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

All of you are one in Christ Jesus

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 19th June 2016
Galatians 3:23-end
Luke 8:26-39
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Luke’s story is full of pictures, imagery and emotion, a storm is raging and into that storm walks Jesus who brings calm and the storm is stilled.  It is, in many ways, the same story that precedes this in Luke’s Gospel, the story of their short journey across Lake Galilee.  Short it may have been, terrifying it undoubtedly was for those travelling with Jesus for a violent storm arose.  But as with the story this morning, Jesus speaks, the storm is stilled and peace is restored.
As I was reflecting on this story from Luke, people across the world were shocked and devastated by the merciless killing of so many people by one man in a nightclub in Florida.  And then during the early afternoon of Thursday we heard the shocking news of the brutal murder of Jo Cox, a remarkable young woman,  a dedicated wife and mother,  committed to serving the community into which she was born, as their MP and utterly committed to giving a voice to the voiceless and to making our world a better place.
It would appear that Jo, and all those who died in Orlando lost their lives as a result of the hatred and intolerance of others.  Tragically, that same storm rages in varying degrees of intensity across our world devastating the lives of countless families and communities – in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; to a much lesser extent in Israel, America and yes, within our own borders.
And so in a very real sense, this morning’s gospel reading speaks powerfully to us for it feels as though a storm is raging around God’s children – a storm of hatred and intolerance that binds and dehumanises wreaking havoc and pain.  In the midst of this storm, we desperately need to listen, and to catch those words of Jesus, words that bring calm, healing and peace, restoring dignity to broken humanity; catch them, hold them in our hearts and our minds, allowing them to shape us and mould us as God would have us be.
We don’t know why Jesus decided to go across to the eastern side of Lake Galilee, but cross it he does, to an area that was largely Gentile territory.  Perhaps he had chosen to cross to foreign soil to escape the immediate pressure of travelling around under the nose of Herod Antipas.  There was, however, to be no peace there either.  Before he had hardly stepped on to dry land, Jesus is confronted by man in deep distress, whose screams and yells fill the air, and whose appearance is shocking in its chained and shackled nakedness, filthy, torn and bruised by the chains and shackles and all that binds him; a man driven in his torment to make his home among the tombs.  Luke paints for us a picture of deep anguish, despair and desperation.  Why was it, I wonder, that he was living among the tombs – had the people driven him away from their homes, afraid of his difference; or had he taken himself there, feeling utterly outcast because he couldn’t be as other people were?  We simply don’t know.  But we do know that in the time and culture in which Luke was writing, disturbing behaviour, whatever medical cause we understand today, was attributed to demons and thus opposed to God.  His behaviour would give rise to fears amongst the people of his community, fears that would ultimately see him driven away – to the places where others dare not go.
But there is an irony in this story:  so often, the people who saw themselves as God-fearing and faithful were the same people who were incapable of recognising the presence of God in their midst; but this man, literally stripped of everything, is left with no illusions, and knows immediately what and who he is seeing and shouts: ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God.’
Into this clamour of noise, there is the voice of calm as Jesus asks ‘What is your name?’ That simple questions says ‘I want to know you, I want to know about you, I want to know who you really are’ and it gives to the man a sense of his worth as a human being, a sense of dignity, a sense of ‘someone cares’ – something that perhaps he hasn’t felt or heard for a very long time!  Did he once have a name – were there once people who loved him enough to give him a name?
‘Legion’ is the man’s reply – perhaps reflecting the enormous burden that he was carrying; for a legion was a vast unit in the Roman army of around 6,000 men.  Of course, it may also have been that his condition arose out of a traumatic experience associated with the Roman occupation. But the quiet, calm  authority of Jesus speaks to this human storm just as he did with the storm on the Lake.  Peace is restored, and the man, no longer tormented, is found sitting at the feet of Jesus.  God in Christ has return to this man his true humanity just as he will restore it to the whole of humankind.
This story begs the question: What is it we fear?  How do those fears impact on the lives of others?  Do those fears force others to live where we would not dare to go?  What are the fears that bind us, and prevent us from bidding others welcome into our communities?

It is deeply worrying that in the current climate storms of bigotry and intolerance rage that risk demonising people simply because their sexuality, lifestyle or beliefs, their national identity or cultural heritage, their political ideology or social understanding is different  from ones’ own.  It is a storm that is polarizing communities with devastating consequences.

St. Luke tells us that Jesus encourages the man, now restored to health, to return to his home and community, and speak out of his own experience of what God has done – be a living sign of the healing and glory that will transform the world.

Jo Cox believed in a better world and fought for it every day of her life.  She wanted us to shout from the rooftops, as she did in her maiden speech to the House of Commons, that there is much more that brings us together than drives us apart.   Her husband Brendan has encouraged all of us to continue that work, to unite and counter the hatred that killed her and polarizes peoples and communities.
That better world, a world where all are called by their name, a world where all live with dignity and in peace is the world our Lord came to proclaim – the Kingdom of God!
Across the length and breadth of our country, the storm, it seems, as abated, at least for a while and in the quiet we need to hear the voice of God speaking to us in the voices of all who call us to live together in unity and love, rejoicing in the richness of diversity, remembering those words of St. Paul:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.