The Lord stood by me and gave me strength

Patronal Festival Ss Peter & Paul 2018 and ending of Licensed Ministry
The final sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on 1st July 2018

2 Timothy 4:6-8; 17-18
Matthew 16:13-19

The time of my departure has come…..To Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen

Today is one of those occasions when the people of both our churches gather together; today we do so to celebrate the Patronal Festival of our parish – the occasion when we celebrate the lives of Peter and Paul to whom this glorious church is dedicated; and to reflect on what these two great giants of our faith have given to us and how they continue to inspire and inform our journeys – as individuals and as a community of faith.

I wonder what Peter and Paul would have thought had they been able to imagine ending up as saintly bedfellows in the church’s calendar. I like to think that in their better moments, they would have laughed uproariously!!

Why? Well, at first sight, these two remarkable people are not natural companions and have little in common.

One, was a Galilean fisherman with a deep understanding of the sea and the weather – his life after all depended upon it. He understood the nuanced signs within the waters indicating where fish might be found. It was hard physical work that demanded every ounce of strength and courage. He had no education in the formal sense as far as we know; his education from a small boy would have revolved around fishing: watching and listening to older family members and neighbours also engaged in fishing; learning to read the skies, the weather, the seas; learning to maintain the tools of his trade – mending nets and repairing boats.

The other, born at Tarsus to Jewish parents, and known originally as Saul, was also a citizen of Rome. He had a good education and studied under the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel at Jerusalem, developing an in-depth knowledge of the Jewish Law, knowing it intimately; he became a strict Pharisee, a man who lived according to each and every rule, and who, as a young man, was present and consented to the stoning of Stephen, and actively participated in the persecution of early Christians.

Yet both these men, so very different with such diverse backgrounds made their mark on the early church and their legacy of passionate, active faith, is handed down to us and celebrated together on this the anniversary of their martyrdom in about the year 64 AD during Nero’s savage persecution of Christians.

While Peter had walked the highways and byways with Jesus during his life, and indeed had been called by him along with the other 11 disciples, Paul did not.

Paul is the classic poacher turned gamekeeper. Zealous in his persecution of those early Christians known as followers of ‘The Way’ breathing, as Luke tells us in Acts ‘threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ (AA 9:1) until that encounter with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus. That experience, whatever it was, threw him to the ground, and he heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?……I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”. Blinded, he neither ate nor drank for three days (death of one life before resurrection into a new life??) but then the veil is lifted from Saul’s eyes, and he sees as if for the first time. Annanias, responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, takes an enormous risk demanding every ounce of his courage, fearful of Saul’s reputation and murderous rage. Yet he follows those promptings of the Spirit and finds Saul, stays with him and what follows in the intervening few days results in Saul’s baptism, marking a new beginning and a new journey with a new name.

Paul begins proclaiming the Good News, first in the synagogues at Damascus, before moving to Jerusalem. Only later did Paul’s mission to the Gentile world become clear, a mission that would take the Good News far beyond Jerusalem out into the further reaches of the Roman Empire through his preaching, teaching, building Christian communities and writing innumerable letters that have provided the foundation of so much of our theological understanding and doctrine. Paul’s understanding of the nature of God and what it means to live the Christian life have continued to inform our journeys – individually and as a community. Paul’s love of God revealed in and through Christ was born out of his deep thinking and intellectual understanding. In his writing we encounter some of the most profound teaching; but teaching not always easy to digest and understand. Furthermore, he was argumentative, arrogant, opinionated even, expressing views that continue to cause division in the church today, not least his views on sexuality.
But in all things, no matter how heated he may become, no matter how convoluted his arguments, one thing is clear: Paul understands and consistently proclaims that God in Christ loves each and every one of us, deeply, endlessly, freely. And as followers of Christ, we are in our turn, called to reflect this love, however imperfectly, in every aspect of our lives.

Peter knew that God loved him. And I always imagine that while Paul’s faith in Christ and love of God were born out of intellectual understanding, Peter’s was an emotional response born from the heart. He felt this love, experienced this love when he travelled with Jesus, listened to him teach, saw it in the healing miracles and in and in Jesus relationships with and compassion for the people that so many would regard as outcasts and not worth a second glance. And most profoundly, he experienced it in the forgiveness and understanding he himself received.
But Peter was also impetuous; constantly misunderstood or got it wrong and ultimately denied even knowing Jesus, not once, but three times.

Yet following the resurrection and during a breakfast of fish on the seashore, Peter was asked three times by Jesus – ‘Do you love me’. Three times Peter had denied; three times Jesus now asks ‘Do you love me’. Each time Peter answers the question, he earns not a pat on the back, but a new challenge ‘Feed my lambs…..Tend my sheep…..Feed my sheep’. It is time for Peter to be a shepherd to Christ’s own people.

Peter and Paul had their own, often strong disagreements, not least around the crucial issue to trouble the early Church – whether or not you had to keep the Jewish Law and be circumcised to be a Christian. Paul had publicly rebuked Peter at Antioch, condemning him for recanting his previous willingness to eat with Gentiles and accusing him of undermining the whole basis of Paul’s ministry and leading even Barnabas astray. It is clear from Paul’s letter to the Galations that they had a blazing row over the issue (Gal 2:11-14). And Peter, or someone writing in his name had a dig at Paul in the Second letter of Peter when he described Paul as writing things that are hard to understand and that people twisted in meaning! Mutual sparks were flying in the early church just as sparks continue to fly between the baptised people of God!

Yet is was these two deeply flawed individuals that God chose to be the Rock on which the church is built and to take the Good News out to the Gentile world; people who have continued to inspire others to be builders of the church, not the buildings of brick or stone, but the living stones that are the people, followers of Christ, the community built on the sure foundation of God’s love, the community that strives to build his Kingdom here on earth. And this is why we rejoice today and give thanks for these two great giants of our faith continue to inspire and encourage us, the living stones of this church community, imperfect though we are.

Brian was one of those living stones, with a deep love for God, and a passion for proclaiming that love through ritual, worship and prayer, through his faithful service within the life of this church and among all of us for more years than many of us can remember. We will miss him greatly.

This is the work we are all called to participate in using the gifts and skills assigned to us. When we begin our journey with God, we cannot know where it will lead any more than Peter or Paul knew; and we are not always willing followers. The Israelites moaned and groaned and I know that there have been times in my own journey when I have questioned, resisted and doubted; when I have not wanted to listen or to see where God was leading; when God has had to give me a metaphorical kick up the backside before the penny would finally drop! But weaving through it all were moments of incredible joy, moments that enabled me to glimpse those threads of gold and shards of light, glimpses of glory.

This year, this season of Petertide marks both the 30th Anniversary of my ordination to the Diaconate, and the day when my time among you as an Assistant Priest draws to its close. When I tentatively set out upon the road that has ultimately led me to this moment, a journey that began about 40 years ago with a conversation on the gravel path between the village in which I lived and its church, I never imagined in my wildest dreams how that journey would unfold through the years.

God has called me at different times to tend his sheep in different settings – small villages in Suffolk, then hospitals as a chaplain – first in Suffolk, later as Lead Chaplain here in Kettering General before guiding me to this remarkable community 18 years ago, initially to worship among you, then to occasionally preach or Preside, before becoming Assistant Priest on my retirement from Kettering General in 2009.

Through it all, God has constantly filled my life with joy, sustained me with his grace and his love; comforted me in moments of sadness or despair; strengthened me at times of weakness or utter powerlessness; His grace, love, comfort and strength revealed through Mike and our children, and the people and communities I have been called to serve. God has taught me much through the faith of others, including the people whose faith is different to my own; He has blessed me in unimaginably rich ways through the people He has called me to serve. All of you have given me so much, and in different ways have taught me about humility and love, constancy and faith …….. enabled me to glimpse the glory of God in our midst! We have cried together; we have laughed together; we have rejoiced, worshipped and prayed together and this morning I give thanks for all that God has given me through you, and the many people who have shared my journey through the years.

In recent days, and for different reasons, we have been reminded of the transience of all things, reminded that nothing stays the same, reminded of the importance of valuing each other in ways that enable them to know they are loved and appreciated; reminded that we are all on a journey, and there comes a moment when God calls, and our paths diverge. But endings and partings, though tinged with sadness, are also opportunities for new beginnings and new growth, resurrection moments. For we are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!!!

A new dawn beckons, full of possibilities – for you as a community and for me. So let’s give thanks for all that has been, let’s rejoice in all that will yet be, and embrace the adventure that God us in store, as we continue first and foremost to strive as shepherds to God’s people, using our prophetic voice to challenge injustice in all its forms, building His Kingdom here on earth after the example of Peter and Paul and indeed all the remarkable men and women of faith through the ages who give us hope and courage; because without exception they were as we are – people with the gifts God has blessed us with, but people who regularly mess up, get it horribly wrong, hurt those we love most and yet people through whom God works to his great and unimaginable glory, transforming our imperfect efforts, transforming our lives and building His Kingdom.

Now “The time for my departure has come. The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, to him be glory for ever and ever.” Amen.

“Whom shall I send”, asks God

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Trinity Sunday, 27th May 2018 at
Ss Peter & Paul, and St Michael and All Angels

Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
May I speak in the name of God, the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen

When I was ordained priest, a nursing colleague at the hospital where I was at the time Assistant Chaplain gave to me a small icon – a copy of Rublev’s icon depicting the Trinity. It shows three figures seated round a small table and on the table there is what looks like a wine goblet – or is it a chalice perhaps? There is a comfortable ease between the figures, a sense of a strong and deep relationship. The figures lean inwards very slightly, heads inclined to one another forming a circle but as you gaze on the circle, you notice that there is a space – open, inviting us to draw closer, to gather round the table and share in that relationship of life giving love.

On Trinity Sunday it is too easy to be distracted by attempts to ‘explain’ the Trinity with our limited language and illustrations, and miss the invitation to experience the wonder and mystery of overflowing abundant life and love, miss the invitation to share in the dance. It is the dance of love flowing in and through Father, Son and Holy Spirit bringing into being all that was, all that is and all that will yet be.
This unity is a dynamic relationship of love, energy and beauty. The opening verses of both Genesis and John’s Gospel lead us to understand that creation was the work of the Trinity: The Spirit hovered over the waters; God speaks and light and life come into being; the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And that is why Jesus could tell the disciples that he is in the Father and the Father in him, why he could say that the Holy Spirit abides with them and will be in them.

We glimpse the dynamic of that relationship of love, energy and beauty in the words of Isaiah. The scene of the vision is the Jerusalem Temple and Isaiah is worshipping. When Isaiah ‘sees’ the Lord it is as if he has looked through a window at how life should be lived; the vision is one of brilliance, radiance, too much for human eyes or imagination. The Seraphs sing of the holiness of God, words that we too will sing in a few moments from now; they sing too of the glory of God, not contained by the Temple but overflowing in abundance, pervading the whole earth. Isaiah is overwhelmed – so much so that he must hold his head in shame, aware of his own unworthiness. The prophet expects condemnation, but instead experiences loving forgiveness and God speaks; Isaiah is filled with a new strength and energy: ‘Whom will I send’ says the Lord, ‘and who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am’ says Isaiah; ‘Send me!’. The response to enter into that dance of love is a willingness to be sent out and share that gift of amazing, overflowing grace and love. What we share with Isaiah is the invitation to meet God’s glory in worship. The words of the Sanctus – ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord. God of power and might….’ are said and sung week by week not just to reminds us to the experience Isaiah once had, but to catch us up every time we say or sing at every Eucharist into the ceaseless worship that surrounds the presence of God.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Physically and metaphorically, he was in the dark, and Nicodemus is struggling to understand, struggling to make fit what he is seeing and hearing about this man, Jesus, and what his training as a Jewish Rabbi is telling him. At the moment there is a mismatch. Jesus response to Nicodemus, and to us, is that we must let go of our preconceived ideas, stop trying to contain God within our limited, narrow and imperfect understanding of time and space; rather we must reach out into the unfathomable reality of the totality of God’s love. For God does not love when we have met certain standards or requirements; God does not love because we obey certain rules or follow particular rituals; God does not love if we are born into a particular race, culture or sex. God just loves! – and trying to capture or measure that is like trying to control the wind that blows where it wills. And what is more, God will do anything, anything for the creation he loved into being, including coming himself, the Son, to die for it.

But Nicodemus is left baffled and bewildered and John doesn’t tell us immediately what effect this dialogue had upon this questioning curious Pharisee. But as John’s telling of the Good News gradually unfolds, all will become clearer. Gradually we come to recognise that the space in the circle remains open – always, waiting and inviting until the moment when we are ready and willing to participate in the life of God, sharing that love. For it is Nicodemus who, with Joseph of Arimathea, takes the body of Jesus down from the cross and bury it in the nearest tomb before sundown and the beginning of Passover. This time it is not dark, but broad daylight and the risks are enormous. Nicodemus risks condemnation, alienation and even death in response to the invitation to enter the dance of life and love. We can only wonder what it was that Nicodemus saw and experienced that ultimately drew him into that dance.

Open, abundant generosity of love, freely given without measure or judgement – that is the relationship that we are called to share – in our church, our personal relationships, in our community and with our brothers and sisters across the world. Just imagine what our world could be like if only we would truly share that abundant generosity of love with our neighbours and the peoples of our world. No longer would we treat people less fortunate than ourselves with contempt, withholding assistance that affords them dignity and a sense of hope and worth; No longer would we live in a country that builds a ‘hostile environment’; no longer would peoples who came to us at our invitation and have given so much to build and grow these lands be left without a home, unable to work, forcibly removed from the place they had always thought of as home; no longer would we turn our backs on people driven from their homelands by war or oppression; no more would countries build walls of division but rather bridges that unite. Our response to that Dance of Love, sharing that relationship of abundant generosity and love has the potential to completely transform and re-create our world, so that it more truly reflects the divine life for which we are all created.

Meanwhile, we are drawn in to that dynamic flow of wild abundant joy and self-giving love, forgiveness and compassion; and even as we are drawn in to that flow, that dance, we are launched, out into the world, to serve and share God’s life giving love with all.
“Whom shall I send”, asks God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the creative dance of life and love. Surely there can be but one answer!!! Amen

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return

Isaiah 58:1-12, John 8:1-11

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Ash Wednesday, 14th February 2018

There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on in our liturgy and worship on this particular Wednesday has power.

Something of that power lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Much else that we say in our worship here today we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe in the core of our being, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die, and how we live our lives matters.

From dust, to dust.  Hearing the words is not enough today.  Today, ashes will mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.

These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries all too often to either hide or deny; and if we are honest with ourselves, we probably do our best to ignore that truth much of the time.

Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.

Yet there is hope, hope rooted in our faith that we are created by God in His image.  The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God.  Our dust was moulded by the hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.

The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, and our ashes blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.

But there is something more. The ashes on our forehead are not randomly placed; they are placed in the form of a cross – so today we are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.

Dust and ashes point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return to Him who constantly calls us.

That call to each one of us to repent – to turn around, to change direction – doesn’t center on fear, on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine grace and love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.  The love we see dimly and imperfectly reflected in every act of love and compassion between one person and another; between peoples of one community and another; between peoples of different races and cultures and another.

At the same time, repentance – turning around – is not something we can think ourselves into; neither can we simply pay lip service and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We live and we act ourselves into it.

In the UK’s wealthiest Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the voices of some of the poorest people, and those on the lowest incomes, asking for safety improvements to the flats in which they lived were repeatedly ignored in the corridors of power.  As a consequence, 71 people died and many more traumatised following the fire at Grenfell Tower.  That same tower stands as a biblical scale condemnation to a whole society and the values it espouses.    But it was the people from local church of St. Clements, people from the neighbouring streets, people of all faiths and none, ordinary people from many different cultural backgrounds who were the first to provide food, shelter and comfort; closely followed by some of the local businesses.  The tower still stands and challenges all of us about the values that underpin our lives  – as individuals, as organisations, as communities, and as a nation.  These are questions that demand our urgent and committed attention as we begin our Lenten journey with those  words ‘Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return’ whispering in our ears.

The prophet Isaiah’s words are addressed to all people and nations who would claim to believe in a God of justice and love.  Characteristically, these words were addressed to people of wealth and power.  Yet as people who bear the mark of Christ given at our baptism we are called to listen carefully on this day when we will be marked once more, not with oil but with ash and words reminding us of our mortality and the transience of all things:  ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.

The words of Isaiah shake us from any feelings of comfortable complacency we may have.  The prophet challenges the people of Israel to look at themselves and think about what they are doing – they may well fast, but what good is that when they oppress their workers and continue to fight and quarrel.  Faith in God revealed in our religious observance is worthless unless it reflects both in personal relationships and communities the love, compassion and justice which is of God.

Isaiah’s words were echoed centuries later by Jesus who demonstrated what it really means to loosen the bonds of injustice.

We encounter Jesus sitting in the temple, amidst the dust, teaching the people who surround him.  The peace is broken as the scribes and Pharisees burst upon the scene dragging a woman caught in adultery.  This frightened woman is made to stand in the midst of her powerful accusers threatening to have her stoned, painfully aware in that moment of her own mortality.  But amidst the noise, the shouting in the Temple, there is a stillness, a silence in the centre – Jesus remains seated, bends over and begins to write in the dust – perhaps words or symbols of significance, perhaps playing for time – who knows.  The woman’s life hung in the balance.  But Jesus remains still, seated on the ground and speaks – ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone’.  The community of faith needs first to look at itself.  He returns to his writing and stillness returns to the centre.  The noise abates as the accusers gradually leave, first the elders who by tradition, would have thrown the first stone, followed by the others.  In the stillness of that early morning, the woman and Jesus are alone.  He doesn’t rise above her, but remains seated, looks up at her and asks ‘Where are they?  Has no one condemned you?’  ‘No one sir.’  ‘Neither do I condemn you.  Go on your way and from now on do not sin again.’  God’s power, unlike the power of this world, is revealed in stillness and compassion, gentleness and love, not the self-righteous indignation or implications of guilt and shame experienced by so many.  These are words of profound healing love, forgiveness and grace.

His call to her, and to us, his call to repent, to  ‘turn around’ centres on divine love seen most fully on the cross and in the joyful resurrection. It centres on the love that selflessly and unconditionally gives and gives again, the love that longs to draw us ever closer and ever deeper into that relationship of divine love.

So our pilgrimage continues.  Today we are reminded that we are dust and will one day to dust return – and we rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. We have been given this season of Lent as a gift – an opportunity to look honestly at ourselves and how we live our lives; our relationships with each other, and with our brothers and sisters across the world; our relationship to the finite resources of our world and the choices we make; and ultimately our relationship with God, the source of all life and inexhaustible love.  ‘Go’ says Jesus, to the woman, to me and to each of us here. Go, live your life, but change the way you behave.  Challenge injustice and oppression in all its forms. Then, by God’s grace, we may become repairers of the breach, builders of streets to live on.  Amen

 

“So, then, each of us will be accountable to God”

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack at Ss Peter & Paul and St Michael & All Angels on Sunday September 17th 2017

Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Friday was a day of contrasts.  While driving in to Kettering, I listened, fascinated, to scientists talking about the impending end for the Cassini spacecraft, the end of a project that began over 30 years ago leading ultimately to the arrival of the Cassini spacecraft in Saturn’s orbit in July 2004.  Since then data and wonderful images have been flowing back to earth, expanding our knowledge of the universe in ways that were unimagined with the project began; blowing our minds with the wonder and beauty of a world beyond ours.  Humanity has achieved something extraordinary through joint endeavour spanning continents, demonstrating what can be achieved when people pool their resources and expertise.  Prof. Michele Dougherty from Imperial College, London, a chief scientist involved with the mission said “We all come from different countries, from different cultures and we have worked spectacularly well together”.  They have quite literally expanded our horizons – transforming our knowledge and understanding; enabling us to glimpse afresh the wonder, mystery and beauty of the universe.

While I was listening to all of this, there was an explosion on the London underground, now known to have been another terrorist attack.  29 people were hurt; remarkably and thankfully, no one died as a result.  So within moments, we heard about the capacity of God’s people to achieve the unimaginably spectacular; but also their capacity to hurt, to terrify and destroy.

Today, as in ancient Rome, conflict is an ever present reality: there are people pushing at the boundaries, striving to deepen their understanding of the world around them and of God’s purposes in their lives and the life of the church. Others meanwhile are profoundly concerned that the truths handed down through scripture, religious and cultural tradition are being ignored, trampled even.  People and communities are deeply divided, each believing that their reasoning or passionately argued viewpoint is the right one; parts of the Anglican Communion barely speak to one another!  So differences risk blinding people to what is good for all.

Yet while we argue, disagree and fight amongst ourselves, God is at work in his universe – creating and recreating; at work among us building His kingdom, restoring and renewing. And so, this morning, St. Paul is looking us right in the eye; the issues facing the church in Rome may have been different, concerned as they were with dietary laws and appropriate religious observance.  But the underlying principle is the same – judging and despising one another are not only to be ruled out; they are inconceivable actions if  we truly grasp that one day we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.

Paul’s reaction is founded on tolerance of differences and respect for those who seem weak to the strong. This is a vital lesson for us in this age of multicultural encounters and global concerns. Two thousand plus years ago, when people prided themselves on not being tolerant of strangers, comes this early Christian who urged us to respect and tolerate what today we would call cultural and religious differences. We need to remember this as we contemplate the differences in our Anglican Communion, and the growing intolerance between, races, cultures and nations.

In this debate, Paul doesn’t pass judgement or come down on one side or the other.  What he does say is that each person must follow the path that God has given them – living before God with faith and before others with consideration.

And so, Paul’s ethical thinking would seem to suggest that each person stands or falls before God alone, and each must be fully convinced in his own mind and fully accountable to the dictates of her own conviction.  BUT the community has moral priority.  And so the individual is constrained both by God’s judgement and the needs of others.  Or if you like, the call to please God and one’s neighbour, not oneself.  The dance of reciprocating love!

In a world where people and nations are becoming increasingly individualistic – looking to their own needs, so often at the expense of other peoples’ and other countries, Paul’s words should make us feel decidedly uncomfortable.

Peter probably thought he was being extravagantly tolerant in suggesting that forgiveness be offered seven times; after all rabbinical tradition limited forgiveness to three times for the same offence.  Seven symbolized completeness and perfection.  But Jesus expands this understanding beyond fullness to infinity – “Not seven, I tell you but seventy-seven” –  and tells a story to illustrate his meaning.

The story concerns a slave, a man with an enormous debt.  Josephus, the Roman-Jewish scholar of the first century, records that in the year 4 BC, the total taxes collected in Judea, Idumea and Samaria came to 600 Talents.  The slave in our story owed 10,000 talents.  In today’s terms, the slave owed billions!

But the king is not thinking just about the slave and his debt, but of the bigger picture – of the whole society of people he rules, and wishes to govern by example.  He wanted the slave to see forgiveness in action and to learn for himself how to do it.   So the king acts with magnanimity and compassion, wiping this slate of vast debt clean – something quite outside the experience of those who first heard this story, and all who have heard it since across centuries and generations.

But far from learning from this incredible generosity, the slave bullies and applies the strictest rules to recoup a relatively small sum from a fellow slave. In response, the king’s anger is directed at the slave who blatantly refused to show generosity, compassion and forgiveness when he himself had received beyond measure.

But the story also illustrates that as far as Jesus is concerned, forgiveness is all about the heart.  His is not the balance sheet or spreadsheet mentality.  There is no room here for measured out forgiveness.  Real forgiveness comes from the heart, from a deep desire and bold intention to work generously to heal damaged or broken relationships – between individuals, communities and nations.  And so the God who creates recreates and we share in the dance of reciprocating love.

Such forgiveness isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t cheap; in truth, I suspect it is the biggest challenge that any one of us faces.

Forgiveness is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong – that only papers over the cracks; and eventually those cracks will deepen, becoming a massive void or exploding in anger and rage!

True forgiveness and reconciliation is a risky undertaking – not least because it exposes our vulnerabilities and demands real humility.  It is risky because, as the person who has hurt or injured another, I might not be forgiven.  As the injured party, forgiving means abandoning my right to revenge, to pay back the perpetrator.  All of it is exceptionally hard stuff to do!  And in truth, how would I respond if someone threatened, hurt or killed someone I loved and deeply cared for.  I honestly do not know.  It is so easy to say ‘I forgive’ but so very hard to do. But the Gospels, the New Testament make it crystal clear to me that it is a risk I – we – must all dare to take.

And when we do, as countless examples from the S.A. Truth & Reconciliation Commission show, as examples from the Restorative Justice Programme here in the UK demonstrate, we are released from the anger, resentment or hatred that threatens to suffocate us; released in to the dance of reciprocating love; the new way of life that our Lord Jesus Christ came to proclaim.

But if our hearts are not open to forgive others, they are not open to the love and forgiveness of God who gives life!  Martin Luther King said: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.  He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”

In a few moments we will join together in the words of the prayer that Jesus gave us: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  May God grant us the strength, humility and grace to live the words we pray.  Amen

Who do people say the Son of Man is?

Isaiah 51:1-6
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on 27th August 2017 at St Michael & All Angels

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?…..But who do you say that I am”

When Jesus puts these questions to that very mixed bunch of people who were closest to him, he knew there was a buzz spreading about him – people were talking and speculating about this man who was clearly more than a simple carpenter or itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. And so Jesus takes his disciples away from the crowds, away from the attention of the authorities and potential hostility – the Roman ruler, Herod Antipas, has eyes and ears everywhere, and fear of uprising or rebellion – even a hint of it – brought swift and brutal response.

And so this morning we find Jesus and his disciples in the wooded hills at Caesarea Philippi, a gentile town well outside the territory of Herod Antipas about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee – a good two days walk away. It was a place steeped in pagan religion. In ancient times, the city had been called Balinas, signifying that it had been a centre where Baal, the Phoenician god of fertility and nature, had been worshipped. Later the name would change to Panias, because the Greeks believed that their god, Pan, was born in a cave in the hills above the city. But there was also a marble temple built above the city on the slopes of Mount Hermon, to honour Caesar Augustus, also worshipped as a god.

And so it was to this place, a city devoted to the worship of idols and manmade gods that Jesus takes his disciples to ask them the question, that monumental question recorded not just in Matthew, but in Mark and Luke also.

To begin with, Jesus asks them ‘Who do people say that I am?’ The disciples report the general reaction of the people – some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah and still others one of the other prophets. And the response says much about the way Jesus was perceived by the crowds who had seen him teaching and healing. And what they have seen and heard leads them to think about the great figures of their faith from the near and distant past, people who had stood up and spoken passionately, fearlessly against wicked, rebellious and unjust kings, people who had challenged injustice and wickedness at the highest level. These great figures of the past help the people to make sense of what that see and hear in Jesus – to give him identity, to define him.

But Jesus pushes the disciples, taking them beyond this general speculation about his identity and asks them, the group who have lived closely with him – day in, day out – eating, sleeping, arguing, laughing – ‘But you, who do you say that I am?’

I imagine them in almost stunned silence, looking at one another, wondering perhaps how to voice, how to express the wonder and mystery of what they feel and experience; a silence borne of the certainty that they have never heard or known anyone quite like Jesus; a silence that speaks volumes about how he moves their faith experience beyond the prophets who had come before him; a silence that struggles to articulate, how to give name to all that they experience and feel – deep within their very being.

It is Simon Peter – bold, impetuous Simon Peter, who finds words for what is going on in that silence when he declares “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Here, in Caesarea Philipii, against a backdrop of paganism and false religion, Simon Peter saw in a humble carpenter from Nazareth, a man with nowhere to lay his head, a man who ate with sinners and tax collectors, the very essence of God himself. Simon Peter looked and saw the Messiah, the anointed one – but he also recognised in Jesus something of his divinity, recognised him as Son of the living God. A stunning profession of faith proclaimed in a place surrounded by lifeless gods and idols.

And yet, while it is impossible to know with any certainty, I don’t hear these words uttered by Peter as a cast-iron, rock-solid faith, but rather a heart-felt response to what God has enabled him to glimpse in Jesus; a glimpse borne out of Simon Peter’s prayerful attentiveness to God. We know that all too soon, he will once more put his foot in it and be sternly reprimanded by Jesus; all too soon he will profess undying loyalty and faith and within hours deny even knowing Jesus. And yet, and yet…….in spite of his impetuosity and human frailty (and perhaps because of it), Jesus recognises in Simon Peter a faith that will continue to grow, to flourish and mature; recognises Peter’s dependence upon God; recognises in Simon Peter qualities, strengths and potential that the man himself is completely unaware of at this moment. And so Jesus blesses him – “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” and gives him a new name – Peter – or in his native Aramaic, ‘Cephas’ meaning ‘rock’ or ‘stone’. Peter would be the foundation stone of the new temple which Jesus builds. But unlike the temple above them on Mount Hermon, this new temple would not be built of stone or marble; what Jesus is building is a new community, a community to which each one of us here, and all those people past and yet to be born who profess Jesus Christ as Lord, Son of the living God belong. The building of this community starts then and there, at Caesarea Philippi, with Peter’s declaration.

But for the time being, Jesus urges Peter and the others not to say anything. A premature public declaration could set off hostility and revolt. There is still has much to do before they will understand what Jesus as Messiah, Son of the living God really means; and what it would mean to truly follow the One who called them. Like all of them, Peter has much to learn and many failures to overcome. As do we all!

We can so easily reflect on this story, focus on Peter and the others and forget that the question put by Jesus to his friends at Caesarea Philippi he puts to us also; we forget to ponder Jesus question to us – ‘Who do you say I am?’ And as we hear that question, we should remind ourselves that we too are surrounded by false gods whom we are tempted to worship.

  • The god of consumerism that tempts us to buy, buy, buy, not because we need, but simply because we want; a consumerism that seeks to satisfy those wants at the cheapest possible price, usually at the expense of people forced to work half a world away in shocking, life demeaning, life threatening conditions.
  • The god of success – that tempts us to see the accumulation of wealth or power as a mark of success, while ignoring or discounting so much else that enables people to flourish.
  • The god of beauty, that lures us to aspire to unrealistic ideals of what it means to be beautiful; a god that demands physical perfection and ignores inner beauty; a god that encourages us to idolise youth, ignoring the wisdom and beauty of age.
  • The god of nationalism, at whose altar every stranger is an enemy.

In a world of false gods, Jesus took his imperfect, fallible friends aside and put to them a question; it was a moment that would bring forth that great affirmation of faith. They still had much to learn and failures to overcome, but that moment marked a new beginning, and what was begun in Ceasarea Philippi is the reason we are here this morning.

In a world where false gods abound, Jesus draws us as aside to meet him; and in a few moments we will approach the altar, hands outstretched, to receive Christ himself, the living Son of God among us now. As we approach, we hear Him say to each one of us ‘Who do you say I am?’ He waits longingly for our answer; like Peter and the others, we too still have much to learn and failures to overcome, but through it all, God in Christ will do wonderful things through us!
In the life of faith, as in so much of life, our actions speak louder than words and are often the indicator of what we hold to be true in our hearts. When we ‘Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord’ may the ways in which we are experienced as a community here, the way in which we live and move in this world and relate to our neighbours – those close to us and those across the worlds’ oceans, reveal what we believe in our hearts and profess with our mouths. Amen

A story about the essential nature of God

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 16th July 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul and St Michael & All Angels

Isaiah 55:10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Loving God, by your Holy Spirit,
take these words such as they are and do with them as you will,
take us such as we are and do with us as you will
for your greater glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is something comfortably familiar in the parables: for most of us, I guess, they are stories we know well, stories some of us will have heard many times through the passing years. For the people who were the first to hear Jesus tell these stories, there was a familiarity born out of the fact that they were stories of everyday domestic and working life. But that familiarity risks blunting the sharpness of the message; Jesus did not intend them to be ‘comfortable’ stories, but stories and events that would challenge his listeners to work out for themselves how to get to the heart of what Jesus was saying, to understand his meaning in the story.

And so I imagine the people at the lakeside, come to see and to listen to this enigmatic, itinerant preacher. Some would be attentive, others listening with only half an ear, preferring to catch up with the local gossip among family and friends. Some, and perhaps it was those people who were only half attentive, might have said at the conclusion of the story – ‘well, we know that, we know that’s what happens when you scatter seed; so what?’ – and carried on as before. People who listen but never understand, look but never perceive – words of Isaiah quoted by Jesus in the verses cut from our reading this week by the people who compile the lectionary used in the wider church.

But others, perhaps those willing to give rather more of their time and attention, might have thought ‘Well yes – we know that’s what happens. So, what is he really saying; what is he trying to tell us, what is he wanting us to grapple with, to understand.’ And I imagine them eventually wandering home, but continuing to needle away at the story, digging to gain a deeper understanding and then crucially, to live out their new-found understanding and discover anew the renewing, healing, restoring love of God!

There may be many ways to interpret the parable of the sower, but as I read it again, preparing for this morning, one image kept coming back – this is a story about the essential nature of God. For this God is a God of abundant generosity, profligate with the gifts, and scattering the abundance of his seeds of love and grace far and wide with no thought about the wisdom of such profligacy. Rich fertile soil or stony ground – irrespective, God scatters with the same extravagant, loving generosity.

But it is also a story about our willingness to cherish all that God has given us, enabling it to grow and flourish, and to share it with those whom God puts in our path.

We need to hear this story; we need to let it take root in our hearts and minds because we don’t have to look very far to be reminded that we live in a divided country in deeply troubled and divided world; people aching to feel valued; countries are broken by war and oppression; thousands of lives destroyed through the distorted ideologies of others and once beautiful cities reduced to ruins; inequality continues to grow with half the worlds wealth held by just 1% of the population; and at times, profit seems to take priority over the value of human life. In a world of plenty, many starve, while in other parts of the world, people are quite literally eating themselves into an early grave. And through it all, we are systematically destroying the natural world and biodiversity upon which we depend for our very survival.

The enormity of the challenges before us can seem so daunting that we struggle to imagine how we can possibly make a difference to seemingly intractable problems; and so there is a danger that we are paralysed into inaction.

So how can the parable of the Sower inform our thinking, our action. As I was doing my own thinking, I remembered another story I had heard, and then read for myself. It is the story of one man’s quiet and patient perseverance; it speaks to our current situation and sheds light on the words of Jesus. It has the potential to inspire and encourage each one of us to remember that we can make a significant difference with our individual acts, however small they be. Some of you may have heard this story before, but a good story bears repetition!

It is the story of Elzeard Bouffier, a shepherd who led a somewhat solitary life for many years, in a region of France not far from the Alps.

One day, a man is walking high above sea level across an expanse of moorland covered with wild lavender. After three days walking, he reaches a landscape of unparalleled desolation – a few villages, many utterly deserted, others inhabited by charcoal burners where life was hard, the people deeply unhappy, with nothing to hope for and desperate to escape. The land was arid – just patches of tough grass and springs that had long since dried.
The man continues to walk in desperate need of water and comes across the shepherd who takes care of him – takes him to his home where there was a very deep well from which he drew sweet refreshing water.

The shepherd invites his guest to stay and rest the night. They sit in companionable silence and later the traveller watches as the shepherd fetches a small bag of acorns and empties them on to the table. He sorts them carefully and when he had sorted 100 perfect acorns, he went to bed.

The following day, the shepherd takes his bag of acorns and dips them in a bucket of water; he picks up a long metal rod and then accompanied by his dog and the visitor, leads his sheep to a hollow to graze, and leaves them guarded by his dog. He invites the walker to continue with him. Eventually they reach the place the shepherd was aiming for and he began making holes in the ground with the metal rod, putting an acorn in each hole and then carefully covering it. He was planting Oak Trees – the land was not his own but Common Land he thought, though he didn’t really know. He had been planting trees in this wilderness for three years – a hundred thousand of them. Only 20 thousand had come up and he expected to lose half of them. But, he said, that still means there will be 10 thousand trees where there had been nothing before.
Elzeard Bouffier had owned a farm on the plains, but his only first and only son died and then his wife. So he had left his farm and moved to the place where our walker found him. Elzeard felt that the part of the country in which he found himself was dying for lack of trees and so with nothing much else to do, he decided to try and put things right. So he planted trees, and planned to continue doing so.

Some years later, our walker returned to see Elzeard Bouffier who took him out to his forest which now included beech trees as well. The planting of the trees sent in train a sort of train reaction – water began flowing in the streams and slowly, wildlife began returning. Our walker continued to visit Monsier Bouffier every year. Life wasn’t plain sailing and one year he had planted 10 thousand maples. All died so he resumed the planting of beeches. His quiet patient work continued throughout his life.

He was 85 when our walker last went to visit and the area had been transformed: the forest flourished, villages were rebuilt, water flowed and people had hope.
The story of the Man who planted Trees reminds us that God will use our individual efforts, however small they may be, to transform and renew his creation. All he asks is that we are willing to take a risk, throw caution to the wind, prepare the soil as best we can then scatter the seeds of Good News, seeds of love, grace and hope wildly and extravagantly – as God longs for us to do; and God will work with them, grow them to accomplish what we could never have dreamed of! Amen

Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday June 25th at St Michael and All Angels

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Matthew10:24-39

“Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows”

 I have discovered again that there are many joys to be found in a holiday, a break away from the usual rhythm of life; one of them is the luxurious opportunity to spend hours reading; I read voraciously and among those books was one by the person I regard as a titan of the Christian faith, a person who has been a constant inspiration to me – Desmond Tutu, one time Archbishop of   Cape Town.  The book in question is entitled ‘God is Not a Christian: Speaking truth in times of crisis’.

This is a collection of his addresses to political rallies and church congregations, his speeches, lectures and articles, and some of his correspondence to the people in positions of power.  In his opening Forward, Desmond Tutu states:

‘Some of my friends are sceptical when they hear me say this, but I am by nature a person who dislikes confrontation. I have consciously sought during my life to emulate my mother, whom our family knew as a gentle “comforter of the afflicted.”  However, when I see innocent people suffering, pushed around by the rich and the powerful, then, as the prophet Jeremiah says, if I try to keep quiet it is as if the word of God burned like a fire in my breast.  I feel compelled to speak out, sometimes even to argue with God over how a loving creator can allow this to happen.’

Here is a person of faith who worked courageously and tirelessly, even in the face of imprisonment and threats to his own life.  His opposition to the inequities of apartheid was vigorous and unequivocal, and he was outspoken both at home in South Africa and abroad.  Tutu was equally rigorous in his criticism of the violent tactics of some anti-apartheid groups and denounced terrorism.

So, on that glorious day in 1994 when the Rainbow People of God were enabled to vote together in the first democratic elections, one might have thought that Tutu could sit back and relax a little.  But no!  He headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a monumental piece of work to enable the journey towards forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.  Then more recently he has continued to challenge people in positions of power and authority in South Africa, the Middle East and across the world who inflict injustice, suffering and pain on God’s people, robbing them of dignity and hope.  That compulsion to speak out has shone as a beacon of hope in a troubled world – to peoples living with oppression and injustice in its many forms – as he shone a light on the injustice and degradation suffered by so many.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is spelling out very clearly the cost of following Him.  As his disciples are about to set out on their mission, Jesus prepares them, warning them that people will speak ill of them, they will be derided perhaps even more than he has been.  To be a follower of Christ, is not a ticket to an easy life.

Like those first disciples, we are called to be builders of God’s Kingdom, and in Gods Kingdom, the values of the world are turned upside down and inside out.  For this is a kingdom that sees strength in weakness; this is a kingdom where the poor, the outcast, the marginalised are exalted, not the powerful and the rich; this is a kingdom that values the people so often despised by wider society; this is a Kingdom of absurd generosity, compassion and love.

So the message we are called to proclaim is shockingly counter-cultural, in a culture that easily dismisses people as expendable, discardable when, because they are poor or unemployed, they are judged to have failed.  For it is a message that many in our world will not, do not want to hear.  But my goodness, as we hold in our hearts the people who have suffered so badly as a result of the recent events in our country, as we hold in our hearts the countless people across our world who continue to suffer profound injustice, it is a message that desperately needs to be proclaimed again and again; it is a message we need to hear.  And we, my friends, are proclaiming that message loud and clear where ever and how ever we can.

Being called to a new way of living is not a new concept.  Throughout the record of God’s dealings with his children, people have been called to announce, and to live out God’s love in new, and nearly always revolutionary ways.  And it has always been costly.

Jeremiah was one such person, a prophet who was active throughout the most turbulent period of biblical history.  Jeremiah lived through the reign of good, bad, and weak kings.  He witnessed the invasion of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians; the siege and the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. He witnessed the starvation of many, the destruction of national and family life, and the shaking of the political and theological foundations of the people’s identity.  Survivors lost loved ones, land and livelihood; many were deported.  Most of this Jeremiah had warned the people about in advance, but his foresight won him no friends.  Increasingly he found himself isolated from the people he had come to serve, and at times his life was threatened by those who could not bear to hear that the truth was so different from what they wanted.  Yet he felt compelled to speak in spite of the personal cost and profound pain.  This morning in our first reading we glimpse that pain in an extract from one of the so-called confessions of Jeremiah.

Jesus came to establish a new way of being God’s people, engaging with the pain of the world seeking out the lost, the outcast and the unloved, the same people despised by so many. It was a way of being that gave dignity, hope and joy.  It was a way of being that brought Jesus in to conflict with his family, and with the religious and political leaders of the day and ultimately cost him his life.

As followers of Jesus, this is the road we too are called to travel.  Thank God, it is very unlikely that we will have to pay the ultimate price, but challenging injustice in our places of work, in our communities, among family and friends is never easy.   We have to choose.

But do not be afraid, says Jesus, for God is with us always.  Not a sparrow falls without God’s knowledge and we are of far, far greater value than many sparrows!   The God who calls also enables, and he will fill us with the grace and strength sufficient for  the work he call us to – building His Kingdom here on earth.  Amen