‘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

I have found my sheep that was lost (SMAA)

Exodus 32:7-14, Luke 15:1-10

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on 11th September 2016 at St Michael & All Angels.

Right at the start of my ministry here in Kettering comes a gift in the shape of this morning’s Gospel reading.  A reading from the heart of Luke’s Gospel which gets to the very heart of what the gospel is about.

The author Luke takes a special interest in things that are lost and in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is especially concerned with things that are lost and with people who have lost things.

We use the word ‘lost’ to cover a range of experiences.  Yesterday I was doing some hospital visiting and lost my hospital parking ticket.  It was annoying and preoccupied me for around twenty minutes.  But it wasn’t life-changing.

But sometimes we lose things which are closely wrapped up with our sense of who we are, with our identity.  And then we ourselves become truly lost.  In extreme cases, people lose their memories.  We talk about people losing their minds.  But many of us will have had knocks in life which led to us losing our way for a while.   We lose a job.  Or a partner, a lover, a friend.  We lose someone through bereavement.  Today we remember those who still feel loss, 15 years after the events of 11 September 2001.

Luke’s Gospel is interested in these experiences of lostness because Luke’s Jesus is interested in them.

This kind of being lost is never good in itself.  And yet out of this lostness new things become possible.  Our true moments of glory come not at times of success, of welfare and plenty, but of lostness, hardship & uncertainty.  These are the moments of transformation.

The experience of being lost, then found, is at the very heart of the Christian experience.

Right at the heart of Luke’s Gospel are three stories about being lost and losing things, following one after the other: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and a third parable we didn’t hear today, the parable of the lost son. The parable of the lost son may sound unfamiliar to you, and yet it is one of the greatest of all the parables, better known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It is bizarre that it’s not known as the Parable of the Lost Son, because ‘being lost’ is so clearly the common thread running through all three stories; and because the parable ends with these words: ‘this brother of yours was lost and has been found.’

But lostness isn’t something we find just at the heart of Luke’s gospel.  It’s there also at the start and at the end.

In Luke Chapter 2 it’s Jesus himself – twelve years old – who is lost.  Mary and Joseph are travelling away from Jerusalem following the Feast of the Passover.  And then they realise Jesus is missing.  After three days they find him, back in the Jerusalem Temple, talking with the religious teachers.  Jesus says to his parents: ‘Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Luke is a great storyteller and it’s hard to believe he wrote this story without having at the back of his mind another story, one which he tells towards the end of his gospel.

Because this is not the last time in Luke’s gospel we meet two people walking away from Jerusalem following the Passover Festival, distraught because they have lost Jesus. It’s not the last time they encounter Jesus again after three days, engaged in a discussion of the scriptures. It’s not the last time the two people interrupt their journey and head back to Jerusalem.

Luke tells these stories in such a way that when we read the story of the Road to Emmaus, at some level we’re reminded of the earlier story, of Joseph and Mary, out of their minds with worry because they’ve lost Jesus.

Many of us will have had times in our lives when we have lost Jesus. When we can’t quite work out how once we felt close to him, and then somehow he no longer seemed to be part of our lives in the same way. And we try to retrace our steps and work out how that happened, and how we can change things so that Jesus is once more part of our lives, so that God’s presence, rather than his absence, is something we once again experience.

When Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus again, he appears to be completely at home.  He says to them: ’Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Which raises the question: ‘Who was really lost?’

It is we who are lost when we lose Jesus, when we lose sight of God, when we lose touch with the spiritual side of our character. I speak from experience, having spent fifteen years of my life away from Christian faith.  Like the people of Israel we heard about in our first reading, I spent many years wandering in a wilderness.  I often regret it and lament what I see as wasted years.  And yet, like the people of Israel, that time has shaped who I am and now shapes my ministry, especially with those on the edge of the church, those who find faith difficult.

Fortunately, as Luke’s Gospel makes clear, it is precisely at such moments of lostness that we can experience God in a new way.

When the lost son returns to his father, his father sees him when he is still far off and runs and puts his arms around him and kisses him. This is a picture of God, one of the best we have.

Once we find our way again, how is life different?  What is it that keeps us on track and stops us getting derailed?  A detailed map, perhaps, so we need never get lost again?

That’s not my experience.  There are Christians – there are indeed whole churches – who believe God provides such a detailed map.  In my experience, that’s rare.  Less a map, more a compass.  Indeed, less a compass, more a homing instinct. That feels more true to those moments in life when things do seem to go right, when we feel as if by God’s grace, we are living within God’s purposes.  It was such a homing instinct that took the boy Jesus to his true home – to his Father’s house.

I believe it was such a homing instinct which has brought me here to Kettering.

Does our gospel reading today provide any clues about the future of this church, of St Michael and All Angels, as we look ahead?

My impression is that St Michael’s is at a crucial moment in its history.  The energy and life here which I’ve already sensed needs to find a direction.  I see my main role here as simply enabling you to find your way forward.  I want to be a catalyst, an enabler, a facilitator, so that each of you can discover your own ministry and vocation: so that together you can flourish in faith.

Many of us are here today because we’ve known what it means to be lost.  Here is Kettering there is no shortage of people who feel lost, even if they don’t admit it.  They are struggling, hurt, confused.  What does the owner of the sheep do in our story?  For a while he leaves the warmth and security of the flock, looks out into the wider world, finds the lost sheep and brings it home.

As St Michael’s grows and flourishes – as I’m sure it will – never forget what it is that brings us together.  It is that we are people who know what it means to be lost.  That is what the people in neighbouring streets most need.  They need to see a community of people who, like them, know what it’s like to feel lost and yet who have been found.

And as you grow and flourish, have as your model the owner of the sheep in our story, who turns his face outwards to search for the lost one.  St Michael’s is here for a reason, for a purpose.  And part of that purpose is nothing less than the transformation of this corner of Kettering so that the lost can be found and so that the values of God’s kingdom – healing, reconciliation, justice – can become visible in our streets, signs of the presence of the kingdom of God.

The cost of being a disciple

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 4th September 2016

Luke 14:25-33

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

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

What is going on!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put your trust in the one true God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God has looked favourably on his people

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 5th June 2016

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

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