anything else is that we would have faith in Jesus Christ, who loves us and gave himself for us. We need to trust that Jesus now lives in us by his Spirit, who will release us from the desire to condemn others who we think are somehow beneath us in righteousness. Faith believes that the only way any of us are righteous in God’s eyes is by the gracious love of Jesus, and not through anything we try to do. Amen.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Fire and Rain

1 Kings 18:41-46

Elijah said to Ahab, "Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain." So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.
"Go and look toward the sea," he told his servant. And he went up and looked. "There is nothing there," he said.
Seven times Elijah said, "Go back."
The seventh time the servant reported, "A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea." So Elijah said, "Go and tell Ahab, 'Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.' "

Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of the LORD came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

The great prophet Elijah lived around 900 years before Christ. It was well after King Solomon’s reign, described in the first eleven chapters of 1 Kings, and also after Israel had been divided into the two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The reading this morning from 1 Kings 18, where the rains finally come down upon drought-stricken Israel, is the end result of a significant time in the life of the prophet Elijah.

Elijah first appears in 1 Kings 17, in confrontation with the evil King Ahab. Ahab reigned over the northern kingdom of Israel for twenty-two years; and according to 1 Kings 16:30, he ‘did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any [of the kings] before him’. And Ahab’s wife was his equal in wickedness. The name Jezebel is now part of our language, referring to any evil, devious, manipulative woman. It says in 1 Kings 21:25-26 that ‘Never was there a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife’. Jezebel corrupted Ahab by enticing him into following her pagan gods Asherah and Bel, who together were called Baal.

The short passage from 1 Kings 18 relates the end of the long drought that was a punishment for the idolatry raging in Israel at the time. Just before this passage, Elijah put this idolatry to the test, when he poses a challenge to the people. He says in verses 23 & 24:

‘Let the prophets of Baal choose [a bull] for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare [another] bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire – he is God.’

Calling on the name of their pagan god, the people danced around their altar from morning till noon, with no response. Elijah taunts them, saying: ‘Shout louder! ...Perhaps [your god] is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling’ – and that was an insult, because ‘travelling’ was a euphemism for going to the toilet! From afternoon to evening, the idolaters ‘shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed’ (v.28).
But still, no response from Baal!

So Elijah builds his altar in the name of the Lord. He arranges the wood and the bull, and then he pours water all over it until it is completely drenched. Elijah prays to the Lord - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. And in v. 38, ‘the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench’!

When the people saw this, they fell down on their knees and cried out that the Lord is God. Elijah then has all the prophets of Baal killed. The whole dramatic event is interwoven with the story of the drought, and shortly afterwards, on Mount Carmel, the sky becomes black with clouds and heavy rain finally begins to fall – and that is this morning’s passage. The rain is seen by Elijah and his followers as a sign that God has forgiven the repentant people their sin of idolatry which had been the cause of the drought.

Rainfall is a symbol of blessing and divine providence. The Old Testament conveys to us that the blessing of water and abundance is at God’s command (whether that says anything of the recent problems with the water supply in our region, I don’t know!); but the prophet Elijah longed for the rains to come to end the severe drought and famine – he longed for justice and for the redemption of God’s people.

The Old Testament often makes use of the imagery of water as a sign of justice and righteousness: The flood in Noah’s day was purging, cleansing and purifying. From Amos 5:24 come the powerful words, ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’! The waters of baptism signify cleansing and healing - the dying and rising again of new life. God knows that his people need the water of life and we are dependent on him for everything good that we have.

The story of Elijah seems like it would make a great plot for a film. But there have only been a few films made where he is featured, like one called The Sins of Jezebel from 1953, with John Hoyt as Elijah, and Paulette Goddard as Jezebel; and there was an animated film about Elijah made in 1996. But I think it’s about time for someone to make an up-to-date version of this story, because it could highlight the ways we practice idolatry today.

Not many people these days worship the pagan gods Asherah and Bel, but we’ve certainly got contemporary examples of idolatry. And it’s even present within the Church! Many people in the western developed world have exchanged their Christian heritage for the god of Choice; and we often put Ourselves in the place of God, as well. So we are challenged today by the prophet Elijah to examine whether we choose to follow the one true God, faithfully.

The Bible teaches that there are many forms of idolatry including greed and immorality (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Anything we worship or depend on for security, significance, or happiness, other than the Lord, becomes a form of idolatry. Today, people don’t usually construct gods of wood and stone, but we do make gods out of our own ideas, our prejudices, and our worldview. It can be helpful to think about what forms of idolatry we are engaging in, and to bring this to the Lord in prayer and repentance.

We might idolise Church-going, over and above a personal prayerful relationship with God. Maybe we sometimes idolise our church buildings.

We might allow pleasure and comfort dictate what we do and keep us from seeking the true will of God for our life, because we’re afraid of how uncomfortable or unpleasant that might be.

We might set our hearts and our security on being successful – either financially or socially; spending all our energy and time pursuing the next rung on the ladder to the point that it interferes with quality time spent with family, church, and community.

What must we have to be secure, happy, or significant?

Today, people can find the resemblance of joy and peace in false religion, in money, power, and position, but it always falls short of true and lasting peace, which only comes through faith in Jesus and the intimate fellowship that he offers to us.

Let us pray: Father God, thank you for the wonderful stories from the prophets of old. Help us to apply the things we learn from them to our lives today. Keep us from worshipping anything or anyone other than you. Thank you for your abundant provision. Lord, send your kingdom down upon us, like a fresh rainfall. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

Monday, 7 June 2010


Haven't posted for a while, so thought I would just say what I've been up to and what's ahead. I had a great day today. After seeing the two kids off to school, the usual morning prayers were said with my training incumbent, followed by some enjoyable conversation and play with the 'carers and tots' group, held every Monday at one of the two churches (there is also a Tuesday group held at the other church). Delivered the monthly parish newsletter to my usual two streets (there are several other volunteers and around 500 homes reached). I enjoy that - perhaps missed a calling as a postman? (what is the gender neutral term for postman?) A few emails and a few phone calls with the funeral director and someone wanting to discuss doing ecumenical outreach. Worked for a bit on Thursday's sermon; also went to the bank. After the kids got home from school, had to take my daughter to get some new school shoes and later after cooking dinner, I helped my son create an elephant costume to wear to school tomorrow.

Tomorrow is an 'IME' day, which is our continuing education scheme as curates. The theme for tomorrow is 'Growing Church', so it sounds like its right up my street. Looking forward to it. Also tomorrow in the evening I plan to attend my first Sea Cadets meeting, and this will become a regular feature in my parish ministry.

Wednesday I must finish up my sermon for Thursday and the funeral service that is also on Thursday. Should also make a pastoral visit. Thursday, of course, is Holy Communion when I will be preaching, followed by a funeral. Thursday evening I'll start working on Sunday's sermon. Friday is my day off, so I might take half of that to potter around doing nothing much at all, and the rest of it catching up on housework and tidying my study. Saturday I have Diocesan Synod to attend. So that is my week.

I'm looking ahead with excited anticipation to several events: a train journey down to London to visit an old high school friend; my pre-ordination retreat; the ordination of priests on 19th June; my first ever Holy Communion presidency on 20th June; the Race for Life on 27th June; and the Diocesan clergy conference from 28th June to 1st July. After all of that, I'll be eagerly looking forward to the visitation from California of my mom, sister, niece and nephew for three weeks! Yay!