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

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.