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

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!!

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?

Consider the lilies

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

Romans 8:18-25
Matthew 6:25-end

‘Consider the Lilies’ is part of a series of paintings entitled ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ painted by Stanley Spencer. It is what you see on the front of our Order of Service this morning. ‘Consider the Lilies’ is one of eight in the series, owned since 1983 by The Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth – so rather a long journey awaits if you want to see them!

It’s generally thought that Spencer had intended 40 paintings in the series, each depicting a day Christ spent in the wilderness. While we cannot know for certain, Spencer’s own writing suggests two possible intentions for his paintings. One is that each work would be displayed in turn during Lent. The other is that the paintings were intended for the 40 square panels in the ceiling of the chancel of his beloved church at Cookham in Berkshire.

In the event, however, only eight paintings were completed, and these during the first few months of the Second World War when peoples across Europe found themselves flung into a wilderness.

But this morning, Spencer’s ‘Consider the Lilies’ helps us to explore the profound depths of this passage of scripture in Matthews Gospel and what it is that Jesus is endeavouring to instil in his disciples, in us. But Spencer does it in a delightful upside-down kind of way.

Because even a quick glance reveals that these are not lilies that Jesus is considering, but daisies! Here we have the everyday common daisy that grows willy-nilly in our gardens and countryside; the daisy that is so often trampled underfoot, barely noticed; the daisy that some will go to extraordinary lengths to obliterate from their lawns! The daisy that children will wonder at and make chains from. A tousle-haired Jesus is surrounded by them – no arid desert wilderness this, but a place of lush plenty with trees in the distance and what seems to be an early morning mist rising.
Jesus himself is monumental, vast, looking for all the world like a man who has enjoyed the invitations offered to share meals, who enjoys all the good things of God’s good creation, God’s banquet! And yet as we gaze at this picture, we perhaps notice that Spencer has painted Jesus resembling the rocks in the landscape recalling perhaps the worlds of the Psalm ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation’.

Monumental he may be, yet there is also a child-like quality about Jesus who is down on all fours gazing in wonder at the daisies around him, gazing intently at their simple yellow, white and pink tinged beauty. Why, I wonder, is Jesus staring so intently at these daisies? Perhaps for no other reason than because they are; delighting in them simply because they are made to be!

Christ contemplates the daisies – the beauty of God. And it seems that the daisies in the foreground contemplate him – the love of God. Christ and creation, a mutual regard of love and wonder.

There is a wonderful stillness in this painting, conveying a sense of calm, a sense of peace.

Contrast that image with the experiences of some this week. People whose lives were torn apart by the power of nature as the huge avalanche crashed down a French mountain close to the Italian border killing four people. Elsewhere starvation threatens, and three UN agencies have warned that an ‘immediate and massive’ response is needed to avert catastrophe in Somalia where more than 6 million people, half its population, are facing the “very real risk” of famine. War and persecution continues to blight the lives of so many peoples across our world, and the Arab world in particular; and still there are thousands of unaccompanied children across Europe seeking safe refuge from those wars, persecution or famine. Sadness, fear and anxiety are very real experiences in the lives of countless people across our world just now.

If we had to think of images of creation groaning, these might describe it very well. Day by day, we all share in what Paul describes as the groaning and labour pains of God’s world, its life and its community. But it wasn’t always like that.

In the Old Testament lesson set for today taken from the very beginning of Genesis, we hear again the story of creation (remind yourselves of the story again by reading it during the coming week). Time and time again, God looks at his creation and declares that it was good. And then, God creates humankind in his image, blessed them, saw everything that he had made and declared that it was very good. God is filled with joy and delight!

Genesis describes for us very clearly how things are meant to be, what joy each part of creation is meant to give the rest and how all of it is there to love and be loved by humankind whom God makes to be sharers in his own pleasure.

But human selfishness – sinfulness – distorts the relationship between peoples and God’s glorious creation. Yet deep within us is that yearning and call to be and reflect the image of God, to recognise it in one another and the whole of creation. Paul is no idealist; he understands the depth of the personal struggle and challenge involved in this yearning for a few verses earlier he says:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate……..For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!(Romans 7:15; 22-25)

Paul is not without hope! Creation is groaning, but that groaning, like a woman in labour, signals that unstoppable new life is coming to birth, glimpsed in the life and work, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, Paul argues, we groan, we wait, but we do so with eager longing and with hope! The foundation for our hope is the goodness and constancy of God and his love; glimpsing that goodness seen in creation helps us, encourages us to wait patiently and with hope, striving for God’s kingdom.
So back to our picture. Inspired by the teaching of Jesus, Spencer enables us to visualise Jesus who, like a child, is simply enjoying the moment, no anxiety here about food or drink or clothing, or anything else for that matter; but completely present to the object of his gaze, simply lost in wonder and joy, seeking God in what to many of us would be the most insignificant of flowers – the daisies we so often ignore, or trample underfoot!

As we gaze upon this picture, we contemplate the God who is completely and utterly present to his creation lost in love and wonder, joy and delight. We see an image of God gazing at his children – the daisies in his creation – gazing upon us with the same tenderness, joy and delight, totally present to us, completely focused on this moment in your life, in my life, in the lives of every one of us.

As we gaze, He invites us to find that same joy and fulfilment in being the people we are meant to be, encouraging us to grow where we have been planted, striving for the potential that is within us and to know that we are loved. We see the God who invites us to look upon each other in the same way that Jesus contemplates the daisies, completely and profoundly present. We see the God who invites us to seek his kingdom with the same childlike dependency and joy we see in Jesus. And as we gaze, God invites us to an awareness of his breaking in to all those moments that make up our lifetimes.

Accepting that invitation, we become ever more alive to the presence of God in our lives, in the lives of each other and through all creation. That cannot but change the way we relate to each other, to our communities and the natural world. And that is what it means to dwell in God’s Kingdom, and calls our hearts to sing with joy ‘How great thou art!’ Amen

(Inspiration for this sermon taken from ‘Christ in the Wilderness – reflecting on the paintings by Stanley Spencer’ written by Stephen Cottrell)

Image result for consider the lilies of the field spencer image

Come and see!

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 15th January 2017, at St Peter & St Paul, and St Michael and All Angels

Isaiah 49:1-7
John1:29-42

 ‘What are you looking for?’  They said to him ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’  He said to them, ‘Come and see’.

 Last Sunday, we heard again that story wonderfully rich in colour and imagery of the wise men, people travelling from afar, impelled to discover and explore what God was revealing to them.  Here were people, ready to question in search of deepening their wisdom, travelling with minds and hearts open to new possibilities; people filled with expectation; people travelling ever onward, undaunted when things don’t go exactly as they had imagined.  Remember? Their expectation was that a child born to be king would be found in Jerusalem.  Willing to have their world view challenged, they go onwards to Bethlehem.  In this relative backwater, and in the ordinariness, the particularities of family life, they recognise the extraordinary, the wonder and glory of God revealed in the vulnerability of a small child; they recognise all that they have been travelling towards, seeking, and so are compelled to worship and to offer their gifts.  Wise to the manipulations of worldly power, they return home via another road.  They had travelled a long and dangerous journey, had found what they were seeking and were changed by their experience – the return journey would never be the same as their outward.  Long before, something had prompted them to ‘come and see’; they took an enormous risk and were rewarded by the revelation of God himself.

This morning, we hear the story of other men drawn to ‘come and see’.  The story opens in Bethany with John the Baptist surrounded by people, some of them religious folk sent from Jerusalem.  They had been questioning him, trying to pin him down as to who exactly he was.  John gives them clues that they struggle to pick up.  These men are not on their own journey, seeking understanding, but men sent to get straight answers to the questions of others.  I sense frustration in John’s voice when he says:  Look, this is what I have been doing, but standing among you there is someone who is so much greater than me and you don’t even know him!

The next day, out among the people once more, John suddenly sees Jesus coming towards him and announces to the crowd: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  He goes on to tell them all that he has himself experienced and concludes: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  I find myself wondering what range of emotions and feelings were experienced by that crowd drawn to listen to John for their many and varied reasons – curiosity certainly; wonder perhaps; incredulity, utter disbelief – and I suspect fear.  For all too often we are driven to fear rather than wonder when faced with something, someone we don’t fully understand.

Later still, John  is standing with two of his disciples and he says to them “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  As soon as the two heard this, they left John and followed Jesus.  John had no illusions about the nature of his calling and its limitations.  After all, later on in John’s Gospel we hear him say ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.  John the Baptist understood that he could only lead people so far on their journey seeking God and then let them go to be guided by another.  God’s call to serve is costly.

The declaration of John will lead to an intimate conversation and the lives of two men will be utterly changed – Andrew and his unnamed companion – are the first to leave John and follow Jesus.  They are taking a risk, walking away from what is known and familiar towards that which is unknown yet inviting, compelling.  And so they walk, and in time Jesus turns, sees the two following him and asks ‘What are you looking for’ or as older translations record it ‘What do you seek’.  Here perhaps the older translation is more helpful – I may look (as I regularly seem to do) for car keys that I know I left on the kitchen worktop! – but I seek meaning in my experiences of life and faith.  Jesus looks at these two men and asks – ‘What are you seeking’.

I wonder – What would our response be if Jesus were to come in through those doors right now, look around at each of us and ask – ‘What are you looking for – what are you seeking’.  What would our response be – as individuals and as a community?   Are we seeking a safe life where everything is familiar and unchanging, or something more dynamic where our views and understandings of God and His world are challenged? In these early days of a new year, it bears considerable reflection on our part.

Caught on the hop, Andrew and his companion adopt the age-old trick of deflecting the question with a question of their own – ‘Where are you staying?’  Jesus answers – ‘Come and see’, an invitation to abide.  And so the two follow, and remain in Jesus company for the rest of the day.  Something happens to Andrew during this time – like the Wise Men he glimpses the extraordinary in the ordinariness of this particular human being drawing him in to a deeper relationship even when he doesn’t fully understand.  But the experience impels him to go in search of his brother, Simon and tells him ‘We have found the Messiah!’ drawing Simon to ‘come and see’ for himself.  God reveals and Andrew responds – just as the prophets and the Wise Men before him had done.

Jesus looked at Simon, called him by his name and added ‘you are to be called Peter.  All too soon, Jesus will look at him again – this time in the courtyard of the High Priest, and Peter will break down in tears.  For now Jesus calls him by his name, knows him as he is, but tells him things will change, he will become Peter, the Rock.

At our baptism, Jesus calls each one of us by name; He will continue to call, continue to reveal something of himself amidst the ordinary everyday of our lives; continue to invite us to come and see; should we choose to accept that invitation, we too will be changed, gradually becoming the person He calls us to be.

At an inner city church in the Elephant and Castle, South London, the Church Warden arrived early in the morning to open up only to find the side door swinging open. There had been robberies in the past although since the candlesticks were taken some time ago, there is little of value left to pinch.  So, it was with caution that the Church Warden entered – and saw was all the candles alight – main altar, side altar, about 20 or so on the votive candle stand, the candle in front of Our Lady – in fact there wasn’t a candle that hadn’t be lit.  And there, a few pews from the front, a solitary man sat, still.  He hadn’t broken in to rob or to damage; he had broken in to pray and it appeared had been there half the night.  He and the Warden chatted, he apologised for the door and then he left.  Later in the day, as people gathered for Evening Prayer, it was agreed that there was much to admire in a man who had gone to such remarkable lengths simply to get in to a church to pray.  Call the police?? Certainly not.  Oh that more people were so keen to come to church, to pray.  Someone asked whether he was ‘OK’.  What was meant by that was not defined, but the priest took the person to be asking if he was a bit unstable. The priest deflected the question but then asked if any of us are truly’ OK’, and was that not the reason we seek the source of amazing grace and love who continues to call us, inviting us to come and see, to experience healing grace.

Life is full of opportunities to show that love which is the mark of Christ in the ordinary particularities of life – if we dare to follow and grasp the opportunities.  A man on his own near a church in the South of London felt an overwhelming need to connect with the God who was calling him in the only way he knew how – to go inside a church and to pray.  We may question the wisdom or the appropriateness of his action but the priest, who by the way is Giles Fraser, one time Canon of St. Pauls Cathedral, goes on to say he totally gets why someone might break into a church to find what he is seeking.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that people should break in to churches.  But when things do happen that challenge our world view, then we can choose how to respond. Sitting in the quiet of that South London church at night surrounded by the light of candles, and the companionship of God, perhaps the man saw something as if for the first time and God knows how that will impact upon his life, and what road he may travel.  Clearly the people gathering for Evening Prayer, who also experienced a different way of seeing, did what the Wise Men and Andrew and Simon Peter did – they responded, taking a different path.

In a few moments, we will be encouraged once more to come and see, glimpse God’s glory in the simple everyday things of bread and wine, simple things transformed through the power of love.  As we open our hands to receive, let us dare to pray that God will grant us a new vision of what it means to respond to the invitation – Come and See – not just within these walls but into our town and beyond.

An adventure awaits with the potential to change the world!  AMEN