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

Monday, 20 July 2009

Come on in ...

We're off to New Wine this week, with a small party from church ( I have to say that as the first thing vicars say to each other when they meet on the showground is "How many have you brought?")

Anyone else going to LSE who wants to get together can come and find this van on White 6

see you there
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Seermon for 19th July at Lindsell and Stebbing

The readings were Ephesians 2,11 to the end and Mark 6, 30 to 44 (I know, playing fast and loose with the lectionary, but what an empty reading if you stuck with the allocated gospel passage!)
Some material from rootsontheweb.

Today’s sermon might be titled “predestination, what’s all that about then, part 2, or, what does it mean to be untied in Christ?” I’m inspired mostly by international events, but if what I share with you helps us on a local level, all the better. The two things in my mind that kicked off this line of thought were the decision this week of the General convention of the TECUSA to overturn a ban on practising homosexuals in holy orders, and the decision of the Greek orthodox church to declare that other churches’ baptism is not valid.

The first part of chapter 2 of the letter to the Ephesians (vv. 1–10) had reminded readers of their liberation from forces beyond their control and their place with Christ. God's grace had saved them, not their own efforts. Today's reading moves on from that to reflect on the unity that Christ brings.

There was in Christ no division between people because of ethnicity, culture or religious background. Gentile believers were first asked to imagine themselves as they might be perceived from a Jewish perspective (vv. 11–12): they did not belong to the elect nation and had no hope. However, Christ has drawn them in (v. 13), not into the old religious context but into a new relationship of peace (vv. 14–18). Christ not only reconciles people to God, but also to one another. Assurance of this double reconciliation is a special contribution of Ephesians. Those who are predestined, then, are not passive but active in relating to each other within the Kingdom of God. In other words, being predestined is not just about sitting back and soaking it up, but about actively proclaiming the unity that has been wrought for us by Jesus.

Even if churches seem sometimes to go into meltdown, we can be assured that the more important body, the Kingdom, remains intact. Once again we a strong illustration of how God’s sovereign will overarches our human understanding of things like time; Paul exhorts his gentile readers to look back at what they were before they came to faith in Christ – and it is that faith in the blood of Christ that has brought them near to God. Yet for God, this perspective has no meaning, as both before and after their conversion he was with them and had chosen them. Their recognition of his choice, and their own submission to his rule and authority brings into effect the power of the Cross.

And the Kingdom, the new temple, the family of God, whatever we call it, is founded in order to bring about a unity among believers – a good thing to remind ourselves of this week.
Although the divisiveness of Old Testament legalism was abolished at the cross and resurrection of Jesus, says Paul in v. 15, the underlying values were not – verse 20 is clear that the prophets play a part in the foundation of the new covenant. Christianity was more than a reshaped Judaism, but God had not given up on the foundational ideals proclaimed under his inspiration. The final verses of the passage use some strong images. Christians are not aliens but citizens and are members of God's household (v. 19). Together they are built into a new temple (vv. 20–22). In this building image we can see a contrast between a dividing wall (v. 14), which kept people apart, and the new structure, which incorporated them and gave them all access to God. Buildings were important symbols of power and glory in the Roman Empire. This new structure symbolised a different reality. It is not a matter of architecture designed to dominate and rule, but of a united community all seeking to serve the cornerstone, Christ.

How we read chapters like Ephesians 2 will be affected by how we interpret the scope of the pronouns – I mean, who we understand the “you”, the “we” to be. If Paul is distinguishing between groups within the church, it is only to make the point that the work of Christ is to unite them. These people he refers to as “you” are not outside the church, they are simply not from a Jewish background – and yet God has chosen to include them in his family. So both we (the Jewish believers, from Paul’s perspective) and “you” – the gentile converts, are united by hope in Christ.

So that’s fine for the first century, but who are “you” and “we” today? If we are talking about different groups within the church, I guess worldwide you can take your pick as to what issue might be dividing God’s people. It isn’t circumcision any more, but it might be sacraments, sex, money, bishops or other aspects of legalism, such a fundamentalist attitude to and reading of the Bible. It might on the other hand be too liberal an attitude to traditional Christian morality. Locally it might be something trivial like those who like one kind of service and those who like another; those who like formality and those who prefer to get messy. Those who like pews, those who don’t.

But don’t spend too much time wondering which group you fit in, just remember that the unity of the church is not something we have to work for, it is something that has been done for us by the grace of God upon the cross of Christ.

The passage emphasises the work of Christ in making one humanity, with the abolition of the fundamental categories that divide people. It also removes the grounds for the division of the Church into multiple sects. Like I say, if you’re at all concerned about what you might be reading in the papers, just hold on to the truth that the Kingdom is not of this world but we are nevertheless citizens of it. And I’m pleased to say that this benefice is enriched by our diversity; we need to remember that the heart of Paul’s’ message to the Ephesians is that you do not have to be the same to be united.

There is a saying that you can choose your friends, but not your family; in the worldwide church right now it would be a good thing if that could be remembered. Of course, alongside it goes the sovereignty of God; churches might be fallible human institutions, but they contain those whom God has chosen. We might not get on with all of them, but they are God’s chosen people – and if we start saying, “no they’re not”, we run the risk of being excluded ourselves – but that’s another sermon.

The opening verses of our gospel reading carry on the story from the mission of the twelve (Mark 6.6b–13) which we looked at last week. We can imagine the excitement of the disciples jostling round Jesus, each wanting to tell their story. What a great picture of unity – all wanting to share, all excited about what Jesus has done in a d through them. That’s the kind of expression of God’s family, God’s chosen people, that I like.

Add to that the crowds attracted by Jesus and there was no space even to eat. Little surprise, then, that Jesus decided to take the Twelve off to a quiet place for debriefing and rest. This is the only time in Mark's Gospel that they are called 'apostles', perhaps emphasising that they were acting in their mission as authorised representatives of Jesus.

Then of course we come to the famous feeding of the 5 thousand. What more can be said about this? Well I’ve been wittering on for a while now so briefly, a few things resonate with me on the topic we address today from these verses.
First, and I’m sure I’ve said this to you before, though Jesus gets the credit for this miracle, it is the 12 disciples who actually have to turn and face the crowds with a few crumbly bits of food in a basket and start sharing them out. This is a picture of how the family of God should be – reliant on God, yes, but not passive, not backward in coming forward to take risks, so that others might have their needs met and so be drawn closer to God.

Second, it is important to note the context of this miracle; these people were not starving for food, but for leadership, for teaching, for knowledge of God; Jesus’ compassion is not initially there because they are hungry, but because no one has told them the good news - perhaps in contrast to those who received the ministry of the 12 in their recent mission. I will never rule out practical and social aid and development as a core part of the mission of the church, but let us not lose sight of the fact that what most people lack is a basic understanding of who Jesus is, and what he has done for the world. Like the disciples with their baskets of food, it is our task to meet that need.

And third, and finally, let us take courage from the tiny amount of resources Jesus used to meet an enormous need. We are a small Church in a small community, but we are God’s family, God’s people here, and we must trust that he will continue to use us for his work, even if we feel inadequate for the task.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Stebbing sporting calendar 09:3 Village vs church Cricket match

Last night, in typical English fashion, we played a game of cricket in the rain!

Thunder and hail greeted teams from the church and the village as we arrived at the cricket ground. The Barbecue was sizzling away, and meanwhile lots of um-ing and ah-ing went on during multiple pitch inspections by members of both teams and legendary groundsman Wal.

In the end we had the post-match barbecue first to see if the rain would stop, and then we agreed to play 12 overs each, on the practice wicket. The church batted first, and scored the mighty total of 95 for 8 (which is more than we scored last year in 20 overs without the rain!) Despite not having picked up a bat since last years' game I enjoyed myself at the (very muddy)crease, but only managed 3 runs. However, our youth group provided some excellent batsmen who amassed the grand total with great aplomb.

It may have been the lager supplied with the barbecue, but the village team, in spite of fielding some new signings, could only get to 83 for 5 off their twelve overs, in spite of the fact that during their innings the rain stopped! Once again our youthful bowlers did the damage; many runs were scored by the village team due to the inability of the more senior fielders to throw the ball to the stumps from anywhere beyond square leg!

It had been pointed out that the church last won this game when the vicar was umpiring and the vicar's wife was scoring, but that was before our time, and I can confirm that no skulduggery was involved. Here are some more photos to prove it!

Monday, 13 July 2009

Sermon for Stebbing and Lindsell, Trinity 5

I've rather let my sermons blog go cold, perhaps in anticipation of podcast capability on the imminent but as yet unlinkable-to new Stebbing Church website. However this sermon took a lot of effort to write and deliver so I thought I'd stick it here.

The readings were Ephesians 1, 3-14 and Mark 6 14-29. The background to the opening remarks is that I had just announced 2 deaths, one a teenager with brain cancer.

On the face of it I think you might excuse me, had I decided to choose a gospel reading other than the one we have just had, especially after the news we have shared this morning. However, I do believe that the lectionary is there for a reason, and we have been working our way through Mark’s gospel, so I decided to continue. You might also be wondering what I can say to connect these two readings together, and build up our faith.

Well, they are both about power; not necessarily the same kind of power or the same attitude to power, but power connects them.
Ephesians 1, 3-14 is a prayer of blessing and praise of our powerful God. The blessings received by the recipients of the letter come from God, their greatest benefactor, who consistently works for good and offers salvation through Christ. He may appear distant when described as the ruler of the universe but we know he is near to us as the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so also our father.

These verses introduce some themes that run through Ephesians – the relationship of God to the universe, the holiness of God's people and the joy of redemption. The passage includes the astounding claim that, in the end, all 'things in heaven and things on earth' will be brought together in Christ (v. 10 – compare this with Colossians 1.20 which says, “through him [that is Christ] to reconcile all things to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through h s blood shed on the cross). This stretches our imagination beyond our limited horizons, and ultimately shows us how far the power of God can go. It also helpfully focuses our attention on the fact that the power – or for that matter the love – of God is most clearly expressed in the cross of Christ
We can read this passage in three ways.
The first is chronological: the Father's original and eternal purpose was worked out in history through Christ and realised later in human experience. It moves not only through time but also from the universal to the personal.
Secondly, we may opt to see it liturgically. The poetic features of the passage indicate that it may have been adapted from an early Christian liturgical format. The pattern is Trinitarian – the Father chooses his people, Christ the Son brings redemption and the Spirit works that out in God's people.
Thirdly we may see it as disputational. It may have been written or compiled to counter claims of Jewish believers that they were superior to non-Jews who had come to faith in Christ: the choice and the power to redeem rests in God, not in the believer. There’s that word again, power. God has the power to redeem humanity, whoever we are, whatever we have done.

These three approaches are not mutually exclusive. We live in Christ because of God's choice. The passage speaks of God's eternal purposes with words like 'chose' (v. 4), 'destined' (v. 5 and v. 11) and 'adoption' (v. 5). There are none of the negative aspects of election. God's choosing is to be celebrated as an act of generosity and love.
Let me just spend a little moment on the concept of predestination. Millions of words have been written and preached about it, especially based on verses such as these. Not all of it has been helpful, and so I digress slightly from the theme of power.

I want to say that it is good to know that God has chosen us, that he knew us before the creation of the world and he has a purpose for us; this is a foundation of our trust in God, even when things seem horrible.

But we must not let our predestination – our chosen-ness, make us complacent; I have often felt that the strange complexity of predestination is well summed up by the Matt Redman song “I found Jesus”, in which we sing “I was lost but Jesus found me, I found Jesus”. It may be true that God chose us, but we still have to choose him; he has worked out our salvation in Christ, but that is ineffective in our lives until we respond to him and are open to his transforming power. In the same way sometimes I feel that the church can be infected with complacency in mission by thoughts of predestination – I guess logically one might conclude that if we were chosen then that’s all great, everyone else will be chosen too, we don’t have to worry about it.

But of course the great thing about predestination is that it is not exclusive. Everyone who hears and responds to the message of God’s love in Christ finds himself or herself included among the chosen. We read that in verse 13. There is no fixed list, with God ticking off names until he gets to the end; rather, he is joyfully adding to the list those who he knew all along would be choosing Christ. Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we Anglicans do not believe that that hypothetical list in finite.

The power of the cross was not just for a select band; that power has the potential to save every human; the fact that some are perishing is an indictment of the church, not a sign of the cruelty of a selective God.

So we rejoice in the power of God, but let us not be complacent and keep it to ourselves; God is waiting for us to help others choose him. That’s what our vision process has been about, and from what I’m hearing and seeing, it is already beginning to bear fruit.

So, you’re wondering, what on earth is he going to say about the death of John the Baptist?

Well, here we see how people abuse power; this is an example of learning by saying, “don’t do that …”

Herod and his completely dysfunctional family have obtained a degree of political power, though they are effectively puppets of the Roman regime. Perhaps because of this Herod likes to throw his weight around and pretty much takes what he wants – even his brother’s wife.

He’s not completely without redeeming features, though, for the text suggests John was in protective custody to prevent Herodias from having him killed. Clearly, the Baptist’s ministry had reached his ears and he liked to listen to him, we read. But actually we need to remember that this episode is in effect told in flashback, because now the ministry of Jesus and his disciples has come to his attention. People were saying Jesus was John risen from the dead, so we then get Marks’ account of how John came to die.

In the preceding paragraphs we read that Jesus' ministry was being extended through the mission of the Twelve so it was not surprising that he came to the attention of Herod. The parallels between Jesus and John obviously touched a raw nerve with Herod – was this John come back to disturb him? Significantly, in verse 16, when Herod says, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” it is not a question, it is a statement – he obviously believes it to be true.

We can see in Mark's account some parallels with stories in the Jewish Scriptures – e.g. Elijah and Ahab (1 Kings 17 and 18) with John playing Elijah and Herod and Herodias as Ahab and Jezebel. John did not just suffer the consequences of his bold preaching; he also fell foul of the sexual and power politics of the court. Herod, like many leaders before and after him, was willing to sacrifice others in order to maintain his own prestige, honour and power. This stands in stark contrast to the simplicity of life of the twelve in their mission.

In Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome”, which dramatises this incident, Herod says, on hearing of the possibility that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, “I will not allow this man to raise the dead!” This is a fine example of how humans think they can tell God what he can and can’t do. I read about that play on an Internet site discussing the dogmatic, even fundamentalist attitudes of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. They are so determined that Christianity cannot be true that they behave like Wilde’s Herod, and end up making ridiculous statements that show only their prejudice and none of their wisdom.

On the other hand, the sort of person we are most likely to encounter in our daily lives is more like the Biblical Herod than the fictional one. These are the people who have heard of Jesus, just as Herod had, and who might feel protective of the church, even the Christian faith, even as Herod enjoyed listening to John and protected him.
However, like Herod, they just don’t know the full story; Herod thought Jesus was John raised to life, and our neighbours and colleagues, even our family, may have similar misconceptions about the Christian story and the Christian faith.
Because we enjoy the kind of life in Christ that our first reading from Ephesians describes, ought we not to endeavour to overcome some of these misconceptions? Sometimes the first step on a journey of mission is to say, “Actually that’s not quite what happens”.

Let us then pray for confidence

Some material by Simon Oxley from www.rootsontheweb.com copyright © Roots for Churches Ltd 2009.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Jubilate Deo

Here are some photos from tonight's Celebration Service and Presentation of Certificates for the Course in Christian Studies, which was held at Chelmsford Cathedral tonight.

The first photo features Phil Ritchie (of Phil's Treehouse) and Sam Norton (of Elizaphanian) and me.

The second one is my CCS group.

Say say say what you want but don't play games with my affection

Competition: Which of these two is the most ridiculous thing to say?

Revd Al Sharpton (to Paris, Prince Michael I and Prince Michael II)

"There weren't nothing strange about your daddy."

Rt Revd John Broadhurst (to FCA launch) "Satan is alive and well and resides in Church House"

What planet are these people from? These are both free countries, you can say prettty much what you want to whomever you choose, but those speaking into microphones ought to engage brain before opening mouth.

Comment (without prejudice!) If a humble priest-in-charge said what Bishop Broadhurst said, he'd be in deep trouble,

and "nothing strange??? why'd he give us the same name then...?"

Saturday, 4 July 2009

You have all been beautiful [I wish...]

There are some things that wind me up, like this.
There are other things that encourage me, like this.
There are some things that just confuse me, and then there is Rock and Roll .