The Lord stood by me and gave me strength

Patronal Festival Ss Peter & Paul 2018 and ending of Licensed Ministry
The final sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on 1st July 2018

2 Timothy 4:6-8; 17-18
Matthew 16:13-19

The time of my departure has come…..To Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen

Today is one of those occasions when the people of both our churches gather together; today we do so to celebrate the Patronal Festival of our parish – the occasion when we celebrate the lives of Peter and Paul to whom this glorious church is dedicated; and to reflect on what these two great giants of our faith have given to us and how they continue to inspire and inform our journeys – as individuals and as a community of faith.

I wonder what Peter and Paul would have thought had they been able to imagine ending up as saintly bedfellows in the church’s calendar. I like to think that in their better moments, they would have laughed uproariously!!

Why? Well, at first sight, these two remarkable people are not natural companions and have little in common.

One, was a Galilean fisherman with a deep understanding of the sea and the weather – his life after all depended upon it. He understood the nuanced signs within the waters indicating where fish might be found. It was hard physical work that demanded every ounce of strength and courage. He had no education in the formal sense as far as we know; his education from a small boy would have revolved around fishing: watching and listening to older family members and neighbours also engaged in fishing; learning to read the skies, the weather, the seas; learning to maintain the tools of his trade – mending nets and repairing boats.

The other, born at Tarsus to Jewish parents, and known originally as Saul, was also a citizen of Rome. He had a good education and studied under the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel at Jerusalem, developing an in-depth knowledge of the Jewish Law, knowing it intimately; he became a strict Pharisee, a man who lived according to each and every rule, and who, as a young man, was present and consented to the stoning of Stephen, and actively participated in the persecution of early Christians.

Yet both these men, so very different with such diverse backgrounds made their mark on the early church and their legacy of passionate, active faith, is handed down to us and celebrated together on this the anniversary of their martyrdom in about the year 64 AD during Nero’s savage persecution of Christians.

While Peter had walked the highways and byways with Jesus during his life, and indeed had been called by him along with the other 11 disciples, Paul did not.

Paul is the classic poacher turned gamekeeper. Zealous in his persecution of those early Christians known as followers of ‘The Way’ breathing, as Luke tells us in Acts ‘threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ (AA 9:1) until that encounter with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus. That experience, whatever it was, threw him to the ground, and he heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?……I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”. Blinded, he neither ate nor drank for three days (death of one life before resurrection into a new life??) but then the veil is lifted from Saul’s eyes, and he sees as if for the first time. Annanias, responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, takes an enormous risk demanding every ounce of his courage, fearful of Saul’s reputation and murderous rage. Yet he follows those promptings of the Spirit and finds Saul, stays with him and what follows in the intervening few days results in Saul’s baptism, marking a new beginning and a new journey with a new name.

Paul begins proclaiming the Good News, first in the synagogues at Damascus, before moving to Jerusalem. Only later did Paul’s mission to the Gentile world become clear, a mission that would take the Good News far beyond Jerusalem out into the further reaches of the Roman Empire through his preaching, teaching, building Christian communities and writing innumerable letters that have provided the foundation of so much of our theological understanding and doctrine. Paul’s understanding of the nature of God and what it means to live the Christian life have continued to inform our journeys – individually and as a community. Paul’s love of God revealed in and through Christ was born out of his deep thinking and intellectual understanding. In his writing we encounter some of the most profound teaching; but teaching not always easy to digest and understand. Furthermore, he was argumentative, arrogant, opinionated even, expressing views that continue to cause division in the church today, not least his views on sexuality.
But in all things, no matter how heated he may become, no matter how convoluted his arguments, one thing is clear: Paul understands and consistently proclaims that God in Christ loves each and every one of us, deeply, endlessly, freely. And as followers of Christ, we are in our turn, called to reflect this love, however imperfectly, in every aspect of our lives.

Peter knew that God loved him. And I always imagine that while Paul’s faith in Christ and love of God were born out of intellectual understanding, Peter’s was an emotional response born from the heart. He felt this love, experienced this love when he travelled with Jesus, listened to him teach, saw it in the healing miracles and in and in Jesus relationships with and compassion for the people that so many would regard as outcasts and not worth a second glance. And most profoundly, he experienced it in the forgiveness and understanding he himself received.
But Peter was also impetuous; constantly misunderstood or got it wrong and ultimately denied even knowing Jesus, not once, but three times.

Yet following the resurrection and during a breakfast of fish on the seashore, Peter was asked three times by Jesus – ‘Do you love me’. Three times Peter had denied; three times Jesus now asks ‘Do you love me’. Each time Peter answers the question, he earns not a pat on the back, but a new challenge ‘Feed my lambs…..Tend my sheep…..Feed my sheep’. It is time for Peter to be a shepherd to Christ’s own people.

Peter and Paul had their own, often strong disagreements, not least around the crucial issue to trouble the early Church – whether or not you had to keep the Jewish Law and be circumcised to be a Christian. Paul had publicly rebuked Peter at Antioch, condemning him for recanting his previous willingness to eat with Gentiles and accusing him of undermining the whole basis of Paul’s ministry and leading even Barnabas astray. It is clear from Paul’s letter to the Galations that they had a blazing row over the issue (Gal 2:11-14). And Peter, or someone writing in his name had a dig at Paul in the Second letter of Peter when he described Paul as writing things that are hard to understand and that people twisted in meaning! Mutual sparks were flying in the early church just as sparks continue to fly between the baptised people of God!

Yet is was these two deeply flawed individuals that God chose to be the Rock on which the church is built and to take the Good News out to the Gentile world; people who have continued to inspire others to be builders of the church, not the buildings of brick or stone, but the living stones that are the people, followers of Christ, the community built on the sure foundation of God’s love, the community that strives to build his Kingdom here on earth. And this is why we rejoice today and give thanks for these two great giants of our faith continue to inspire and encourage us, the living stones of this church community, imperfect though we are.

Brian was one of those living stones, with a deep love for God, and a passion for proclaiming that love through ritual, worship and prayer, through his faithful service within the life of this church and among all of us for more years than many of us can remember. We will miss him greatly.

This is the work we are all called to participate in using the gifts and skills assigned to us. When we begin our journey with God, we cannot know where it will lead any more than Peter or Paul knew; and we are not always willing followers. The Israelites moaned and groaned and I know that there have been times in my own journey when I have questioned, resisted and doubted; when I have not wanted to listen or to see where God was leading; when God has had to give me a metaphorical kick up the backside before the penny would finally drop! But weaving through it all were moments of incredible joy, moments that enabled me to glimpse those threads of gold and shards of light, glimpses of glory.

This year, this season of Petertide marks both the 30th Anniversary of my ordination to the Diaconate, and the day when my time among you as an Assistant Priest draws to its close. When I tentatively set out upon the road that has ultimately led me to this moment, a journey that began about 40 years ago with a conversation on the gravel path between the village in which I lived and its church, I never imagined in my wildest dreams how that journey would unfold through the years.

God has called me at different times to tend his sheep in different settings – small villages in Suffolk, then hospitals as a chaplain – first in Suffolk, later as Lead Chaplain here in Kettering General before guiding me to this remarkable community 18 years ago, initially to worship among you, then to occasionally preach or Preside, before becoming Assistant Priest on my retirement from Kettering General in 2009.

Through it all, God has constantly filled my life with joy, sustained me with his grace and his love; comforted me in moments of sadness or despair; strengthened me at times of weakness or utter powerlessness; His grace, love, comfort and strength revealed through Mike and our children, and the people and communities I have been called to serve. God has taught me much through the faith of others, including the people whose faith is different to my own; He has blessed me in unimaginably rich ways through the people He has called me to serve. All of you have given me so much, and in different ways have taught me about humility and love, constancy and faith …….. enabled me to glimpse the glory of God in our midst! We have cried together; we have laughed together; we have rejoiced, worshipped and prayed together and this morning I give thanks for all that God has given me through you, and the many people who have shared my journey through the years.

In recent days, and for different reasons, we have been reminded of the transience of all things, reminded that nothing stays the same, reminded of the importance of valuing each other in ways that enable them to know they are loved and appreciated; reminded that we are all on a journey, and there comes a moment when God calls, and our paths diverge. But endings and partings, though tinged with sadness, are also opportunities for new beginnings and new growth, resurrection moments. For we are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!!!

A new dawn beckons, full of possibilities – for you as a community and for me. So let’s give thanks for all that has been, let’s rejoice in all that will yet be, and embrace the adventure that God us in store, as we continue first and foremost to strive as shepherds to God’s people, using our prophetic voice to challenge injustice in all its forms, building His Kingdom here on earth after the example of Peter and Paul and indeed all the remarkable men and women of faith through the ages who give us hope and courage; because without exception they were as we are – people with the gifts God has blessed us with, but people who regularly mess up, get it horribly wrong, hurt those we love most and yet people through whom God works to his great and unimaginable glory, transforming our imperfect efforts, transforming our lives and building His Kingdom.

Now “The time for my departure has come. The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, to him be glory for ever and ever.” Amen.

“Whom shall I send”, asks God

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Trinity Sunday, 27th May 2018 at
Ss Peter & Paul, and St Michael and All Angels

Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
May I speak in the name of God, the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen

When I was ordained priest, a nursing colleague at the hospital where I was at the time Assistant Chaplain gave to me a small icon – a copy of Rublev’s icon depicting the Trinity. It shows three figures seated round a small table and on the table there is what looks like a wine goblet – or is it a chalice perhaps? There is a comfortable ease between the figures, a sense of a strong and deep relationship. The figures lean inwards very slightly, heads inclined to one another forming a circle but as you gaze on the circle, you notice that there is a space – open, inviting us to draw closer, to gather round the table and share in that relationship of life giving love.

On Trinity Sunday it is too easy to be distracted by attempts to ‘explain’ the Trinity with our limited language and illustrations, and miss the invitation to experience the wonder and mystery of overflowing abundant life and love, miss the invitation to share in the dance. It is the dance of love flowing in and through Father, Son and Holy Spirit bringing into being all that was, all that is and all that will yet be.
This unity is a dynamic relationship of love, energy and beauty. The opening verses of both Genesis and John’s Gospel lead us to understand that creation was the work of the Trinity: The Spirit hovered over the waters; God speaks and light and life come into being; the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And that is why Jesus could tell the disciples that he is in the Father and the Father in him, why he could say that the Holy Spirit abides with them and will be in them.

We glimpse the dynamic of that relationship of love, energy and beauty in the words of Isaiah. The scene of the vision is the Jerusalem Temple and Isaiah is worshipping. When Isaiah ‘sees’ the Lord it is as if he has looked through a window at how life should be lived; the vision is one of brilliance, radiance, too much for human eyes or imagination. The Seraphs sing of the holiness of God, words that we too will sing in a few moments from now; they sing too of the glory of God, not contained by the Temple but overflowing in abundance, pervading the whole earth. Isaiah is overwhelmed – so much so that he must hold his head in shame, aware of his own unworthiness. The prophet expects condemnation, but instead experiences loving forgiveness and God speaks; Isaiah is filled with a new strength and energy: ‘Whom will I send’ says the Lord, ‘and who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am’ says Isaiah; ‘Send me!’. The response to enter into that dance of love is a willingness to be sent out and share that gift of amazing, overflowing grace and love. What we share with Isaiah is the invitation to meet God’s glory in worship. The words of the Sanctus – ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord. God of power and might….’ are said and sung week by week not just to reminds us to the experience Isaiah once had, but to catch us up every time we say or sing at every Eucharist into the ceaseless worship that surrounds the presence of God.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Physically and metaphorically, he was in the dark, and Nicodemus is struggling to understand, struggling to make fit what he is seeing and hearing about this man, Jesus, and what his training as a Jewish Rabbi is telling him. At the moment there is a mismatch. Jesus response to Nicodemus, and to us, is that we must let go of our preconceived ideas, stop trying to contain God within our limited, narrow and imperfect understanding of time and space; rather we must reach out into the unfathomable reality of the totality of God’s love. For God does not love when we have met certain standards or requirements; God does not love because we obey certain rules or follow particular rituals; God does not love if we are born into a particular race, culture or sex. God just loves! – and trying to capture or measure that is like trying to control the wind that blows where it wills. And what is more, God will do anything, anything for the creation he loved into being, including coming himself, the Son, to die for it.

But Nicodemus is left baffled and bewildered and John doesn’t tell us immediately what effect this dialogue had upon this questioning curious Pharisee. But as John’s telling of the Good News gradually unfolds, all will become clearer. Gradually we come to recognise that the space in the circle remains open – always, waiting and inviting until the moment when we are ready and willing to participate in the life of God, sharing that love. For it is Nicodemus who, with Joseph of Arimathea, takes the body of Jesus down from the cross and bury it in the nearest tomb before sundown and the beginning of Passover. This time it is not dark, but broad daylight and the risks are enormous. Nicodemus risks condemnation, alienation and even death in response to the invitation to enter the dance of life and love. We can only wonder what it was that Nicodemus saw and experienced that ultimately drew him into that dance.

Open, abundant generosity of love, freely given without measure or judgement – that is the relationship that we are called to share – in our church, our personal relationships, in our community and with our brothers and sisters across the world. Just imagine what our world could be like if only we would truly share that abundant generosity of love with our neighbours and the peoples of our world. No longer would we treat people less fortunate than ourselves with contempt, withholding assistance that affords them dignity and a sense of hope and worth; No longer would we live in a country that builds a ‘hostile environment’; no longer would peoples who came to us at our invitation and have given so much to build and grow these lands be left without a home, unable to work, forcibly removed from the place they had always thought of as home; no longer would we turn our backs on people driven from their homelands by war or oppression; no more would countries build walls of division but rather bridges that unite. Our response to that Dance of Love, sharing that relationship of abundant generosity and love has the potential to completely transform and re-create our world, so that it more truly reflects the divine life for which we are all created.

Meanwhile, we are drawn in to that dynamic flow of wild abundant joy and self-giving love, forgiveness and compassion; and even as we are drawn in to that flow, that dance, we are launched, out into the world, to serve and share God’s life giving love with all.
“Whom shall I send”, asks God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the creative dance of life and love. Surely there can be but one answer!!! Amen

Day of the Cross

Good Friday sermon, preached by the Rector, Rev David Walsh, on 30th March 2018

Throughout Lent we have been on a journey to this moment and this place, a journey to the cross. In some ways this is the climax of our journey, the end of the story.

There is another story to tell. Later, on another day. But there is no smooth transition from this story to that one. Today the narrative thread gets broken, is interrupted.

And yet stories, though they seem such a natural part of our lives, are shaped and crafted, and this is one of the ways they differ from our lives. In real life there is nothing which isn’t the outworking of events which have happened in the past. And so the beginning of every story is a fictional device, because there always was something which preceded it.

And in real life nothing happens without consequences. So the ending of a story is as artificial as the beginning, because in real life there are always more episodes, more pages to turn, more chapters.

Where we choose to end a story makes a huge difference to how we understand it, how we choose to respond to it.

Was the cross an ending? Certainly at the time it felt conclusive. It’s that sense of finality we get some sense of today, as we try to get under the skin of the first followers of Jesus. We can’t fully make sense of what follows if we fail to feel the weight of this moment.

And yet, reading on in the gospels, we soon encounter the more immediate outworkings of today’s events. Even in this afternoon’s Gospel Reading, after the death people have to move on and decide how to respond to it. And surprising things happen. Out of nowhere it appears, people not known as having been followers of Jesus reveal their affection for him. A rich man, a respected member of the Council, Joseph of Arimathea, who appears nowhere in the Gospels before this moment, reveals himself to be a secret follower, a secret disciple. Here is one early consequence. A secret is unveiled. Joseph’s life will never be the same again. And this happens after the death of Jesus, an event which is already beginning to have consequences.

The following day the story is far from over for the chief priests and Pharisees, according to Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus might be dead, but his disciples were still alive and they might steal the body. So once again Pilate is involved and finds himself being lobbied, even though Jesus is now dead. He puts a guard of soldiers at their disposal, to seal the tomb.

The disciples themselves were at sixes and sevens. We hear about two of them, on a longish walk away from Jerusalem, sharing stories, much as people do at a wake. And sharing their disappointed dreams with a stranger: ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ Later we read that Jesus’ old friends meet together, presumably just as in the past, falling back on familiar habits at a moment when all else felt changed and unfamiliar. One thing which was unfamiliar was the lock on the door, because, we read in John’s Gospel, they were afraid.

Disappointment and fear. These are new. The unveiling of personal secrets, of unrevealed affiliations. This also is new. Jesus is dead but life goes on and his death has immediate consequences.

So though today we reach the end of our journey and find ourselves at the foot of the cross, the stories themselves make it clear that life went on without Jesus. It just wasn’t the same.

Some of us will have known times of despair in our lives. Some of us may have cried ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ At such times the weight of events bears down so heavy on us, it’s hard to conceive our story will ever pick up again, hard to imagine there might be a different future. And yet here we are.

Today, at this pivotal moment, we find ourselves pulled in two directions. We feel the need to get beneath the skin of the first disciples in their disappointment and fear, a disappointment and fear wrapped up in not being able to see any future in this story.

And yet our reason for wanting, for needing, to feel the full weight, the full significance of this one day, is so that we can more fully be part of the events we know – and cannot fully pretend to forget – lie ahead of us.

And so we are pulled in two. Needing to linger at the foot of the cross, needing not to rush on. And yet aware that even in the story itself, the cross points forward, is more than just an ending.

And so we linger and we wait, but we do so expectantly. The future is not here yet and today we don’t even name it. But it’s that future which makes today the still moment at the centre of our life of faith, this day of the cross, this Good Friday.


Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return

Isaiah 58:1-12, John 8:1-11

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Ash Wednesday, 14th February 2018

There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on in our liturgy and worship on this particular Wednesday has power.

Something of that power lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Much else that we say in our worship here today we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe in the core of our being, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die, and how we live our lives matters.

From dust, to dust.  Hearing the words is not enough today.  Today, ashes will mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.

These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries all too often to either hide or deny; and if we are honest with ourselves, we probably do our best to ignore that truth much of the time.

Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.

Yet there is hope, hope rooted in our faith that we are created by God in His image.  The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God.  Our dust was moulded by the hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.

The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, and our ashes blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.

But there is something more. The ashes on our forehead are not randomly placed; they are placed in the form of a cross – so today we are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.

Dust and ashes point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return to Him who constantly calls us.

That call to each one of us to repent – to turn around, to change direction – doesn’t center on fear, on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine grace and love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.  The love we see dimly and imperfectly reflected in every act of love and compassion between one person and another; between peoples of one community and another; between peoples of different races and cultures and another.

At the same time, repentance – turning around – is not something we can think ourselves into; neither can we simply pay lip service and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We live and we act ourselves into it.

In the UK’s wealthiest Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the voices of some of the poorest people, and those on the lowest incomes, asking for safety improvements to the flats in which they lived were repeatedly ignored in the corridors of power.  As a consequence, 71 people died and many more traumatised following the fire at Grenfell Tower.  That same tower stands as a biblical scale condemnation to a whole society and the values it espouses.    But it was the people from local church of St. Clements, people from the neighbouring streets, people of all faiths and none, ordinary people from many different cultural backgrounds who were the first to provide food, shelter and comfort; closely followed by some of the local businesses.  The tower still stands and challenges all of us about the values that underpin our lives  – as individuals, as organisations, as communities, and as a nation.  These are questions that demand our urgent and committed attention as we begin our Lenten journey with those  words ‘Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return’ whispering in our ears.

The prophet Isaiah’s words are addressed to all people and nations who would claim to believe in a God of justice and love.  Characteristically, these words were addressed to people of wealth and power.  Yet as people who bear the mark of Christ given at our baptism we are called to listen carefully on this day when we will be marked once more, not with oil but with ash and words reminding us of our mortality and the transience of all things:  ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.

The words of Isaiah shake us from any feelings of comfortable complacency we may have.  The prophet challenges the people of Israel to look at themselves and think about what they are doing – they may well fast, but what good is that when they oppress their workers and continue to fight and quarrel.  Faith in God revealed in our religious observance is worthless unless it reflects both in personal relationships and communities the love, compassion and justice which is of God.

Isaiah’s words were echoed centuries later by Jesus who demonstrated what it really means to loosen the bonds of injustice.

We encounter Jesus sitting in the temple, amidst the dust, teaching the people who surround him.  The peace is broken as the scribes and Pharisees burst upon the scene dragging a woman caught in adultery.  This frightened woman is made to stand in the midst of her powerful accusers threatening to have her stoned, painfully aware in that moment of her own mortality.  But amidst the noise, the shouting in the Temple, there is a stillness, a silence in the centre – Jesus remains seated, bends over and begins to write in the dust – perhaps words or symbols of significance, perhaps playing for time – who knows.  The woman’s life hung in the balance.  But Jesus remains still, seated on the ground and speaks – ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone’.  The community of faith needs first to look at itself.  He returns to his writing and stillness returns to the centre.  The noise abates as the accusers gradually leave, first the elders who by tradition, would have thrown the first stone, followed by the others.  In the stillness of that early morning, the woman and Jesus are alone.  He doesn’t rise above her, but remains seated, looks up at her and asks ‘Where are they?  Has no one condemned you?’  ‘No one sir.’  ‘Neither do I condemn you.  Go on your way and from now on do not sin again.’  God’s power, unlike the power of this world, is revealed in stillness and compassion, gentleness and love, not the self-righteous indignation or implications of guilt and shame experienced by so many.  These are words of profound healing love, forgiveness and grace.

His call to her, and to us, his call to repent, to  ‘turn around’ centres on divine love seen most fully on the cross and in the joyful resurrection. It centres on the love that selflessly and unconditionally gives and gives again, the love that longs to draw us ever closer and ever deeper into that relationship of divine love.

So our pilgrimage continues.  Today we are reminded that we are dust and will one day to dust return – and we rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. We have been given this season of Lent as a gift – an opportunity to look honestly at ourselves and how we live our lives; our relationships with each other, and with our brothers and sisters across the world; our relationship to the finite resources of our world and the choices we make; and ultimately our relationship with God, the source of all life and inexhaustible love.  ‘Go’ says Jesus, to the woman, to me and to each of us here. Go, live your life, but change the way you behave.  Challenge injustice and oppression in all its forms. Then, by God’s grace, we may become repairers of the breach, builders of streets to live on.  Amen


Our journey towards God

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on Sunday January 7th 2018, at Ss Peter & Paul

Matthew 2.1-12

We begin 2018, as we do most years, with the story of a journey.  A journey towards God.

As we start out on this latest stage of our own journeys, our individual journeys and our journey together as a church, what can we learn from this compelling tale, from Epiphany?

There are of course many kinds of journey.  And the use of journeying as a image has become so commonplace that it can become a substitute for any serious insight or reflection.

One test I think is whether the image simply reinforces our existing understandings; or whether it surprises us, challenges us, helps us to see things in new ways.

So let’s see what we can learn from this particular journey.

First, there is no sign to begin with that the wise men think they’re looking for God. They have come in search of a king.

This suggests to me that some of our most profoundly religious journeys don’t start off explicitly being about God.

In 2018 we will come across many people in this church who appear to be looking for something other than God.

They might come into the church in the middle of the week, seeking quiet and calm away from a troubled life.

They might be lonely and come looking for companionship and friendship. They might be wanting a medieval building to get married in. They might be hoping for a school place for their child.

But just because they don’t name God, just because they’re not aware of God’s being any part of their journey, doesn’t mean that their journey isn’t a spiritual one.

The wise men came seeking a King.  Matthew’s Gospel tells us that what they found was ‘God with us, Emmanuel.’

Secondly, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect.

How does God speak in the Epiphany story?

Revelations come through astrology, through dreams, through a tyrant king and through the chief priests and scribes.

If we were to talk with our Christian sisters and brothers in other churches about how God speaks to us, some of them would be very clear cut about how God does and does not talk to us.

They would be clear that it is through the Bible that God speaks to us.

And they would be rather suspicious of other ways in which people sometimes seek guidance. Through the stars, through astrologers; or through dreams.

And yet as we turn to the Bible to learn from it – as we do – we discover that both astrology and dreams are used by God in this Epiphany story as sources of revelation.  This doesn’t mean that all astrology, all dream interpretations, come from God.  Far from it. It simply means we shouldn’t restrict the ways in which God provides revelation.

There is something peculiar to the Gospel of Matthew about the role of dreams in the Christian life.  In the whole of the New Testament, only one writer, and that is Matthew, gives examples of dreams being a source of revelation in this way.  To be fair, in the Acts of the Apostles, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.’

But whilst the Acts of the Apostles has plenty of visions, there are no dreams recounted in the early days of the church. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, tells five dream stories.

Chief priests and scribes might seem like a more obvious source of religious insight.  But listen to what is said about the scribes by the Gospel of Matthew – the only Gospel to tell the Epiphany story:

‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. (Mt 5:20)

‘The crowd were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes’. (Mt 7.28-29)

Yet it is the chief priests and scribes in the Epiphany story who provide the key piece of information: where the Messiah was to be born.

The chief priests and scribes were convened by King Herod.  Later we discover that Herod tries to trick the wise men and arranges for the slaughter of innocent children.  And yet even this tyrant plays a role, a small role, in leading the Wise Men to their destination, to their encounter with Emmanuel, God with us.

So then, how does God guide us as we journey on?

Not as we might expect.

Our God is too small. Rather than create a church that reflects the grandeur and mystery of God, far too often we fashion a God who is church-shaped.  But God is far more interesting than that.

So, first, there’s no sign the wise men think they’re looking for God.  And second, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect.

Thirdly, the wise men worked some of it out for themselves.

It’s possible that some of you have a picture in your mind of the Wise Men following the star from the East, where they first saw it, to Bethlehem, via Jerusalem.

But if that’s your memory of the story, you need to listen to it again more carefully.

There’s no mention of the Wise Men following the star from the East to Jerusalem. What Matthew’s Gospel says is this:

‘Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

The wise men saw the star at its rising.  They then seemed to work out for themselves, using their own knowledge and experience, that this signalled the birth of a child, born King of the Jews.

And so, understandably, they made their way to Jerusalem. In other words, they got it wrong.  Or at least, they got it not quite right. They simply assumed that if they were searching for a new King of the Jews, Jerusalem was the place to go.

It was only in Jerusalem, with the aid of religious experts who knew their Bibles, that they discovered they should actually be looking in Bethlehem.   And so they set out for Bethlehem.  And only then, once their direction was already set, do we read ‘there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.’

So, first, there’s no sign the wise men think they’re looking for God.    Second, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect.    And third, the wise men worked some of it out for themselves.

Fourthly and finally, the journey changes us.   We’re not the same people at the end of the journey as we were at the start.    This is one reason why very detailed forward planning over many years is often simply inappropriate in church settings, though actually in many other settings also.

What matters is that we ask ourselves what our values are, what our vision is, what our priorities are, what the direction of travel is.  But the world changes and we change also.  God is taking us on a journey, on an adventure.  Often we won’t know for sure where that journey will take us, or how it might change us.  That is part of the adventure of life with God.

One of the greatest sermons ever written was written about this morning’s story, by Pope Leo the Great, in the middle of the fifth century.   The sermon is quite rightly quoted every year at this time.   It was not possible, Leo points out, for the wise men to return home the way they had come.  Because now they had encountered Emmanuel, God with us.  They were changed.  Their journeying could not be unaffected.

Something similar is true here for us today.  True for us as a church in a crucial year when we take key decisions about our direction of travel.  True for Bill as he enters the next chapter of his life.  True for each and every one of us.

So as we all journey through 2018, what can we learn from today’s story.  First, our journeys towards God don’t always start out as explicitly religious.

God often guides us in very unexpected ways.  We have to work some of it out for ourselves.  And finally, the journey changes us.


Everything Changes!

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Christmas Morning December 25th 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-20

Nothing seemed to change.  For countless generations down the years, it probably seemed as though nothing ever would, in spite of the hope and the longing, as people faithfully waited, while struggling with the challenges of the everyday.   The prophets of old had spoken of it of course: “For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, prince of Peace”. The people who sat in darkness continued to wait faithfully, hoped and prayed longing for that Light to dawn, to shine upon them.

A young woman, a refugee teenager heavily pregnant, forced from her home, travelling with the young man, a carpenter, to the town of his birth.  Like so many of their people, life was hard living under severe and often cruel military occupation.  It seems so long ago that she had made that profound commitment to God.  Did she have any idea what that “yes” would entail – the joy and the pain that awaited?  Almost certainly not, but in profound faith and trust in God, Mary, the young woman who had found favour with God,  responded with her “yes”, utterly unaware that her voice would echo through eternity.

Through the cries and pain of childbirth, God is born into our torn and divided world, breaks into our humanity, in the whimpering of a tiny baby, utterly dependent and vulnerable as all babies are.  God entrusts himself to the arms and care of this young refugee, an unmarried mother and the carpenter at her side.

In the midst of the seemingly ordinariness of this night, God, the voice of creation slipped into our world leaving traces of hope and drops of courage along a troubled and at times dangerous path.

And on this morning of all mornings, I find myself wondering what Mary and Joseph might have been feeling as they cradled their infant; I wonder if they were able to comprehend the shimmering light of God in this moment, amidst the bickering, quarrelling and warring of humanity.

This young couple have no safe place to call home; just the shelter used for the animals and a feeding trough for a cradle.

Too many people share their experience today – people forced from their homes, their communities because of military occupation, war, unemployment or poverty; people forced to give birth on flimsy boats floating perilously at sea, so far from  the people who really care.

Yet now for Mary, with her baby safely in her arms, and despite everything, this tiny life was reason to hope, reason to dream as all new parents do.

Everything changes!

The only people who initially appeared to notice them, to show any signs of wonder and joy at the birth of this baby were the very people many regarded as ‘nobodies’ – shepherds from the surrounding hillside.  It was to these, people on the edge, deemed unworthy of society’s trust, that God entrusted his good news of great joy; a baby had been born who would change everything and they would find the baby, of all places, in a feed manger.  Music filled the heavens!  Glorious disorder as shepherds become angels or messengers (for that is what the word angel means).  They could have stayed on their hillside – after all there is a sense of safety in the familiar; but they risked everything, travelling into the town looking for the sign given to them.  Then finding the family and the baby in the feed trough, shared with them their utterly amazing, surprising experience on the hillside.  It is as though in the telling of their story, the shepherd themselves receive confirmation that, however improbably, it is all true!

The shepherds returned to their hillside, to the business of everyday life, as indeed we all have to do, but they did so with hearts bursting with joy because what they “had heard and seen” was exactly “as it had been told them.”  We hear no more from Luke about the shepherds, but I wonder how life changed for them following their extraordinary experience.  For surely you cannot be touched by God and remain unchanged, can you?

This is both a familiar story rooted in the history of our faith; but also a very contemporary one, as thousands of families forced from their homes by the warring and bickering of the world give birth far from all that is familiar and in the breath of that new life, new hope is born. The birth of this child, indeed the birth of any baby, causes us to stop, to reflect and to want to make a difference for the sake of this child and the world in which he will grow.

Earlier this month, I heard Lucy Winkett, Rector of St. James, Piccadilly talking about a remarkable piece of artwork currently on display in the church until early February.  It is called ‘Suspended’, created by the artist Arabella Dorman.  Lucy was talking about the experience of unpacking clothes used in this artwork and  salvaged from refugee camps in Lesbos in Greece.  She, and the volunteers assisting, were moved to tears as together they unpacked tiny pairs of jeans, colourful sweatshirts, torn tee-shirts and little shoes.  100’s of these pieces of clothing now hang above the nave of St. James in a state of suspension, bringing to life the experience of refugees escaping war, whose lives are stuck, unable to go home, unable to move on. Lucy reflected:

“The clothes we unpacked yesterday, now empty, are highly evocative of the young people who were just a few months ago, wearing them; and we will try to make a difference in the name of our faith……..But what silenced us yesterday was a baby-grow, covered in teddy bears, without doubt belonging to an anonymous little boy brought across on one of those flimsy boats to an uncertain future.  On the little hood was a message that it felt as if his parents were sending directly to us, something they new about their baby son, hoped for him, dreamed he would become.  Where is his new life, we thought; and we hoped he is safe, as we read the words on his hood.  Not “The Prince of Peace”, but something equally silencing.  The echoes of the Gospel story were almost too much to bear as we imagined his parents’ courage, and fear, and the danger their son had been born into:  “Prince Charming”.

Traces of hope and drops of courage.  And as people gaze upon that artwork and reflect upon the lives of the people that in so many senses gave birth to it, I wonder how their lives will be changed by the touch of God, and how in turn God will enable them to bring light into the darkness of those lives.

God, slipping into our world as one of us, as a tiny utterly dependent baby in the care of the powerless is a reminder to us of the sacredness of all human life; is a reminder to us of the manner in which God builds His Kingdom – not through wealth, or might or power but through vulnerability and powerlessness.  As we look out at the hundreds of refugee camps across our world, as we listen to the stories of people in our own lands struggling with poverty, poor housing or homelessness we look out at the waste of potential with lives lived in limbo, God is calling us to seek the traces of hope and drops of courage in a world wearied by division and strife.

This morning, listening again to the story of the shepherds, we are reminded that God utterly surprised them by calling them to share in his work of proclaiming the Good News.  In the same way He calls us to step away from our places of comfort and our communities of refuge, to go out into the messy, dirty and uninviting places of our town, our country and our world to proclaim not in words but in action His love, His hope.

“When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.”[i]

Emmanuel, God with us leaving traces of hope and drops of courage

[i] Howard Thurman, African American theologian & civil rights leader