“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

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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

‘I am the resurrection and the life’

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on Sunday 2nd April 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’

These words from today’s gospel reading are familiar as the opening sentence of many funeral services.

In the Christian vision, life and death are tightly intermingled. The apostle Paul writes:

‘while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.’ (2 Cor 4. 10-11)

There are echoes of this in familiar words from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘in the midst of life we are in death’.

For Jesus and those who followed him in the adventure of faith, death was an ever-present reality. At the heart of our gospel reading this morning is a death, followed by life. But the possibility of death is present from the start of the story to its end. Before Jesus travels to Bethany, where Lazarus lived and where he has died, his disciples warn him against going there, because it’s just two miles from Jerusalem, and the religious leaders in Jerusalem want Jesus killed.

And our gospel reading has a postscript, which we didn’t hear this morning, in which the religious leaders plan to kill not only Jesus, but also Lazarus, who’s become something of a local celebrity and is drawing large crowds.

This has always struck me as an unintentionally comic moment in John’s Gospel, highlighting the incapacity of the religious leaders to respond to the challenge presented by Jesus. A man has been raised from the dead, an event demonstrating that when Jesus is involved, death is no longer the ultimate sanction or threat. And how do the religious leaders respond? They plan to put the man to death again. Their response simply highlights their impotence and increasing irrelevance. Something new is happening in their sphere of influence and they are not part of it.

Life and death are intermingled in this story, in a way unfamiliar to many of us.

It is as if our brains have two separate compartments, one concerned with ‘life’, the other with ‘death’, and it’s impossible for both to be switched on at the same time.

And yet there is a small group of people whose stories suggest that true life, life lived in the here and now, life lived with passion, commitment and authenticity, isn’t unconnected with awareness of death. These are people living active lives who suddenly discover they may only have months or years left to live. People of course respond in all kinds of ways to this shocking news and understandably the responses can include fear, anger and regret. But there are a significant number of people who end up responding by living in a way they’ve never lived before: recognising what really matters in life and putting to one side the stuff which ultimately doesn’t matter at all. Such people must wonder why they hadn’t done this earlier, why it has taken the imminence of death to show them what life is truly about.

So, death and true life are perhaps not so unconnected.

The prospect of death, the reality of death, can teach us how to live. Some of you will know of Bronnie Ware’s book ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’. Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She writes of the clarity of vision people gain at the end of their lives and how we might learn from their wisdom. ‘When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,’ she says, ‘common themes surfaced again and again.’

What are the top five regrets of the dying?

First, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’

Second, ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’

Third, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’

Fourth, ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’

And fifth, ‘I wish that I had let myself be happy.’

So, it can take death, or rather the imminence of death, to reveal to us what life is truly about.

And there are others for whom the possibility of death is wrapped up even more closely with a meaningful life.

Let me read some words from Martin Luther King’s sermon at Selma, Alabama in March 1965:

‘Deep down in our … creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life – some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the delayed announcement of an earlier death of the spirit’.

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.’

50 years later, I’m sure Luther King wouldn’t object if I point out this is equally true for women.

So, here’s the paradox. In order fully to be alive, we need to be ready to die. We need to be unafraid of death, knowing that some things are more important.

The story of Lazarus has had a significance down the centuries far beyond the space it takes up in the New Testament.

It’s believed by quite a few biblical scholars that Lazarus is the man described by the Fourth Gospel as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ That might be hard to take in if you’ve been told all your life that the disciple whom Jesus loved was John, one of the Twelve. But I think a closer look at the text of the Bible shows it to be quite plausible and I’d be very happy one evening to lead a discussion about this fascinating idea.

If it is true, it identifies Lazarus with the disciple in the gospels least afraid of death and most clear that death is not the end. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the one brave enough to be present at the crucifixion and watch Jesus die. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the one who looked into his tomb, and seeing the linen wrappings lying there, understood that he had risen. And the disciple whom Jesus loved was expected by many in the early church never to die.

So, today’s reading possibly had a significance even at the time far beyond the space it takes up in the Gospel. Whether or not that’s so, the story continues to resonate down the centuries. When David Bowie died last year, it was less than a month after the release of his final single, a single in which he clearly reflects on the possibility of death, a single named simply ‘Lazarus’ after our gospel reading today.

We seem to live most fully when instead of allowing our fear of death to shut it out of our thoughts, we accept it and live in the face of its reality, find some way of making it part of our lives, even allowing it to shape our lives.

Engaging with the reality of death whilst we’re still alive isn’t the only way to hold life and death together in our minds. For followers of Jesus, we also do this by engaging, even when death is present in our lives, with the reality of the life God promises us. This vision of resurrection gave Martin Luther King the courage to risk his life for what really mattered. We too need to be people, followers of Jesus, ready to take risks for what matters.

Not just in our individual lives, but also as a church. Churches, like people, experience a kind of death when they become afraid to take risks.

The bones strewn across a valley in our graphic first reading are a picture of God’s people, who have experienced a kind of death. God wants to breathe his life into us and to say to us, as he said to the people of Israel: ‘You shall know that I am the Lord. I will out my spirit within you, and you shall live.’

 

 

 

 

Come and see!

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

Isaiah 49:1-7
John1:29-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear fruit worthy of repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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