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

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Sermon for 28th Feb, Little Saling and Stebbing

Readings; Genesis 15 and Luke 13, 31 to the end. I am endebted once again to rootsontheweb, but also Mike Breen for the stuff on the chopped upp animals.

We are asked only to trust that the God whom we seek will come to us at the right time. How he come is usually up to him, not us.

In Genesis 15 Abram, too, is charged not to be afraid but to expect the fulfilment of God's promises. Abram's righteousness is his trusting response. He takes courage and waits for the Lord.

Genesis 15 is the first of two accounts of a covenant between God and Abram. This chapter focuses on the two promises of descendants and of land. The covenant ceremony described here is an ancient ritual in which the two parties pass between the slaughtered animal sacrifices as a symbolic action of their meeting and agreeing, accompanied by the threat of the fate of the slaughtered animals to any party who violated the agreement. Of course Abram does not see God here but the passing of the brazier and blazing torch between the pieces of the sacrifice show God’s commitment to the covenant. So in fact the emphasis is on God's action and responsibility.

God passes through the animals as fire and smoke as Abram sleeps. The important thing happened when Abram could not participate actively, he could only receive (presumably in a dream or vision) God’s promise. Abram’s deep sleep recalls Adam's, from earlier in Genesis when God created a partner from Adam’s rib as 'flesh of my flesh' (Gen 2.23). These two similar episodes show how human frailty is never a barrier to the plan of God, which for us I hope is a comfort!

The moving flame and smoke anticipate the cloud of fire that will lead the people through the wilderness back to the land promised to Abram. Even though that is a long way off, God’s purposes are already becoming clear to the reader. Abram is still passive; his part is only to trust that, despite present appearances – a childless nomad, God will fulfil the promise for the future of a land and a people to settle it. Abram does believe, and is not afraid. His trusting response is the righteousness recognised by God.

Our language differentiates between trust and belief; others, including the biblical languages do not; but for the purposes of what God is asking of Abram and of us, to trust is to believe. Even the English translations of the Bible vary in their rendering of verses like John 14 verse 1, some have believe, others have trust. We just need to get used to reading one word and understanding (and doing) two things.

And it is a subtle yet important difference that informs the faith of today’s church, or perhaps more accurately the faith of those who do not attend church.

Because to be a Christian is so much more than just to acknowledge that God exists, which is the question that people are usually answering on census forms and the like, giving the figure of 70% or whatever it is; it involves putting our faith – our trust – in God; not in the vicar, not in the building, not in the liturgy nor the music, but in him.

That is what Abram courageously did, and it is significant that he did it from a position of weakness and uncertainty; he did not think he would have any children, but God promised him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and reminded him that he was the same God who had called him onto this journey from Ur in the first place.

Perhaps it was this reminder that prompts Abram’s faithful response to the Lord, but as we saw, he still has it in him to ask God a question – how can I know for sure you are going to get me this land?

God’s answer is the covenant ritual, and the promise that the people would return to the land, but that it would not be plain sailing. Abram’s courageous faith will need to be passed on to his descendants to accomplish this.

Genesis 15 is about a covenant that starts the story of Israel. Luke 13 on the other hand, is the point when Jesus’ focus shifts to his part in the sacrifice that will inaugurate the new covenant. He now is the one who takes courage as he goes on his way to die in Jerusalem. He must wait for God until the time of his own coming in the name of the Lord.

Just as God and man met in the covenant with Abram, as they both passed through the sacrifice, so also on the cross, Jesus, both God and man, passed through the sacrifice, but as victim rather than priest. So the two covenants have much in common. Both are designed to define a future for God’s people.

Herod Antipas is a 'fox', one of those that ruin the vineyard that is God's beloved Israel (Song of Solomon 2.15, Isaiah 5.1). Jesus continues to announce the prophet's good news for the people of God. The conflict will come to its climax in Jerusalem, at God's 'house', where the cherubim's sheltering wings will give way to those of Jesus, outstretched like a mother hen to include the whole cosmos in his love. He is on his way to Calvary and will be faithful until his death. By the 'third day' he will have finished his work and the world must wait for the God who will raise him to life as the one who will come in the name of the Lord.

And as we wait we too need courage, for just as Abram and Christ’s disciples lived with uncertainty, so do we. Lent is a time to reconsider the resources we have to fule that courageous faith; the scriptures, the traditions and wisdom of the church both now and in the past, and of course supremely our relationship with God in Christ.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

and I think I better think it out again

I'm getting ready for meetings with my first couple of consultees as a Ministry Development Review consultant. In tandem with that, recent events here and elsewhere have also got me thinking again about my leadership style.
Not sure I could pull off this approach, but loved it anyway (h/t anneDroid a prison chaplain)

NB those reading this on facebook, I posted it through blogger and so have not broken my fast!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Candlemas sermon throughout the benefice

This sermon was preached three times yesterday, with various local additions depending on the church
The readings were Malach1 3, 1-5 and Luke 2, 22-40. I got the poem and some of the commentary from Roots.

Poem for Candlemas

by Susan Skinner

A candle flame floats

on the mind's eye:

A light from long ago

when old churches breathed

the sound of plain chant

in Rembrandt shadows.

The burnished flame holds

its shadow cone and burns

our winter days to spring.

As we meditate

its gold becomes a flower

of light that drinks the dark.

Now the flame sits

like a silent priest

in a long robe.

True to itself,

it bends but does not lose

its shining shape.

We pray to sit lightly

on our days and find

the shape of God's truth.

Our breath holds his movement,

Our mind holds his silence,

Our heart holds his light.

Luke emphasises the devout Jewish background of Jesus. His parents bring him to the temple and observe the usual ritual for their own purification. The old title for this event was 'The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary' and it is now celebrated as Candlemas or the Presentation of Christ at the Temple, as the idea that women need to be purified after childbirth is now outmoded. These three names reflect three strands in the celebration;

• looking back to the nativity, in thinking about Mary’s first visit to the Temple following the birth of her son.

• looking forward to Easter, as we are reminded in the words of Simeon of the ultimate purpose of Christ’s coming

• and looking at our present situation; at this time of year there are a few shoots of green, snowdrops and daffodils start to emerge, but we will still benefit from the reminder of Christ the true light – for revelation to the gentiles and for the glory of God’s people.

That’s the link to candles, which traditionally would be blessed on this day. Our churches are now lit with electricity so the candles’ only purpose is to point to Christ. The main point of the narrative from Luke 2 is that the infant Jesus was brought to the place of worship by his parents and was recognised as Messiah by Simeon and Anna, two venerable, old saints. The beautiful prayer of Simeon has become standard in the church. It is worth noting the gender balance of this passage. The parents are mentioned together and of the old saints, one is a man, and the other a woman.

For me this gives a great picture of how the church should be today, men and women, young and old (let’s not forget Mary was quite likely to have been a teenage mother), together in the presence of Christ, sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings and worshipping God in awe. Most importantly, even though they were living in a country occupied by an invading force, in relative poverty, they were free to worship as their faith prompted them to. Confident and free.

And we are too! We can be confident that we will not be arrested just for being a Christian. Every now and then the media puts out a scare story, as this week with the vote in the House of Lords concerning the equality bill, but actually our Freedom in Christ is more important than our social or political freedom. In this culture, it is often hard to distinguish between the two, as many of the traditions of our nation derive from our Christian heritage.

As Anglicans we sit somewhere in the middle of national tradition and faithful discipleship, taking I hope the best from both of these worlds, and helping them, in our mission, to meet fruitfully.

Candlemas is a good time to consider being in the middle, as we are at the midpoint between Christmas and Easter; it is also a good time, thinking about freedom, to remember that Freedom in Christ is not the same as uniformity. So that’s where we’re going with this. The Christian way is not usually described in a positive sense as one of compromise, but our freedom, and our position in society work together to mean that if we share a vision, a common desire to see the kingdom come, to see the light revealed to the nations, we are promising together – com-promise – to walk in the way of Christ.

I was talking with a fellow priest this week who described to me how he came to see the importance of allowing Christians to grow as they need to, not as he wanted them to; he described watching his child playing with a toy in which different shapes had to be pushed through different holes. Of course the star shaped piece won’t fit through the circular hole, and the square piece won’t fit through the triangular hole. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you have to be the same as every other Christian. You have your own shape, and so do I. The important thing is to realise that shape and not try to be something or someone we are not.

Simeon and Anna were particular people with particular expectations, all met in their encounter with Jesus, because they were waiting for him. But their responses are different.

Simeon’s expression of praise starts from himself – he knows his life is drawing to a close as the messiah he awaited had arrived – and widens in scope to include the whole world. Anna however has had a selfless life of waiting, but her response is directly to Jerusalem. Two different shapes, if you will, of response to Christ.

So what is your shape? Do you know which hole you fit in?

If you’re not sure, return to the last stanza of the poem we started with

We pray to sit lightly

on our days and find

the shape of God's truth.

Our breath holds his movement,

Our mind holds his silence,

Our heart holds his light.

The shape of God’s truth is a cross.