“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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Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on 20th August 2017 at St Peter & Paul
Isaiah 56:1,6-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

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.

The words of Isaiah and the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, have not been heard just here, and at SMAA, they have not just been heard in the churches of our Deanery and across the Diocese, they have not just been heard in the Anglican churches across our country and the wider Anglican worldwide Communion, but they have been heard in all those churches across the world – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist – all that follow the Common Eucharistic Lectionary. I find that a powerful thought – thousands upon thousands of people across varied ethnic and cultural communities across our world will have heard on this 9th Sunday of Trinity words that challenge us to work out our relationship with God and our neighbours.

They are words that communities through the ages have needed to hear, yet struggled to grasp their implication; sadly, they are words that we desperately need to hear in our own day, for it seems that in America, in the united Kingdom, across the Middle East, in Europe, indeed just about everywhere in our world, people, communities, struggle to grasp what it means to love God and our neighbours. Too often, we continue to build barriers – physical, psychological and bureaucratic – to keep away from us, to keep outside our clearly defined circles the people we see as different, and therefore a threat to our own sense of identity and wellbeing. That perceived difference might be ethnicity or culture, race or religion – or any combination. And always, always, it is the people kept ‘outside’ who pay the greatest price; but we are all diminished by the inhumanity of this manner of thinking and by the fear, hatred and bigotry that so often underpins it.

And so, while we find many and varied ways of ‘circling the wagons’ to keep ‘them’ out (whoever they may be) and ‘me and mine’ safe, God draws circles also, much bigger circles. But His circles are not meant to keep anyone out, they are bigger to invite all people in.

This is what Isaiah is referring to in the words we heard a few moments ago. The words come towards the final section of Isaiah’s prophecy, and he speaks to Judah about the obedience that should mark and characterise life of the people after exile. And here the prophet speaks to the people, not as a nation state, but as a religious community. That obedience is to be reflected in their willingness to maintain justice, do right and keep the Sabbath. But there was a problem. Because while keeping the Sabbath was clearly a marker of the faithful, the issue of who were legitimate members of the community of the faithful was a sensitive one, and discrimination was at work! Isaiah reminds the people that eunuchs should not be excluded on the grounds of a physical imperfection, and foreigners ‘joined to the Lord’ will also share in God’s promises to his faithful people. The new world that God is constantly bringing into being will be founded on faithfulness, and while His covenant with the chosen people still holds, the Covenant is dynamic, living and growing, and its welcome extends to all who genuinely commit themselves to God and live according to His laws of faithfulness, justice and love. Isaiah’s words challenged accepted thinking; specifically – and radically – he mentions outcasts.
Words that brought hope to the outcast, but uncomfortable for people who saw themselves in the inner circle, people who tried to pin God down within the limits of their own vision and understanding. Isaiah challenges them to revise their understanding of what it means to live lives of obedience to God as members of the Covenant community.

And it is in the process of revising the understanding of his mission that we find Jesus this morning. Jesus has crossed from Galilee to the region of Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean coast (in what we now call Lebanon); it was gentile territory, and it was here that he met the Canaanite woman. There was longstanding bitter hostility between the Jews and the people of the area where the Canaanite woman lived as there is still hostility between Jews and the people of the Lebanon. So this ancient story is also a contemporary one.

The woman is desperate to find help of her sick daughter – as any mother would be. Her desperation encourages her to push at the religious and social boundaries. She lived in a culture where there was mutual loathing, and certainly it was never acceptable for a lone woman to approach a man. So for this Canaanite woman, the stakes were high indeed.

But before we look further at this story, we need to look back at what immediately precedes it. the Pharisees and Scribes have challenged Jesus who they believe is ignoring the faith Tradition handed down, especially that concerning hand washing before eating. They imply that Jesus and his disciples are breaking the traditional purity laws. Jesus attacks them for what he sees as observance of religious law and ritual which concentrates on externals; externals that in no way reflect what is going on in the heart and is therefore insincere. He challenges them on their teaching and understanding of relationships with one another.

Jesus then turns his attention to the crowd and his disciples, explaining that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out; for food once digested goes out into the sewer. It is passing, unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart – and words spoken can build up or tear down, can be life-giving or destructive.

So back to our desperate Canaanite woman. She begs for mercy and healing for her sick daughter, recognizing Jesus as Lord and Son of David (something the Pharisees and Scribes had failed to do). Jesus initially ignores her and when he eventually deigns to answer, his response is jarring, unsettling and makes us feel uncomfortable – particularly in the light of what he had just been teaching! And his disciples what her sent away!

Even when she kneels before him, implying worship and a deep understanding of his divine status, Jesus uses the ultimate insult and calls her and her daughter “dogs”. The Canaanite woman knows Jesus power to heal and is willing to endure underserved humiliation, and so persists, again addressing Jesus as ‘Lord’ and insists that even dogs eat the crumbs from the table. Matthew takes us back to the feeding of the 5000 – remember the baskets full of scraps left after all have been fed?

In the Canaanite woman, Jesus comes face to face with a person of great faith whose heart is filled with the love and the desire to do right. Through barbed words he encounters someone whose faith enables her to trust that God’s mercy is abundant; God’s healing and love overflows; and there is enough not only for the children of Israel, but for the entire world – all people, everywhere. The woman’s prayer was answered in more ways than one – her daughter was healed; she received mercy for herself and public praise for her great faith.

Through this extraordinary encounter, Matthew shows his readers how Jesus mission and ministry is expanding; tearing down centuries old boundaries and opening up the culturally identified family of God to all God’s people. Jesus has crossed the boundary between the land of Israel and gentile territory; he has redefined the boundaries of what is clean and unclean and he has expanded our understanding that actually the Kingdom of God has no boundaries! Jesus is the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles.

The Canaanite woman challenged Jesus and she challenges us too, all who meet her this morning wherever in the world we might be. She challenges us to ask ourselves ‘Who are the Canaanites among us today? Who do we want to see Jesus to send away? And who would we not welcome into our fellowship here with us this morning and every time we gather? And what message do we send, knowingly or unknowingly to ‘the others’, the Canaanites in our world?

For now, we echo her prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us. 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

Who are we as a church?

PATRONAL FESTIVAL SERMON: THE FEAST OF ST PETER AND ST PAUL

SUNDAY 2 JULY 2017
Sermon preached by Rev David Walsh

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

Patronal Festivals are a time for churches to look at themselves in the mirror and ask: who are we as a church?

As it happens, our Patronal Festival falls in the very week our Parochial Church Council, the PCC, has decided to spend the whole of the autumn asking this very question and listening carefully to the answers.

We’re not just asking questions for the sake of asking questions.  The questions and the answers they provoke will lead to action, to action which could have a profound affect on every part of our church’s life and on the parish which we share with St Michael’s.

But all the action and energy we can summon up is worthless unless we’re heading in the right direction.  And so it’s worth taking time properly to listen.  And the autumn is going to be all about listening.

Firstly, listening to each other here in the church.  Listening out especially for the voices that perhaps don’t normally get heard.  We’ll be listening for example to our children as well as our adults.  We’ll be listening to those who’ve only just arrived, and asking them what the experience was like. Listening to those who used to be members and have now left and asking them: why?  We want to have honest and frank answers.  That’s the best way to help the church.

So we’ll be listening to each other.

But secondly, we’ll be listening to the people of Kettering, to our parish with its 19.000 parishioners.  Does this medieval building, Kettering’s oldest and most prominent landmark, stand for anything of any significance now to the town at large?  Who do they think we are?  Is that different from what we used to be?  What would they like us to be, for the town and people of Kettering?  Are we relevant to their deepest needs and aspirations?  Do we know what those are?

And third, as well as listening to each other and listening to the people of Kettering, it is above all important that we should be listening to God.  I want prayer to be at the heart of what we do in the autumn.  I was talking yesterday to a member of the church I hope might end up hosting a regular prayer group focusing on the church and parish as we ask these questions and as we work out how to respond to the answers we hear.

And this means that one of the most crucial and powerful roles in our time of listening might be played by members of our extended church family who are largely housebound.  But they can still pray.

Understanding who we are as a church means even more than this listening exercise.

At a time when the church nationally faces huge challenges, it’s becoming increasingly clear that whilst many churches are in decline, others are thriving.  This is true across different church traditions.  Growth and life are not confined to just one part of the Church of England.  Neither is decline.  I have known many liberal catholic churches which are thriving and full of energy.  And I have known evangelical churches in rapid decline.

Evidence is beginning to emerge which tells us what the thriving churches have in common.  It suggests to me key clues about what it means to be a church, a church which experiences new life.  So part of what we as a church need to do before taking big decisions about our future is learn what it means to be a church with a future in challenging times.

But that doesn’t mean we simply want to become like other churches, with no distinctive identity of our own.  Quite the opposite.  I believe passionately that when God calls us as individuals, as churches, as communities, to change, to be transformed, he wants us to become more fully ourselves, not less so.

So we also need to ask what is distinctive about this church.  As we change and grow, how will we do so in a way that is different to other churches?  That takes seriously our setting here in the middle of Kettering?  That builds on our centuries of faithful worship and service based on this building?  That reflects the things which matter to us as we express our faith: rhythm and colour in our worship; intelligent questioning as we work through our faith; generous open hearted acceptance of those who are different from us, especially the marginalised.

One small part of what makes us distinctive is our dedication to Peter and Paul.  What can we learn from them as we ask ourselves who we are as a church?

Peter is told by Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading from Matthew that he will build his church on this rock.  The wordplay in the original Greek is lost in the English translation.  To recapture the original meaning we would have to imagine something like:

‘You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church’

In this image, the church is a building.  And that gives all kinds of clues to us as we work out how to grow the church and revive it.

So from Peter we gain some clues about what we are as a church.  And our other patron, Paul, repeats this insight when he writes to the young church at Corinth: ‘you are God’s building’.

But Paul adds another image. What he actually writes to the Corinthians is ‘You are God’s field, God’s building.’

And what you need to do if you are a farmer, or a gardener, and you want your field to flourish, want it to be full of growth and life, is rather different from what you need to do to plan and construct a building.

Paul uses both images and so it’s probably true that our churches need both understandings and need leaders who can work with both understandings.

But it might be useful for you as a church – as we head into whatever the coming years might bring – to know what kind of leader I am.  I think I know myself reasonably well and I know that the image with which I’m most comfortable is that of a field.

Why is that?  It suggests that the role of Christian leaders – and that’s not just the Rector of a parish, it’s anyone who exercises any kind of influence in the life of the church – it suggests that their role isn’t so much to do things themselves, as to create the right conditions in which things will grow naturally.

Farmers and gardeners know there are things you can do which will lead to growth, and mistakes you can make which will choke growth off.

It’s interesting how often Jesus himself used these kinds of images when talking about the kingdom of God.  We think of the Parable of the Sower.  And it’s no coincidence that at my Service of Institution and Induction ten months ago, one of the readings I chose the following words from Mark’s Gospel:

‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

The natural thing to happen in the Kingdom, suggests Jesus himself, is growth.  But we can stifle that – leaders in particular can stifle this –  if we fail to understand that our role is like farmers and gardeners.  We need to create the conditions in which things flourish and blossom naturally, of their own accord.

It means of course to some extent that leaders have to give up control.  That we leaders need to expect to be surprised by what happens in our own churches, to be delighted when unexpected new things happen.  Our role is to create the conditions which make such new and unexpected things more likely.

As Paul writes to the Corinthians:

‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’

There are clearly moments in a church’s life when it needs to become more like a building.  Times when groups of people need to sit down and plan in detail how they are going to work together to create something they’ve all agreed on.  But if that’s the only way we work as a church, I fear we are not fully living out what being church means.

So both Peter and Paul can help us as we try to understand who we are as a church.  Paul has another way of describing the church which would I think be shocking to us if we weren’t so used to the image from his writings.  We might almost think it bordered on the blasphemous if it wasn’t so firmly embedded in the New Testament.  The Church, says Paul, is the Body of Christ.

It is a remarkable image.  If we want to know where Christ is now, it suggests, one of the best places to look is towards this group of not always impressive, deeply flawed humans who find themselves drawn together week by week in what we call ‘church’.

As Paul writes to the Church at Corinth: ‘You collectively are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.’

Christ’s presence is in the mix.   In the variety of people in our churches, the way we contrast with each other and yet at the same time work together.  That’s what makes it possible for us to be ‘the body of Christ’.  That’s when Jesus can be seen in us.

It is, again, no coincidence that the second reading I chose for my service of Induction and Institution was this very passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul explores in some details what it means for a church to be the body of Christ.

Because a church can’t properly be a church until it understands what Paul is talking about in this letter.

As Paul writes:

‘The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?’

What this means is that for a church properly to be a church every single member has to be playing their own unique part, the part which no one else can play.  And if they are not encouraged to do so, are not allowed to do so, if the culture of the church focuses on just a small number of people rather than on every member, then we cannot properly be the body of Christ and anyone who looks at us cannot properly see Christ in us, because something is missing.

And that’s one reason why today, we’re asking ourselves what our gifts and talents are, what part we might play in the church, in the body of Christ.  So that each of us can play our part in allowing Jesus to become visible in and through our church.

Fortunately we are all different.  No two people here today have the same gifts, talents and experience to offer.

And this is one more thing we can learn from our two Patron Saints, Peter and Paul.

Both in their own way rocks on which the early church was built.  And yet they could not be more different.

Which is one reason why the church celebrates them both together on the same day.  It’s important to know that right from the very beginning there was not just one model of being a Christian, one model of being a Christian leader.

It’s hard to think of two more different characters.  Paul was a Roman citizen, a Pharisee educated at the feet of one of the most respected Jewish scholars of all time.  In many ways he was an ‘insider’.

And Peter was a fisherman.  Quite a prosperous fisherman, quite a successful businessman, it would appear. But still a very different person from Paul.  Much more of an outsider.

You get the feeling, reading the New Testament, that these two huge figures in the early church circled rather warily around each other.  Yet think what together they made possible.  We wouldn’t be here today without them.

Paul writes quite a lot about Peter, who he calls by his Greek name ‘Cephas’.  He acknowledges that already, in the early days of the Christian church, members are dividing themselves up depending on whether they feel they are ‘Peter’ type Christians or ‘Paul’ type Christians.

Although in the wider world Paul was something of an establishment figure, within the church itself he was more of an outsider, less an acknowledged figure of authority.  And at times a degree of mild resentment appears to creep into Paul’s letters as he compares his lot with that of Peter:

‘Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?’

And occasionally they openly clashed about the future of the church:

‘When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face’  (Galatians 2:11)

And yet the church was big enough to contain two such very different characters.  Indeed, this may well have been part of what led it to thrive.

So our church too needs to be a place which admits diversity and difference.  It’s a huge shame that no women appear in this story, that instead of Peter and Paul, we don’t have Peter and Pauline.  But our task, now, is to allow a church to grow and flourish which allows as much diversity and difference as possible.

Who are we as a church?

Such a deceptively simple question.  Yet it opens up such rich and promising territory.  Let’s address it with relish over the coming months.  As we try to work what our church might look like if it were to experience new life; what it would mean for this to be a place where individuals experienced personal renewal; and what our distinctive contribution as a church might be towards the renewal of this town of ours.

As we ask these questions, let’s keep coming back to what we can learn from our two Patrons, from Peter and from Paul.

Today we give thanks for them and for all who have made our life together as a church possible.

Leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 28th May 2017, at Ss Peter & Paul

Acts 1:6-14
John 17:1-11

‘Leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us’

At last, we have been enjoying the first really warm days of the year giving a glimpse of the joys of summer that await!  And as I endeavoured to garner my thoughts for this morning, I did so with the doors open onto the garden, enjoying the warmth of the early summer sunshine drifting in, and looking out on to the garden in glorious bloom, birds singing.  All it seems, is warm, peaceful and contented.

Except that it is not.  Because just as the days were warming and sun began streaming in through the windows, news came late on Monday night  of a blast ripping through the foyer of an Arena filled with young people and their families.  In an instant, the young, vibrant life that was coursing through that happy crowd turned to death.  22 people, including children and teenagers, were killed, many more suffered life-changing injuries.  The lives of countless families were devastated, ripped apart by the deliberate  and premeditated actions of a young man barely older than some of those whose lives were taken from them, a man driven by a grossly distorted vision of what it mean to be a Muslim, driven by an ideology fuelled at least in part by hatred.

The people of Manchester, the people of our nation, the people of cities and countries across the world have been shocked once again by the breathtaking inhumanity of such a callous and barbarous act. In the midst of life, there is death.  And for a moment there was a pause in our national life.  There is a sense in which we need to stop, to absorb insofar as we can, what has happened and what it means – what it means for the families most deeply affected and for all of us; what it means to say ‘Alleluia, Christ has risen!’ when for many people Good Friday is a real and present experience.  What can we draw from the story of the Ascension that we hear again this morning; how does it speak to a world that is both utterly glorious yet painfully broken.

Last Tuesday evening,  Tony Walsh  joined the people of Manchester as they gathered in Albert Square – people of all faiths and cultures, people from across the spectrum of Mancunian society – people gathered in a sign of unity and solidarity – to remember people  who had died, people who were injured, people who were watching, waiting and weeping.  Tony read his extraordinary poem ‘This is the place’.  His words spoke when we were lost for words.  Poetry does that – gives us back the words we need.  As Janette Winterson noted: The poem becomes part of what had happened as well as a way of talking about it.

Poetry and poetic language gives depth to our story-telling, able to convey intensity, truths that might otherwise have eluded us.

The theologian and writer Paula Gooder notes that the authors of the books in both the Old and New Testaments draw naturally on the language of poetry and poetic imagining ‘to give depth to language about God, who by his very nature defies description.’  Such language, she says, challenges us today  ‘into an act of poetic imagination which takes seriously the reality of God and the reality of a realm beyond our own, governed not by the principles that so easily drive us, but by a different way of being ruled by love, compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness’.

Such a challenge faces us as we hear again the story of the Ascension in the light of the events of the past week.

During his earthly life, time and time again Jesus encouraged the people to widen their imaginations, their understanding of how they saw themselves, how they perceived God, and how they perceived their relationship with Him.  Jesus challenge is as real for us as it was for the people of Palestine 2000 years ago.  Can we in the light of our faith re-imagine who God is and who he wants us to be in the care of his world and its peoples?

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

There may be times in our lives when, like Jesus as he hung on the Cross, we feel the absence of God rather than His presence; there may be times when, in the face of the awful cruelty, the brutality and indignity human beings inflict on one another, we are tempted to despair; there may be times when we cling to our faith in a just, loving and compassionate God by the skin of our teeth.  But year by year, as we explore the story of God’s relationship with his people; as we reflect on the wonder and mystery of God revealed in Christ, we are reminded that God in Christ is no longer restricted by time or place, but  is with us always, no matter what, no matter where, no matter when.  And He will take our flawed lives, our stumbling and imperfect efforts and transform them in the building of his kingdom.  How?  Through the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  He just asks that we open our hearts to that gift, widen our imaginations and dream.  Then the impossible will become possible.

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

·        The people  working for our emergency services who responded immediately – coming from their beds, their days off, their holidays – to give help care and support to the injured, the dying and the bereaved

·        The taxi drivers who offered their services free of charge to take people to their homes or places of safety.

·        The homeless men – Chris Parker and Steve who had been sheltering in the foyer of the Arena, could have turned and run for their safety but instead stayed to help the injured and the dying; Chris holding a young woman who died in his arms; Steve helping to comfort, to ease the pain of children caught in the blast.    ‘You had to help’ they said.

·        People who came to give blood.

·        People who opened their cafes to provide free drinks to the emergency workers.

·        People who took to the hospitals across Manchester food and drink for the staff.

·        People who opened the doors of their homes to strangers, offering all that they could to comfort and support.

·        People who prayed for healing, unity and forgiveness in the Churches, Temples, Mosques and homes – not just in Manchester but across the cities, towns and villages of our country.

The story of the Ascension as told by Luke in Acts moves not only outwards from Jerusalem, but also downwards from the mountain.  The story of Acts begins in a place where Jesus is visible, angels speak clearly and the veil between earth and heaven is momentarily thinned.  From this moment, the challenge of discerning God’s purpose will become harder!

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

In the words of Rowan Williams: “If we are challenged as to where God is in the world, our answer must be to ask ourselves how we can live, pray and act so as to bring light the energy at the heart of all things – to bring the face of Jesus to life in our faces, and to do this by turning again and again to the deep well of trust and prayer that the Spirit opens for us”.

Re-imagine what God can and will do; lets widen our vision to re-imagine the world through God’s eyes, to see those around us through God’s eyes; to see God in the people we meet; lets dream and re-imagine what we can do to ease the pain and suffering of His broken yet glorious world!

‘Leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us’

Tony Walsh concluded the reading of his poem with the words:  Choose Love Manchester.

As we await the celebration of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, may we – today and in all the days and weeks of our lives – Choose Love.  For we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!

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

The reality of the Resurrection

Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on 23rd April 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul

Acts 2:14, 22-32;
John 20:19-31

In some parts of the church, today is known as ‘Low Sunday’, in part because attendance may be less than for the Vigil or Easter Day; and the atmosphere is certainly quieter, calmer – the organ and choir are more restrained; fewer bells and no trumpets or tambourines; the service somewhat simpler than our Easter Vigil when the Bishop announced, quietly at first, gradually rising to a crescendo – Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!  But still the faithful and the doubting are drawn here – probably for as many different reasons as there are people here – some seeking perhaps, but not sure what; drawn to worship, to pray and to experience and be touched by the presence of the Risen Christ who reveals something of himself in each one of us, in every element of our worship, but most profoundly in the simple things of broken bread and wine outpoured.

And yet it is utterly amazing that we are here at all, for when we look back, the signs were far from encouraging!  It was hardly a hotbed of faith that Jesus walked in to when he bypassed the locked doors that expressed so much about the disciples fear. This group of frightened, uncertain people, utterly exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually, had shut themselves away, afraid perhaps of what they may have to confront if they stepped out into the wider world. But then, Jesus is there!  The wounds reveal that it is unmistakable Jesus yet he is also different, no longer subject to time and space. Into their fear and confusion, Jesus speaks words of peace, and the disciples rejoice as they glimpse the glory of God in their midst.

Yet before they even have time to absorb what is happening, Jesus commissions them to continue the work that He had begun and sends them out – beyond the safety they feel locked doors have given them, out into the world beyond.    In his Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us an insight into the reality of this outdoor life, with all its joys and it tribulations.  There is a new-found energy and vision born in them following the blessing of peace – a peace that does not bring the quiet life.  Quite the opposite – it is a peace which gives this group of once fearful and uncertain people, a new dynamic energy and the courage to be outdoors, to cope with whatever comes their way.

And so they begin the work that would take the Good New far beyond Jerusalem, out to the gentile world.  And that, my friends, is in large part why we are here this morning!

I am certain that this very ordinary group of people, people who knew joy, people who argued among themselves, people who doubted and questioned, had no idea what God was about to achieve as they stepped through those locked doors.  But, their willingness to trust, to walk in faith and hope, to take a risk began the work that led to the eventual spread of Christianity across the world.

But what of Thomas – the other significant person in our readings this morning.   I discovered while preparing for this morning that among Eastern Orthodox Churches, this particular Sunday is  known as St. Thomas Sunday –  so let’s journey with him for a few moments, and see what we discover.

It is only St. John’s Gospel that has much to say about Thomas.  He is first mentioned when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Judea.  The disciples are dumbfounded – isn’t it in Judea that the people were wanting to stone him to death?  But Thomas speaks for them all when he says ‘let us also go, that we may die with him’.  So many mixed emotions in these words: bravery perhaps, but I also hear resignation, reluctance and a dogged loyalty.

Thomas appears again when Jesus is in the Upper Room.  He is telling his disciples that he must go away, and that they know the way to the place where he is going.  But it is Thomas who asks the question that perhaps the others dare not ask; ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

The final occasion and perhaps the best known story is the one heard this morning.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the disciples when Jesus appeared to them on the first Easter Day.   They singularly fail to convince him of the fact that Jesus is risen with either their words or their joy; Thomas insists on the evidence of what his eyes can see and his hands can feel before he will believe.

So quite clearly, Thomas had his doubts, and in a sense who can blame him!  Would any one of us have reacted differently?  But those doubts did not cause him to leave the group of disciples or follow a different path.  He continued to stay around, ………. and wait, and wait!

John records, almost casually, ‘A week later…….although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them.’

Seven days of nothing happening, and yet ……what I wonder, was going on within Thomas during those seven days;  what was he thinking, feeling, experiencing; what was being re-created.

When Jesus does appear, he invites Thomas to see and to touch, just as he had the other disciples.  But in the end, Thomas doesn’t need to!  The invitation is enough, it seems, to call forth that supreme confession of faith in the entire Gospel – ‘My Lord and my God’.

And so it is Thomas who is the first to explicitly recognise what the writer of John’s Gospel has been revealing since the very beginning with those wonderful opening words:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God……and the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….full of grace and truth”!

Thomas, surprised by God, glimpses the glory of God in the person of Jesus, the word made flesh and living among us.

In Thomas, we glimpse the transformation of reluctant dogged loyalty mingled with doubt into radiant joy, and as we catch that glimpse we are encouraged to remember that if it can happen to him, it can happen to me, to you, to any one of us!

Jesus comes to us in the midst of our uncertainties, doubts and fears as he came to those first disciples. He places himself in our hands in the simple things of broken bread and wine outpoured.  He reveals himself to us in the kindness and generosity of strangers; He speaks to us through our experiences of love and being loved; he speaks healing words of forgiveness that release us into new life; He comes to us in every encounter that lights up our lives!

This is the reality of the resurrection, a reality with the power to transform the darkness of our world into a world filled with light and joy, hope and peace.   This was the Good News that Thomas and those other disciples were called by Jesus to take beyond the safety of locked doors and proclaim to the wider world.  I hope and pray that our faith will take wings this Eastertide, opening our eyes to the glory of God in our midst, and giving us the courage to take risks and go beyond what feels safe and secure to proclaim the hope and joy of the Resurrection, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Who knows what God is already doing and will continue to achieve in and through our sometimes faltering steps yet faithful steps!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!!

Making all things new 

Sermon preached by Rev David Walsh on Easter Day, Sunday 16th April 2017

Making all things new

On Good Friday one of the church’s prayers asks God to:

let the whole world feel and see
that things which were cast down are being raised up
and things which had grown old are being made new
and that all things are returning to perfection through him from whom they took their origin.

It may be a Good Friday prayer, but for me it sums up what Easter is all about.  Actually, for me it sums up the central hope of Christian faith: things which were cast down being raised up; things which had grown old being made new.

It’s a theme woven through the pages of the Bible.

Right towards the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God says ‘Behold I make all things new’.

And the apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, describes the hope at the heart of his faith: ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.’   (Romans 8.21)

The resurrection story we’ve just heard isn’t describing a one-off event in the past.  It provides a foretaste, a glimpse, of how things will one day be.  That day is in the future.  But we –  now – can taste for ourselves something of the new life God promises.  God wants to make all things new.  And he wants to start now.  With me.  And with you.  With this church.  And with this town of Kettering.

Twenty centuries on our main witness to the resurrection are the changed lives of those touched by it.

Let me tell you just one such story, set 20 years ago, on Easter Day 1997.  A man walked into a church for the first time in many years.  In some ways, this man wasn’t so unusual in his relationship to Christian faith.  When he was younger, he’d been a committed church member.  But at some point, he started asking serious questions about the rather narrow, unimaginative flavour of Christianity he’d experienced.  Increasingly he became unconvinced by the answers he was getting.  Eventually he lost his faith and had little contact with any church for around 15 years.  This is not an unusual story. Many of us might know people like this.  Possibly there are people like this living in the same street as us. Perhaps even someone here this morning.

But in other ways this man’s story is not quite so ordinary.  His faith and his religious experiences as a teenager had been remarkably intense, at times giving him a sense of intimacy with God.  He never forgot this, even when he lost his faith.  All this had led to him training for the ordained Anglican ministry.  So, his loss of faith was also a loss of vocation.  The intervening years had not been entirely fruitless.  He’d met his soul partner and married her.  And he’d had interesting jobs.  But something vital was missing.  Later, as he looked back, he realised these years had been wilderness years.  His closest friends pointed out he’d become more selfish.  His heart was less open that it had been before.

But on Easter Day 1997 he happened to find himself in church at an all-age service and heard the gospel story just read to us.  Afterwards the Vicar talked to the children about the two disciples in this morning’s gospel reading. Their friend and leader Jesus had died.  It must have been, said the Vicar, as if everything they knew about God had died.  The former ordinand thought back to the time he’d lost faith and said to himself ’15 years ago God died in me.’  And immediately he realised he was not alone, that others before him had had a similar experience, and they included the two men in our gospel story, founders and rocks of the early church. Maybe there was space in the church for someone like him after all.

The Vicar continued to tell the children the story of the two disciples on their way to the tomb.  But now as the former ordinand listened, he found himself walking alongside the two disciples, sharing the journey.  And suddenly he was brought up short by the realisation he knew how this story ended.  He was now on a journey towards the tomb of Jesus, and it was Easter Day.

Suddenly an image flashed into his mind, of green shoots pushing up through concrete.  At the same time, he experienced what felt like a movement in his chest, as if the green shoots were actually sprouting inside him.  Overcome with emotion, he left the church and spent the rest of the service trying to come to terms with what had happened.  This was the moment of his reconversion to Christian faith.

Twenty years on, his life is completely changed, his faith has blossomed and continues to do so.

This is just one of countless stories which could be told of lives transformed by encountering, experiencing the new life at the heart of the Easter story.  I just happen to know this story rather well.  Because that man was me.

And that’s why I’m standing here today.

Not just because of something that happened twenty years ago.  I’m here because I believe the Easter vision of new life is possible not only for individuals, but for communities: for a town like Kettering, for a church like this one.

The resurrection was not the resuscitation of a dead man, restoring to him the life he had just lost.

No, what is depicted is the breaking into the world of a completely different order of reality, one in which life and not death has the last say, the ultimate reality.

The Christian vision is that this completely different reality is in fact our future, our destiny.  That what happened to the man Jesus will one day happen to us, will one day happen to our world, our universe.

But this new life is not just in the future.  In the meantime, those of us who follow Jesus are summoned to invest in that which brings life, rather than death.

‘Why do we continue to put time and energy into parts of our lives that belong to the past, that are no longer fruitful if they ever were?  Why do we not put our energy and our time into life, into God’s kingdom, since this is where our true treasure is?

Ask yourself where the genuine life is in your world.

Ask yourself where the genuine life is in our society.  The creative, the risky, the unpredictable, the life-enhancing, challenging.

These are the signs of God’s kingdom.

But too often we allow ourselves to get fobbed off with the easy option: the well-ordered, the predictable and certain; the option which minimises our risks.

But these are not the places where the risen Christ is to be found. And these are not the places for we his followers to be looking.

We are an Easter people; and our joy is the vision of the risen Christ, who reveals to us that death need not have the last word, that God has greater things in store for us, for the whole of his creation.

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