A story about the essential nature of God

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 16th July 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul and St Michael & All Angels

Isaiah 55:10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Loving God, by your Holy Spirit,
take these words such as they are and do with them as you will,
take us such as we are and do with us as you will
for your greater glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is something comfortably familiar in the parables: for most of us, I guess, they are stories we know well, stories some of us will have heard many times through the passing years. For the people who were the first to hear Jesus tell these stories, there was a familiarity born out of the fact that they were stories of everyday domestic and working life. But that familiarity risks blunting the sharpness of the message; Jesus did not intend them to be ‘comfortable’ stories, but stories and events that would challenge his listeners to work out for themselves how to get to the heart of what Jesus was saying, to understand his meaning in the story.

And so I imagine the people at the lakeside, come to see and to listen to this enigmatic, itinerant preacher. Some would be attentive, others listening with only half an ear, preferring to catch up with the local gossip among family and friends. Some, and perhaps it was those people who were only half attentive, might have said at the conclusion of the story – ‘well, we know that, we know that’s what happens when you scatter seed; so what?’ – and carried on as before. People who listen but never understand, look but never perceive – words of Isaiah quoted by Jesus in the verses cut from our reading this week by the people who compile the lectionary used in the wider church.

But others, perhaps those willing to give rather more of their time and attention, might have thought ‘Well yes – we know that’s what happens. So, what is he really saying; what is he trying to tell us, what is he wanting us to grapple with, to understand.’ And I imagine them eventually wandering home, but continuing to needle away at the story, digging to gain a deeper understanding and then crucially, to live out their new-found understanding and discover anew the renewing, healing, restoring love of God!

There may be many ways to interpret the parable of the sower, but as I read it again, preparing for this morning, one image kept coming back – this is a story about the essential nature of God. For this God is a God of abundant generosity, profligate with the gifts, and scattering the abundance of his seeds of love and grace far and wide with no thought about the wisdom of such profligacy. Rich fertile soil or stony ground – irrespective, God scatters with the same extravagant, loving generosity.

But it is also a story about our willingness to cherish all that God has given us, enabling it to grow and flourish, and to share it with those whom God puts in our path.

We need to hear this story; we need to let it take root in our hearts and minds because we don’t have to look very far to be reminded that we live in a divided country in deeply troubled and divided world; people aching to feel valued; countries are broken by war and oppression; thousands of lives destroyed through the distorted ideologies of others and once beautiful cities reduced to ruins; inequality continues to grow with half the worlds wealth held by just 1% of the population; and at times, profit seems to take priority over the value of human life. In a world of plenty, many starve, while in other parts of the world, people are quite literally eating themselves into an early grave. And through it all, we are systematically destroying the natural world and biodiversity upon which we depend for our very survival.

The enormity of the challenges before us can seem so daunting that we struggle to imagine how we can possibly make a difference to seemingly intractable problems; and so there is a danger that we are paralysed into inaction.

So how can the parable of the Sower inform our thinking, our action. As I was doing my own thinking, I remembered another story I had heard, and then read for myself. It is the story of one man’s quiet and patient perseverance; it speaks to our current situation and sheds light on the words of Jesus. It has the potential to inspire and encourage each one of us to remember that we can make a significant difference with our individual acts, however small they be. Some of you may have heard this story before, but a good story bears repetition!

It is the story of Elzeard Bouffier, a shepherd who led a somewhat solitary life for many years, in a region of France not far from the Alps.

One day, a man is walking high above sea level across an expanse of moorland covered with wild lavender. After three days walking, he reaches a landscape of unparalleled desolation – a few villages, many utterly deserted, others inhabited by charcoal burners where life was hard, the people deeply unhappy, with nothing to hope for and desperate to escape. The land was arid – just patches of tough grass and springs that had long since dried.
The man continues to walk in desperate need of water and comes across the shepherd who takes care of him – takes him to his home where there was a very deep well from which he drew sweet refreshing water.

The shepherd invites his guest to stay and rest the night. They sit in companionable silence and later the traveller watches as the shepherd fetches a small bag of acorns and empties them on to the table. He sorts them carefully and when he had sorted 100 perfect acorns, he went to bed.

The following day, the shepherd takes his bag of acorns and dips them in a bucket of water; he picks up a long metal rod and then accompanied by his dog and the visitor, leads his sheep to a hollow to graze, and leaves them guarded by his dog. He invites the walker to continue with him. Eventually they reach the place the shepherd was aiming for and he began making holes in the ground with the metal rod, putting an acorn in each hole and then carefully covering it. He was planting Oak Trees – the land was not his own but Common Land he thought, though he didn’t really know. He had been planting trees in this wilderness for three years – a hundred thousand of them. Only 20 thousand had come up and he expected to lose half of them. But, he said, that still means there will be 10 thousand trees where there had been nothing before.
Elzeard Bouffier had owned a farm on the plains, but his only first and only son died and then his wife. So he had left his farm and moved to the place where our walker found him. Elzeard felt that the part of the country in which he found himself was dying for lack of trees and so with nothing much else to do, he decided to try and put things right. So he planted trees, and planned to continue doing so.

Some years later, our walker returned to see Elzeard Bouffier who took him out to his forest which now included beech trees as well. The planting of the trees sent in train a sort of train reaction – water began flowing in the streams and slowly, wildlife began returning. Our walker continued to visit Monsier Bouffier every year. Life wasn’t plain sailing and one year he had planted 10 thousand maples. All died so he resumed the planting of beeches. His quiet patient work continued throughout his life.

He was 85 when our walker last went to visit and the area had been transformed: the forest flourished, villages were rebuilt, water flowed and people had hope.
The story of the Man who planted Trees reminds us that God will use our individual efforts, however small they may be, to transform and renew his creation. All he asks is that we are willing to take a risk, throw caution to the wind, prepare the soil as best we can then scatter the seeds of Good News, seeds of love, grace and hope wildly and extravagantly – as God longs for us to do; and God will work with them, grow them to accomplish what we could never have dreamed of! Amen

Who are we as a church?

PATRONAL FESTIVAL SERMON: THE FEAST OF ST PETER AND ST PAUL

SUNDAY 2 JULY 2017
Sermon preached by Rev David Walsh

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

Patronal Festivals are a time for churches to look at themselves in the mirror and ask: who are we as a church?

As it happens, our Patronal Festival falls in the very week our Parochial Church Council, the PCC, has decided to spend the whole of the autumn asking this very question and listening carefully to the answers.

We’re not just asking questions for the sake of asking questions.  The questions and the answers they provoke will lead to action, to action which could have a profound affect on every part of our church’s life and on the parish which we share with St Michael’s.

But all the action and energy we can summon up is worthless unless we’re heading in the right direction.  And so it’s worth taking time properly to listen.  And the autumn is going to be all about listening.

Firstly, listening to each other here in the church.  Listening out especially for the voices that perhaps don’t normally get heard.  We’ll be listening for example to our children as well as our adults.  We’ll be listening to those who’ve only just arrived, and asking them what the experience was like. Listening to those who used to be members and have now left and asking them: why?  We want to have honest and frank answers.  That’s the best way to help the church.

So we’ll be listening to each other.

But secondly, we’ll be listening to the people of Kettering, to our parish with its 19.000 parishioners.  Does this medieval building, Kettering’s oldest and most prominent landmark, stand for anything of any significance now to the town at large?  Who do they think we are?  Is that different from what we used to be?  What would they like us to be, for the town and people of Kettering?  Are we relevant to their deepest needs and aspirations?  Do we know what those are?

And third, as well as listening to each other and listening to the people of Kettering, it is above all important that we should be listening to God.  I want prayer to be at the heart of what we do in the autumn.  I was talking yesterday to a member of the church I hope might end up hosting a regular prayer group focusing on the church and parish as we ask these questions and as we work out how to respond to the answers we hear.

And this means that one of the most crucial and powerful roles in our time of listening might be played by members of our extended church family who are largely housebound.  But they can still pray.

Understanding who we are as a church means even more than this listening exercise.

At a time when the church nationally faces huge challenges, it’s becoming increasingly clear that whilst many churches are in decline, others are thriving.  This is true across different church traditions.  Growth and life are not confined to just one part of the Church of England.  Neither is decline.  I have known many liberal catholic churches which are thriving and full of energy.  And I have known evangelical churches in rapid decline.

Evidence is beginning to emerge which tells us what the thriving churches have in common.  It suggests to me key clues about what it means to be a church, a church which experiences new life.  So part of what we as a church need to do before taking big decisions about our future is learn what it means to be a church with a future in challenging times.

But that doesn’t mean we simply want to become like other churches, with no distinctive identity of our own.  Quite the opposite.  I believe passionately that when God calls us as individuals, as churches, as communities, to change, to be transformed, he wants us to become more fully ourselves, not less so.

So we also need to ask what is distinctive about this church.  As we change and grow, how will we do so in a way that is different to other churches?  That takes seriously our setting here in the middle of Kettering?  That builds on our centuries of faithful worship and service based on this building?  That reflects the things which matter to us as we express our faith: rhythm and colour in our worship; intelligent questioning as we work through our faith; generous open hearted acceptance of those who are different from us, especially the marginalised.

One small part of what makes us distinctive is our dedication to Peter and Paul.  What can we learn from them as we ask ourselves who we are as a church?

Peter is told by Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading from Matthew that he will build his church on this rock.  The wordplay in the original Greek is lost in the English translation.  To recapture the original meaning we would have to imagine something like:

‘You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church’

In this image, the church is a building.  And that gives all kinds of clues to us as we work out how to grow the church and revive it.

So from Peter we gain some clues about what we are as a church.  And our other patron, Paul, repeats this insight when he writes to the young church at Corinth: ‘you are God’s building’.

But Paul adds another image. What he actually writes to the Corinthians is ‘You are God’s field, God’s building.’

And what you need to do if you are a farmer, or a gardener, and you want your field to flourish, want it to be full of growth and life, is rather different from what you need to do to plan and construct a building.

Paul uses both images and so it’s probably true that our churches need both understandings and need leaders who can work with both understandings.

But it might be useful for you as a church – as we head into whatever the coming years might bring – to know what kind of leader I am.  I think I know myself reasonably well and I know that the image with which I’m most comfortable is that of a field.

Why is that?  It suggests that the role of Christian leaders – and that’s not just the Rector of a parish, it’s anyone who exercises any kind of influence in the life of the church – it suggests that their role isn’t so much to do things themselves, as to create the right conditions in which things will grow naturally.

Farmers and gardeners know there are things you can do which will lead to growth, and mistakes you can make which will choke growth off.

It’s interesting how often Jesus himself used these kinds of images when talking about the kingdom of God.  We think of the Parable of the Sower.  And it’s no coincidence that at my Service of Institution and Induction ten months ago, one of the readings I chose the following words from Mark’s Gospel:

‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

The natural thing to happen in the Kingdom, suggests Jesus himself, is growth.  But we can stifle that – leaders in particular can stifle this –  if we fail to understand that our role is like farmers and gardeners.  We need to create the conditions in which things flourish and blossom naturally, of their own accord.

It means of course to some extent that leaders have to give up control.  That we leaders need to expect to be surprised by what happens in our own churches, to be delighted when unexpected new things happen.  Our role is to create the conditions which make such new and unexpected things more likely.

As Paul writes to the Corinthians:

‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’

There are clearly moments in a church’s life when it needs to become more like a building.  Times when groups of people need to sit down and plan in detail how they are going to work together to create something they’ve all agreed on.  But if that’s the only way we work as a church, I fear we are not fully living out what being church means.

So both Peter and Paul can help us as we try to understand who we are as a church.  Paul has another way of describing the church which would I think be shocking to us if we weren’t so used to the image from his writings.  We might almost think it bordered on the blasphemous if it wasn’t so firmly embedded in the New Testament.  The Church, says Paul, is the Body of Christ.

It is a remarkable image.  If we want to know where Christ is now, it suggests, one of the best places to look is towards this group of not always impressive, deeply flawed humans who find themselves drawn together week by week in what we call ‘church’.

As Paul writes to the Church at Corinth: ‘You collectively are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.’

Christ’s presence is in the mix.   In the variety of people in our churches, the way we contrast with each other and yet at the same time work together.  That’s what makes it possible for us to be ‘the body of Christ’.  That’s when Jesus can be seen in us.

It is, again, no coincidence that the second reading I chose for my service of Induction and Institution was this very passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul explores in some details what it means for a church to be the body of Christ.

Because a church can’t properly be a church until it understands what Paul is talking about in this letter.

As Paul writes:

‘The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?’

What this means is that for a church properly to be a church every single member has to be playing their own unique part, the part which no one else can play.  And if they are not encouraged to do so, are not allowed to do so, if the culture of the church focuses on just a small number of people rather than on every member, then we cannot properly be the body of Christ and anyone who looks at us cannot properly see Christ in us, because something is missing.

And that’s one reason why today, we’re asking ourselves what our gifts and talents are, what part we might play in the church, in the body of Christ.  So that each of us can play our part in allowing Jesus to become visible in and through our church.

Fortunately we are all different.  No two people here today have the same gifts, talents and experience to offer.

And this is one more thing we can learn from our two Patron Saints, Peter and Paul.

Both in their own way rocks on which the early church was built.  And yet they could not be more different.

Which is one reason why the church celebrates them both together on the same day.  It’s important to know that right from the very beginning there was not just one model of being a Christian, one model of being a Christian leader.

It’s hard to think of two more different characters.  Paul was a Roman citizen, a Pharisee educated at the feet of one of the most respected Jewish scholars of all time.  In many ways he was an ‘insider’.

And Peter was a fisherman.  Quite a prosperous fisherman, quite a successful businessman, it would appear. But still a very different person from Paul.  Much more of an outsider.

You get the feeling, reading the New Testament, that these two huge figures in the early church circled rather warily around each other.  Yet think what together they made possible.  We wouldn’t be here today without them.

Paul writes quite a lot about Peter, who he calls by his Greek name ‘Cephas’.  He acknowledges that already, in the early days of the Christian church, members are dividing themselves up depending on whether they feel they are ‘Peter’ type Christians or ‘Paul’ type Christians.

Although in the wider world Paul was something of an establishment figure, within the church itself he was more of an outsider, less an acknowledged figure of authority.  And at times a degree of mild resentment appears to creep into Paul’s letters as he compares his lot with that of Peter:

‘Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?’

And occasionally they openly clashed about the future of the church:

‘When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face’  (Galatians 2:11)

And yet the church was big enough to contain two such very different characters.  Indeed, this may well have been part of what led it to thrive.

So our church too needs to be a place which admits diversity and difference.  It’s a huge shame that no women appear in this story, that instead of Peter and Paul, we don’t have Peter and Pauline.  But our task, now, is to allow a church to grow and flourish which allows as much diversity and difference as possible.

Who are we as a church?

Such a deceptively simple question.  Yet it opens up such rich and promising territory.  Let’s address it with relish over the coming months.  As we try to work what our church might look like if it were to experience new life; what it would mean for this to be a place where individuals experienced personal renewal; and what our distinctive contribution as a church might be towards the renewal of this town of ours.

As we ask these questions, let’s keep coming back to what we can learn from our two Patrons, from Peter and from Paul.

Today we give thanks for them and for all who have made our life together as a church possible.

Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday June 25th at St Michael and All Angels

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Matthew10:24-39

“Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows”

 I have discovered again that there are many joys to be found in a holiday, a break away from the usual rhythm of life; one of them is the luxurious opportunity to spend hours reading; I read voraciously and among those books was one by the person I regard as a titan of the Christian faith, a person who has been a constant inspiration to me – Desmond Tutu, one time Archbishop of   Cape Town.  The book in question is entitled ‘God is Not a Christian: Speaking truth in times of crisis’.

This is a collection of his addresses to political rallies and church congregations, his speeches, lectures and articles, and some of his correspondence to the people in positions of power.  In his opening Forward, Desmond Tutu states:

‘Some of my friends are sceptical when they hear me say this, but I am by nature a person who dislikes confrontation. I have consciously sought during my life to emulate my mother, whom our family knew as a gentle “comforter of the afflicted.”  However, when I see innocent people suffering, pushed around by the rich and the powerful, then, as the prophet Jeremiah says, if I try to keep quiet it is as if the word of God burned like a fire in my breast.  I feel compelled to speak out, sometimes even to argue with God over how a loving creator can allow this to happen.’

Here is a person of faith who worked courageously and tirelessly, even in the face of imprisonment and threats to his own life.  His opposition to the inequities of apartheid was vigorous and unequivocal, and he was outspoken both at home in South Africa and abroad.  Tutu was equally rigorous in his criticism of the violent tactics of some anti-apartheid groups and denounced terrorism.

So, on that glorious day in 1994 when the Rainbow People of God were enabled to vote together in the first democratic elections, one might have thought that Tutu could sit back and relax a little.  But no!  He headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a monumental piece of work to enable the journey towards forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.  Then more recently he has continued to challenge people in positions of power and authority in South Africa, the Middle East and across the world who inflict injustice, suffering and pain on God’s people, robbing them of dignity and hope.  That compulsion to speak out has shone as a beacon of hope in a troubled world – to peoples living with oppression and injustice in its many forms – as he shone a light on the injustice and degradation suffered by so many.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is spelling out very clearly the cost of following Him.  As his disciples are about to set out on their mission, Jesus prepares them, warning them that people will speak ill of them, they will be derided perhaps even more than he has been.  To be a follower of Christ, is not a ticket to an easy life.

Like those first disciples, we are called to be builders of God’s Kingdom, and in Gods Kingdom, the values of the world are turned upside down and inside out.  For this is a kingdom that sees strength in weakness; this is a kingdom where the poor, the outcast, the marginalised are exalted, not the powerful and the rich; this is a kingdom that values the people so often despised by wider society; this is a Kingdom of absurd generosity, compassion and love.

So the message we are called to proclaim is shockingly counter-cultural, in a culture that easily dismisses people as expendable, discardable when, because they are poor or unemployed, they are judged to have failed.  For it is a message that many in our world will not, do not want to hear.  But my goodness, as we hold in our hearts the people who have suffered so badly as a result of the recent events in our country, as we hold in our hearts the countless people across our world who continue to suffer profound injustice, it is a message that desperately needs to be proclaimed again and again; it is a message we need to hear.  And we, my friends, are proclaiming that message loud and clear where ever and how ever we can.

Being called to a new way of living is not a new concept.  Throughout the record of God’s dealings with his children, people have been called to announce, and to live out God’s love in new, and nearly always revolutionary ways.  And it has always been costly.

Jeremiah was one such person, a prophet who was active throughout the most turbulent period of biblical history.  Jeremiah lived through the reign of good, bad, and weak kings.  He witnessed the invasion of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians; the siege and the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. He witnessed the starvation of many, the destruction of national and family life, and the shaking of the political and theological foundations of the people’s identity.  Survivors lost loved ones, land and livelihood; many were deported.  Most of this Jeremiah had warned the people about in advance, but his foresight won him no friends.  Increasingly he found himself isolated from the people he had come to serve, and at times his life was threatened by those who could not bear to hear that the truth was so different from what they wanted.  Yet he felt compelled to speak in spite of the personal cost and profound pain.  This morning in our first reading we glimpse that pain in an extract from one of the so-called confessions of Jeremiah.

Jesus came to establish a new way of being God’s people, engaging with the pain of the world seeking out the lost, the outcast and the unloved, the same people despised by so many. It was a way of being that gave dignity, hope and joy.  It was a way of being that brought Jesus in to conflict with his family, and with the religious and political leaders of the day and ultimately cost him his life.

As followers of Jesus, this is the road we too are called to travel.  Thank God, it is very unlikely that we will have to pay the ultimate price, but challenging injustice in our places of work, in our communities, among family and friends is never easy.   We have to choose.

But do not be afraid, says Jesus, for God is with us always.  Not a sparrow falls without God’s knowledge and we are of far, far greater value than many sparrows!   The God who calls also enables, and he will fill us with the grace and strength sufficient for  the work he call us to – building His Kingdom here on earth.  Amen

Leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 28th May 2017, at Ss Peter & Paul

Acts 1:6-14
John 17:1-11

‘Leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us’

At last, we have been enjoying the first really warm days of the year giving a glimpse of the joys of summer that await!  And as I endeavoured to garner my thoughts for this morning, I did so with the doors open onto the garden, enjoying the warmth of the early summer sunshine drifting in, and looking out on to the garden in glorious bloom, birds singing.  All it seems, is warm, peaceful and contented.

Except that it is not.  Because just as the days were warming and sun began streaming in through the windows, news came late on Monday night  of a blast ripping through the foyer of an Arena filled with young people and their families.  In an instant, the young, vibrant life that was coursing through that happy crowd turned to death.  22 people, including children and teenagers, were killed, many more suffered life-changing injuries.  The lives of countless families were devastated, ripped apart by the deliberate  and premeditated actions of a young man barely older than some of those whose lives were taken from them, a man driven by a grossly distorted vision of what it mean to be a Muslim, driven by an ideology fuelled at least in part by hatred.

The people of Manchester, the people of our nation, the people of cities and countries across the world have been shocked once again by the breathtaking inhumanity of such a callous and barbarous act. In the midst of life, there is death.  And for a moment there was a pause in our national life.  There is a sense in which we need to stop, to absorb insofar as we can, what has happened and what it means – what it means for the families most deeply affected and for all of us; what it means to say ‘Alleluia, Christ has risen!’ when for many people Good Friday is a real and present experience.  What can we draw from the story of the Ascension that we hear again this morning; how does it speak to a world that is both utterly glorious yet painfully broken.

Last Tuesday evening,  Tony Walsh  joined the people of Manchester as they gathered in Albert Square – people of all faiths and cultures, people from across the spectrum of Mancunian society – people gathered in a sign of unity and solidarity – to remember people  who had died, people who were injured, people who were watching, waiting and weeping.  Tony read his extraordinary poem ‘This is the place’.  His words spoke when we were lost for words.  Poetry does that – gives us back the words we need.  As Janette Winterson noted: The poem becomes part of what had happened as well as a way of talking about it.

Poetry and poetic language gives depth to our story-telling, able to convey intensity, truths that might otherwise have eluded us.

The theologian and writer Paula Gooder notes that the authors of the books in both the Old and New Testaments draw naturally on the language of poetry and poetic imagining ‘to give depth to language about God, who by his very nature defies description.’  Such language, she says, challenges us today  ‘into an act of poetic imagination which takes seriously the reality of God and the reality of a realm beyond our own, governed not by the principles that so easily drive us, but by a different way of being ruled by love, compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness’.

Such a challenge faces us as we hear again the story of the Ascension in the light of the events of the past week.

During his earthly life, time and time again Jesus encouraged the people to widen their imaginations, their understanding of how they saw themselves, how they perceived God, and how they perceived their relationship with Him.  Jesus challenge is as real for us as it was for the people of Palestine 2000 years ago.  Can we in the light of our faith re-imagine who God is and who he wants us to be in the care of his world and its peoples?

Can we imagine the amazing truth that humanity and divinity are not like oil and water – remaining completely separate – but inseparably bound together – for that is what the story of the Ascension affirms.  That story makes absolutely clear that the humanity which God assumed at the incarnation is not something temporary – God became fully and completely human in Christ; and that humanity, with its astounding beauty and capacity for goodness and gentleness, and in all its ugliness and brutality, that humanity, flawed though it is, is now taken into the very heart of God.  The ascended Christ remains both fully human and fully divine, and where Christ is, there we may be also.

There may be times in our lives when, like Jesus as he hung on the Cross, we feel the absence of God rather than His presence; there may be times when, in the face of the awful cruelty, the brutality and indignity human beings inflict on one another, we are tempted to despair; there may be times when we cling to our faith in a just, loving and compassionate God by the skin of our teeth.  But year by year, as we explore the story of God’s relationship with his people; as we reflect on the wonder and mystery of God revealed in Christ, we are reminded that God in Christ is no longer restricted by time or place, but  is with us always, no matter what, no matter where, no matter when.  And He will take our flawed lives, our stumbling and imperfect efforts and transform them in the building of his kingdom.  How?  Through the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  He just asks that we open our hearts to that gift, widen our imaginations and dream.  Then the impossible will become possible.

The giving of that gift, celebrated by the Church in seven days time at Pentecost, strengthened, encouraged and emboldened that group of fearful, flawed and hesitant disciples to become the effective dynamic witnesses to Christ ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’.  It is the beginning of that work, with its joys, their dreams, its challenges and its hardships that Luke recounts in the Acts of the Apostles.  The fruits of that work we experience here today, and see in the life of communities across the world!  The fruits of that work we have seen in a very powerful way in Manchester:

·        The people  working for our emergency services who responded immediately – coming from their beds, their days off, their holidays – to give help care and support to the injured, the dying and the bereaved

·        The taxi drivers who offered their services free of charge to take people to their homes or places of safety.

·        The homeless men – Chris Parker and Steve who had been sheltering in the foyer of the Arena, could have turned and run for their safety but instead stayed to help the injured and the dying; Chris holding a young woman who died in his arms; Steve helping to comfort, to ease the pain of children caught in the blast.    ‘You had to help’ they said.

·        People who came to give blood.

·        People who opened their cafes to provide free drinks to the emergency workers.

·        People who took to the hospitals across Manchester food and drink for the staff.

·        People who opened the doors of their homes to strangers, offering all that they could to comfort and support.

·        People who prayed for healing, unity and forgiveness in the Churches, Temples, Mosques and homes – not just in Manchester but across the cities, towns and villages of our country.

The story of the Ascension as told by Luke in Acts moves not only outwards from Jerusalem, but also downwards from the mountain.  The story of Acts begins in a place where Jesus is visible, angels speak clearly and the veil between earth and heaven is momentarily thinned.  From this moment, the challenge of discerning God’s purpose will become harder!

It is through the power of the Holy Spirit always and everywhere at work in our world – that we are strengthened to continue that work of discernment; and having discerned, encouraged to dream and imagine extraordinary possibilities, then to act.  And so we discover deep within the courage and capacity to respond to the pain and suffering in our world with something of Christ’s love and mercy, justice and compassion, actively at work to make a difference in the world, the kind of difference love makes, the kind of difference that really builds the kingdom for which we long, hope for and pray for, day by day, week by week.

In the words of Rowan Williams: “If we are challenged as to where God is in the world, our answer must be to ask ourselves how we can live, pray and act so as to bring light the energy at the heart of all things – to bring the face of Jesus to life in our faces, and to do this by turning again and again to the deep well of trust and prayer that the Spirit opens for us”.

Re-imagine what God can and will do; lets widen our vision to re-imagine the world through God’s eyes, to see those around us through God’s eyes; to see God in the people we meet; lets dream and re-imagine what we can do to ease the pain and suffering of His broken yet glorious world!

‘Leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us’

Tony Walsh concluded the reading of his poem with the words:  Choose Love Manchester.

As we await the celebration of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, may we – today and in all the days and weeks of our lives – Choose Love.  For we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed. Alleluia

The reality of the Resurrection

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on 23rd April 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul

Acts 2:14, 22-32;
John 20:19-31

In some parts of the church, today is known as ‘Low Sunday’, in part because attendance may be less than for the Vigil or Easter Day; and the atmosphere is certainly quieter, calmer – the organ and choir are more restrained; fewer bells and no trumpets or tambourines; the service somewhat simpler than our Easter Vigil when the Bishop announced, quietly at first, gradually rising to a crescendo – Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!  But still the faithful and the doubting are drawn here – probably for as many different reasons as there are people here – some seeking perhaps, but not sure what; drawn to worship, to pray and to experience and be touched by the presence of the Risen Christ who reveals something of himself in each one of us, in every element of our worship, but most profoundly in the simple things of broken bread and wine outpoured.

And yet it is utterly amazing that we are here at all, for when we look back, the signs were far from encouraging!  It was hardly a hotbed of faith that Jesus walked in to when he bypassed the locked doors that expressed so much about the disciples fear. This group of frightened, uncertain people, utterly exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually, had shut themselves away, afraid perhaps of what they may have to confront if they stepped out into the wider world. But then, Jesus is there!  The wounds reveal that it is unmistakable Jesus yet he is also different, no longer subject to time and space. Into their fear and confusion, Jesus speaks words of peace, and the disciples rejoice as they glimpse the glory of God in their midst.

Yet before they even have time to absorb what is happening, Jesus commissions them to continue the work that He had begun and sends them out – beyond the safety they feel locked doors have given them, out into the world beyond.    In his Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us an insight into the reality of this outdoor life, with all its joys and it tribulations.  There is a new-found energy and vision born in them following the blessing of peace – a peace that does not bring the quiet life.  Quite the opposite – it is a peace which gives this group of once fearful and uncertain people, a new dynamic energy and the courage to be outdoors, to cope with whatever comes their way.

And so they begin the work that would take the Good New far beyond Jerusalem, out to the gentile world.  And that, my friends, is in large part why we are here this morning!

I am certain that this very ordinary group of people, people who knew joy, people who argued among themselves, people who doubted and questioned, had no idea what God was about to achieve as they stepped through those locked doors.  But, their willingness to trust, to walk in faith and hope, to take a risk began the work that led to the eventual spread of Christianity across the world.

But what of Thomas – the other significant person in our readings this morning.   I discovered while preparing for this morning that among Eastern Orthodox Churches, this particular Sunday is  known as St. Thomas Sunday –  so let’s journey with him for a few moments, and see what we discover.

It is only St. John’s Gospel that has much to say about Thomas.  He is first mentioned when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Judea.  The disciples are dumbfounded – isn’t it in Judea that the people were wanting to stone him to death?  But Thomas speaks for them all when he says ‘let us also go, that we may die with him’.  So many mixed emotions in these words: bravery perhaps, but I also hear resignation, reluctance and a dogged loyalty.

Thomas appears again when Jesus is in the Upper Room.  He is telling his disciples that he must go away, and that they know the way to the place where he is going.  But it is Thomas who asks the question that perhaps the others dare not ask; ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

The final occasion and perhaps the best known story is the one heard this morning.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the disciples when Jesus appeared to them on the first Easter Day.   They singularly fail to convince him of the fact that Jesus is risen with either their words or their joy; Thomas insists on the evidence of what his eyes can see and his hands can feel before he will believe.

So quite clearly, Thomas had his doubts, and in a sense who can blame him!  Would any one of us have reacted differently?  But those doubts did not cause him to leave the group of disciples or follow a different path.  He continued to stay around, ………. and wait, and wait!

John records, almost casually, ‘A week later…….although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them.’

Seven days of nothing happening, and yet ……what I wonder, was going on within Thomas during those seven days;  what was he thinking, feeling, experiencing; what was being re-created.

When Jesus does appear, he invites Thomas to see and to touch, just as he had the other disciples.  But in the end, Thomas doesn’t need to!  The invitation is enough, it seems, to call forth that supreme confession of faith in the entire Gospel – ‘My Lord and my God’.

And so it is Thomas who is the first to explicitly recognise what the writer of John’s Gospel has been revealing since the very beginning with those wonderful opening words:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God……and the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….full of grace and truth”!

Thomas, surprised by God, glimpses the glory of God in the person of Jesus, the word made flesh and living among us.

In Thomas, we glimpse the transformation of reluctant dogged loyalty mingled with doubt into radiant joy, and as we catch that glimpse we are encouraged to remember that if it can happen to him, it can happen to me, to you, to any one of us!

Jesus comes to us in the midst of our uncertainties, doubts and fears as he came to those first disciples. He places himself in our hands in the simple things of broken bread and wine outpoured.  He reveals himself to us in the kindness and generosity of strangers; He speaks to us through our experiences of love and being loved; he speaks healing words of forgiveness that release us into new life; He comes to us in every encounter that lights up our lives!

This is the reality of the resurrection, a reality with the power to transform the darkness of our world into a world filled with light and joy, hope and peace.   This was the Good News that Thomas and those other disciples were called by Jesus to take beyond the safety of locked doors and proclaim to the wider world.  I hope and pray that our faith will take wings this Eastertide, opening our eyes to the glory of God in our midst, and giving us the courage to take risks and go beyond what feels safe and secure to proclaim the hope and joy of the Resurrection, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Who knows what God is already doing and will continue to achieve in and through our sometimes faltering steps yet faithful steps!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!!

Making all things new 

Sermon preached by Rev David Walsh on Easter Day, Sunday 16th April 2017

Making all things new

On Good Friday one of the church’s prayers asks God to:

let the whole world feel and see
that things which were cast down are being raised up
and things which had grown old are being made new
and that all things are returning to perfection through him from whom they took their origin.

It may be a Good Friday prayer, but for me it sums up what Easter is all about.  Actually, for me it sums up the central hope of Christian faith: things which were cast down being raised up; things which had grown old being made new.

It’s a theme woven through the pages of the Bible.

Right towards the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God says ‘Behold I make all things new’.

And the apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, describes the hope at the heart of his faith: ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.’   (Romans 8.21)

The resurrection story we’ve just heard isn’t describing a one-off event in the past.  It provides a foretaste, a glimpse, of how things will one day be.  That day is in the future.  But we –  now – can taste for ourselves something of the new life God promises.  God wants to make all things new.  And he wants to start now.  With me.  And with you.  With this church.  And with this town of Kettering.

Twenty centuries on our main witness to the resurrection are the changed lives of those touched by it.

Let me tell you just one such story, set 20 years ago, on Easter Day 1997.  A man walked into a church for the first time in many years.  In some ways, this man wasn’t so unusual in his relationship to Christian faith.  When he was younger, he’d been a committed church member.  But at some point, he started asking serious questions about the rather narrow, unimaginative flavour of Christianity he’d experienced.  Increasingly he became unconvinced by the answers he was getting.  Eventually he lost his faith and had little contact with any church for around 15 years.  This is not an unusual story. Many of us might know people like this.  Possibly there are people like this living in the same street as us. Perhaps even someone here this morning.

But in other ways this man’s story is not quite so ordinary.  His faith and his religious experiences as a teenager had been remarkably intense, at times giving him a sense of intimacy with God.  He never forgot this, even when he lost his faith.  All this had led to him training for the ordained Anglican ministry.  So, his loss of faith was also a loss of vocation.  The intervening years had not been entirely fruitless.  He’d met his soul partner and married her.  And he’d had interesting jobs.  But something vital was missing.  Later, as he looked back, he realised these years had been wilderness years.  His closest friends pointed out he’d become more selfish.  His heart was less open that it had been before.

But on Easter Day 1997 he happened to find himself in church at an all-age service and heard the gospel story just read to us.  Afterwards the Vicar talked to the children about the two disciples in this morning’s gospel reading. Their friend and leader Jesus had died.  It must have been, said the Vicar, as if everything they knew about God had died.  The former ordinand thought back to the time he’d lost faith and said to himself ’15 years ago God died in me.’  And immediately he realised he was not alone, that others before him had had a similar experience, and they included the two men in our gospel story, founders and rocks of the early church. Maybe there was space in the church for someone like him after all.

The Vicar continued to tell the children the story of the two disciples on their way to the tomb.  But now as the former ordinand listened, he found himself walking alongside the two disciples, sharing the journey.  And suddenly he was brought up short by the realisation he knew how this story ended.  He was now on a journey towards the tomb of Jesus, and it was Easter Day.

Suddenly an image flashed into his mind, of green shoots pushing up through concrete.  At the same time, he experienced what felt like a movement in his chest, as if the green shoots were actually sprouting inside him.  Overcome with emotion, he left the church and spent the rest of the service trying to come to terms with what had happened.  This was the moment of his reconversion to Christian faith.

Twenty years on, his life is completely changed, his faith has blossomed and continues to do so.

This is just one of countless stories which could be told of lives transformed by encountering, experiencing the new life at the heart of the Easter story.  I just happen to know this story rather well.  Because that man was me.

And that’s why I’m standing here today.

Not just because of something that happened twenty years ago.  I’m here because I believe the Easter vision of new life is possible not only for individuals, but for communities: for a town like Kettering, for a church like this one.

The resurrection was not the resuscitation of a dead man, restoring to him the life he had just lost.

No, what is depicted is the breaking into the world of a completely different order of reality, one in which life and not death has the last say, the ultimate reality.

The Christian vision is that this completely different reality is in fact our future, our destiny.  That what happened to the man Jesus will one day happen to us, will one day happen to our world, our universe.

But this new life is not just in the future.  In the meantime, those of us who follow Jesus are summoned to invest in that which brings life, rather than death.

‘Why do we continue to put time and energy into parts of our lives that belong to the past, that are no longer fruitful if they ever were?  Why do we not put our energy and our time into life, into God’s kingdom, since this is where our true treasure is?

Ask yourself where the genuine life is in your world.

Ask yourself where the genuine life is in our society.  The creative, the risky, the unpredictable, the life-enhancing, challenging.

These are the signs of God’s kingdom.

But too often we allow ourselves to get fobbed off with the easy option: the well-ordered, the predictable and certain; the option which minimises our risks.

But these are not the places where the risen Christ is to be found. And these are not the places for we his followers to be looking.

We are an Easter people; and our joy is the vision of the risen Christ, who reveals to us that death need not have the last word, that God has greater things in store for us, for the whole of his creation.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

‘I am the resurrection and the life’

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on Sunday 2nd April 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’

These words from today’s gospel reading are familiar as the opening sentence of many funeral services.

In the Christian vision, life and death are tightly intermingled. The apostle Paul writes:

‘while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.’ (2 Cor 4. 10-11)

There are echoes of this in familiar words from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘in the midst of life we are in death’.

For Jesus and those who followed him in the adventure of faith, death was an ever-present reality. At the heart of our gospel reading this morning is a death, followed by life. But the possibility of death is present from the start of the story to its end. Before Jesus travels to Bethany, where Lazarus lived and where he has died, his disciples warn him against going there, because it’s just two miles from Jerusalem, and the religious leaders in Jerusalem want Jesus killed.

And our gospel reading has a postscript, which we didn’t hear this morning, in which the religious leaders plan to kill not only Jesus, but also Lazarus, who’s become something of a local celebrity and is drawing large crowds.

This has always struck me as an unintentionally comic moment in John’s Gospel, highlighting the incapacity of the religious leaders to respond to the challenge presented by Jesus. A man has been raised from the dead, an event demonstrating that when Jesus is involved, death is no longer the ultimate sanction or threat. And how do the religious leaders respond? They plan to put the man to death again. Their response simply highlights their impotence and increasing irrelevance. Something new is happening in their sphere of influence and they are not part of it.

Life and death are intermingled in this story, in a way unfamiliar to many of us.

It is as if our brains have two separate compartments, one concerned with ‘life’, the other with ‘death’, and it’s impossible for both to be switched on at the same time.

And yet there is a small group of people whose stories suggest that true life, life lived in the here and now, life lived with passion, commitment and authenticity, isn’t unconnected with awareness of death. These are people living active lives who suddenly discover they may only have months or years left to live. People of course respond in all kinds of ways to this shocking news and understandably the responses can include fear, anger and regret. But there are a significant number of people who end up responding by living in a way they’ve never lived before: recognising what really matters in life and putting to one side the stuff which ultimately doesn’t matter at all. Such people must wonder why they hadn’t done this earlier, why it has taken the imminence of death to show them what life is truly about.

So, death and true life are perhaps not so unconnected.

The prospect of death, the reality of death, can teach us how to live. Some of you will know of Bronnie Ware’s book ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’. Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She writes of the clarity of vision people gain at the end of their lives and how we might learn from their wisdom. ‘When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,’ she says, ‘common themes surfaced again and again.’

What are the top five regrets of the dying?

First, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’

Second, ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’

Third, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’

Fourth, ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’

And fifth, ‘I wish that I had let myself be happy.’

So, it can take death, or rather the imminence of death, to reveal to us what life is truly about.

And there are others for whom the possibility of death is wrapped up even more closely with a meaningful life.

Let me read some words from Martin Luther King’s sermon at Selma, Alabama in March 1965:

‘Deep down in our … creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life – some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the delayed announcement of an earlier death of the spirit’.

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.’

50 years later, I’m sure Luther King wouldn’t object if I point out this is equally true for women.

So, here’s the paradox. In order fully to be alive, we need to be ready to die. We need to be unafraid of death, knowing that some things are more important.

The story of Lazarus has had a significance down the centuries far beyond the space it takes up in the New Testament.

It’s believed by quite a few biblical scholars that Lazarus is the man described by the Fourth Gospel as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ That might be hard to take in if you’ve been told all your life that the disciple whom Jesus loved was John, one of the Twelve. But I think a closer look at the text of the Bible shows it to be quite plausible and I’d be very happy one evening to lead a discussion about this fascinating idea.

If it is true, it identifies Lazarus with the disciple in the gospels least afraid of death and most clear that death is not the end. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the one brave enough to be present at the crucifixion and watch Jesus die. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the one who looked into his tomb, and seeing the linen wrappings lying there, understood that he had risen. And the disciple whom Jesus loved was expected by many in the early church never to die.

So, today’s reading possibly had a significance even at the time far beyond the space it takes up in the Gospel. Whether or not that’s so, the story continues to resonate down the centuries. When David Bowie died last year, it was less than a month after the release of his final single, a single in which he clearly reflects on the possibility of death, a single named simply ‘Lazarus’ after our gospel reading today.

We seem to live most fully when instead of allowing our fear of death to shut it out of our thoughts, we accept it and live in the face of its reality, find some way of making it part of our lives, even allowing it to shape our lives.

Engaging with the reality of death whilst we’re still alive isn’t the only way to hold life and death together in our minds. For followers of Jesus, we also do this by engaging, even when death is present in our lives, with the reality of the life God promises us. This vision of resurrection gave Martin Luther King the courage to risk his life for what really mattered. We too need to be people, followers of Jesus, ready to take risks for what matters.

Not just in our individual lives, but also as a church. Churches, like people, experience a kind of death when they become afraid to take risks.

The bones strewn across a valley in our graphic first reading are a picture of God’s people, who have experienced a kind of death. God wants to breathe his life into us and to say to us, as he said to the people of Israel: ‘You shall know that I am the Lord. I will out my spirit within you, and you shall live.’

 

 

 

 

Who are we?

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh at Choral Evensong, on Sunday March 26th 2017
ISAIAH 43. 1- 7; EPHESIANS 2.8 – 14

Who are we?

We may think it’s obvious who we are. But there are many ways of answering this question ‘who are we’?

NATIONAL IDENTITY

The question ‘who are we?’ as a nation is rather important at this moment in our history. We are British, but what would it mean to be ‘British’ if Scotland gained independence? We are British, but are we also European, whether or not we belong to the European Union? Is Norway European? Is Switzerland European? And if they are, despite not being in the EU, how does it affect our understanding of ourselves that we are European as well as British?

Or that, as well as being British, we are English rather than Welsh?

‘Who are we?’ The answer doesn’t seem simple, even if we look just at our national identity.

FAMILY IDENTITY

There are many other ways of answering the question ‘Who are we?’ We start our lives as sons and daughters. That doesn’t change, but what it means to be a son or a daughter changes greatly through our lives, until we can reach a moment when our parents feel almost like children in their need and dependency. We remain sons and daughters even beyond the old age of our parents, but as a memory rather than as a lived experience. And through all those years, we acquire at the same time new identities: brother, sister, husband, wife, father, mother, grandparent, great-grandparent.

NAMES

So who are we? Who am I? When someone asks me the question, my answer is normally simple: ‘I’m David.’ We identify so closely with our names that for me to say ‘I’m David’ is more than passing on information about my name. It sums up in one word the whole bundle of memories, characteristics and emotions that make me ‘me’. And although I’ve changed, my name hasn’t. It provides continuity, enables others to identify me with the baby born in the Royal United Hospital, Bath, in February 1959.

And yet names not only reveal identity: they also conceal it. Yes, our surnames say who we are by identifying us with a family stretching back hundreds of years, all sharing the same name. But surnames only tell half the story, failing to identify us with our mothers and their families. And for many married women their names mirror the disruptions and lack of continuity in their lives, as they lose one name at marriage and acquire a new one.

So names, at first sight so simple a badge of identity, turn out to reflect the changes and complexities in our identity. They also make it clear that our genes and our families are far from being the only noteworthy thing about us. Although our surnames have been fixed for centuries now, often they bear witness to a time when someone’s name and so identity was wrapped up with what they did for a living: Smith, Mason, Wright, Butcher, Baker, Potter, Cooper, Taylor, Thatcher, Miller, Cook, Fisher, Shepherd.

ASCRIBED AND ACHIEVED STATUS

There’s been quite a lot of public conversation in recent months about different kinds of identity.

One way to make sense of the current disagreements in our country is to identify two different types of people: on the one hand those whose identity comes largely with things they were born with: a nationality, a language, a family, a town; and on the other hand, those whose identity is largely a matter of what they have achieved, through education and work, often by moving away from a town, from their family, sometimes even moving nations and learning a new language.

Sociologists have their own words for these two types of status in our society: ‘ascribed’ status and ‘achieved’ status. But there are simpler ways of putting this: we could instead see the divide as being between people who come from somewhere in particular, and people who could come from anywhere, whose roots and origins seem almost irrelevant.

The way we see ourselves – and the ways others see us – are important because they shape the way we behave.

THE IDENTITY OF CHURCHES

And so it’s not surprising that Christian faith raises questions about our identity. Of course who we are is shaped by the particular Christian tradition to which we belong. If instead of being an Anglican priest, I was ordained into the Coptic Orthodox Church; or the leader of an independent charismatic church, then I would understand my role, and so my life, in rather different ways.

The earliest Christian communities had within decades developed their own individual character or identity, and this becomes clear when we read the letters written to them by the apostle Paul’s, when we read the very specific way he addresses each church, revealing something of its character and identity:

To the church at Corinth, Paul writes: ‘We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.’ (2 Cor ‪6.11-12‬)‬

To the churches of Galatia, Paul writes: ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ Did you experience so much for nothing?’ (Galatians 3. 1a, 4a)

To the church at Philippi, Paul writes: ‘You Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.’ (Phil 4.15)

To the church at Thessalonika, Paul writes: ‘We boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.’ (2 Thess 1.4)

THE LETTER TO THE EPHESIANS

But Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, from which we heard earlier, lacks anything addressed to its recipients this specific. And although book of the Bible has always been known by its title of ‘Ephesians’, we now know that the very earliest copies of the letter are addressed simply ‘to the saints who are faithful’, missing out the words ‘at Ephesus’.

So it seems quite likely that the New Testament book we now know as the ‘Letter to the Ephesians’ started life as a general letter and that what ended up in our New Testament was a version of the letter which found its way to Ephesus.

OUR IDENTITY BEFORE GOD

But this doesn’t stop the letter from exploring issues about identity and reaching conclusions presumably not only for Christians at Ephesus, but also in Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonika and Kettering. It’s true for Christians in all these places and others because it’s talking about something more fundamental, our relationship with God, our standing with God.

The Letter to the Ephesians, in words we heard earlier, makes it clear that for God our identity is not something we achieve ourselves, but something ascribed to us, as a gift: ‘by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God … For we are what he has made us.’ (Eph 2. 8, 10a)

‘We are what he has made us.’ There is no such thing in the spiritual life as the self-made man or woman.

The big identity issue troubling the early churches was the divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians, and the letter to the Ephesians addresses this issue head on:

‘Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near … For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us’. (Eph ‪2.13-14‬)‬

In other words, their identity as Jews or Gentiles has now been transcended by a new identity they share in Christ. And this might remind us of the apostle Paul’s words in the Letter to the Galatians:

‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3.28)

We don’t completely lose our identity when we accept our place in the family of God. But we are given a surname which transcends our differences.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah God addresses a foreign ruler, Cyrus, whose actions will unwittingly play a part in the history of God’s people, of his family:

I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me. (Is 45.4)

If God calls by name someone who doesn’t know him, if he gives him a new name – surnames him – as he becomes part of God’s purposes, how much more will he do so for those in his family, his people? And just two chapters earlier, in words we have heard this evening from the Book of Isaiah, God addresses his people and says:

‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. ‘ (Is 43.1)

Each of us here today has their own unique identity. For each of us it is complex and embraces family, place of birth, nationality, language, work and so on.

But ultimately through all the changes in our life, our true and ultimate identity is hidden with the God who made us, who loves us, who calls us by our name. ‘Who are we?’

The answer is ‘God knows’

Are we ready, willing, to be surprised by God?

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday March 19th 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul

Exodus 17:1-7
John 4:5-42

Loving God, by your Holy Spirit,
take these words such as they are and do with them as you will,
take us such as we are and do with us as you will
for your greater glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As we reach our halfway point through this season of Lent, we continue with stories of wilderness journeys and encounter as we travel with a complaining and grumbling people through the wilderness, and encounter Jesus and a woman at a well, surprised by God.

A few years ago, Mike and I had an experience of wilderness journeys.  We were in Western Australia visiting friends who took us and their caravan on a 1500 mile journey north into the Pilbara, a large, dry and thinly populated area with some of the earths most ancient natural landscapes going back some 2 billion years.  There is little other than arid bush-land and mile upon mile of extraordinary landscapes and red dry earth.  The remote nature of our journey necessitated carrying with us all supplies including water – an experience that gave me a stark reminder of how precious water is.  We had to ration ourselves and think about how we used every drop.  Believe me; you can shower – just occasionally – in only 1 litre with the aid of a rose sprayer!  We cooked over camp fires and, with no street or city lights to obliterate the view, we saw the heavens in all their vast and wonderful beauty; I was reminded again of the wonder and glory of God’s creative love.

It was for both of us a real adventure, something that we had chosen to do and an experience that taught us much – about ourselves and about this wonderful world and its people.  We knew that this journey and the necessary privations experienced were time limited; and we knew with reasonable certainty when and where the end point would be.

Not so for Moses, and his grumbling, travelling companions.  Freed from slavery, they were en route to the Promised Land with absolutely no idea where it was, where they were going, or how long the journey would take.  They are a motley crew of refugees, travelling with little in the way of resources; moving from oasis to oasis.  It was a time of danger and anxiety and they were struggling to trust Moses and to sustain their trust in God.  Yes God had led them out of slavery, but where was he now – would He take care of them?  All the hope, enthusiasm and the euphoria following their Red Sea experience had gone, life was hard and they were complaining.  And I have some sympathy for that!   For a while eve, slavery seemed the better bet where at least they had plenty to eat rather than this freedom in a wilderness where there was nothing.

But as he had faithfully done in the past, God provided for their needs.  Those needs satisfied, life is calmer, people’s hope restored.

But it doesn’t last.  Memories of God’s faithfulness and care are quickly wiped clean by the challenges of the here and now.  They are thirsty; water is in short supply so they moan and complain yet again, trying the patience of Moses – ‘why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord? God answered their anguish, saying to Moses “Go ahead of the people…..I will be in front of you on the rock of Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it.”  Even today, experienced Bedouin know to hit the rock exactly where water is to be found, dislodging the sediment blocking it.  Moses struck the rock, and the people drank.  Through the abundant amazing generosity of God, the wilderness is transformed into a source of flowing life.  God provides, sometimes in the most surprising way.

Those deep questions of faith and trust in God are powerfully connected to the experiences of our lives:  when times are tough, and the wilderness feels real, faith and trust may falter.  As for many people right now, it may be a shortage of food and water; for others it may be illness; broken relationships or relationships that trap us; enslaved working conditions, or unemployment; homelessness; or grief that threatens to overwhelm.  At such times, we too may question and join the travelling companions of Moses in their cry – ‘Where is God now?’  Yet the story of God and his faithfulness to the people he has loved into being is a consistent story of love and generosity – God giving to all creation what is needed for its life and flourishing.  Our hungers, our wants and needs and whether they are met are not the measure of God’s faithful generosity.  Rather they reflect our individual and communal selfishness and reluctance to live in a way that truly reflects the loving, self-giving generosity of God.

We glimpse this loving generosity in the remarkable story of Jesus and the woman at the well.

Jesus is travelling to Galilee and, we are told, had to go through Samaria.  He is tired, thirsty so sits by the well, longing for a drink of water and no means of reaching it, when along comes a Samaritan woman to draw water.   Would these two people play by the rules of how culture and religion dictated how God ‘ought’ to work; or would they be open to God’s providing in unexpected and surprising ways!

What follows is astonishing, not least because the barriers between the two people are great – Jesus a Jew; the unnamed woman a Samaritan.  A wall of separation divides Jew and Samaritan just as great as the wall of separation today between Jew and Palestinian.  A wall built then with bricks of fear, bigotry and suspicion just as it is today.  Men and women would not talk to one another in public – it was considered highly inappropriate.

Yet here is a woman who, it appears, is outcast by her own people for she comes to the well at noon – the hottest part of the day.  Women would normally go together to draw water early in the morning or late in the afternoon when it is cooler.  They do it in company, a time for social interaction, and a chance to catch up with neighbours and the news of family.  But this woman goes alone at a time when she is far less likely to find anyone else around – avoiding gossip, snide comments and the possibility of being hurt – yet again.

Jesus opens this extraordinary conversation by inviting the Samaritan woman to give him a drink.  As the conversation unfolds, He promises her ‘living’ water; a term familiar to people of that time; it spoke of fresh, flowing, sparkling water as opposed to that which was stale, brackish.   How the woman longs for this.  But what Jesus is offering is something quite different; a source of life flowing within her, enabling her to be truly and joyfully herself.  So she is unsure about what Jesus is really offering, doesn’t understand and yet deep within the core of her being, feels something is changing, something for which she has been longing.

They talk about her relationships, and she quickly realises that incredibly this man knows the details, the truth about her life, a life marked by emotional trauma making it difficult for her to develop deep and lasting relationships; a life that has left her isolated, living in her own wilderness.  Yet here is a man that seems to see into the depths of her being, really knows her.  Even more incredible for the woman is that knowing what he does, Jesus does not condemn her, but treats her with respect and loving kindness, accepts her as she is!

They talk about religion, faith, and the differences in understanding between their communities; the conversation draws to its close in the most astonishing manner:  the woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus tells her that he is the messiah.  So He reveals his identity not to his disciples or his own people, but this person who is marginalised three times over – she is a Samaritan, a woman and an outcast among her own people.  We do not even know her name, but Jesus entrusts her with his deepest secret – the truth of who he is.

Her experience of Jesus is brief, her understanding far from complete; she has no training, no commission, but transformed by her experience, the woman leaves what is precious to her – her water jar filled with water – and runs back to Sychar, telling her community – “Come and see…”  And they do, so many of them that Jesus refers to them as a field ready to be harvested.

These stories leave us with encouragement and much to contemplate as our journey continues:

  • God is there with us with the power to transform our lives, even when life feels more like a wilderness.
  • We are known and loved by God, each one of us, as we are! No if’s, no buts!
  • God is not bound by our limited vision and prejudices; He will surprise us, meeting us in the most unexpected people and in the most surprising places.
  • God surprises us in so many ways, not least in our opportunity to say ‘Come and see….’ based on our own experiences.

Are we ready, willing, to be surprised by God?