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

Bear fruit worthy of repentance

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 4th December 2016, at SM&AA and Ss P&P

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

Advent is a time when we find ourselves waiting – hopefully, expectantly; a time of anticipation as we prepare both to celebrate the coming of Christ at his birth while also looking ahead to time when he will come again to judge the world, heralding God’s Kingdom in all its fullness. That patient anticipation, waiting watchfully is counter cultural in a world of frenzied activity that only seems to increase at this time of year. It is counter cultural in a world that exerts commercial pressure not to wait but to have everything, do everything – NOW. ‘Get what you want today with fast track same day delivery’; mobile phones and computers ‘ping’ demanding our attention NOW! Deliberately switch both off or go for a walk leaving them behind closed doors and you find yourself challenged as to why you did not instantly respond to your caller when in all likelihood there was nothing that justified such an urgent response!

But there is nothing passive or finger drumming about this kind of waiting that Advent calls us to share. In her book ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting’, Paula Gooder likens it to a pregnant kind of waiting, ‘profoundly creative involving slow growth to new life. This kind of waiting may appear passive externally but internally consists of never ending action……that knits together new life’.

Through Advent we find ourselves in the company of others who have faithfully watched and waited long before us, among them the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist and of course Mary. This morning, we hear the words of two of them, men whose lives were separated by at least 400 years – Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Isaiah’s words are spoken to a people living in deeply troubled times with the constant threat of war and oppression. Isaiah’s words enable his hearers to dare to hope as they glimpse a new vision, a future when a king will come from the same root as David bringing forth a new order; a person upon whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God is invariably given for a specific task. So Isaiah tells us that the promised king will come with a particular mission – and the emphasis is on just judgement with a particular concern for the poor.

Isaiah’s vision would have us understand that the just rule of God looks forward to the restoration of paradise when the world and all creation will be so suffused with grace and peace that even the natural world is transformed and the primeval way of life restored. So through Isaiah’s vision, we are enabled to glimpse the world as God yearns for it to be.

And as we glimpse, we are reminded of God’s call to each of us to play our part – for by virtue of our baptism, God’s spirit rests upon us to bring good news to the poor, release to those held captive and freedom to the oppressed. Isaiah’s vision reminds us to look around, to look out in to our world, for if we really look, we can see flashes of that end time in our world now: we glimpse it when Palestinian and Israeli come together to make music; we glimpse it in the kindness of strangers; we glimpse it in the generosity of spirit that gives to people who have little or nothing; we glimpse it in the wonder and beauty of the natural world.

Perhaps like me you have been enthralled by David Attenborough’s latest series, Planet Earth 2. The photography is stunning and I am in awe of all those who go to untold and often very uncomfortable lengths to enable us to glimpse the wonders and miracles of this world that we inhabit. Week by week, the programme has also posed a challenge, spelling out in no uncertain terms the cost of the impact of the human species on the natural world and the degree to which we are rapidly destroying our environment and the ecological balance upon which we all ultimately depend. We are, it seems, a long way from Isaiah’s vision of creation as God longs for it to be, a peaceable kingdom where all may flourish.

Professor Stephen Hawking, writing in the Guardian on Friday, was reflecting on the growing inequality across our world and how he believed it was the driver underlying the recent political changes both in our own country and in the USA. he concluded by saying that
“….the really concerning aspect of this is that now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans…..right now we only have one planer and we need to work together to protect it.

To do that we need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations……We are going to have to learn to share far more than at present.

We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood to elarn the lessons of the past. To learn above all a measure of humility.”

Meanwhile, we are all on a journey travelling between the imperfect here and now to the perfect yet to come. Travelling in hopeful anticipation, with a sense of longing in our hearts.

As we travel, we hear once more the second of those two voices mentioned earlier – John the Baptist, the one sent by God to witness to and prepare the people for the coming of Jesus. John, who always pointed away from himself to someone far greater. His style of waiting was certainly not passive; his waiting was disruptive, abrasive, unsettling, so unsettling that it would bring about his own death. But it was essential in preparing the way for Jesus ministry.

We find John out in the wilderness, down at the edge of the River Jordan. He is drawing great crowds, people from Jerusalem, across Judea and all the region along the Jordan, people longing to hear a message of hope in troubled times. Perhaps some were intrigued by this extraordinary man, others drawn by the power of his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’. The Greek word translated into English as ‘repent’ means so much more than simply saying sorry, and living differently. It requires a complete reorientation, a change of direction, starting again, living in a new way, living if you like kingdom lives where faithfulness to God was reflected in relationships rooted in forgiveness, justice, compassion and mercy. And quite shockingly for these people, that reorientation involved recognising that forgiveness for sin could take place not only outside the temple, but outside Jerusalem.

The Pharisees and the Saducees – the respectable and the pious – do not get a warm welcome at the waters edge. “You brood of vipers!” he calls them. Yet even vipers will be transformed in the kingdom of peace. John challenges them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance!” Such fruit cannot grow without a real and deep change of heart. John would not allow them (or indeed us) to rest on their status, their past or their ancestry. Then as now, goodness does not depend on who you have been, or where you have come from. Rather it depends on the choices you make, your relationships and dealings with others, and upon who you are becoming. This new growth is the fruit worthy of repentance.

Advent is a season of hopeful waiting, filled with anticipation. But Advent it is also a season of challenge. John’s words are as much a challenge to us today living in our fragile broken world, as they were to the people 2000 years ago standing near the waters edge. We are challenged to grasp again John’s disruptive spirit of reorientation, to turn and follow a new path, allowing ourselves to be changed, moulded and shaped anew by the Divine love flowing through us and all creation. We are challenged to grasp John’s disruptive spirit and open ourselves to God’s law of love and forgiveness, compassion and justice; opening ourselves to the spirit of fire that it may burn away all that is selfish and destructive, creating space so that new tender shoots will grow and flourish. For only then will we be truly ready when He comes. We dare to venture on this journey of repentance in the knowledge that God is with us, waiting for us, calling us onwards.

The kingdom of heaven that draws near will be filled with peaceable lions, lambs freed from fear and vipers transformed. In the kingdom of God all will feed in abundance, live in peace and we will bear for each other the best fruits of repentance. Let’s dare to dream, as we continue to journey joyfully and lovingly, in faith and hope. Amen

Living and walking with God is not safe, but it is always good! (SsP&P)

Sermon preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at Ss Peter & Paul on 18th September 2016

Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13

There is a wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” where Lucy, the youngest of the children to go through the back of the wardrobe and enter the magical world of Narnia, meets Mr. Beaver.  In this magical world of talking animals and evil queens, Lucy feels a mixture of wonder and fear after hearing about Aslan, the Great Lion and king of Narnia.  Lucy inquires of Mr. Beaver, “is he quite safe?” to which Mr. Beaver replies with air of indignation “Safe? Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good.”

 Rather like Lucy who wants to know that the ruler of her mystical world of Narnia is safe, we want our God and our faith to be safe and comforting, preferably making no great demands on our time or our treasures.  But that is not the Kingdom of God – God’s Kingdom is not safe in terms on worldly values and norms but it is good.  For God’s kingdom shakes everything up, turns expectations and values upside down and re-creates extending His kingdom in the most expansive and glorious way!

 And if we are in any doubt, listen to Luke’s story this morning, and we quickly realise that Jesus is far from safe, always good and transforms the values and expectations of the world with the values and goodness of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom that will always surprise us with the boundless transforming love and mercy of God.

 Jesus has been travelling around Galilee with his disciples – preaching and teaching about God’s Kingdom and what it means to be builders of that Kingdom.  He has been revealing this Kingdom to those with eyes to see in raising the dead, healing the sick, welcoming sinners and embracing the people who are lost, lonely and unloved, the downtrodden and these whom so many in society regard as  outcast, unworthy.

 And in doing all of this, Jesus has ruffled some feathers, not least those of the pious religious leaders for whom adherence to the strict laws laid down in the Torah was all important.  The laws governed every aspect of individual and community life, and adherence to these laws demonstrated faithfulness to God.  The laws helped them to feel that they could contain God, make him safe.  God, though, isn’t safe, but is always good.  And the manner in which that same Law was interpreted left so many of God’s people feeling alone, unloved and unworthy to approach Him.

So feathers were ruffled because what Jesus was saying posed a direct challenge to the authority of the scribes and Pharisees; the religious scholars and leaders became increasingly irritated by his choice of dining companions and the relationships he developed with people from every walk of life, many of whom were  regarded as unsavoury or unscrupulous characters.  Their fear of this ‘threat’ would ultimately lead Jesus to the cross, but for now, he answers their criticisms through story-telling, Parables.

 This morning’s parable follows immediately after those three parables that David referred to last Sunday, parables about lost-ness.

 The first is the parable of the lost sheep.  A shepherd is looking after his flock of 100 sheep and one wanders off.  He leaves the 99 and searches high and low until he finds the one that is lost.  And when he does so, he rejoices!  Shepherding was a familiar way of life to Jesus listeners, and still is in many places across our world today; listeners then and now would know only too well that any shepherd worth his or her salt would never leave the flock to search for one sheep.  But this shepherd does, leading those with ears to hear to recognise that God’s Kingdom is different and his way contrary to the ways of the world; God is not safe, but is always good and comes looking even when we wander away.

A woman had ten silver coins but one disappears so she lights a lamp and turns her house upside down and inside out until she finds it.  And when she does, she throws a party, costing far more than the coin was worth.  The norms of this world might say put the coin in a secure place or invest it; but the Kingdom of God finds reason to rejoice and to celebrate!  God is not safe, but always good!

And then there is the story that comes immediately before this morning’s parable – the story of the lost son.  The younger of the two sons does not acquit himself well.  He demands his inheritance while his father is still very much alive, continues to make some selfish choices, offending nearly everyone and only comes to his senses when he realises that something must change if he is to survive.  It is out of this self-interest rather than a sense of sorrow and repentance that he returns home.  Still some way off, his father sees him and throwing dignity to the wind, runs towards him, embraces him and throws a party to celebrate the return of the son he presumed was dead.  The older brother, devout and faithful, didn’t want a bar of it but, his father says: “This son of mine that was dead is now alive, the one who was lost is found”. God’s Kingdom tips the understanding of this world upside down; the world would seek to punish but in God’s kingdom, the younger son discovers the amazing grace and forgiveness that have been waiting for him the whole time – God is not safe, but is always good and forgives even when we cannot.

 In this morning’s parable, the dishonest manager is in an equally bad situation and for the same reason – he has acted entirely selfishly, misappropriating company funds, without concern for how his actions will affect others. When his employer begins to work this out and threatens to fire him, the manager once more acts out of complete self interest and begins wheeling and dealing with his employer’s debtors, reduces his portion of their commission and cuts their interest rates.  And, one imagines, he does this so that he can call in some favours when he loses his job!  But his actions have transformed a terrible situation into one that not only benefits him but others also – and he has gone some way to building relationships with the vendors rather than simply collecting bills and commission.  We don’t know whether he actually holds on to his job; we are only told that his employer commends him for his shrewdness.  God is not safe, but is always good, full of surprises and turns our world upside down with his overflowing gift of amazing grace.

 According to Luke, the parable is addressed to disciples; this would probably have included those with whom Jesus was sharing meals – the tax collectors and sinners – those whom he had said would be welcomed into the Kingdom of heaven and who had chosen to follow him.  Here Jesus makes clear that their reception called from them a response and that they were to ‘make friends’ by right use right use of ‘dishonest wealth’, using it in the service of the poor.

This morning we come face to face with God who takes our norms, our expectations, and our preconceived ideas and turns them on their heads.  Jesus invited his hearers to see, to understand and know an outrageously generous God who lavishes that generosity and grace on each and every one of us.  And such generosity we are reminded calls forth a response from us – that we are equally generous – generous in love, generous in compassion, generous in forgiveness, generous in justice.

 In telling these remarkable stories, Jesus sets out to shock – to shock us out of our self-centred complacency, to rethink and re-envision what our world could become if we were to fully embrace the values of His Father’s Kingdom and live according to those values.

 We proclaim a God who is always ready to overturn our understandings and widen our imaginations, a God who will take risks for the building of his Kingdom, a God who is not safe, but good.

God insistently and consistently points towards the good, and the good does not always feel safe.  There is a comfort about staying safe, in the still waters of what we know; but still waters ultimately stagnate, and a stagnant pond or river ultimately dies.  Waters need to move in order that the oxygen of life can fuel them.

 Last week, David reminded us about the wonderful heritage that has been gifted to us, the ability of this community in past ages to inspire and to grow the Kingdom of God in this town.  But he also reminded us that even with this heritage and all that we have been in the past, we too could die if we are not willing to risk letting go of what feels safe and allow ourselves to embrace the shocking nature of God’s Kingdom and allow him to lead us in to places we never dreamed or imagined that we would go! But we do it, confident that God is always with us, welcoming children around his altar, loving us, forgiving us when we make mistakes and get it wrong, energising us and inspiring us, moving us ever onward and forward!

 Living and walking with God is not safe, but it is always good!  Amen

The cost of being a disciple

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 4th September 2016

Luke 14:25-33

 The first few words in this morning’s Gospel stopped me in my tracks, because they seem to fly in the face of what I thought I understood about what it means to be a follower of Christ – that I should love God with all my heart, mind and strength and love my neighbour as myself.

 But this morning I hear Jesus telling the crowd listening to him that ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and life itself cannot be my disciple.’

What is going on!!

Well, we need to take ourselves back insofar as we can to the Graeco-Roman world of the first century, when Luke would have been writing.  For in the culture and understanding of that time, the idea of hating someone meant something quite different to our understanding today.  The people hearing Jesus speaking would have understood the word ‘hate’ to have meant something akin to ‘love less than’ rather than the much stronger feelings attached to the word today.

What Jesus is saying to his listeners is that discipleship makes incredible demands of each of us – and there may be times when we are faced with painfully difficult and challenging decisions – whether to follow where God is calling, or to stay with our old life where we feel safe and secure.  We do well to reflect on this today as we prepare to welcome David as our new Parish Priest later this afternoon.  For God has clearly led David here to move us on, to challenge us, shake us up and to help us grow.  But the choice is ours – to follow where God is leading, rejoicing in the opportunity to grow together and to flourish, or to stay with what we know and where we feel safe, but risk stagnating.

 Jesus further illustrated the cost of discipleship with the story about a man considering building a watchtower: ‘For which of you’, he says, ‘intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?’

Our baptismally vows call us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, but the choices before us may not always be easy.  I glimpsed something of this some 20 years ago now when I was very happy in my home town in Suffolk where I had hitherto spent most of my life, enjoying enormously the ministry to which God had called me.  But God was beginning to kick me up the backside so to speak, and it was becoming clear that he wanted me to move on.  I ignored that prompting for some time, but God is persistent and ultimately I had to respond and actively begin to discern where God was calling me to go.  And so it was that I came to Kettering as part of the discernment process and once more God made it crystal clear that this is where he wanted me to be.  But the choice was mine – whether to follow where God was clearly leading, or stay where I felt safe and secure amidst my family and friends.  Well you all know what my answer was for here I am but the decision to leave behind family and friends was not an easy one and it was costly, but through it God has richly blessed me!  And if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure that I had fully thought through the cost.

But before we are tempted to lose heart, the Gospels also remind us that not all disciples joined Jesus on the road. In fact, he positively encourages at least one to stay at home and rather tell of all he has discovered about Jesus to the people of his village.  And even those who did become fellow travellers were not perfect:  they failed to see the obvious; they squabbled over status and one of them denied him.   But Jesus does not set people up to fail and scripture teaches us that there are many ways to be a disciple.  All that God asks is that we try – that we keep on trying and never give up.

 Jesus is telling that large crowd that followed him and every one of us here that if they and we wish to be his followers, then we will experience the joy of his presence but may also be faced with isolation, misunderstanding, challenges and pain; it will not be an easy ride and we may find ourselves having to make some very difficult choices if we are to be taken seriously.

The exceptional life of discipleship to which we are all called challenges us to think about our attitudes and responses as individuals and communities towards all those amongst whom we live – those who are born in this country, and those who are here following migration.  The shocking news of the murder of the Polish gentleman earlier this week in Harlow – murdered it would seem because he was not born in this country – should make each of us question the values that underpin our common national life and identity.  We are called to work for a just and fair society, a world that affirms the dignity of every man, woman and child who are all, whether we like it or not, children of the one Heavenly Father who rejoiced to create us and in whose image we are all created.  This is the outward expression of our faith which gives us credibility.

We cannot take up the cross without deepening our faith and trust in the God who calls us, increasing our love for Him and all God’s children, and putting aside our own demands.  But when, by God’s grace, we are enabled to do that, our eyes are opened, our minds are broadened, and our very lives are transformed by the richness of God’s love and grace – a power that enables us to achieve what we never thought possible, a power that enables us to become more truly the people God created us to be, a power that will ultimately enable all his children to live a life of dignity in peace – to the glory of His Name. Amen

We have a banquet to offer all people

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 28th August 2016

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.  And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you….’

As we gather here this morning to worship God, we sing, we pray, and we share the gift of a simple meal.  And we listen – to each other and to God speaking to us through all these things and through the words of scripture.  And as we do all of this, we are reminded of a profound and utterly amazing truth – that God loves each and every one of us – not just those of us here, but all people everywhere across our world- we are loved no matter who we are, no matter our age or circumstances, no matter our faith or beliefs.  God simply and gloriously loves!  He loved us into being, and he continues to love us into the fullness of life, not because of what we are, or what we do, what we have done or will do in the future, but simply because we are! – the wonderful, extraordinary, beautiful, fallible children of God.  God’s love has no strings attached – He loves us, not because we are loveable, but we are loveable precisely because God loves us. That love will never falter – it is infinite and everlasting.

And because we are loved, we are called to love.

Yet so often, we seem to find it so hard to grasp that reality; it’s a real struggle for some people to believe and comprehend that they are loved; and I would dare to suggest that it is a constant struggle for most of us to love unconditionally, a struggle made harder by our preoccupation with issues of power and status. Over time, that preoccupation, fed by our inability to love with no strings attached, has had and continues to have devastating consequences resulting in pain, hardship and injustice.  Being a person of faith does not exempt us from this struggle.  We only have to look at the tensions currently within the Anglican Communion over issues of sexuality and same-sex marriage to be reminded of that.

Jesus, and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, confronts each of us head on this morning.

St. Luke tells us that Jesus has been invited for a meal – a banquet –  at the home of a leader of the Pharisees.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaching about banquets points to the life of God’s Kingdom; they celebrate the flourishing of people living in relationship with a generous God and with one another.  On this occasions, you sense that something else is also going on here for Luke tell us that ‘they were watching him closely’.  But Jesus has also been watching others who had also been invited, and he noted how they were jostling for position, choosing for themselves the places of honour.

In somebody else’s home, and surrounded by hostile eyes, Jesus make no attempt to curry favour with his host or the crowd, and turns the spotlight on his watchers.  They, not him, become the spectacle.

Jesus tells two stories about dinner-parties, cutting straight to the heart of the obsession of the Pharisees and other community leaders with hierarchy, position and judgements about others worth and value.

Frequently in the Gospels we see people coming to Jesus with the same kind of questions about hierarchy and position; about how to measure and order their world and find the best place for themselves.  Jesus simply refuses to answer in those terms, and tries to get the people to work with a completely different set of assumptions.

The guest, he says, must remember that it is not his dinner-party and he cannot decide for himself who should sit where.  The party is given by someone else and the host alone has the right to determine the seating arrangements.

Further more, Jesus seems to be suggesting to his distinguished audience that they have no idea at all of the criteria that God uses to send out his invitations.  No amount of working our way up the hierarchical ladder is going to guarantee admission, and if you do get invited, you may find yourself in some unexpected company!

The writer to the Hebrews picks up the same thread.  ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.’

We don’t do that very well, it seems for I was reminded earlier this month that we are failing to honour commitments under the Dublin regulations to bring unaccompanied refugee children into this country and reunite them with their families.  To date, only 40 children and teenagers have been allowed in to Britain with a further 110 in Calais identified as being eligible – but no action has been taken in their cases.  Another 200 children in the camps in Calais are eligible for sanctuary in Britain under the Lord Alfred Dubs amendment to bring child refugees to the UK, formerly a child refugee himself.   Ministers said that several thousand were expected to come to Britain – so far there have been just 20.  We are not, it seems, doing very well in showing hospitality to strangers and sharing our banquet with others – and it brings shame on us all!

Time and again, Jesus challenges those who believe that the way to God can be mapped out according to human rules and values, but the words of Luke and the Letter to the Hebrews tell us that nothing could be further from the truth; the ways of God are gloriously contrary to the ways of the world.

Dave Smith is an inspiration.  He is the founder of two Manchester based Christian charities – The Mustard Tree which works with the homeless and marginalised, and the Boaz Trust, which helps destitute, refused asylum-seekers and refugees by providing accommodation and support and campaigning for a more just asylum system.  Those who work for the charity experience on occasions the joy of seeing clients who have received ‘Leave to Remain in the UK’ notices and Dave Smith wrote the following after one such experience:

The Letter

Today the letter came.

Today you came in to the office,

with the letter, smiling,

no longer the same.

I have seen you smile before:

not often, in the last six years of waiting,

and always wistfully,

always tinged with sadness,

always hiding the hurt beneath.

But today

because of the letter

your smile was wide,

your hug intense

your brow unfurrowed,

your frown unfurled,

your worry-lines ironed out,

you eyes alive with light –

all because of the letter.

If only they understood

what the letter means to you,

and thousands like you.

If only they understood

why you were willing to suspend your life

indefinitely

until the letter came.

I wish I could frame your smile,

bottle your new, light heart,

capture in print your unburdened soul,

and send them a copy.

Maybe then they would understand

that you are not, and never were

a number to be counted

a statistic to be quoted

an inconvenience to be ignored,

but a living being

a daughter

a mother

a sister

a friend

and most of all,

a child of God.

And today,

as you smiled your freedom smile

I could see, almost for the first time

the image of your creator

that the letter had

at last

released.

In our churches, through the grace of God, we have a banquet to offer all people, and especially people in need.  It isn’t just a banquet of worship and prayer, but also of space and sanctuary, food, friendship and hospitality.   God has no seating plan for his extraordinary guest list.  This morning Jesus challenges us – do we do all that we can to offer hospitality, inviting, encouraging people to share in this banquet?  And if not, what are we going to do about it!  Amen.

Put your trust in the one true God

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at a baptism at St Michael & All Angels on 14th August 2016

Jeremiah 23:23-9, Luke 12:49-56

‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’

 So here we are, gathered to witness and celebrate the baptism of Eva, Ruby, and Louie and together to share in a meal of simple foods – bread and wine, a gift given to us by Jesus, a meal he asked us to share.  Then into these celebrations come those hard hitting words of Jeremiah and Jesus, words that challenge us and perhaps make us feel uncomfortable, words that you may think a bit strange for a baptism.  So what is going on?

 Well, I would like to suggest that if we dig around just a little, we may come to the conclusion that in fact, that are perfect words for a Baptism, reminding us what it means to be a member of this community we call ‘the church’, a community committed to following Jesus, playing our part in building the Kingdom of God He came to proclaim.  So let’s do just a little bit of digging and see what we find!

 The words of Jeremiah were written a very long time ago; words born out of a time of injustice, chaos and often violent conflict, culminating in the siege of Jerusalem.  People were starving, many were dying; national and family life was being destroyed.  Many of those who survived were then deported as slaves.  The destruction of the Temple shook the religious and political foundations of the people’s identity.  From this maelstrom came questions about meaning – where was the God who gave them land and promised to be with them.  Had God abandoned them, forgotten them? Events cried out for interpretation to give new understanding.  This is the work of Jeremiah – to explain events, divine justice and to point the people to a new way of living, a new future.

So this morning, we hear Jeremiah speaking to a people in exile.  We hear God’s anger directed at the false prophets claiming to speak for God, yet their words are filled with lies and deceit, aimed at making the people forget God.  Jeremiah interprets all that the exiles have experienced, their pain, their suffering and the demise of the nation, and sees much of it rooted in the lying and deceit of priests and prophets, and the leaders who have duped the people.  But the faithfulness and loyalty of the exiles is also challenged – they must close their ears and their minds to the words of false prophets, and place their trust, their loyalty in the hands of the one true God who will lead them back to their promised land.

But people struggle and are reluctant to change; so God continued to speak through his prophets, urging new beginnings, putting God at the centre of their lives.  The last of those prophets was John the Baptist, calling the people to see the works of God in their midst; pointing the people to ‘the one who is more powerful than I.  He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

And that of course is Jesus whose strong words about division and fire ring in our ears this morning; words that make us feel uncomfortable.  A stark contrast to Jesus teaching about forgiveness, peace-making, being non-judgemental, but words we need to hear.

Jesus can see that a crisis is coming, and his own fate will be bound up in that crisis.  It is a crisis that will see once more the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  We can hear his desperation, frustration that so few of his contemporaries could see what was happening around them.  They were good at forecasting the local weather, so why, why can’t they see what is going on around them – from the Roman occupation to the oppressive regime of Herod; arrogant high priests and the Pharisees making people jump through more and more legal and ritualistic hoops rather than enabling to draw closer to the one true God who calls them; the diminishing of God’s children rather than enabling them to grow and flourish.  And in the middle of it all a young man announcing the Kingdom of God, healing the sick and releasing those bound by life’s injustices.  Why were the people so unable to put two and two together and realise that a crisis was looming – a catastrophic confrontation and clash of cultures – the Kingdom of God pitched against the kingdoms of the world, a crisis that would tear families and communities apart.

Still today, there are people in our world living under siege, suffering intolerable violence and starvation.  Then as now, to live according to the values of God’s kingdom poses a challenge, a threat to all who would rather adhere to the values of the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus urges us to look at what is happening around us and to measure that against the values of his Father’s kingdom.  He has no voice but ours and we, together with the church throughout the world, must find our prophetic voice, and with courage speak out against the injustices that diminish our brothers and sisters.

This is the work of all the baptised people of God, the work that Eva, Ruby and Louie will share. In Baptism, our lives are bound to the life of Christ and we commit to a way of life that gives life – that shines like a light in the dark corners of our lives, our communities, our nation and our world.  In these early years, Eva, Ruby and Louie’s parents and Godparents, through God’s grace,  will teach them by their example what this means.  It will not always be easy; difficult and perhaps painful, decisions may have to be made.  But that is the only path that will ultimately lead to freedom, justice and wholeness, shalom – true peace – for all God’s children: children of all nations, colours, cultures and creeds.

It begins with water, the stuff of life itself, without which nothing can survive.  Yet water can also drown and destroy.  Baptism is about both these – symbolising the movement from death to life – from being self-centred to God-centred.  This morning, the water flowing over the heads of Eva, Ruby and Louie will symbolise that movement to new life; and in that action is brought together all the mixed stuff of life and God’s transforming love. Amen

Ask, and it will be given to you

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 24th July 2016

Colossians 2:6-19 & Luke 11:1-13

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

I was a great Terry Wogan fan, especially during the days of Wake up to Wogan.  The banter between himself, his producer Paul Walters and the various news readers combined with the contributions from his listeners – the TOGS (Terry’s Old Gals or Geezers for the uninitiated) would always bring a smile.  That joyful banter provided the backdrop to the business of getting young children up, dressed, fed and off to school, breakfast left for Mike when he came in from milking, and me off to work.  And in the midst of the music, Irish humour and banter there would be a few moments space for reflection provided by Pause for Thought and I remember three contributors in particular from those long ago days: Fr. Brian D’Arcy, Rabbi Lionel Blue…..and the third – a man whose name escapes me now, but the manner of his offerings remain fresh in my mind.  For this was a person who spoke with a very strong Scouse accent and enabled us, the listeners, to eavesdrop on his regular telephone conversations – with God!  And perhaps I remember them because of their raw honesty, they were so refreshingly normal – a Liverpudlian talking to God about the ordinary everyday of his life – the minutia as well as the major stuff of life, telling God about the joys and sorrows of the world as he saw them, but also demanding, challenging and questioning God – and always with the wonderfully, shamelessly audacious take on life and faith that seems to come so naturally to many Liverpudlians!

We glimpse some of that same audacity in the parable Jesus tells his disciples concerning the request of one friend to another at midnight for loaves to feed an unexpected guest, especially since the householder would have had to get up and first make the bread from scratch.  No possibility here of diving in to the freezer for supplies!

But the context is about hospitality both given and received; it is about welcome and generosity, of relationships of trust and love, in a time and place where the cultural understandings about hospitality left no room for a meanness of spirit – if a traveller arrived needing food and shelter, one was under an obligation to provide it, no matter the time of day or night! The one friend persists in his request, because he knows that his sleeping friend will in the end understand and will respond!

The relationship that allows this freedom in prayer, the kind of freedom that I glimpsed when eavesdropping on the conversations between our Liverpudlian and God – that kind of freedom was born out of Jesus teaching his disciples to call his Father  our Father.  This was utterly revolutionary and may indeed, have scandalised some.

Radically, Jesus dared to abandon special religious language when addressing God.  He spoke Aramaic in daily life, but when Jews prayed, they spoke in Hebrew.  But here we have Jesus using, and teaching his disciples to use the Aramaic familial name ‘Abba’.  Jesus gifted to his disciples an intimacy never before experienced, an intimacy that was sadly lost for a time when Latin became the language of the Church.  It was only after the Reformation that something of that intimacy and wonder was recaptured when ordinary people experienced once again the wonder of speaking to God in their own language and dialect.    It is hard for us today to comprehend the wonder of that moment, the realisation that God spoke our language – whoever and wherever we were!  But praying in everyday language is surely the natural consequence of the incarnation – praying to the God who shares our earthly life and experiences, in all its glorious wonder and beauty and in its rawness, pain and brutality.

Luke tells us this morning that Jesus was praying in a certain place.  He doesn’t tell us where but we do know that while he would visit the Temple in Jerusalem and the synagogue, he would also go into the hills, or out on to the lake or up the mountain to pray; he would pray wherever he was.  And so this morning we hear that the disciples are there with him, perhaps watching as they will have watched in the past.  They will have been familiar with the traditional prayers practiced within the synagogue and within the home.  And yet their response on observing Jesus suggests that his way of praying was quite unlike anything they had ever experienced or practiced themselves.  They wanted something of that for themselves – ‘Teach us to pray’ they ask.

And Jesus does just that, and gives them a prayer.  He doesn’t teach them about the importance of stillness, or correct posture and breathing, or focusing the mind, or finding the right place.  Jesus shows them that it is possible to approach God as a loving parent while still recognising and acknowledging God’s holiness and mystery.  He teaches them to talk to God, bringing the whole muddle of our lives – the mundane and the gloriously wonderful, the joy, the questions and anger, to God.  In the space of a few words, they and we – will learn to focus on the coming of God’s Kingdom, as the most important object of prayer while asking for the essentials to keep them going through life.  Jesus shows them the importance of forgiveness – to God and to us; so important that we need to share it and get our relationships in order.  Finally, the disciples are taught to ask for all that they will need to cope with the demands and challenges, risks and dangers that Kingdom building will inevitably bring.  He gives them a prayer that that would remain on the lips of his people 2000 years on.

The amusing story about  a man waking his friend demanding bread for his visitors was a way of telling the disciples (and us) the importance of seeing prayer as something basic, day to day; it is not sanitized, only bringing to God the things we think he will like.  Jesus encourages us to talk constantly to God, bombarding him and involving him with every part of our lives.  ‘God’ and ‘prayer’ are not to be carefully wrapped and placed in a box, and brought out on a Sunday.  But go straight to God in all things, with all things. But it is also a story about persistence.  Exasperated though he is, and in spite of the entire household being asleep, the neighbour ultimately responds to his friend’s plea for bread to feed the unexpected guest.  And so we are encouraged to keep going – keep knocking, keep asking, but keep searching also – ready to see and to recognise the gifts that God longs to give.

Our relationship with God should be no different to any of our relationships.  If we only bring the best of ourselves, and guard against bringing to our relationships our  questions, uncertainties and anger, our dubious humour even, we will gradually bring less and less of ourselves, we know less and less about each other and the relationship suffers.  If we do that in our relationship with God, we risk knowing less and less about Him and how to recognise Him in our lives who loves us so much.

The other day when I happened to be in Church, a gentleman came in and wandered quietly for a while.  He lived in the north of England and was visiting his sister he told me; he went on to say what a remarkable place he thought this was – not because of its architecture, but more because of the feeling that it had; somehow he could feel the power of the prayers offered by countless generations of people who have come through these doors to worship, but also to pray quietly, informally on their own, having their own conversations with God.  The power of those prayers offered by God’s ‘living stones’, reflecting the whole rich variety of relationships between God and his children, has soaked into these material stones, mystically and mysteriously drawing others to approach the door of grace and knock.  We glimpse those very ordinary yet profoundly moving conversations between God and his children through the offerings on our prayer board – many of the people unknown to us, but all known intimately by God who draws them here.

Like the Colossians, we live our lives rooted in Christ.  The roots of that relationship are nourished and sustained through prayer, through opening our hearts in conversation with God whom we are invited to call ‘Our Father’.  Jesus reminds the disciples that no parent would respond to a child’s request for food by giving them something inedible or poisonous!  Likewise, God our Father, the source of all goodness and generosity and whose love is boundless, without measure will give liberally to those who ask, not least his gifts of love and joy and peace.

And so we are encouraged to be shamelessly audacious – keep on bring the minutia of life to our conversations with him; keep on bring the highs and lows, joys and sorrows; keep on bringing all of ourselves always; keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking – confidently trusting that we worship the God of loving faithfulness who always keeps his promises, and will give generously to us from his deep well of love and grace.  AMEN