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

No Excuses!

Preached by Leslie Spatt on 26th June 2016

How do we best help to build the Kingdom of God?

Following and being followers isn’t easy. There’s a temptation to gather a group of people around oneself and then lead them for lots of different reasons: to be at the centre of adulation or being looked up to as someone important, to use personal charisma to achieve something significant, to accumulate power both for good and for bad, for altruism in trying to make the world a better place. Jesus was tempted by all these things. I wonder if it’s possible not to be a leader but “only” a follower?

God has asked Elijah to single out Elisha as the one to eventually take his place as prophet – to symbolically call him as a follower by throwing his mantle over him. Elisha is fine with this but just wants to wind up things at home and say goodbye before radically changing his life forever. By destroying his oxen and equipment, the tools and symbol of his current life and then going to join Elijah, there’s no going back on his decision. He’s made an irrevocable commitment to being initially a follower and later a leader.

Like Elisha, all of us are followers – of Jesus, of his teachings we find in the Gospels, of someone we believe will bring us into a new and complete relationship with God and each other. And some of us become leaders. But we hear some very hard words in the Gospel reading this morning. ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’  Does Jesus really mean that if we’re half hearted about it all, give up when things get tough or want to keep hold of things from the past that we’re not worth being one of his flock? He almost seems to be discouraging potential workers for the Kingdom by pointing out only the disadvantages of following him: don’t indulge in revenge if you’re badly treated; be prepared to be socially and even physically homeless; if you join me you’ll have to leave everything behind. Hard words then and still hard now.

Following could take an easy path for those of us who want someone else to make the decisions, to be passive and part of the crowd, to perhaps avoid responsibility; get out, make excuses or change our mind if we find we don’t like what being members of that particular crowd involves. To stay on the fringes, perhaps volunteering to get involved once in a while or committing to a short term project; and definitely having an escape hatch or a Plan B.

But Jesus is having none of that attitude – if you sign up to my calling, he says, then I expect you to trust me, to stay faithful and live with whatever happens on the journey, not to give up halfway if I ask you to make unpleasant sacrifices or to let go of your security blankets. He won’t put up with excuses.

Well, leaving aside the controversy about whether nor not Jesus actually said the exact words we hear this morning – that’s an argument mostly for the nit-picking academics and Biblical literalists, neither of which I consider myself – the underlying meanings of the entire Gospel reading are more important than the literal words on the page. They have to do with dedication, with making life changing decisions knowing that things might get difficult or we might be tested. Unlike Elisha, Jesus doesn’t want us to even say goodbye or look back to our former life, to say farewell to those at home. We need to face forward, into the future and live with our decisions both individually and corporately, make them work however hard that might be.

Dedication is really quite a scary word.  It implies giving oneself over to an ideal, a person, a goal or purpose – with a focus and single-minded-ness which can take over one’s whole being. Commitment is a bit less overwhelming, while “involved” isn’t quite on the same scale.  None are really big business when it comes to a lot of present day life; which seems obsessed with the “now”, with instant gratification, with celebrity and glitz of the moment rather than having to really work at and for something. As a colleague reminded me a while ago, one definition of that wonderfully comforting fry-up called “English breakfast” is that the chicken is “involved”, and the pig is “committed”. But neither is “dedicated” to only providing breakfast!

In another parish where I work, there were two Iranian Muslim women who, having been coming to church for a while, asked the vicar about baptism. They knew, as Muslims, that a decision for Christian baptism and actually going through with it would change their life radically – and very likely prevent them from having any future contact with their families to protect both themselves and their loved ones. For a Muslim, converting to another faith is punishable by death. The baptismal promise “I turn to Christ” was for them a real dedication which meant they couldn’t look back, ever. That’s a choice which probably nobody in this congregation has had to make. And would any of us have the courage to do it? Following Jesus is costly, it might mean being ridiculed by workmates or the target of discrimination. The price might even be our life.

‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’  It’s not a threat of being barred from heaven if we stumble or fail or even fall away from the path of the plough. Being human, we will indeed do that repeatedly. Look ahead with hope and trust, says Jesus, not backwards with regrets. It’s associated with what the word metanoia means, which is usually badly translated as ‘repentance’. Metanoia is changing the direction we’re going, changing the sources of our fulfilment and happiness. It can indeed be difficult to part with the safety of our security blankets and move into the unknown.  Are commitment and dedication always meant to be safe? Whoever said being a Christian was easy?

When Jesus calls us, what’s our response? Do we offer excuses, ask to first bury our dead…our “whatever” things which tie us to the past …and then join up. Or might we develop a sense of detachment from that which prevents us giving a wholehearted “yes” to building the Kingdom – a detachment which allows us to enjoy what we have but not depend on it, or cling to it at all costs, or let what we possess dominate our lives. It’s the willingness to let go.

We need to develop the courage and determination to hand over our lives to God, and find the spiritual and emotional strength to part with any bits of us if needed.  This might mean giving time, money or expertise in the physical sense; or letting ourselves trust, hope, pray and have faith –  even in the absence of any tangible presence of God “doing something” with or to us. Jesus warns that if we follow him we might be asked, symbolically or in reality, to have nowhere to lay our heads; to live without the security of safe comfortable surroundings unlike foxes who have holes and birds who have nests. But would that be so bad if sharing what he calls home is actually the Kingdom of God?

Jesus offers us eternal life in all its fullness, not some vague time in the future but now, here; and more importantly to bring others into that eternal life by following the way he shows us. Proclaiming the Kingdom is what we’re called to do; both as followers of Jesus, and as leaders gathering up people to do his work in the real world. Let’s remember that dedication and commitment are indeed scary, require hard work, trust and faith. But also know that we don’t need to be afraid of taking the risk of giving ourselves over to God.

Consecrate your gifts, O God, as you lay them in our hands and breathe them into our minds and souls. Let us dedicate ourselves to use them, not after our weakness, but in your strength, and glorify you in all their use.

Creator, redeemer, sustainer; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bring us closer to you in love, that in our many and varied ministries we may share in your mission for the coming of the Kingdom.

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.

 

God has looked favourably on his people

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 5th June 2016

1 Kings 17:17-24
Luke 7:11-17

It is often said that out of the three Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – known as the Synoptic Gospels, Luke’s Gospel was written with the outsider particularly in mind. Luke was himself almost certainly a Gentile and most probably one of that group of Gentiles – the God-fearers – who, though greatly honouring the Jewish faith, shrank from circumcision, and therefore remained excluded, an outsider. Continue reading “God has looked favourably on his people”

The Centurion and his Slave

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 29th May 2016

Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

Today marks the beginning of a quieter time in the Church’s year – a year that so far seems to have moved at an astonishing pace.  Christmas and Epiphany seemed to come and go in a flash; early February saw the beginning of Lent and once again we were preparing for the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Continue reading “The Centurion and his Slave”

Feast of the Holy Trinity 2016

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 22nd May 2016

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

Today, the Feast of the Holy Trinity focuses our minds on the deep mystery that is at the heart of our Christian faith – God is three and God is one. We endeavour to explore, to talk about that mystery at the heart of God, but it is as difficult for us today as it has always been. The people who wrote the different books that make up the Bible reveal their attempts, their struggle to describe God, and familiar though these stories might be, they still have the power to catch us by surprise because they are not what we might imagine.
In Genesis (Ch 18) there is the story of Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. Significantly for us on Trinity Sunday, it tells of Abraham meeting three angels, but the angels are not described. Read on, and it becomes clear that Abraham thought he was dealing with men, only gradually realising his mistake. Then there is the experience of Moses – the story appointed for this evening. Moses could only liken his experience of encountering the Divine to a blazing bush on fire, yet not burned away by the fire. Ezekiel (Ch 1) has an extraordinary vision which he describes in great detail over 28 verses. Towards the end he sees the ‘likeness of a throne’ with what appears to be ‘something that seemed like human form’. The form shines as if with fire and even a rainbow and upon seeing it, Ezekiel falls prostrate, recognising ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’.

Turn to the New Testament, and the book of Revelation says (4:2-4) ‘At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.’ Wonderfully colourful all of these images, yet we are led to understand that they are attempts to describe that which remains essentially indescribable.
Yet in every generation, the struggle to explore the mystery that is God continues and like the people who have gone before us, we draw on picture language – the simple pictures of children, the philosophical language of philosophers and theologians, and everything in between. But at the end of the day, the philosopher or theologian may have come no closer to the heart of the mystery of who God is than the child or indeed adult who looks at a clover leaf and finds it both strange and beautiful. Language limits us, and our limited human perceptions struggle to comprehend the sheer wonder and glory of the One who created all that is. We struggle to convey with our words the sheer vastness of God’s love, infinite and yet utterly intimate at the same time.
And yet – a Trinitarian understanding of God is central to our Christian faith rooted in those words of Jesus spoken to his disciples: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

God is the Divine Father, the Creator of all that was, and is and is to come. Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets knew from their own experience of life that God was the holy One – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory – so wrote Isaiah, and so we say or sing week by week in the words of the Sanctus. He was the one at whose voice the world was called into being, at whose voice the foundations of the world would shake; at times apparently stern and demanding, but known with equal certainty to be faithful, compassionate and just; He was the one whose very essence is self-giving love, available not least to those who are weary and exhausted, a source of comfort, strength and hope for he does not grow faint or weary.

And yet he was also distant, remote, for no one could look on the face of God and live – until that is He chose to reveal himself in the vulnerability of our humanity Emmanuel, which means God is with us. In the life of Jesus, in his very being, the people of God were and are enabled to see something of the self-giving nature of God, His vulnerability, his concern for all mankind and His supreme love, in a manner never before experienced. Through our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection, we are given the hope and the assurance that no matter what happens, nothing can separate us from the love of God. In Jesus, God made known to us His will for all people.

And then, following the Ascension, the followers of the risen Christ became conscious of a new influence upon them, a new power. They found themselves filled with boldness, courage and enthusiasm, a power which united them as never before. That gift of the Holy Spirit is the power by which they and we are made aware of God’s presence within us and around us, transforming our lives, and leading us into all truth; the Spirit unites us, inspires us, and energises us.
To concentrate purely on the divine nature of God is to lose sight of his humanity, vulnerability and the power which is at work among us now. To gaze permanently on the humanity of Christ is to lose much of the mystery and magnificence of the divinity of God. In praising too strongly the gifts of the Spirit, to the exclusion of all else we neglect the perfect example of humanity and the glory and mystery of the divinity.

So how then are we comprehend and explain the reality of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The disciples hesitated – they struggled to make sense of the reality of the mystery they were living alongside. Nicodemus, learned scholar ‘though he was, struggled to understand. True, he recognised in Jesus a teacher come from God, wanted to know more, but was also anxious to avoid giving the impression that he intended to become a committed disciple, so he came to Jesus by night. Jesus answers Nicodemus, taking him step by step deeper into the mystery of God. But for all his theological learning, Nicodemus lacks spiritual insight and has yet to learn that God’s creative power is not limited to the material and the physical. There also exists a realm of spirit in which God is at work. Jesus acknowledges in his conversation with Nicodemus that there is much that is mysterious, but there is also much that is mysterious about the natural world but that doesn’t mean it’s not discernible – the wind may be invisible but its effects are nevertheless undeniable. Nicodemus, the distinguished scholar, ought not to be ignorant of the power of God to change lives. Read on in John’s gospel and we discover that the search for understanding in Nicodemus continues leading him to become a follower of Jesus for it is him who, with Joseph of Arimathea, takes the body of the crucified Jesus, wraps it with spices in linen cloths in preparation for burial.

Like Nicodemus, in the face of the mystery that is God, perhaps we can’t understand…..yet. But that shouldn’t stop us searching for understanding, praying for discernment, while remaining content to live with the mystery. Our lives and the lives of all baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, are lives of faith and hope and love and in a very profound way become part of the divine life itself. We who have been made in the image and likeness of God live mystically in God in our relationships of love for each other and our neighbours – however imperfect that love may be. God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.

As we endeavour to live a life of faith rooted in God, who is revealed in the Son and made known through the Holy Spirit, we do so like the disciples before us. In the face of mystery we may hesitate, we may be uncertain, we may doubt, but ultimately we fall to our knees in worship. Amen

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on Ascension Day, 5th of May 2016.

Albert Woodfox was freed from prison in February of this year on his 69th birthday having spent the past 43 years in prison.  Save for the last few months during his preparation for release, all of those 43 years have been spent n an isolation cell.

As Albert walked out a free man, a highly questionable record had been set.  He became the longest standing solitary confinement prisoner in America.  For 43 years he had lived in a concrete box measuring 6 ft x 9 ft.  He had no view of the sky, there was no human contact and taking a walk meant pacing from one end of the cell to the other and back again.

Ed Pilkington, a journalist with the Guardian who interviewed Albert recently records:

‘Of all the terrifying details of Woodfox’s four decades of solitary incarceration – the absence of human touch, the panic attacks and bouts of claustrophobia, the way they chained him even during the one hour a day he was allowed outside the cell – perhaps the most chilling of all is what he says now.  tow months after the state of Louisana set him free, he says he sometimes wishes he was back in that cell.’

Albert adds:

“You know, human beings are territorial, they feel more comfortable in areas they are secure.  In a cell, you have a routine,  you pretty much know what is going to happen, when it’s going to happen, but in society, it’s difficult, it’s looser. So there are moments when, yeah, I wish I was back in the security of the cell.  I mean, it does that to you.”

Albert has survived 15,000 days of isolation, a form of captivity that the United Nations has denounced as torture.

With his conviction twice overturned, he walked out of prison an innocent man.  For 43 years, he experienced among other things, the powerlessness of having no voice and so is now dedicating his life to being a voice for those still in the hell of solitary confinement, feeling such a great responsibility for them.

But he has also said that the most disturbing part of freedom has been the dawning realisation of the change within society – he feels little sense of struggle for the wellbeing of all that he experienced before his imprisonment; rather “It’s all about me, what I need and how I’m going to get it”. That indifference, he believes, has in turn allowed the iniquity of solitary confinement to flourish.  “People don’t seem to be socially aware, nobody cares.”

And to some extent, that same indifference, indifference to the suffering of others whether as individuals or as a community, and the desire to cover one’s own back at the expense of the truth, enabled the iniquity of the injustice experienced by the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster to continue for 27 long years.

By contrast a judge in Italy’s highest court has ruled that the theft of a sausage and a piece of cheese by a homeless refugee did not constitute a crime because he was in desperate need of nourishment – the need to feed and the right to survive superseded property rights.

And it was a year ago today that we opened the doors of our Soup Kitchen for the first time!    It has been a  joy to witness the way in which our parish community has responded to this initiative and embraced the people whom many would prefer to ignore.  What was experienced by a man in Italy, and what we experience through the work of our Soup Kitchen week by week is a glimpse of what God calls us to  be, a glimpse of how He calls us all to live in community.

Every day, and in so many different ways, we experience personally or through the stories of others, something of the astounding wonder, beauty and goodness of humanity; but also humanity’s capacity for ugliness, brutality, and cruelty; deeply flawed and broken.

So what has all of this got to do with what we celebrate tonight – The Feast of the Ascension??

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

Year by year, as we reach this particular Feast Day, we are reminded that God in Christ is no longer restricted by time or place, but  is with us always, no matter what, no matter where, no matter when.  And He will take our flawed lives, our stumbling and imperfect efforts and transform them in the building of his kingdom.  How?  Through the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  He just asks that we open our hearts to that gift, widen our imaginations and dream.  Then the impossible will become possible.

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

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

Re-imagine what God can and will do; lets widen our vision to re-imagine the world through God’s eyes, to see those around us through God’s eyes; to see God in the people you and I meet, day by day.  And lets dream and re-imagine what we can do to ease the pain and suffering of His broken yet glorious world!  For we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!!

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

“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come, and stay at my home”

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at St Michael and All Angels on 1st of May 2016. 

I wonder; I wonder what it must have been like, sitting by the poolside in Beth-zatha, with all those people, each living with their own problems and struggles, longing to be healed, longing to be made whole.  Over the years, he had seen so many broken people come.  He would talk to them, and some he would get to know, listening to their stories.  Then after a while, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, occasionally much longer, they would go – rejoicing in the possibility of new life.  But still he remained.

What was wrong with him, I wonder – and how old was he when he first arrived.  But so long he had been here – years and years had passed, it seems!  And nothing, for him, had changed.  Just the same routine, the same struggle, day after day – begging for whatever charity he could get from anyone who happened to pass by; and never, never succeeding in getting into the pool first.  It just became normal – oh, long ago, it became normal – a sad, hopeless, way of life!

The pool was a well known place of healing, and what is believed to have been the original site has been excavated by archaeologists and I visited when I went to the Holy Land seven years ago.  I remember trying to imagine the people who, over the years, had sat there, waiting for their moment, struggling to get into the waters for healing.  Evidence suggests it wasn’t just a Jewish place of healing, but was regarded by others also as a sacred site and at one time was dedicated to the healing god Asclepius.  Today the site is watched over by the Crusader Church of St. Anne.

At the time of Jesus, the waters in the pool would bubble up periodically; it was believed that when the waters bubbled up, the first person in would be healed.

Into this scene comes Jesus who seemed to know that the man had been there a long time (rather as he seemed to know the life story of the woman at the well in Samaria).  And he asks the man, somewhat disconcertingly out of the blue:  “Do you want to be made well?”  But perhaps the question was not just about being made well, but about being ready to begin a new life, in place of resignation to sad hopelessness.

But our man did what I know I can sometimes do when I am challenged, and perhaps many of us do the same:  make excuses! Albeit very practical reasons for not expecting to be made well.

Jesus, the life-giver, cuts through it all with those words ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’  These echo the words spoken by Jesus to the man lowered down through the roof by his four friends.  On both occasions, and at once we are told, the men are made well, pick up their mats and begin to walk into new life.

And all of this takes place on the Sabbath.  In a profoundly symbolic sense, the man is brought into the Sabbath rest of God, and glimpses the ‘Joy of heaven to earth come down’.  Jesus chose to face the consequences of the ensuing controversy rather than waste time waiting another day; kowtow to his critics was never an option!

Like the man who had lived with disappointment for 38 years, Luke tells us in Acts that Paul also has had to live with disappointment.  Clearly, Paul had a very particular idea of where he would go and what he would do, but this was not to be – but something prevented him, disrupted his plans.  So we read in Acts that having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach in Asia, he diverted to Phrigia and Galatia, was stopped from going to Bithynia and so went to Troas via Mysia.  If you look at this on a map, it is clear that Paul had planned to go North and East, but this was thwarted and instead he goes North West ideally placing him so that he could respond to his dream, his vision – the nudging of God urging him to travel to Macedonia across the Ageaen Sea.

Having crossed the sea, Paul goes to Philippi and it is here that he meets Lydia, who was possibly Greek, but certainly according to Acts a dealer in purple cloth.  Purple dye was expensive, very expensive!  In the 4th Century, the historian Theopompus reported that ‘purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver’.  Consequently, purple dyed textiles became status symbols.  We might therefore assume that Lydia was a wealthy woman, otherwise she would never have afforded to buy the cloth in which she dealt.  She was a woman of means, a woman the world.

So here we are, at this place of prayer by a river and a conversation opens between her, Paul and his companions.  She listens eagerly, intently, with heart and mind opened by God.  What she hears has an immediate impact and her response is equally immediate; she and her household are baptised.  Lydia hears the invitation, grasps it and quite literally walking into the waterfor baptism, walks into the promise of new life.

But there is a second response to this extraordinary gift of God, and she offers hospitality reflecting if you like God’s invitation to all of us to ‘Come and eat’.

And who know, that gift of hospitality, making people feel welcome may have been instrumental in the foundation of the Philippian Church.  Hospitality is fundamental to the Gospel, to mission, to living out the love and welcome we are called to proclaim. This love is the kind of love that is willing to take a risk, commits itself in trust, long before it has full knowledge of where it might lead!

And so it was with enormous sadness and regret that I learned of the shocking news that on Monday night, MPs voted to block a new law that would have fast-tracked 3,000 refugee children reuniting them with their families here in the UK.  I simply cannot comprehend how our government can think it is acceptable on any level to turn our backs on the needs of vulnerable, frightened, traumatized children who desperately need to know once more what it is to feel safe, warm, loved and protected.  ‘Let the children come to me’ said Jesus to his disciples as they tried to stop them approaching.

Living the life of the gospel, demands our willingness to take risks.

The man at the pool of Beth-zatha was faced with a choice.  Stay with the life he had with its grim familiarity which lent its own sense of safety – or risk accepting the invitation to take a step into the unknown with its life-enhancing possibilities!  ‘Come and stay at my home’ says Lydia to the strangers she has only just met at the water’s edge, reflecting the open welcoming love of God revealed in Christ

The life of open, welcoming, sacrificial, self-giving love is the life we are all called to live as people who dare to call ourselves followers of Christ.  It may be risky, it will be costly.

But such a life always brings with it life-enhancing joys and possibilities that will turn the world upside down, turn night into day,  and enable us to glimpse God’s new creation of healing, wholeness and peace.

Amen