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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 27 December 2009

St Stephen's Day sermon, Stebbing and Lindsell

Acts 6

Phew, that was a busy Christmas, and now here we are all done and dusted (with snow) on the feast of Stephen – well Ok it was yesterday but there you go)
Done and dusted, or as we say in our family, for obscure reasons, fluffed and fluffted.

Because every family has its own ways of doing things – our own little Christmas traditions, our own turns of phrase and our own quirks, some of which others find hard to understand.
Stephen, whose feast we are celebrating today, certainly had his own way of doing things. In Acts 6 we read that he was chosen to serve along with six others, who are traditionally remembered as the first deacons. They were chosen and commissioned by the apostles, and prayer and the laying on of hands initiated their ministry,
Stephen was called and initially served in a specific way – caring for the Greek widows, and ensuring they were given their share of food.

The apostles’ justification for these appointments seems rather arrogant at first – “it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God to wait on tables”. Little did they know that one of the people chosen for an apparently secondary task would end up as an amazing witness. I say apparently secondary, but in fact the congregation – a close look at verses 5 and 3 shows it was not the 12 but the wider Christian community who chose the seven deacons - were instructed to find people who were filled with the Spirit of God.

Stephen and his fellow servants were therefore chosen on the face of it to ease the burden of the apostles so that they could get on with what they thought was the important business of being an apostle. “We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word”, they said.

But in what follows it is clear that even if the apostles intended it that way, there is no distinction in the eyes of God between the apparently menial tasks (like giving out food to widows) and the allegedly more important task of the ministry of the word.

Stephen is an example to all the believers, and his boldness and faith demonstrated among the people – in the kind of actions that would probably get you sacked these days by the NHS or social services or the education department – got him noticed, and not just by those sympathetic to the Christian faith.

Now it is clear that as a man of faith Stephen brought the values and expectations of the Kingdom of God into the tasks of everyday life – so he didn’t just give the widows their share of the food, he prayed for them as well, and miracles occurred. Without the commission to service in a practical way, however, his spiritual ministry might never have been able to flourish.

It is interesting that the witnesses who testify against Stephen accuse him of pretty much the same things Jesus was accused of; if we had any doubts that these accusations of speaking out in faith were true, they will be allayed by the events of chapter 7, when Stephen speaks at length to the Sanhedrin, explaining the scriptures and the plan of God’s saving actions through history to those who sought to condemn him. His face was like the face of an angel as he stood to speak to them.

The fact that we commemorate Stephen as the first Christian martyr tells you what happens next, but martyrdom need not scare us off the example of Stephen; the New Testament Greek words of martyr and witness are the same. Our witness is going to be painful sometimes.

This week government ministers have been saying churches will need to prepare legal defence teams to counter accusations under new equal rights legislation, and another Christian has lost her job for offering to pray with people in need.

This week also in the Christmas silly season news, an old friend of mine has got into trouble for suggesting to his congregation that they should consider stealing if they are at the end of their financial resources. I’m not going to suggest anything quite so daft, but I will say that Stephen is an example to us all of the importance for standing up for our faith; I will not change the gospel to accommodate those who oppose it, just as Stephen didn’t. I hope that we can all stand united with Christians the world over who face persecution for their faith, but there is nothing like little persecution to galvanise the church. Christmas is perhaps when we are at the top of our game, but let us not be complacent and assume we will have this amount of freedom forever.

So don’t be shrinking violets, in your work or family or social contexts; if we are going to steal Christmas back form the secular society, we need to be prepared to stand up for Jesus.

But we won’t get killed for it, at least not yet. Everyone has their own way of doing things, is where I started this morning; you and I are called to specific ministries in different times and places and to different people; we are not all expected to do and say the same thing sin the same way; the important thing is that we look outwards this new year and seek new avenues in which to speak and act the gospel.

Let us pray

Christmas Eve Communion Sermon

I’d like to begin by saying that since we are after the 9pm watershed, in this sermon I will be mentioning Sun Sea and Sex, and in the best tradition of preaching I will talk about sex at the end, to keep you all listening along the way!

Christmas Starts with Christ.
You may have seen that this is the slogan for the Churches Advertising network this year, and so as we start Christmas tonight I would like to reflect on what that might mean exactly for us here in Stebbing tonight.

And not before time! I woke up after the carol service last Sunday to the news that people have organised a “Godless” Christmas celebration, with comedy, music and science instead of Bible readings, Christian carols and worship.
But if you have a Godless Christmas then you just have a mas, which some welsh bloke said means if you take the Christ out of Christmas you just are left with M and S. Personally I’d prefer us to be saying “this isn’t just Christmas it’s (PAUSE) Christmas in Stebbing. In the same way, I prefer to think a godless Christmas leaves you with a mess, not a mas.
A mess because without Jesus there is no point in celebrating Christmas and we may as well go back to just having 21 December as the winter solstice.
But here’s the cliché, and never was it more true to say that “Jesus is the reason for the Season”.

So what does it mean to start with Christ?
Well, throughout advent, which officially ends in a few minutes, the church has been focussing on the expectation of the coming of Christ, both in terms of his birth at Bethlehem and in terms of his return as King, at the coming of his Kingdom.

This is a part of Christmas that doesn’t get much of a look in, as it has to compete not only with Santa Claus, Reindeer, mince pies, chocolate, trees, tinsel, and the Sound of Music but also of course with the baby in the manger, the shepherds the angels and so on, that we rightly recall and think on at this time of year. But of course the principle reason we remember and celebrate his birth is because Jesus didn’t stay a baby, he grew to be a man; a man whose death on the cross, whose resurrection and whose ascension into heaven have inaugurated a new kind of rule; The Kingdom of God. At Christmas we talk a lot about God with us – Emmanuel. But he is only with us in Spirit now; there is so much more to come.

 Isaiah prophesied that “the government will be upon his shoulders”, and “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end”. This, with reference to Jesus Christ, does not mean he is seeking to actually take over the running of our governments now; it refers rather to his return as King, at the final coming of his Kingdom. Don’t let that stop you praying for the government though.

In this church we believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit to Christians means that the Kingdom is among us – as Jesus in fact taught. In practice this means that when we pray for people if they are ill or bereaved, we genuinely expect there to be a move of God to answer those prayers, not always as we expect or even as we would like, but we believe God is at work in the world today. So the Kingdom has come, but it is not yet here – a bit like Christmas has come, but it is not yet here, unless I have rabbitted on so long that midnight has passed and it is already Christmas day.
The Kingdom is yet to come fully; we worship Jesus as a King, but this Kingdom is not of this world.

But the Bible tells us that one day it will be. I was going to say the Bible is clear, but that wouldn’t be right, as it is very confusing and difficult to completely grasp exactly how things will happen when Jesus returns. One thing we must remain focussed on is that he will return. The child born in a manger who grew to be the man who died on a cross will return to be our ruler and judge.

The Kingdom is here, but it is not yet here. People do get better sometimes when we pray for them, but not always; the Bible tells us that when God returns to be with us there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Hope was born at Christmas, and that hope is for the return of the King.

The Kingdom isn’t fully here yet and here’s how we know; when it is here, the Bible tells us that there will be no more Sun, no more sea and no more sex.
We won’t need the Sun because we will be experiencing all the time the glory of God that the shepherds saw for a fleeting moment.
When the King returns it will herald the re-making of creation, and it looks as though Clacton and Frinton will lose out because there will no longer be any sea.

And there will be no more sex. That may seem disappointing, and in a sense it is because sex is a good thing, which we enjoy, don’t we?

Jesus did teach that there is no marriage in heaven, but I’ve got a theory about this; there is no sex in heaven, no sex in the new creation for two main reasons; in no particular order - since there is no more death it is clear that our existence is very different. And you know how sex feels really good, and in the right conditions is an amazing experience, well I think that when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, if you’ll forgive the wording, it’s going to feel like that all the time.

Now that is quite a good reason for wanting to be part of this Kingdom I’ve been talking about, but there are many others, not least the consequences of Christ’s return as King for those who are not his disciples, his followers, his friends. When Jesus returns he will be coming as King but also as judge.

Christmas starts with Christ, but so also do the rest of our lives. Christmas starts with Christ, but so also does our salvation, our deliverance from sin and death, our citizenship of the Kingdom of God.

Christ’s coming to earth, and if we have faith in him, means that when he returns we will have a lot less to worry about.
And a lot more to celebrate.

Christmas starts with Christ, and tonight he could give you a new start. A new start that would mean you will be there when the kingdom comes, and you will see him face to face. (And that thing I said about sex as well)

A new start also that will change your life in the here and now; maybe miraculously, maybe just by a shift in your perception, but he will remake you, as one day he will remake the whole world.

How is this possible, you might be asking/ How can a baby give me a new start? Well don’t forget that the baby whose birth we celebrate tonight is, as the carol puts it “Our Lord in heaven above. And he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.”

He has gone there to prepare a place for us; he wants to welcome us there. To get there all we have to do us reach out and take his hand, put our trust in him.

If you’ve never taken that step of faith, never really trusted in or reached out to the risen, living Christ who is reaching out to you now, but you want to receive the best Christmas present of all, then bring your order of service up to the rail at communion, and we will pray with you. If you still have more questions, there are leaflets at the back of church called “why Christmas?” which will help you so do please take one home with you.

Christmas starts with Christ; will you start a new life with Christ this Christmas?
Let us pray

Monday, 21 December 2009

carol service sermon 2009

This is the text from the sermons at Lindsell and Stebbing Carol services over the last 2 Sundays. This the one from Stebbing but it is essentially the same as last week's at Lindsell. The texts were the usual Christmas lessons. The opening jokes were from the Grove Booklets email.

I would like to begin by sharing some directives I received this Christmas
The Union of Shepherds has complained that it breaches health and safety regulations to insist that shepherds watch their flocks without appropriate seating arrangements being provided, therefore benches, stools and orthopaedic chairs are now available. Shepherds have also requested that due to the inclement weather conditions at this time of year they should watch their flocks via cctv cameras from centrally heated shepherd observation huts.
Please note, the angel of the Lord is reminded that before shining his / her glory all around she / he must ascertain that all shepherds have been issued with glasses capable of filtering out the harmful effects of UVA, UVB and Glory.
You are advised that under the Equal Opportunities for All policy, it is inappropriate for persons to make comment with regard to the ruddiness of any part of Mr. R Reindeer. Further to this, exclusion of Mr R Reindeer from the Reindeer Games will be considered discriminatory and disciplinary action will be taken against those found guilty of this offence. A full investigation will be implemented and sanctions—including suspension on full pay—will be considered whilst this investigation takes place.
I guess if we are laughing about these then there has been a watershed, and the anti-winterval backlash is about to begin! The Grinch may have stolen Christmas, but we’re stealing it back!

The opening words of U2’s 1988 live album, “Rattle and Hum” introducing their version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” were "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back."

“We’re stealing it back”. U2 made “Helter Skelter” OK to listen to again; it lost its connotations of racism and murder that Charles Manson had given it in the 1960’s, and just became a joyous rock and roll song again, which is how it should be.

For years in this country, the shops and the television have had a hold over Christmas; they have stolen it from us and from our children. Consumerism and secularisation and whatever the word is for when you want to have more and better decorations, lights and paraphernalia in and on your house than your neighbour have stolen Christmas from us, but instead of complaining about that I’m just going to say,


This benefice bucks many trends but one of them is that the attendance at Church is going up. And not just at Christmas. The newspapers and the TV will perhaps tell you the woes of the Church over Christmas – and there are woeful things about Church, let’s be clear. Yet I don’t think it’s the institution that attracts people here, it is the people themselves. In a world where the concept of community has been stolen by facebook twitter and so on, this community is stealing it back. And doing it properly!
And of course beyond our human community we are gathering here with a spiritual community that transcends time and space. This is not the only place to find God in Stebbing, but it’s a pretty good place to start.

Before I finish I will just steal back another Christmas icon.

You might have some in your house; you might not want to see it in church. It certainly has pagan connotations. I just said church is not the only place to find God here, and living in such a beautiful place does mean that I am constantly reminded of how the created world points to God though its serenity and beauty; of course this idea has also been stolen by the New Age and some elements of the ecology movement, but today,
“We’re stealing it back”
Mistletoe provides us with an amazing illustration of how we are supposed to relate to God. Christmas is the time when we celebrate God’s coming among us as a human child who grew to be our saviour, our teacher and our friend. Sometimes when I read the gospel stories I end up thinking to myself that some people even then, as now, just don’t know how to relate to God. Christmas tells us the story of his coming then; Mistletoe gives us a picture of how we’re supposed to relate to him now.

When you see Mistletoe in the shops or in houses at this time of year it has been cut down from the place it’s mean to be. Mistletoe is meant to grow on a tree; it does not survive on its own. Mistletoe is meant to be connected to a tree; we are meant to be connected to God.
I read recently a novel about a Saxon warrior whose girlfriend returns to a convent, saying to him “I’m like mistletoe, I need a branch to grow on”. Friends, we are all like that; whether we are feeling joyful or doleful, whether or not we feel like celebrating Christmas, we all need a branch to grow on.

And so as I close I want to extend this metaphor a little to show you how, if you don’t already know, you can enter into a relationship with God in Christ. A market gardener at this time of year will be wanting to sell mistletoe for Christmas decorations. He doesn’t have time to go around gathering it from the wild, so he gets hold of some mistletoe berries and he cuts a little slot in the bark of an apple tree. He squashes a berry under the bark, and treats it and seals it; from that little berry grows a new mistletoe plant.

So also with us; you may only have a tiny amount of faith, smaller than a tiny berry, yet God – the apple tree in this picture, is willing to receive you in his warm embrace. As the berry drawn close to the tree flourishes and grows, so also our faith, as we draw close to God in repentance, in worship and in prayer, will flourish and grow.

If this Christmas your faith has been stolen by suffering, by tiredness, by business, by despondency or despair, I hereby declare that we are stealing it back

Happy Christmas

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Sermon at Stebbing today , Advent 3

The good news of God's judgement: Bob Dylan, “Change my way of thinking”, Zephaniah 3, 14-20 & Luke 3, 7-18.

The promise of salvation, and of God's reign of peace and justice, is good news indeed to the oppressed, the outcast, and all who have been treated unjustly. God will deal with those who have oppressed and shamed them. This must also mean, however, that the promise is a real cause of fear and dread for anyone guilty of having inflicted shame and sorrow on God's people. The passages set for this week encourage us to hold these two things carefully in balance. Zephaniah invites us to share in the joy of redemption. God has overcome the enemies of his people and now chooses to be with them – or should that be with us. On the other hand, in the Gospel reading, John the Baptist reminds us of the necessity of changing our ways. Whether we are like the outcast or the tax collector however, the message remains the same; God's judgement is good news because God has provided a means of taking away the judgement against the sinner. Those who live in fear of the wrath of God can be saved if they accept the baptism of repentance and live a life worthy of the gift of forgiveness that they receive from Christ. Event and Process.

We’ve been watching the DVDs from New Wine with Kenny Borthwick in the last couple of weeks at home group. This week he was talking about the coming of the Kingdom as event and process. This resonated for me with what we were talking about last week, the old cliché that God is for life not just for Christmas. We may have expectations that we will perhaps be refreshed and encouraged in our faith over the Christmas period – in a single event, and it is my prayer that that will happen, as it did for some people last Christmas Eve here. Yet, just as the coming of the Kingdom of God is a gradual process, as well as a single event in the incarnation of Jesus, so also our relationship with God is a process as we draw ever closer to him daily through our lives – not just at Christmas, and not even just at Church!

You might think it’s not very Christmassy to be thinking about judgement, but Kenny reminded us that when Jesus said to Mary and Martha at the grave of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection,” he was in effect saying, “I am Judgement Day, standing right here before you”.  For those whose hope is in the Lord, judgement day hold no fear. It is a time of joy.

Zephaniah means 'the one whom Yahweh has chosen'. He was probably prophesying to the people of Jerusalem at about the same time that Jeremiah was sharing God's judgement and words of comfort to the people of Judah. Few biblical prophets describe the wrath of God, or the joy of God, as vividly as Zephaniah does, and in this small section we are able to share something of his love and concern for the redemption of Jerusalem. The idea of God singing with joy reminds us that salvation is what God wants for us. Our salvation is a cause of exultation and rejoicing for God and that is the best measure of how much God loves us. Just as our individual salvation is both event and process, in our initial commitment and our gradual growth in faith and confidence – moving as we do, again in the words of Kenny Borthwick, from having enough light to die by to having enough light to live by, so also the Church’s journey through the Christian year is characterised by events – Advent Christmas, Epiphany and so on, at which we mark the milestones of faith, and a process, by which we journey together onward toward the eventual fill reign of God.

John the Baptist fascinates me. He clearly had issues with the religious authorities of his day, yet his preaching and prophecy was in fulfilment of everything they themselves were actually waiting for. The vitriol of John's question at the start of this passage may surprise us, but it perfectly demonstrates the difference between human judgement and God's grace. The unspoken answer, of course, is 'God warned us' by sending you. But of course it wasn’t just an unspoken answer, it was largely un-acted upon and ignored, unless we count people like Nicodemus. This was John's purpose in life, to call people to repentance, and here he starts with at the top. However, his baptism wasn't intended just for devout and righteous people who were already waiting for the day of the Lord. Neither was it restricted to the descendants of Abraham. Tax collectors, for example were often considered to be outcast from the law and from Jewish society because they worked as Roman agents. The soldiers mentioned would have been Roman soldiers, members of the occupying army. The good news is that all can be saved.
John stresses that baptism on its own is not enough. It marks the start, not the end, of the preparation for the coming of the Lord. It is an event that initiates a process, then as now. I’m not going to say there is nothing in the event, but it is incomplete without the process. Genuine repentance should result in a changed way of life. The repentant were therefore told to consider others and to give to them, as they were able; to undertake whatever work they had with integrity and respect for others. So although Bob Dylan and Kenny Borthwick were right to say that to repent is to change my way of thinking, it is interesting to see how John describes what his hearers need to do as part of their repentance – the event of the changed mind is accompanied by the process of living as redeemed people – what Dylan calls “make myself a different set of rules. So Judgement is not bad news for the repentant sinner. The promise of Christ's imminent arrival is good news to those who hear it. They have been given time to repent and amend their lives – a process so that they are ready to be baptised by Christ with the Holy Spirit and with fire – the ultimate event

Friday, 4 December 2009

Art and Christianity meme

I'm pleased to have been tagged by Jon at Between on this meme.
The instructions are to list an artwork, drama, piece of music, novel, and poem that you think each express something of the essence of Christianity and for each one explain why. Then tag five other people. So here goes. I ought perhaps to say at the start that I don't think any of the interpretations I give were actually intended by the artists, except maybe the poem.

Artwork: The Fighting Temeraire A strange choice, maybe it's more about the church than about the essence of Christianity. I heard Nicholas Holtam speak on this painting and what he said has stayed with me since that day in 2002. This is a picture about change - the old warship being towed away to be broken up, a hero coming to a sad end. It reflects Turner's own disquiet about the dawning industrialisation process, thus the tug is a steamship towing a sailing vessel. It is a picture also of brokenness, which is in the essence of Christianity, both in the brokenness of Christ on the cross, and in our brokenness. For me this shows also both for the Church and as an element of our faith, that there is not always a happy ending, but there is always beauty. However there are some signs of hope - there is a sunset (or is it a sunrise?) indicating that life goes on, and something new will come in the morning. So, the inevitability of change, brokenness, beauty and new hope.

Drama: Dr Who Another weird one perhaps, but I think Dr Who is a quintessential Christ figure; he demonstrates enormous wisdom, compassion, self-sacrifice and courage, and he has enormous power at his fingertips though he does not always choose to use it.At a stretch we might say his re-incarnations (not sure if that's the right word, but you knew the thing where one actor leaves and another one starts there is the traditional transmogrification scene) illustrate the beautiful way in which the gospel can be birthed in every culture through time and across the world. Also of course (especially in recent series) the Doctor is paradoxically sexy but asexual, like Jesus. Dr Who also doesn't always have a happy ending but does always have hope. It also has a Sunday school - The Sarah Jane Adventures, and a deliverance ministry panel - Torchwood.

Music: there are a million and one songs that try to express something of the essence of Christianity, but the music I have chosen (the link is just a few minutes, you can buy a CD with an hour or so of it) concentrates not on being holy but on the transformation of something broken ugly and dirty into something beautiful harmonious (that's Tom Waits who joins in) and uplifting. This music is a big reason why I give cash to the homeless. Of course the title is the gospel ...

Poem: The Dream of the Rood. As I said, I think this is the only one deliberately trying to be fully Christian. If I was  pretentious (OK, more pretentious than I am) I'd link to the original Old English text. I was given this poem to read by an old lady called Ruth Hook, whose late husband Ross had been a bishop at Lambeth. I used to take her communion when I was a young curate, and she was in a lot of pain most of the time. To help me understand how she dealt with that pain, and effectively also her impending death, she asked me to read this and it made me cry. She used to use her pain as a prayer, as the rood did. Pain is something of the essence of Christianity. Blimey this is getting a bit depressing ...

So lastly let's cheer up with the novel: I've cheated slightly again, mostly because once more there are a million and one books that set out to express the essence of Christianity, so stuff like Tolkien or Lewis would be too obvious. I'm going to go for a Children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit. I didn't read it as a child so can't comment on whether this interpretation works on the original audience (then again I read all of the Narnia books as a child BC without getting even an inkling (if you'll excuse the pun) of the intended message). Nevertheless this book for me captures the essence of Christian faith because it is about the power of love to make us real - to give us the identity we are meant to have in God, because he loves us and longs to be in relationship with us. It also cleverly subverts the modern obsession with outward appearance.

So that's my lot.
I hereby tag Jody, David K, Rachel, KT and Michael W


Sunday, 29 November 2009

Rejoice Rejoice Immanuel shall come to thee

Sorry it's been a bit quiet here recently. Facebook is rather taking over my online life.
Today we had a wonderful time at Church for Advent Sunday because:
1)We had a guest preacher, Canon Andy Knowles from Chelmsford Cathedral, who is excellent. His reflections on the prophetic function of the fig tree were stimulating relevant and at times funny. ( I know you'll find that hard to believe if you weren't there, but there you go).
2) The chalice is back (though of course we got a bit caught off guard by the large turnout (it was a benefice service)and nearly ran out of bread and wine).
3) We had a Blue Peter style Advent wreath which was fab.
4) We had 2 ordinands ("home and away") in the congregation (and to ours for lunch).

Only one thing took me by surprise today - the map of Israel behind the words for "O Come O Come Immannuel" on the screen ...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

5 deeply de Christian doctrines

So many people have been responding to this tag recently its hard to come up wuth anything original, but I did say i would respond to Phil's tag so here goes. They're not really tuaght doctrines as much as doctrinal assumptions from what we sing or say in Church.

1. "The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly
and ordered their estate."
NO - HE DIDN'T ORDER IT, WE DID! Fortunately we don't sing this any more unless the funeral director is particularly inept (which mine aren't), but sometimes I feel the sentiment is there in conversations, for example, about travellers or why no one from the estate comes to church.

2. "The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes".
OK so he was breastfed, but even those babies cry sometimes!

3. "Christian Children all must be mild obedient good as he."
This is an interesting one; it is not un-Christian to aim for a situation in which children are focussed on Christ as their moral and ethical role model. What is de-Christian about this hymn is that i'm not sure that singing those words with gustio are the best way of going about that aim.

4. "The young people are the church of tomorrow". I get so angry about this that I will just let it stand.

5.All-age worship isn't really church though is it (see no,4)

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

“You Twit Face”

Not an insult, but actually the name of a seminar at last summer’s New Wine conference, examining the impact of social networking Internet websites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Whether we like it or not, the Internet and mobile phones are increasingly playing a role in how people build communities. I am on Facebook, (are you?) Along with a billion people a day, I use YouTube a fair amount (you can use if for useful things like instructions on how to service an Aga, as well as trivial stuff like how to make a rocket with Coca-cola and mints), but I draw the line at Twitter. I suppose we all have our limits!

As I write, staff at the Royal Mail have voted to strike. One of the aspects of the dispute between postal workers and management seems to me to be that the former still have a understanding of the important role they play in communities, in bringing personal communication and information to the sizeable proportion of the population who don’t use the internet, while the latter build their statistics imagining that everyone in Britain is texting and emailing all day every day.

But we are not. Even though there are all sorts of useful things to be found on the Internet (even churches), and even though I enjoy catching up with people I don’t see very often as well as those I do, through Facebook, none of these things are a sufficient substitute for real face-to-face community.

Would Jesus be on Facebook? Perhaps he would, but he’d be one of those people who don’t write much, because his message is simple, “God wants you in his community”. That’s why God didn’t show his love for us by being remote and distant, but by coming to live on earth as a man, and experiencing the joys sorrows pain and celebration of human communities.

Through the advent of Jesus into the world, the whole world was redeemed. Or to put it in the words of Gregory of Nazanius, a fourth century Christian teacher, “That which God did not assume, he did not redeem”. At the end of this month we begin our journey to Christmas in the season of Advent. Countless generations of villagers here have taken that journey; it is part of the heritage of our community. It might be happening all over the world via the Internet, but we can do it together, face-to-face, here. Do join us for our special Advent Sunday benefice service at Stebbing on November the 29th at 11am, when our preacher will be Canon Andrew Knowles, Canon theologian of Chelmsford Cathedral.

And if I do put this letter on Facebook, it won’t be until after the magazine is published!

With blessings and prayers for Remembrancetide and Advent

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A Face in the crowd

So you may have noticed that I am on Facebook now. I really must insist that I did it for work, to help with the communications for my Course in Christian Studies class. I know you won't believe me but there you go.

Of course there have been some good outcomes, not least getting back in touch with my godson Cameron, and improving communications with people I ought to be better at staying in touch with.

I also use it to stay in touch with people from Church and their far-flung relatives. We have a group for St Mary's Stebbing, so to a certain extent we are developing into an online community, especially for those peopel who for whatever reason are not actually living in the village at the moment.

It's not a substitute for real life human contact of course, but I have begun to notice that in a way Facebook is better than real life because you really have to watch what you say and do. In real life people can have a good old gossip, or a bit of a slagging off session; if you are daft enough to do that on Facebook, everyone can see it. It's a reminder that everything we do is observed by someone.

On the subject of online community, the online sermons thing is nearly there!

Outside its America

"True religion will not let us fall asleep in the comfort of our freedom"

h/t Andy Buckler

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

So she woke up

There'll be a few bleary eyed clerics on Sunday morning, with the news that a U2 gig will be streamed live on Sunday at 3.30am UK time

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Monday, 12 October 2009

Harvest sermon from little Saling 11th October 09

The readings were Psalm 100 and John 6, 25-35

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.

It is good to say thank you. We bring our children up to do it, we say it ourselves all the time; we say “thank God” when we get some good news for a change, but we probably do that without thinking of it as a prayer, let alone a conversation. Yet God always wants to say, “you’re welcome”.

How do I know this, well, just read John 6, 33, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”. Gives life to the world – our very lives are gifts from God.

In human terms, ingratitude can eventually lead to a drying up of wells of generosity. If tasks are thankless, we are perhaps less inclined to do them. But for God, the well never dries up; his love is infinite and is not contingent on us saying thank you.

So why do we do it? At Harvest, even people who don’t believe in God understand the importance of thankfulness, and even though the food on our tables comes from a little further afield these days than it used to, this is a good time of year to acknowledge our debt both to the land and to those that till it for our benefit. These are all gifts from God too.

Have you ever been given a gift and not known how to use it, or even not wanted to use it?

This harvest, someone gave me a marrow. I didn’t know what to do with it (this is your cue to shout “stuff it”)

The marrow sat in our utility room until it went soft, as I had neither time nor energy to properly research recipes that I could cook and that my kids would eat, which involved marrow.

The story is told of a woman who was asked what she would like as a gift. She particularly liked a set of blue and white china she had seen in a shop window, so she asked to that; over many years her family and friends gave her pieces of this china until she had the full set. But when she died, it was all found in the original boxes, having been so treasured that she never dared use it.

Whether we are unable or unwilling to use them, sometimes the things God gives us go unused. So my question for us to consider this harvest time is what has God given us, that we could make better use of, and thus be truly thankful for.

Of course, if that lady had had her friends and family round to tea more often she might have been moved or encouraged to share her gift and use her china. If I had been brave enough o ask, I might have been able to get hold of those marrow recipes that you are preparing to tell me in a moment before it was too late. It seems to me a key to discovering and using our gifts – the gifts that God has given us both in practical and spiritual terms – is other people.

In the Quaker tradition they have a thing called a clearness group – a small band of people who get together and discuss each others’ gifting, and how to put it to best use.

Jesus said “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. This is a great gift, for which I’m sure we are truly thankful, but as those old words form grace at school lunchtime come back to me I am increasingly convinced that to be truly thankful means we need to properly put to use the thing we have been given.

sermon for 11th October at Lindsell

Yesterday's sermon from Lindsell; the readings were Job 23, 1-17 and Mark 10, 17-31.

Last week we met Job for the first time, and the scene was set for his trials and tribulations. This week we meet him at his lowest ebb.There is a strong tone of judgement in today's lessons, balanced by an equally strong tone of empathetic care for the suffering or oppressed.

”With friends like these, who needs enemies?”Much of the Book of Job contains a dialogue between Job and his so-called 'comforters' who in effect add to his suffering by tempting him to question God, and question his own integrity. Their questions include 'Can a mortal be of use to God?' (22.2) and the accusation that Job must have sinned for his sufferings to happen: 'Is not your wickedness great?' they ask (22.5).Job's reply is a lament that in his suffering God appears to be absent. In fact, behind this lies a desire for justice and the opportunity to be judged by a human law. He wants to find God in order to lay his case before him. His hope is for a just judge with whom an upright person could reason, and then he might be vindicated.But of course the very point is that the problem of innocent suffering remains.

I hope we know that when we watch TV or read the papers about Samoa, Sumatra or the Gaza strip, that these circumstances of suffering are not a case of someone receiving their just deserts. God does not answer this kind of question because he is not inflicting the punishment. He only appears to be absent, and will not reply here to the charges, which Job puts.Job claims that he wants to listen to God, saying 'I would learn what he would answer me' but in fact all Job wants is the opportunity to put his case, which he believes, will be self-evident. Mistakenly, Job thinks that God will not simply brush him aside in a demonstration of power, but that is something to be seen later in his story. Now there is only absence, and this makes Job's suffering appear to be meaningless. Here he feels the pain of the injustice of it all, that God will not even reveal the reason why Job suffers so greatly.

He says, in a strange inverse echo of psalm 139, 'If I go to the east, he is not there, if I go to the west, he is not there' (23.8) and there is a feeling that God does not even care sufficiently to notice what is going on.Briefly, Job wonders whether all this is just part of a test, for people commonly saw suffering as being a trial by ordeal imposed by God, from which the pure gold of righteousness might emerge (23.10) Indeed this idea is quite prevalent today as well. I myself have sought comfort from that verse in times of trial, not realising that Job’s got the wrong idea; this is not a test, this is just life. Nevertheless, we can learn from Job’s fortitude and faithfulness here; it almost seems as if he has been reading the psalms in verses 8 to 12, so familiar his words seem to us.

In the end though, with the mood he’s in, God's refusal to appear plunges Job into a renewed despair, filled with dread before the Creator. Now, rather than daring to seek God, he wishes only to be hidden. Hidden, yes, but still standing, not silenced by the darkness. This kind of resilience will stand in good stead anyone who faces a tough time in life.I was most impressed to read this week of a number of Christians who have been involved in Anthony Gormley’s fourth plinth project in Trafalgar square recently. These plinthers have done a variety of things, from prayer and worship and mediation to preaching. Some faced opposition, including one Roman Catholic priest, who was asked, “Where was your God in Auschwitz or the Tsunami?” He replied simply “Dying, and drowning”.

The rich man of Mark 10 is devout and interested in inheriting eternal life. He has kept the commandments since his youth. However, he is shocked when Jesus, looking at him and loving him, nonetheless asks him to sell what he owns to give to the poor, thus storing up treasure in heaven; so he goes away grieving. This is an interesting encounter for two main reasons.

First, it is important to note that Jesus in asking him to sell his possessions and give to the poor is not asking him to do something in addition to keeping the commandments; rather Jesus is asking him to keep the commandments through engaging in this radical action.Remember Jesus' declaration that to love God with all the heart and to love neighbour as oneself is to keep all the commandments. This is all that Jesus has asked him to do, as a means of confronting the limited extent to which he has been keeping the commandments thus far.

Second, it is important to note the rich man's response: like Job, faced with an apparently impossible task, he goes away grieving. He is not angry, or appalled, or affronted, but saddened. He appears to recognise the validity of Jesus' radical demand but finds it impossible to follow because he is so attached to his possessions. This is surely a case of the word of God, as mentioned in Hebrews, being sharper than a two-edged sword in judging the heart. Both Job and the Rich young man teach us that going the way of the cross is costly.The disciples ask Jesus, “who then can be saved?” because they are thinking that salvation is something we do to ourselves through our actions; Jesus’ reply stresses the primary action of God – Humanly this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. The riches that Jesus describes the end of chapter 10 are not the kind of thing that people today – perhaps even us – would describe as riches. We tend to think of material possessions first and people afterwards; Jesus as usual inverts the table so that the first is last and the last first.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

When the tears fall still I will praise you

Here's another sermon; soon I am hoping to be able to at put some audio on here somewhere but for now you'll have to make do with text.
This owes quite a lot to Roots, and also the tag line came from a post on Father Kris' blog. H/t also to AnneDroid for the concluding link

The readings were Job 1, 1 and 2, 1-10 and Mark 10, 2-16

When it comes to suffering, as we going to be BITTER, BATTERED OR BETTER?

Today's readings hold before us both the sovereignty of God and the dignity of humanity among God's creation.If God is good, what is the source of evil? Through the Book of Job we shall explore this great mystery over the coming weeks. It is a book for all times and all people. Job is not an Israelite, and the book contains no references to either the Covenant or to Jewish Law and traditions. Ancient Israelite wisdom was considered a shared international legacy, and the problem that it addresses is a perennial one.

Job is regarded by many as a literary figure. The argument goes that the carefully constructed speeches, which constitute this lengthy work, could not have been composed under the conditions of suffering described here. Satan's exclamation 'Skin for skin' is an evil celebration of the opportunity to inflict excruciating pain, which would drive out all possibility of connected thought. Regardless of how the narrative was recorded though, what we have here is an exposition of the problem of evil and of undeserved suffering. Job is like Noah, the blameless person who survives the deluge – but one of suffering, rather than water.The initial problem presented is the temptation to blame the suffering on God; 'Curse God, and die' as Job's wife graphically puts it. The effect of giving in to this temptation would be to regard a good God as the source of the evil, and in the face of this temptation Job knows that it cannot be so. His initial reply is simply, 'Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?' (Job 2.10). Previously, in response to the loss of his children and property, he had only said, memorably, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord' (Job 1.20).

St Augustine would take up this theme in seeing evil as the absence or corruption of what is good. But if the loss of what was good is total, then the 'evil' has no independent existence. It owes its presence only to the fact that it has good things to destroy. As Keith Ward has said, in “the Puzzle of Evil”, “Evil is parasitic on good.”

The scene is set. Job has seen that God is good and that the perfect human response to such goodness is to reflect this goodness. And, if the good is taken away, this is only a temptation to turn away from God, rather than evidence that God is less than good. For the God-fearing person, the temptation is there to be confronted. To give in to it would be to become bitter; Job does not , so while he is in for a battering, as we shall see in the coming weeks, the outcome in the end is that he ends up better.

In the Gospel reading, from Mark 10.2-16, the twin themes of divine sovereignty and human dignity underpin Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce. When asked whether divorce was unlawful, Jesus' negative response is based on a view that divorce involves a separation of what God has joined together (Mark 10.9) as well as the assault upon human dignity it can bring (vv. 10–12). Jesus' argument is simple – that divorce in his day was a concession to hardness of heart.

However, the intention of God is that husband and wife should become one flesh and thus complete the other, enabling each to be more than they would be apart. Surely everyone on their wedding day would affirm their desire to be 'one flesh' with the other and to recognise that their good desire was something divinely ordained. Jesus also reminds people that they are to respect the fact that married people belong exclusively to each other: we should not try to break the bonds that God has made.Jesus would have been aware that women were rendered particularly vulnerable in cases of divorce. In the male-dominated Jewish culture of the time women were often reliant upon their husbands for support and protection. The husband could simply dismiss his wife, and she would be powerless to object. In the worst cases, to be divorced could mean penury or being passed round from one husband to another, which was an assault upon the human dignity not only of the wives but also the husbands. We would do well to remember that today Islamic marriage and divorce is operated along fairly similar lines.

It is not my intention this morning to rehearse all the issues and opinions around the remarriage of divorced people, which as you may know the church of England does permit under certain circumstances. I will just say that since we are on the subject of suffering, there are some things we can say about marriage and divorce under the headline, bitter, battered or better.I am in that familiar paradoxical place that vicars often end up in, because I believe that marriage should be for life, but I believe that those who have been divorced should be given grace and mercy, the opportunity for restoration, and ultimately, under certain circumstances, the chance to marry again.

The short version of the force of this argument is that people who get divorced are not worse sinners than people who stay married, and also, as a person who has moral responsibility for the life of a community, I’d rather couples got married – even in a civil ceremony – than just lived together.Aha, you might say, but this passage shows that what you are suggesting is against the teaching of the Bible. Well, I did obviously read it before forming my opinions, and you’ll need to remember a key phrase I have used just now, which is “under certain circumstances”.If we wish to avoid being bitter or battered, there are clearly some circumstances in which we must accept that divorce, though regrettable, is unavoidable, and is sometimes even better for all concerned.

Jesus said divorce was permissible “because of your hardness of heart”. It is a sad fact that it is more often necessary today because of hardness of fists, and hardness of heads.But where the rubber of “under certain circumstances” really hits the road is in the reconciliation of verses 10 to 12 with church of England practice. Look at the text carefully, you will see it says “anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her”.

One of the circumstances in which we say no to marriage requests is if the relationship is the result of one person leaving a marriage for another person, and then wanting to get married to that person. I wouldn’t even do a blessing for that, because that would be to legitimise adultery, or as “Four Weddings and funeral” puts it, “serial monogamy”.In brief, then, like Jesus we celebrate the sanctity of God’s gift of marriage, and like Jesus we seek to bring dignity to the divorced.

I found something on the internet this week on the website of a prison chaplain. If you are feeling bitter or battered, and want to be better, or even of you are not and you need to be encouraged to move on in the faith, listen to this, and consider how our circumstances, even if they are tough, do not compare with how some Christians live today.


Wednesday, 30 September 2009

There are two sides to every story

because of this, about the Sun only wanting to back winners (allegedly), it's time we heard this again

That's going to be nearly 30 years old by next May. Strange how so much still resonates today (except of course it's lottery and t**s rather than bingo).

Monday, 28 September 2009

Girl there's a better life ...

Inspired by an old college friend's post over at Holy Brit, I went online recently and bought the DVD of City of Ember. My kids loved it and it also appealed to me.

Not just because it's a Walden media film, but mostly because it belongs in that particularly helpful film genre of post-apocalyptic fantasy. I think this is a helpful kind of film because it engenders thought about the following (in no particular order); the end of the world (which you can take theologically, ecologically, politically or all three), how to escape from captivity and helplessness, themes of redemption, the rediscovery of ancient wisdom, the possibility that there is another way of living or another world in which we can live .... you can see where I'm going with this.

City of Ember doesn't have a particularly strong plot (there are a couple of holes which I attributed to post production cutting) but for me a great element of the story was the contrast between the kids who decided to try to escape a doomed underground city, and the people who preferred to stand around singing on "the great day of singing", trusting that "the builders will return".

I'm not saying we earn our salvation, I'm just saying there is more to life and faith than standing round singing; we have to (in the words of John Ortberg) get out of the boat. Stebbing church have been having a little go at this recently. When the photos are in I will post about that too.

But back to post-apocalyptic films. I guess City of Ember is to "the Matrix" (if you need me to link that, where have you been?) what Monopoly Junior is to the real thing; same theme, but simpler plot, shorter and easier to play (and obviously fewer automatic weapons). There are tons of films that effectively tell the same story; struggling survivors (with a variant, Utopian fallacy), post apocalypse, minority rebel, escape, bring deliverance. It is a story of salvation, but not all the films are as overtly Messianic in imagery as The Matrix.

Here's a little selection for you to compare and contrast

Logan's Run
The Island
The Matrix

Perhaps you can add to this list.

If I was feeling pious I guess I could say there is a fascination for this kind of stuff because subconsciously we all want to escape, we all want to be saved. Actually the appeal has as much if not more to do with the actors and actresses (I think it is possible that Logan's Run was the inspiration for Kenny Everett's line "and then all my clothes fall off...") and rip roaring action/fight sequences.

I first got interested in this genre at school, studying O-level English literature. If I were to say to you, EM Forster, you'd probably be thinking of a Merchant Ivory film with Helena Bonham Carter in it (too many to link to ). Yet in 1909 Forster wrote The Machine Stops (that's the full text, you can get a summary here). To my mind this short story is the daddy of this kind of narrative. If you ever worry about the Internet having too much influence over us, you'll enjoy Forster's scarily prophetic plot. If they made it into a film today it'd be panned as far too derivative of any of the above!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

X factor Christianity - Sermon for 20th September at Stebbing

The focus of today's readings (Proverbs 31, 10-31 and Mark 9 30-37) is that God lifts up the humble and brings down the proud. Once again I am endebted to the work of CT Samuel on Rootsontheweb.com.

I was intrigued by our discussions at homegroup on Tuesday – and by the way you’re not too late to join a group if you would like to – about doing something extraordinary for God. Many of us feel quite incapable to following in the footsteps of a missionary, or going to work in a hostile country. But those things are only extraordinary for the people who do them; God’s extraordinary for you and me is something that he is calling us to. It’s not a competition. That’s why I like watching the X factor at this stage in the series when they are still giving anyone of however little ability the chance to get on stage, on TV, and do their thing. That is extraordinary, even if they don’t get through to the next round; they’ve still done more than me and sung or danced on national TV. It’s not a competition, and so efven if you feel you can’t or don’t do anything extraordinary for God, on reflection you may realise that something you consider to be normal – like praying every day for someone, or like listening to someone who needs to be heard – are actually extraodrianry, but just quietly so.

Wisdom plays a big part in that kind of faith. In our Old Testament reading from Proverbs 31.10-31 the capable woman demonstrates how she incorporates a Divine Wisdom into practical everyday life. Here is a truly astonishing presentation of woman by a patriarchal society! Only the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament portrays such a high view of any woman. Fittingly the good woman here is described in verse 3 and verse 29 in the same way as Ruth (Ruth 3.11). The term used means virtuous, noble, or admirable. It is an expression that elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible refers to power and strength. The Book of Proverbs had given warnings about the dangers of loose women in chapters 1 to 9 so this provides a fitting contrast, going back to the initial image of God's Wisdom personified as a woman.

Could this reflect an increased importance for women after Jews returned from the exile? God's people were no longer a powerful state under a strong male ruler. It was no longer the world of a David or Solomon with many wives, whom they treated as property. The Jews were now a monogamous religious society in which much of their religious observance would depend on the contribution of women to each household. Eating the right food in the right way, and being appropriately dressed would be the responsibility of women. Surely in the difficult circumstances of exile it had been the capabilities and ingenuity of faithful women that had enabled the people to retain their identity as Jews. Now husbands might take their seat with the elders, but it was the women who kept the household running. It was women who translated the theory of what it meant to be a Jew into faithful observance. So God did something quietly extraordinary during the exile in turning his people from a patriarchal to a much more egalitarian society.

The strong woman is a fountain of life and stability for her household. She goes beyond being defined as wife or mother. This housewife is the embodiment of divine wisdom and is the ideal for all human beings. She is free, capable, wise and loving, and the person who holds her entire household together. It is a rural extended family with servants, providing a host of opportunities for her to exercise her management skills. The rich and detailed description of her qualities goes far beyond advice about how to find a suitable wife.

Our Gospel from Mark 9.30-37 continues in some ways around the same kind of theme as last week. First off, we get to think some more about how Jesus, who was of one mind with God, needed to ask his friends “what were you arguing about on the road?” Here it is clear that he knew the answer that they did not want to give, because he answers their question – “who was the greatest” in the teaching that follows. Of course the answer is the same – it’s not a competition, but if you want to win, you must lose. Thus Jesus applies his now it seems regular teaching about his coming passion and death into the lives of his followers.

There is another rebuke here from Jesus like the one Peter got last week. This time it is dealt with in the gentlest way possible. Time is running short, and Jesus leads by example. He must have been aware of infighting among the Disciples about who was the greatest. It clearly wasn't an isolated incident: all the gospels refer to it, and this rivalry even continued at the Last Supper (Luke 22.24). By placing a child among them Jesus taught them that those who wished to be the greatest of all should seek to be the least and servant of all.

They clearly remembered their embarrassment at being asked by Jesus what they had been arguing about, instinctively recognising that they had been behaving badly. Jesus is quite radical in his assertion that greatness is to be found not in self-exaltation but in self-humiliation, not in seeking to be greater but in seeking to be less. Jesus of course embodies this in his own crucifixion and death; a point alluded to in the text itself (cf. Mark 9.31). It makes the point that God values humility and identifies himself with the least and the lowest.

I want to end by making three direct applications of this passage to our life as a church today.

The first one has been a long time coming but we are now in a position to begin preparing primary school age children for communion before confirmation; I will be liaising with Andy and Vicky to ensure that only the appropriate children attend the course of preparation, and we will sometime in the future hold a special service at which we will welcome them to Christ’s table in his name.

The second one applies to the listeners who will be commissioned at the end of today’s service. Listening is not a very high profile ministry, and so it doesn’t appear to be extraordinary, compared to say going to Bible College or working for Tear Fund in The Sudan. However, these listeners have responded to a call from God, they have been trained to listen and in that listening they will exercise a ministry among us and beyond the walls of church. You might not even notice it happening, but it will be there, in fact it already is there.

Following on from that I want to say a few more words about next week’s fete and harvest festival. We are going to be a small part of the village celebrations; it is not a competition to be the snazziest stall or the best thing there; we just want to make connections, to bring the message of the gospel to our community, and to offer people the chance to be prayed for. That is a bit of a scary thing; yet God is calling us to get out of our boat and walk with him; we can ask him now to anoint us afresh for the task, with his Holy Spirit.

Would you please stand.

Monday, 14 September 2009

In the name of the [grand] Father ...

I saw this and thought of Phil, who often reflects (though not always theologically) on Manchester Utd.

h/t Off the post, and a h/t to Phil for drawing my attention to them, although this act in itself is having a serioulsy detrimental effect on my work rate in the parish (only joking Archdeacon).

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Saturday, 5 September 2009

got my mojo working

I loved that expression I read at Get out of Jail free recently - about losing one's blogging mojo. I think that may have happened to me a bit recently. Strange, it's usually hard to get me to shut up! I've still been reading though, as most others seem to be in free flow at the moment what with Greenbelt, new Bible translations, diving footballers etc (Too lazy to link, just browse the blogroll on the left)
Possibly it's because this is a busy time of year for most of us, what with back to school, home groups and church meetings getting back into gear, etc, and so my mind has been a bit full.

On top of which I was ill last weekend - had to miss Sunday at the last minute which was in some senses a downer as I hate being ill, and haven't ever missed a Sunday through illness in 11 years of this gig, but in other ways it was reassuring and encouraging that so many people in our benefice, both licensed and "normal" can just step in and take over at one day's notice.

Momentous event today as our household grew to 5 with the return of our former foster daughter Tabitha (known as Tabz) to our home. She has moved in to get herself sorted and employed and road-legal. The kids think it's great that their big sister has moved in. They think it's for ever (3000 years said daughter S at supper) but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Someday (with her permission) I might tell you about how Tabz came to be living with us, and maybe even why she stopped living with us if I'm feeling particularly in need of catharsis.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

I'm happy hope you're happy too

Someone texted the BBC:

"Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Donald Bradman, Crocodile Dundee, Merv Hughes, Skippy the bush kangaroo, Kevin Rudd, Jason Donovan, Rolf Harris, Kylie Minogue, your boys took a hell of a beating!"

If you remember Norway beating England (at football) all those years ago then that text is funny. If not, well, just enjoy the moment.

The Snoopy quotation I was after online the other day was
"It's not whether you win or lose, but how cool you are"
Of course, that bit of googling was going on on Friday afternoon when Broad was devastating the Australian middle order, so (being an eternal pessemist when it comes to English sporting achievement) at the time I hadn't seen the score and so I was expecting us to lose, but in a cool way.
For me the highlight of the Ashes is still Strauss' good sportsmanship in allowing the Aussies to substitute their injured 'keeper after the team sheets had been declared, when he could have made them play with 10 men early on in the series. That was cool.

collecting my thoughts about Libya and the US

This is the collect for today, Trinity 11

O God, you declare your almighty power
most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace,
that we, running the way of your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

And here is the full text of a letter from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III, to Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill.

Now, I have many friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic who were profoundly affected by the Lockerbie bomb. Some lost relatives, some knew their home town would never be the same again.

I also have some friends, acquaintances and family who have worked or are working in the prison system in England and in Scotland. It seems to me therefore in my limited understanding of this thing that the release of Al-Megrahi is being processed and interpreted by at least two different cultural mindsets and two different legal systems, which by implication may reflect two different understandings of God, his compassion and our calling to reflect that compassion in our attitudes.

The Scottish Justice Minister has replied to Mueller's letter stating (among other things) that compassionate release is part of the Scottish justice system, but that it is not part of that of the USA. Scotland can scream as loud and long as they like that this release was done in accordance with the rule of law. The US will never understand that because for them the rule of law means something very different, and given the propensity (not universal I know) for the death penalty, something a lot less compassionate and merciful.

Let's face it, if Mr Al-Megrahi had been tried and convicted in the States it probably wouldn't be cancer that killed him, but a lethal injection or an electric shock.

As for the "hero's welcome" he received, we would do well to remember the media-driven crowd-pulling affairs that occur at any airport when anyone of any repute is arriving. Then we can add into that equation the unpopularity of the States in Libya and the middle east generally.

Then again, the US doesn't tend to give heroes' welcomes to those who return from overseas action - from Gary Powers the downed U2 spyplane pilot (whose family had to wait 40 years to get his medals) to the (perhaps exaggerated by Stallone and co) rejection of Vietnam veterans, to the ungreeted caskets of dead US service personnel flown home during the Bush era from Iraq, so no wonder they disapprove of a few dozen enthusiastic family and friends and some enterprising flag salesmen the other night at Tripoli.

And one more thing, Al-Megrahi did not perpetrate the bombing of PanAm flight 103 (see, I can even write that without looking it up) alone. He is most definitely a scapegoat, and scapegoats are usually prized for their effectiveness in assuaging the guilt of those who are supposed to stop this kind of thing happening. Isn't that one of the reasons the English legal system struggled with the release of Ronnie Biggs?

I (?we) understand power to be properly exercised in showing mercy. Mr Mueller and possibly even Mr Obama seem to understand power to be properly exercised in shows of strength and bullying, and in the throwing out of the pram of toys when things don't go their way. Dare I say that ++KJS and the ECCUSA shares that understanding ...

Friday, 21 August 2009

that's me in the corner [if cricket was a religion!]

I was looking online for a quotation from Snoopy that I once got in a birthday card a long time ago from an ex-girlfriend, which is going to be the basis of my post - Ashes post next week, and I found this. Enjoy

I am 79% loser. What about you? Click here to find out!

I can't be that much of a loser as I have at least managed to get the embedding code to work (kind of)!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Vicar's letter to the readers of the village magazines, September 09

Dear Friends,
Did you know that Christian discipleship is like Horse Whispering?

If you are now thinking about Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas, whoa there! I’m talking about the real horse whisperer, Monty Roberts, who is world famous and even trains the horses of Her Majesty, the Queen. To get to the point of this illustration I need to give you a bit of background.

Monty Roberts grew up as the son of a horse-breaker in the desert of the Southern USA. His father’s method of training wild horses was to tie them to a post and scare them until they submitted to his control. Monty watched his father, and the wild horses, and he noticed two things; firstly, that his father was using essentially the same method to bring him up, and secondly that there was a better way of communicating with horses.

He observed that a horse wishing to join a herd went through a long process with the dominant mare of the herd, which amounted to a series of invitations and challenges, communicated with movements of the head and body. These invitations and challenges, Monty realised, could equally well be given to a horse by a human. He imitated the gesture and posture of the horses and found he could very quickly get them to trust him and relate closely to him. Apparently the longest it has ever taken him to get a saddle and rider on to a wild horse is 16 minutes.

So what’s that got to do with Christian discipleship? Well, firstly we need to acknowledge that in the past the worldwide church has behaved like Monty Roberts’ father in scaring people into submission and obedience. I want to assure you, if you still had any lingering doubts, that we don’t do it like that any more! God is not a horse breaker; he is a horse whisperer, giving us loving invitations and gentle challenges through life, to draw us into close relationship with him. Just as Monty Roberts effectively became a horse to communicate with horses, God became a human in Christ so that he could show us how much he loves us.

And secondly, the church now functions as a whisperer, not a breaker. I hope you know you are invited – to come and be heard, to come and be part of something. Yet, if all we ever did were invite people, we would just be a cosy huddle, instead of a vibrant community of faith. Invitation then goes hand in hand, in church life as in horse whispering, with challenge. What do I mean by that? Well, people who’ve been church members all their lives are still on a journey of discovery, learning more from day to day, week to week, about God and what it means to be a Christian. That challenge is open for everyone, no mater whether they’ve never been to church or have been going for 90 years!

Invitation and challenge; we are aiming for a careful balance between the two, because if all you ever got at church was challenge, you’d soon be discouraged, but if all you get is invitation, you’d soon be bored. But with the right amount of both, the result is an empowered Christian community, on a journey of discovery together.

I look forward to journeying with you this autumn


Concerto for a rainy day

Finally getting round to reflecting on the teaching and worship at New Wine LSE. I've been whining about the weather for long enough and something has got to distract me from keeping looking at the cricket score today!

I spent the mornings in Venue 2 which is smaller and louder but more relaxed and informal than Venue 1. I liked the fact that normal people, not just New Wine leadership team members, are deemed suitable to pray at the beginning of each session. Mike Breen was the speaker all week. He was reflecting a lot on discipleship, comparing it usefully to Horse whispering (you'll have to download the talks, or read my steal) and giving some really good insights into the significance and typology of the Abrahamic covenant, relating the story of Isaac's "sacrifice" to the sacrifice of Christ and saying some helpful things about the whole PSA debate.

Mike speaks with humour and with speed, but is entertaining enough that when you disagree with him (as I did about bishops) you don't get too cross and keep listening.

In the evenings I joined the herd at Venue 1, which had a variety of speakers. Amy Orr-Ewing was very good, though not exclusively because she was a woman under 50 on the stage at Venue 1 in New Wine (next step an ordained woman - come on you people!)

Michael Duncan blew me away with his testimony and his challenge to men to "step out". I haven't gone forward for prayer at New Wine for about 5 years - that day it was twice - once in the morning at venue 2 for over-burdened ministers , once in the evening at venue 1 for men. Mark Melluish said something very significance during the build up to the prayer ministry following Michael Duncan's talk.

He said (quoting as I remember it) "It's not very politically correct, but I think a lot of women have been waiting for this for a long time, I'd like only women to pray for these men as they come forward". The significance of this, in the light of various debates about New Wine's attitude to gender roles and ministry, is that women were freed to pray over, prophesy over, and speak with authority into the lives of men. OK its not quite the same as the ordination thing but for me it was a significant shift, and it was liberating.

Mark Melluish also spoke very movingly on the last night about the events in his family following his son's serious head injury earlier in the year. This was also a significant evening, touching as it did on issue such as the tension between what happens when God heals and when he doesn't, as well as giving a challenge to our middle class comfort zone when it comes to sharing faith in multicultural environments like ITU family rooms.

The worship this year was also good I enjoy Eoghan Heaslip (aka Shaka Hislop because I can never say his name right) and Kathryn Scott made a nice change. Matt Redman's looking a bit chubby these days but can still cut it, and also in venue 2, Bill Donoghue and Nick Herbert woke me up well in the mornings.

I didn't go to many seminars this year as I spent more time networking and drinking free coffee in the Leaders' Lounge, but I wasn't going to miss "Building an Outward focused church" led by Alan Scott from Causeway coast vineyard. It was ace, and once you've translated "vineyard" to "Anglican" in the cultural references, it was most useful. The most challenging thing he said in the light of the fact that we've just put together our vision statement, was that "If no one is leaving your church, your vision statement is too broad". I guess I'm ambivalent about the Vineyard tendency to say "if you don't like it you know where the door is", but sometimes I wish I could say it!
Other highlights included the good old Groundbreakers family celebrations, and my daughter on stage with the New Wine kids choir. And of course staying up late in the gazebo talking with the gang.
Next year we might try Newark, to see if we can tempt a few more of this lot to come.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Eat what you're given

This was my sermon today, on Ephesians 5, 15-20 and John 6, 51-58.

It is a strange but nice co-incidence that as we are adapting to the imposition of a different way of taking communion, the readings this week give us the opportunity to reflect on drinking wine, and on the theology of communion as a whole!
The beginning of Ephesians chapter 5 reminded readers that they should be imitators of God (Ephesians 5.1) and offered practical advice on living in the body – the church. This passage is in the same vein. It offers two contrasts – between foolish and wise behaviour (vv. 15-17) and between being filled with wine and filled with the Spirit (v. 18).
For the Ephesians as for us Wisdom contrasts with the foolishness of the godless environment that is the world around us. Wisdom here is more about a whole attitude to life in Christ than an abstract concept or intellectual achievement. The core value of wisdom is that Christians should not wander aimlessly through life or behave as if they were in a moral stupor. There was for the Ephesian church a constant danger that Christians might be fooled by the attractions of the present age. The times required people to be cautious.
In one sense, nothing has changed. I wonder how much we differ from our neighbours who are not sitting next to us this morning. Do our lives from Monday to Friday reflect what we do and say on Sunday? I suspect they do, but we might not even be aware of why this is. There was in the early church a belief that evils increased as the end of the world neared –Mark 13 is an example of this. Wisdom was to be gained and accessed through discerning God's will (v. 17). The church is the principal means of carrying out this task of discernment. Yes, the Spirit speaks to individuals, and yes, the Bible or a hymn or poem can inspire the individual, but the Church (with a capital C to show I mean the universal church, not just our church) is the filter and sounding board and thinking space for these things.
Today there is also a feeling that things are going off the rails. Fed by media stories of crime and violence, of assisted suicide and of economic meltdown, it is sometimes hard for us to avoid thinking that there is an increase in evil in our world. Even in the Anglican Church things are looking a bit shaky; yet I am confident that in the Church of England at least, the corporate discernment of God’s will is still underway.
Paul’s second contrast in this passage is about alcohol, and about self-control, but the text continues to address the difference in moral attitude between the Christian and the non-Christian. Being filled by wine and being filled by the Spirit might both lead to singing, but there was and is a difference – in the first instance the alcohol is in control, in the second, it is the Spirit, when the Christian allows him control of their life. We have a glimpse here of the worship of early Christian communities who continued to sing the psalms of their Jewish heritage and added hymns and spiritual songs. There is no reason to suppose that the purpose of these verses was to address problems relating to the common meal of the community. They are making a pointed contrast rather than a targeted point. The note of praise and worship at the end of this passage is an important counter-balance to a view of wisdom that is worthy and dull. The wisdom that threw a party in the passage from Proverbs is the same wisdom that discerns the will of God.
Our second reading however is of course much more directly about communion. In the readings from John 6 set over the last two weeks, we have seen the unfolding of Jesus' understanding of himself as the bread of life, not just in a symbolic way, but in the flesh. We have also seen the desire of the crowd to keep the discourse about real (in their terms) bread so that Jesus would repeat his sign of feeding them. Now they were discussing how anyone could give their flesh to be eaten (v. 52). It was probably a heated discussion. What did Jesus mean exactly? Was this cannibalism – a charge frequently levelled against early Christianity? As people familiar with the Lord's Supper, Communion or Eucharist, we may be so familiar with the idea of eating the body of Christ that we find it difficult to understand how offensive this might sound to others. We can also become acutely aware of how entrenched our attitudes can become, to things like the cup, the nature of the elements and so on, or even about whether or not we should partake. This is one of my favourite Bible passages, and I would not be exaggerating to say that studying it totally transformed the way I understand and experience the grace of God in the Eucharist. However, I will try in what follows to avoid too much self-indulgence.
In John 6, verse 51, Jesus re-emphasises his claim to be the bread from heaven. Everyday bread has life-giving properties and the only way to get that nourishment is to eat the bread. In the same way, the only way to receive the life-giving potential of the bread from heaven was to eat. Does that mean we can’t truly be Christians unless we are communicants? That’s a tough question, and I would like to answer it gently and deliberately so as to challenge, but not exclude.
First a bit of background; John’s gospel dos not have a last supper account, as the others do, from whence we derive a lot of our communion theology, along with 1 Corinthians 11. Chapter 6 then is the main source of Eucharistic theology for this gospel. In it Jesus clearly identifies himself with the saving provision of God in Israel’s history – the manna from heaven. He also prophetically identifies himself with the elements of the Passover meal that tell of Israel’s deliverance. Thus far, we are in the same territory as the other gospels. John 6 is a little bit more mystic, yet we should always read it in the light of the other three.
Read in isolation, and without care, it can appear that this passage indicates that salvation is achieved through the consumption of bread and wine as body and blood at communion. That would be the conclusion of some scholars who understand this text to be a later insertion to justify and explain the origins of the Eucharist in the early church. However, we need to return to that concept of corporate discernment of God’s will; as a whole, the message of Scripture is not that salvation, our identity as Christians, or even our capacity for relationship with God, is a matter of eating and drinking bread and wine. It does say that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. Church practice entails that this faith is expressed by, but not entirely defined by, our participation in the Lord’s Supper.
Having said that, there can be no doubt that the eating of Christ’s body and the drinking of his blood are central to Christian faith and practice. In Church history there has always been a graduating tendency whereby the child, the newcomer or the new convert are gradually drawn into the Eucharistic fellowship. That is not to say (even if the impression is sometimes strongly given) that the catechumens – to give them their traditional name – are in any way less of a Christian than someone who’s been taking communion for decades. Let us remember that at the Last Supper, the denier and the betrayer shared the bread and the cup. It is therefore dangerous to presume that we know who should and shouldn’t take communion. Children, occasional attenders or people who for whatever personal reasons have decided not to take communion, are not a lesser part of the church.

What I think I’m trying to say then, in answer to my own question of a few minutes ago, is that not taking communion does not exclude you from being a Christian. However, being a Christian is about a journey together, towards God in Christ, and we as a church express that journey in our worship by partaking of the body and blood of Christ in the communion. We understand communion in the Anglican tradition as being among other things a means of meeting with God and receiving his grace, a means of reviving and encouraging our faith, and ultimately as an act of worship we were commanded by our Lord to do, in anticipation of his return. The Eucharist does define us, but I hope never in an exclusive way. So I hope to have fulfilled my promise not to exclude anyone; here comes the challenge.
John Wesley, when he was an Anglican minister, called the Eucharist “a converting ordinance”. His heart was strangely warmed by the exposition of Scripture, as I expect ours are too. Yet my heart is warmed by communion. I am so blessed to be your priest because I get to preside here – we all celebrate communion, let’s remember, I am just the president. My heart is warmed because it is where I meet with God, it is a big part of how my faith grows and is sustained, and mostly because I therefore know how much God loves me even though I do not deserve or understand why he should. Let’s be clear that you do not have to fully understand how communion works to be part of it; if that were true, none of us would be able to take the bread and the wine. Neither do you have to be perfect or even nearly so to take the bread and the wine.

I am blessed by those of us who come but do not partake; I just want to say that if ever anyone wishes to change their status from non-communicant to communicant, I would be equally blessed;
“Live not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity …”