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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