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

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Harvest and Baptisms - what they have in common

This was the sermon today at St Mary's Stebbing, where 200 people came to share in a Harvest celebration with 4 baptisms. I went to all the parties afterwards including the harvest lunch  ...

You’re probably wondering what Harvest Festival and baptism have got in common. I hope so anyway, because that is what my talk is bout.

I think there are 7 things that link the two.

1.     Celebration – both Harvest and Baptism are an opportunity for the Church and the community to celebrate together.
2.     Thanksgiving – they both involve a thank you – to God and to others. We thank God for these lovely children just as we thank God for the provision of food in the harvest. We also thank the Farmers for their hard work, and we also thank the children’s families and godparents for the support they have given.
3.     Dedication or offering. There is a sense in which parents and godparents who bring the children for baptism are offering them to God – beginning their relationship with his church. At harvest too we bring an offering – this food is dedicated to God, as we share it with those in need, so that those who receive it may know God’s love.
4.     Blessing. A big part of the baptism is to ask God’s blessing upon the children and their parents and godparents. A big part of Harvest is asking God to bless the work of those who till the soil and raise the herds, as well as our desire to bless others by sharing what we have.
5.     Family. Baptisms are great family occasions – for the immediate families of the children, and also for the family of the church, who have such an important role to play in praying for these children as they grow in faith and understanding.
6.     Love. We bring children to baptism because we love them and we want the best for them, and we celebrate Harvest as an expression of God’s love for us in providing for us and for those in need.

And 7.  My final point is that this is about trusting God for the future – its about the next generation. Even as we speak the fields and orchards are being prepared for next year’s crop. We trust the farmers to do what needs to be done, and we trust the weather forecasters to try to get it right. When we bring children for baptism we are trusting God that they will indeed grow up to take their place within the life and worship of the church. Its all about a new start.

So whether you are here for baptisms or harvest, celebrate, give thanks, bring your offering, receive a blessing, enjoy your family and know God’s love.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Sermon about Pink Floyd, Ezekiel, Phil Steer and Jesus (and I forgot to mention, Darth Vader.)

Here is Today's Sermon. The readings were  Ezekiel 2, 1-5 and Mark 6, 1-13. 

Friends I must confess a terrible sin to you.
The sin of singing in public while wearing my iPod headphones.

No one has as yet actually found me out as I do it early in the morning while walking the dog, but I do feel better for having got it off my chest. This week I have mostly been belting out this as I stride across the fields.

You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
And I have become
Comfortably numb

Those words from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” are out of context here, but I include them in today’s talk about prophecy because they express what I feel is a big problem in the church in the Western world. We think we have outgrown the need for prophecy, and we have largely lost touch with the part of us (perhaps our childlike nature) that could interface with God as Ezekiel did.

There are lots of things in the Bible that Jesus does that amaze people and today’s gospel reading is just one – the people in the synagogue at Nazareth (or possibly Capernaum, depending on where you think ‘his hometown’ refers to) were amazed by Jesus’ teaching. But have you noticed that there is only one thing in the whole of the New Testament narrative that amazes Jesus – their lack of faith. Now I know that Darth Vader was right when he said ‘Your lack of faith disturbs me’.
We have a lack of faith, and today’s readings give us a window into why that is, and what we might do to fix the problem. I would like to be able to amaze Jesus with something other than my lack of faith. How about you?

In the Bible, being a prophet is not much fun. Almost all of the Old Testament prophets including Moses, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, try to come up with excuses as to why God should in fact not call them but someone else – I’m too young, too sinful, I can’t speak properly, I think you want my brother Aaron, and so on. As their stories unfold it always turns out God made the right choice in the end. So if you do feel called to be a prophet, hang in there!

Ezekiel is however given a bit of encouragement in chapter 2. Not only in that he did in fact hear God speaking directly to him, but also in that God says to him that even if the people reject the message he brings they will know that a genuine prophet of God has been among them, so he should not be afraid to speak God’s words to them. Jesus’ own teaching in Mark 6 also implies that prophecy is a tough gig, with the famous quotation about prophets being without honour in their hometowns.

And just as in Bible times, being a prophet today is not without its hazards. I will freely admit that I have never aspired to be the kind of person that God instructs to go up to a stranger and tell them to address the issues of adultery in their life, as happened to John Wimber on a plane many years ago. I am you see, like most of us would be, fearful of the consequences. However I have recently become convicted that I do not speak up for God enough, so today I am preaching to myself as much as to you. Prophecy is God’s gift to the church. If I give you a present and you leave it on the shelf, how will I feel when I pop round for tea? It’s the same with the gifts God gives us – they are meant to be used.

In Mark 6 the people are amazed at Jesus’ teaching, but they, like the western world today, immediately try to analyze him and rationalize the situation – “Isn’t this Mary’s son, and the brother of James Joseph Judas and Simon?” Especially in our 24-hour news channel society, nothing can happen these days without someone immediately trying to explain it.

So the world has a problem, which is that they think they can either do without or explain away the word of God. The church has a twofold problem, because we are often unable to hear what God is saying, and we are too timid to speak it out if we do hear it .
I believe that if Christians can fix the Church’s problem, then the world’s problem will be more easily fixed.

This is about communication isn’t it?
I read a quotation this week from “A History of proper English” by Henry Hitchings:
‎"The devices we now use to communicate promise greater immediacy, but they can make depth seem shallow, intimacy alien, transparency opaque. [...] Being 'always on', perpetually connected, compromises our ability to be reflective. We are saturated with information, and that makes it harder for us to know our selves."

Roger Waters sang (rather better than me)“You are only coming through in waves, your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying”. It seems possible to me that the more we communicate with each other – by text email Facebook twitter and so on – the harder it is to hear what God is trying to say to us directly. Let’s be clear, I know we would say God has spoken to us if another person said or did something that had a big spiritual resonance with us, but let us not forget that the New Testament church of which we are part was given the gift of prophecy – of God speaking directly to his people through individuals. – Its as if the airwaves are clogged with so much information and communication (a lot of it of dubious value) that God can’t get a word in edgeways.

But God says to Ezekiel “I will speak to you”. God wants to communicate with us, it is his intention to speak to us – its why we have the Bible and its one of the reasons why he sent us his Holy Spirit, so we should not make the mistake that many in the world and in parts of the church make – to assume God is not speaking any more.
How do we fix that part of our problem? I think it’s going to be about prioritizing our listening. I hereby resolve to spend more time in reflective prayer than I do on Facebook, and I will see whether the Lord can get through more easily. How about you? What device or connection might you turn off or down to be able to hear God?
Once we hear from God, our next problem is that we cannot bring ourselves to speak it out. We are uplifted by tales of treasure hunting – of seeking out people in the street to tell them a word from God, but for most of us that is something that someone else does. But why not you and me?

I think it is because we have become comfortably numb. Just as Pink in ‘The Wall’ is injected with painkillers to enable him to perform but severely limiting his perception, our comfortable and easy lives have effectively numbed us, preventing us from communicating properly with God and with our neighbour.
If you doubt me consider this; Christian communities such as those in Iraq, or Pakistan, or China, and other places where being a Christian can be an arrestable offence, are places where prophecy takes a very strong role in church life. Equally, in Africa, where home comforts for millions of people are a lot less comfortable than for us, the concept of community and neighborliness goes a lot further than it does even in our very close communities here. In those places, people are not numb to each other’s needs, nor are they so numbed that they cannot hear what God is saying.

As I have said, I think it is harder to communicate effectively because our means of communication have proliferated so much recently. We become immune to the images on the news of suffering elsewhere, so I thank God for things like Tear Fund or J1010 or even The Braintree food bank who bring these issues right before our eyes and challenge us on our own levels of comfort.

So I think we need to be more like the Ugandan or Chinese or Iraqi church – more dependent on God, less on our own strength, ability and prosperity. That way, just like Ezekiel who started with nothing, we are going to be in a better place to hear from God.
But I don’t think we should cease using the resources we have – they can mostly be deployed in the service of the Kingdom  (however I just don’t get Twitter).

Remember those words I have been belting out on my morning walk? At the end it goes 
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
so one possibility will be that to avoid losing the ability to process things we see out of the corner of our eyes – spiritually speaking – which are the things God wants to tell us about, is not to lose the child in us, to remain child-like.

This is not the same as babyish, but it does imply a dependence on someone other than ourselves – on our Heavenly Father. I am going to invite my old friend Phil Steer, who has written a book on this subject to come and speak to us about it sometime soon. For now I think it is enough that we begin to listen – if we aren’t already – for the voice that Ezekiel heard. The voice of the Spirit who gives the gift of prophecy to his church. I’d be very happy to have more people than just me or the usual suspects out here sharing what god has said to them.
We can also be assured that when we speak out what we hear from the Lord, even if it is rejected, ‘a prophet has been among them’.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Sermon for 29th April 2012 at LIndsell and Stebbing

Readings; 1 John 3v16-the end and John 10, 11-18

The other night at Deanery Chapter we had a guest speaker called Tim Bull who shared with us about his Ph.D thesis on genetics. Doesn’t sound riveting I guess but it was a very lively and informative discussion – and particularly blessed because not once all evening did anyone mention a church roof or money!

In the course of that discussion we (naturally) ended up talking about Jesus as the perfect ‘second Adam’ who lived a life that was good in the sense that word is used in Genesis 1 – good as in perfect, functioning as it was intended to. We also concluded (or at least I did) that the death of Jesus is part of the perfection of his life. His brokenness is an integral part of his wholeness – as Tim Bull pointed out, the risen Christ didn’t have scars on his body from the cross, he still had open wounds. Clearly God’s idea of perfection and ours are sometimes different. The cross, including all the suffering, the blood and the torture, is part of the perfect life lived by Jesus. His body, though broken, still lived the perfect sinless life.

I mention this because I think we need to ensure we move away from 2 pervading current ideas. One, that the death of Jesus on the cross was in some way an accident that God had to redeem, to sort out or fix up, and two, that the death of Christ on the cross is in some weird sense the actions of a cruel and vicious God, deliberately and vindictively harming his son.
 In fact the cross was always part of the plan, and it was always an expression of love. That’s the heart of both our readings today, and it must be the heart of Easter, the heart of the gospel.

In his self-referential teaching on the Good Shepherd in John 10, Jesus sums it up nicely; ‘The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again’. Some people – even some Christians, will tell you that the cross as a sacrifice cannot be the action of a loving God, but here we have it in Scripture that the death as Resurrection of the Son are intimately linked to the love of the Father. No the vindictiveness of a cruel God.

John 10 verse 18 tells us that Jesus, though he was in anguish, proactively chose the path of the cross because that is what his heavenly Father asked him to do.
1John 3v16 echoes those words of Jesus “this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”

Jesus speaks quite openly and candidly about his death; it is not an accident. God is in control the entire time – he simply chose not to indicate as such, until ‘it is finished’ and the empty tomb leave Satan defeated.

It has been very moving this week to read of the huge amount of money donated to the online fundraising page of Claire Squires since she collapsed and died approaching the end of the London marathon last weekend. When she started the race the total was round £400. Now it is nearly £1million. A clear understanding seems to have developed among the public that Claire sacrificed herself to the benefit of her chosen charity – the Samaritans, and so to mark respect for her, people have donated to them in her memory. In the end, her death, though tragic, will lead to an improvement in life for many.

But Claire’s death was accidental, unplanned, unexpected. She did not begin the marathon knowing she wouldn’t finish. It is however true that she willingly chose to do it. Willingly is an important word when it comes to this question of whether God the Father is cruel and heartless to sacrifice his son. If Christ were not willing, then the answer might well be yes, God is cruel and heartless to put his own Son through that ordeal. But Jesus was willing – just as so often he was willing to heal, deliver love and include people during his life, in his death he was willing because he knew all along that it was the ultimate act of love.

The ultimate, in the sense of the one that cannot be bettered. Claire Squires’ fundraising total continues to go up, the contributions brought on through the outpouring of grief and admiration have considerably bettered her initial fundraising efforts.
But it doesn’t matter how much we praise Jesus, how much we worship him, thank him, love him and serve him; what he achieved on the cross can’t get any better. It doesn’t need to, as it was a once for all sacrifice. It was an event in history that has eternal consequences.

Salvation from sin, and the opportunity therefore to be in the presence of God, to know intimately his love for us and his guidance and direction for our lives.

One thing we can learn from Claire Squires is the importance of self giving in the service of others. The money she aimed to raise was not for her it was for the Samaritans. As Christians who are engaging in the transformation, under the authority and in the power of God, of our community, we need to keep foremost in our minds the fact that this is not for us, it is for God. A man’s chief end is to glorify God, says the Westminster catechism. Our life as Christians is meant to point to God, just as Jesus’ life and death and resurrection did.

In closing let us return to the Good Shepherd, who told his disciples ‘ I have other sheep, I must bring them into the sheepfold’. Even as we focus on the fact that all this is for God, it is also for others, those who do not yet know him; the purpose of receiving God’s love is to share it.

Who will you share it with today, tomorrow, this week?