If only we had more faith

Preached by Mrs Kate Bowers on 2nd October 2016 at Ss Peter & Paul

O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Yourself, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

 Watching television coverage of the appalling suffering in Syria leaves me crying out to God as Habakkuk does in our first reading today!

We feel impotent, wondering how the world can stand back and seemingly do nothing, yet with no idea what can be done.

And then there are those people and situations closer to home which make us terribly aware of our own limitations.  A colleague leaving school on Friday evening had been talking about a family in distress and the limitations on our ability to help, said, “We are not Superheroes!”

If only we had more faith!

That is just what the disciples ask for in today’s Gospel reading.

This reading comes from the central section of Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus has ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’.  Much of this section makes for uncomfortable reading set in the midst of conflict with the authorities and expectation of worse to follow.

No wonder the disciples wanted more faith.

And the first readers of Luke’s Gospel were followers who were facing hardship and persecution – they must also have longed for more faith.

Jesus’ reply seems to contain both rebuke and encouragement.

Rebuke – “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

But that is also an encouragement – vast quantities of faith are not what is needed! What is needed is for us to use the faith we have – even if it is less than the size of a mustard seed.

The story Jesus tells about the slaves not expecting to be rewarded for doing what they are there for seems rather harsh! It seems as though Jesus senses that the disciples are looking for faith as something to insulate them from the difficulties of their present situation and the worsening conflict they are expecting and he wants them to know that faith does not work like that – but they do already have enough faith to get on with what they are being asked to do.

I headed the email newsletter this week with the words ‘use it or lose it’.  We have enough faith but faith is there to be used.

G.K. Chesterton once said,

 “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried.”

St Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is celebrated on Tuesday of the coming week said,

“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible!”

 This was how Francis himself lived. He remains famous today not because of his own words and actions so much as because his words and actions conformed so closely to those of Jesus.

As a boy Francis dreamed of earning glory in battle.

He got his chance at an early age when he enlisted, along with the other young men of Assisi to fight in a feud against a neighbouring city-state. Assisi lost the battle and Francis was imprisoned for a time. Defeat in battle and serious illness in prison caused Francis to turn away from his visions of glory on the battlefield.

Francis’ path toward God took a series of turns closer and closer to God, rather than an all at once conversion. However, the course of Francis’ life was profoundly changed by at least two formative experiences. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis saw a beggar outside of St. Peter’s Church.

Francis exchanged clothes with a beggar and then spent the day begging for alms. That experience of being poor shook Francis to the core. Later he confronted his own fears of leprosy by hugging a leper.

Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper, he had a strong identification with the poor. Francis cut himself off from the opulent lifestyle of his father and sought out a radically simple life. By the time of his death, the love of God had compelled Francis to accomplish much toward rebuilding the church. He could look on thousands of lives transformed by his call for repentance and simplicity of life. Yet, Francis of Assisi was simply a man transformed by the love of God and the joy that flowed from a deep understanding of all that God has done for us.

Francis approach to his life of Christian service fits with Jesus words to us in today’s Gospel reading when he tells those who follow him that they are to serve with no thought of reward.

But what exactly is the work of God? In what way are we to serve him? We have the example of Francis, to add to that of Jesus’ own life and ministry. Yet, how can we in our own time and place attempt to live more fully into the Gospel?

First, there is no getting around the fact that the Bible knows nothing of professional clergy serving a congregation. The Bible teaches that all Christians are ministers of the Bible by virtue of their baptism. Then as ministers, each of us has a wide variety of jobs to do in the kingdom of God based on the gifts God has given us. While congregations benefit from the ministry of priests and deacons, the real work of the church happens when the people in the pews live out their faith in their day to day lives. This includes many thankless tasks, showing love and mercy in even small ways and even if no one notices. You know how thankless these tasks are because you have the same issue at home. Do you get thanked every time you do the dishes/empty the dishwasher? Or cut the grass? Or wash the laundry? Or make your bed? Or do your homework? Probably not. But let time pass without doing the dishes, cutting the grass, washing the clothes, making your bed or doing your homework and you are sure to hear about it. These are thankless tasks and you take them on with no thought to getting praise for doing them.

We are not to serve others for the thanks we get. We are to serve others as serving Jesus, because that is the life God calls us to.

It is in doing God’s work that our faith and our love will increase, that we will be transformed and will in turn transform the lives of those around us.

Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to trust that he could hug a leper, though he was terribly afraid. In the process, he found the faith to work among lepers. And so, again and again, his steps of faith emboldened Francis to trust God more. It is the same for us. Each step of faith strengthens our trust in God to follow even more boldly.

To come back around to G.K. Chesterton, he advised, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

That was Francis, living out a love affair with God.

When it is me and you living out the love of God, then Christianity will have been tried and not found wanting, nor will it be a series of thankless tasks.

Walking the life of faith then is not done in search of thanks or praise, but is simply an act of love. Then you and I can join Francis in saying that we are merely servants doing what we were called to do. We call ourselves servants knowing that what we do, we do for love, for the one who knows us fully and loves us more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

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“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.”

Preached at Evensong by Kate Bowers for the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist 24th April 2016.

Words from our first lesson this evening.

Tomorrow is the feast day of St Mark. As a child I went to St Mark’s Junior School. We didn’t have a school hall of our own so assemblies were held in the church hall. Over the stage in that hall was a picture of a winged lion –the symbol of St Mark. I think it particularly appealed to me because of my love of the Narnia Stories and Aslan. If you are lucky enough to have visited Venice you have probably seen the ancient bronze winged lion sculpture in St Mark’s square.

The lion is one of the four living creatures described in the book of Revelation and chosen as symbols of the four evangelists. The lion symbolizes the power of the Evangelist’s word carried swiftly  through the strength of its wings.

St Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four gospels. In the past this meant it was perhaps under-rated because it included less detail; but it is in part the brevity that gives this gospel its real punch!

When I was doing the Lay Ministry training one of my assignments was to design a cover for Mark’s Gospel. I tried to design a cover showing Jesus as the ‘Superhero’ striding towards the cross. Unfortunately my artistic talents let me down and the assessor wrote a comment indicating that he could not work out what the picture was meant to show! But the feel of this Gospel is of Jesus having a clear purpose that would bring him to the cross.

While preparing this sermon I returned to the book – Meeting God in Mark by Rowan Williams. It was a book we used in study groups in the parish a year or two ago. Who then was Mark? Early tradition suggests that he was an associate of St Peter, but Mark was a common name and so whether that is true is hard to ascertain on present evidence. It does appear that this tradition helped the acceptance of this gospel in gaining credence as an authentic account of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Perhaps more important is why Mark wrote this gospel? After all it is not about him but about the one he has found a relationship with.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God

The opening words of the Mark’s Gospel! Good news, gospel, the Greek word euangelion Rowan Williams tells us is literally ‘a bit of good news’. He compares it with a press release from Buckingham Palace or Downing Street – an announcement of good news that will change something! We could compare it to the announcement made in church this morning of the appointment of a new Rector – this is good news and it is good news that will bring about change!

Mark presents Jesus immediately – centre stage. No introduction, no family history or birth story. Here he is – the anointed one, the son of God.

He is writing the gospel for Christian communities who were living with and facing fear and persecution. The Jesus that Mark wants to show them is the incarnate God present in the world as they know it, entering into the pain and suffering of the world, taking it to himself and transforming it.

In this very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel it feels as though Jesus has come crashing into the world – ‘the heavens torn apart’; the spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness but
at the same time those present at Jesus’ baptism see an ordinary man go down into the waters then hear God’s words of love, ‘You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am
well pleased.’ This is the Good News Jesus brings to each of us, this is what will bring about change – through Jesus we are each brought into that same loving relationship with
God. That is the euangelion Mark proclaims!

Euangelion is obviously the route from which our words evangelist, evangelise, and evangelical come. Because such words have become the domain of a particular wing of the church we sometimes shy away from them or connect evangelism with aggressive attempts to convert people but we are all called to share the good news that others have shared with us. In fact, we are all evangelicals.

So, how do we share the Good News?

I have heard some very good sermons over the years but I think that it has been conversations with other Christians that have had most impact on me. My own mother started going to church because a neighbour talked about her faith and invited my mother to go to church with her.

Most of us are reticent about sharing our faith with others. It can feel uncomfortable and too personal. Sometimes we feel we can’t articulate what we believe and that others may not understand or will laugh at us. One of the enormous privileges of sharing in confirmation preparation the last few years has been hearing people talk about their own faith journeys. We don’t need to have all the answers and other people’s questions may evoke our own questions – a great way to grow our own faith. Why not start sharing your faith by talking about it with friends from church or with your family?

The German theologian Jurgan Moltman read St Mark’s Gospel when he was a prisoner of war in Scotland in 1945. He and his fellow prisoners had come to the terrible realisation of what the regime they had been fighting for had been doing in camps like Belsen.

Moltman writes:

I read Mark’s Gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction; this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now….I summoned up the courage to live again.

Mark’s Gospel changed him as it has changed others. Reading it in one sitting is powerful and not hard; perhaps you can fit it into your schedule in the coming week?

For if the gospel is to bring about change in our world we need to be transformed by its message so that we live out the gospel in both word and action.

In the words of St Teresa of Avila

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

His Master’s Voice

Preached on Sunday 17th April 2016, The Fourth Sunday of Easter by Kate Bowers.

As a small child my parents taught me to pray – every evening before bed. I can remember asking my mother why it was that when I talked to God he didn’t answer me. My mother as a wise woman who told me that if I carried on praying I would learn to hear God’s voice.

In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells the religious authorities:

“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish.”

I have been reading, The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (The Herdwick Shepherd on Twitter), which is a fascinating account of the life of a shepherd in the Lake District, the shepherding he describes is rather different from the shepherding Jesus’ hearers would have seen around them. James Rebanks describes how the community of shepherds work together with their dogs to drive the sheep to new pastures at different times of the year. The shepherds in bible times and in many parts of the Middle East today led their
sheep from place to place. The sheep learned to hear and to follow their shepherd. If you have a dog you will know how your dog responds to your voice – I watch my neighbour’s dog, Patch, each morning as he comes out through the front door. He runs along in front of the houses having a good sniff but as soon as my neighbour calls him he races back to his master.

Many of you will remember the record label with picture of a dog listening to a wind up
gramophone with the words His Master’s Voice – later abbreviated to HMV.

The trademark image comes from a painting by the artist Francis Barraud and titled His Master’s Voice. It was acquired from the artist in 1899 by the newly formed Gramophone Company. According to their publicity material, the dog, a terrier named Nipper, had originally belonged to Barraud’s brother Mark. When Mark Barraud died, Francis inherited Nipper, along with a cylinder phonograph and a number of recordings of Mark’s voice.

Francis noted the peculiar interest that the dog took in the recorded voice of his late master coming from the horn of the gramophone, and had the idea for the painting.
Jesus tells us “my sheep hear my voice.” But how do we hear it? Those who were questioning Jesus about whether he was the Messiah were told to look at his works.

A few years ago wrist bands with WWJD – “what would Jesus do?” were popular in a section of the church. Although the question is simplistic and needs to be recognised as such we can look at the way Jesus lived His life to understand how we should live our lives, we can do this by reading the bible – especially the gospels. We can help our children do this by introducing them to bible stories – in books, or through bringing them to church and Sunday club.

To go back to the analogy of the sheep and the shepherd, the sheep are part of a flock – the sheep wandering off on its own is likely to get lost and fall into danger. We need to be part of the church so we are all listening for the Master’s Voice. That is not to say we should follow blindly – don’t forget that often Jesus’ harshest words were for the religious people of his time.

Those who questioned Jesus probably did not want Jesus to be telling the truth. Why? Because what he was telling them was demanding – they wanted to tame their God to the point where he didn’t make too much difference to their lives! We so want to do that too – but Jesus doesn’t let people do that. He wants us to choose.

In a few moments Mahaeleth’s parents and Godparents will make a choice – for themselves and for Mahaeleth. You will chose to bring Mahaeleth up as part of God’s flock; to help her to hear Jesus’ voice and to follow Him.

It is a choice we all must make every day, every week – because if we listen to our Shepherd we cannot just go our own way, with what we do on Sunday making no difference to how we live out our lives on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

We have heard from this pulpit many times in recent weeks and months of the plight of refugees and been challenged to respond as Christians. It is often hard to know what we can do but yesterday the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols talked about the inadequacy of Britain’s response and his belief that many people would welcome more of the migrants here. He talked of the difficulty for politicians who know that there are fears about allowing in greater numbers and their concern that public opinion would not be with them. So perhaps an action you and I could take today –or this week is to write to your M.P. and ask for a more welcoming and generous response here to desperate men,  women and children?

The beautiful little story of Tabitha, our first reading today, reinforces Jesus’ message in the Gospel, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Tabitha is someone who has chosen to follow Jesus, to share his life and his love with all those around her. She chooses the living God, and her reward is life.

Both these readings call us to choose life. The choice is ours, but let us choose life – for ourselves and for Mahaeleth.

Signs of God’s promise and presence

Preached by Kate Bowers, October 4th 2015

Lord Jesus; May I hear your voice and speak your words;

May we hear your words and build your Church – to the glory of God the Father and in the power of His Spirit.

Eleven years ago when I was just testing the water to gauge whether or not this was the church for me I was somewhat surprised to be celebrating the dedication of the church on a random Sunday in October! Random because of course we do not know the date of the dedication of this church building!

As a child I went to St Alban’s church in Southampton, a church that was built in 1933. The date of the dedication was not only known but in my childhood there were those in the congregation who remembered the building of the church – the fundraising, which included a mile of pennies (a mile of pennies today would not go far towards building much more than a garden shed!) and who remembered the celebrations when the church was dedicated.

Some of you have long memories of this church but even so we can only imagine the building of this church. The motivation of those involved – the impact of what must then have seemed a huge building and the sight of the spire in the small market town. It is a beautiful building. A building in which people’s faith has been nurtured, a place of prayer, a spiritual home.

It seems to have become unpopular nowadays to speak of the Church building as the “house of God”. There is the concern that of course we can’t limit God to a building – however this is the place where people come expecting to meet God, in quietness, in worship, in the Eucharist, and I hope in the people who are the Church in this place.

Jacob recognised the importance of the place where God had met with him in the open air, under the stars and wanted to mark that place, using just the stone he had used as a pillow.

For many people this has been the place where they have met with God and they have responded by caring for this building.

One of the things I have learned in the few months since becoming Churchwarden here is how much time and energy some people are giving to the maintenance and care of this building. Last year in our Amazing Grace campaign we talked a lot about giving. This inevitably focussed mainly on giving money as a response to God’s grace. This month we expect the redecoration of the church to get underway and this is possible because of the way people responded to that appeal.

I know that the appeal last year had the emphasis on money and while of course our church needs and is very grateful to all those who dig deep into their pockets to help finance the running and the maintenance of the church there are many other ways to give too.

A few people are giving very generously of their time and their talents but we need a bigger team – more people to share in tasks.

We need more people to clean the church, to make it a place that feels cared for and welcoming to those who visit; we need church sitters to welcome those who come to the church on Saturdays. (Only last week Julian and I went into St Dionysus Church in Market Harborough where the church sitter was doing an excellent job looking after visitors – it is an important ministry).

We need flower arrangers, more servers, people to help with coffee, people to work with children and young people, we need people with skills in administration and in I.T…. I could go on.

If you have been blessed by God in this church please consider what you might be able to give of your time and your talents so that others might also be met by God here.

But of course the church is more than a building. I don’t know whether it is coincidence or with intent that the Sunday set aside for the celebration of the dedication in churches where the actual date is not known is the Sunday closest to the feast day of St Francis. This year the dates coincide.

Francis spent years praying to know God’s purpose for his life. One day he was praying in a church just outside Assisi – San Damiano when he heard Christ speak to him –“Francis re-build my church.” Francis assumed this meant the crumbling building he was in. He took fabric from his father’s shop and sold it to get money for the building work. His father dragged Francis before the bishop who ordered Francis to repay the money and told him that God would provide. Francis went back and rebuilt the little church of San Damiano with his own hands using stone he had begged for; but his greater work and calling was to rebuild the Church as the people of God. He gathered a group of brothers, gave them a few Gospel texts for their rule of life, and sent them out like the disciples of Jesus to live and announce the Good News of God’s love. They worked within the Church preaching and teaching about returning to God and outside the Church bringing the Good news to the poor.

We celebrate today the dedication of this building – our church, giving thanks for all that it has meant to us, remembering God’s presence with us through joys and sorrows.

We also rededicate ourselves to being the Church that God has called us to be – living stones, His Holy people.

When God came to Jacob at Bethel He came with a promise, a covenant. God was binding himself to be with Jacob and his descendants; and in the Gospel reading Jesus promises eternal life to his sheep – no-one will snatch them out of his hand.

This church with its spire pointing heavenwards declares to the community around that God is here and does not go away.

When he has promised to be with us, he does not break that promise, and we who believe in him, we who are Christians, we are to make that promise real in our lives. We don’t go away. The Church does not go away from need and suffering. The Church is there where people are bowed down, and you and I are there to offer God’s compassion and God’s promise to those broken, anxious and in pain.

So when we say that today we re-dedicate ourselves to God’s service, what we are doing is to promise again that we will be signs of God’s promise; we will be signs of God’s faithfulness and God’s presence in the midst of a community that suffers and struggles. It is for us to show in our words, in our lives, in our faces, that same love which does not go away.