‘The Ten Commandments’ – 4th March, 3rd Sunday of Lent

Based around Exodus 20: 1-17, John 2.13-22.

I don’t think I have ever preached on the Ten Commandments before. I must admit my first thought was somewhat dismissive – “we all know the Ten Commandments so nothing much there of interest”. But then I looked into it a bit more and found there were more points of interest that I’d thought. For one thing I learned that the way the verses in this passage have been divided up into Ten Commandments have in fact not always been the same. Some are obvious – e.g. You shall not steal, but some of the other verses are less clear.

Today I would like to look at just two of the Commandments. First, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. The people were told to have a rest day every seventh day – and it was a rest day for everyone, including children, slaves, foreigners and even animals. This is quite a radical idea – and we could regard it as some of the earliest animal rights law in the world! Even today there are places where campaigners are trying to get proper rest and refreshment for working animals.

The Sabbath commandment is not just for those who want a day of religious observance – it is about rest and compassion for all members of the community and for animals. The interpretation of rest on the Sabbath has varied down the years throughout history and some Orthodox Jews still keep very strict rules on what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath.  Jesus did not take this strict approach to the Sabbath but rather a more pragmatic approach. He did not condemn his disciples when they rubbed grains of corn to eat on the Sabbath even though some people thought he should. And Jesus even healed on the Sabbath, arguing that people would rescue a trapped animal or take a beast to water on the Sabbath and so it would be just as appropriate to set someone free from sickness. Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath is summed up in Mark’s Gospel where he says, “The Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”  In other words it is not about forcing yourself into conforming to a set of rules but about observing a rest day for the welfare of all people – and even their animals.

The second commandment I want to look at is the last one, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or male or female slave, or ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”  An interesting point about this commandment is that it relates to a thought, an attitude of heart rather than an action. That is quite a sophisticated idea in social and legal terms. To covet is, in the dictionary,to “desire eagerly” – but with the rider that it is usually to desire eagerly something that belongs to someone else.  And therein is the problem, because desiring eagerly what belongs to someone else can lead to envy, jealousy and even to theft or adultery or even murder.

A good example from the Old Testament is King David who saw Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and coveted her. He committed adultery with her and when she became pregnant he tried to cover it up by summoning Uriah back from the army. But Uriah refused to spend time at home while his colleagues were away at war, so David commanded that Uriah be sent to the thickest of the fighting to ensure that he would be killed – in effect murdered by David. David’s  coveting of Bathsheba led to adultery and then murder. Nathan the prophet took David to task for his behaviour and expressed God’s displeasure at his actions. David repented – but the damage had been done.

The story of David has a contemporary feel in that our newspapers are full every day of stories of people behaving in terrible ways because they covet things or people. Victims are robbed, defrauded, attacked and even murdered because someone covets their belongings, their money, their lifestyle, their looks … and the pain and heartache of broken relationships caused by people coveting other people’s spouses or partners and acting on their desires, is incalculable.

Youngsters are mugged for high end phones or trainers or other items, because the thieves covet these goods. Elderly people have their savings stolen by people who covet  money and the good life they feel it will bring. Fraudsters target people with pension funds because they covet wealth they have not earned. The other year a man died when thieves stealing his car from his drive ran him over – and all because they coveted his vehicle. People covet the lifestyle, the looks, the clothes of celebrities and see them everyday on social media. And even if they do not get into crime because of their coveting, they may get into debt trying to satisfy their desires.  Apparently in China, people will spend thousands of pounds on plastic surgery so that their selfies will be “perfect” – they covet a perfect self portrait. And there is the acronym FOMO – fear of missing out, as people are desperate not to miss out on experiences or events or belongings that they believe everyone else is enjoying.

But coveting can be, and often is, based on a lie – that somehow everyone else’s life is better, more exciting. If only I can have these goods, that look, a big enough bank balance, my life will be what I think other people’s lives are. I will find the satisfaction I lack.  But always thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence is a way of avoiding tending the lawn on this side. Coveting what others have can be a way of avoiding discovering your own talents, strengths and uniqueness or cultivating the garden of your heart.

So much of our society is driven by encouraging us to want things. The advertising industry is based on encouraging us to want things. The credit card industry invented the slogan, “Take the waiting out of wanting”. And as people are encouraged to want and to expect instant gratification, the pleasures of anticipation and saving up for something are lost. Craving instant gratification makes coveting so dangerous – how can I get what I covet now? The desire, the thought, can drive the action that can lead to crime, or destructive behaviour, and people can lose sight of their true selves.

In Lent we reflect on what can bring us closer to God. We can look again at some of these texts, like the Ten Commandments, that we think we know so well and see what they can say anew to us in this day and age.

In a world where people seem to be constantly driven we can model and promote the ideal of regular rest. Perhaps we need to heed that ourselves as we can find our rest time taken up with work for the church. We all need to rest to live well and have time to know God and so we need to find a good balance between activity and rest.

In a world where social media and advertising seem to be driving more and more wanting, more and more coveting, we can perhaps show that things and looks and appearances are not what life is about. Life is about who we are as people on the inside and especially as people who know we are loved by God just as we are – imperfections and all. Who we are in ourselves is more important than what we have and tending the garden of our hearts gives us the base to reach out to others.

This week’s bad weather has brought much difficulty to many but it has also brought out many good things in people and communities. Villagers have provided food and drink and safe space to people who have been stranded. Strangers have reached out to others in need. We have seen much good as people have pulled together in difficult circumstances. May we nurture this concern for our neighbours and seek to  find ways to carry it on as we return to ordinary times.

 

Reader Anne Grant

‘Remembrance Sunday’ – 12th November, 3rd Sunday before Advent

Poppy crossesBased around 1 Thessalonians 4:13-end, Matthew 25:1-13.

Note this sermon was preached at both the 10:30am and 6:30pm

I have had a blessed life.

I have not personally known war; for me death is an exceptional, relatively rare part of my daily life.  Death has come to me, my family, and my friends in the ‘normal’ way – old age, the sudden, unexpected death of an accident or short illness, or the planned for, awaited death at the end of a long illness.

On the contrary, the men whose names we see on the boards in this Church, whose names we heard read out this morning in this Church, had what author John Harris, in his novel based on the Sheffield Pals, called ‘a covenant with death’.

That phrase, taken from history, has a second part; ‘an agreement with Hell’.

Across Flanders and Picardy these men experienced the closest to Hell that most human beings had ever witnessed.  Indeed, as author Eric Maria Remarque wrote in ‘All quiet on the Western Front’ :

“Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades – words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.”

Away from combat, their days and nights spent in trench systems that were frequently full of water, bringing unsanitary conditions complete with dysentery, gangrene, trench foot and other illnesses.

In World War 2 – fighting and dying in deserts and jungles, in cities and villages, in blistering heat and numbing cold, in the skies over Europe and Asia, on and under the oceans of the world. And the civilians; bombed and buried in their homes and shelters, like the victims of the Sheffield blitz, or suffocated and burnt to death firestorms, or slaughtered in cold, clinical barbarity in the concentration camps of Europe.

And just as World War 1 wasn’t the start of our bloodletting, WW2 didn’t end it.  Humanity hasn’t stopped fighting; Korea, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Norther Ireland, Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen . We still have people fighting and dying the world over – combatants and bystanders, men, women and children, young and old.

Death never takes a holiday, and never gives us a day off.  It is desperately easy, in a world where millions can be obliterated in a split second, to feel hopeless and to look in to the pit of despair.

In this world – OUR world – it’s too easy to forget about hope.

Today’s reading is an excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Church.  It is a valuable reminder for us, that those of us who live in Christ, have hope. Even when we confront death, when we mourn, we have hope.

Let me say that again. Despite everything, even in the face of death – we have hope.

Today I want to focus on that one four letter word, in respect to death for us Christians.

Listen to what Paul has to say:

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”

Unlike the rest of mankind, says Paul, we have hope, and in a world like ours, hope is an amazing thing to have.  These days, hope can come over as a ‘wishy washy’ sentiment.  But for a Christian, hope is a much stronger word.

The biblical definition of hope is “confident expectation.” In Romans and Hebrews we’re told that Hope is a firm assurance about things  that are unclear and unknown (Romans 8:24-25Hebrews 11:17). Indeed, in the funeral service we hear the words “ in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ”. This hope is not some wishful thinking.

Along with faith and love, hope is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as an enduring virtue of the Christian life, and in his letter to the Colossian Church, Paul asserts that love springs from hope.  And Paul’s letter to the Romans states that Hope produces joy and peace in believers through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul is big on hope.

Today’s reading goes to on say :

“For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him”

Paul reminds us that Jesus died and rose again, and in doing so destroyed death.  And that in the end of days, at the final coming of the Kingdom of God, those who have died as faithful Christians – will also be resurrected.

Although Paul says “so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind “, we’re not being told to not mourn, or not grieve when we lose someone close to us.  Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend. When a family member or friend dies, we will inevitably feel sadness and loss.  We miss them being in our life; we miss their presence, their words, their touch. Earlier this year I lost my father in law; although we lived 200 miles apart, I miss his voice, I miss his enthusiasm, his love for his family and his presence in my life.

Looking at the names on the wall, they were all mourned and missed by their families, their community.  We can think about how their lives might have unfolded, how they would have lived had they returned from the wars in which they fought. It’s right that we  should grieve and mourn for those lives unlived.

No, Paul is NOT telling us not to mourn.  He is telling us that we shouldn’t be like non-Christians in our grief; for us, we have that hope that death for faithful Christians is but a sleep until the return of Christ, at which point they will awake and be re-united with all those who they have loved. Yes – we will grieve, we will be sad, we will miss those who’re gone ahead of us – but we have that hope.

General Omar Bradley, who commanded US troops throughout the allied invasion of Europe in the Second World War, said:

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

Today, two particular statements from Jesus’s sermon stand out, as we consider Paul’s thoughts on hope:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Those who mourn in Christ will indeed be comforted through the hope that Paul speaks of at the start of today’s reading.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Paul reminds us in Romans that hope produces joy and peace in Christians through the power of the Holy spirit.

Today, let us mourn and remember all those who’ve lost their lives in conflict. But let us also become peacemakers, and may we all be comforted in the hope – that confident expectation, that firm assurance – that we shall one day be re-united with those who have gone on before us, proclaiming the victory of the crucified Christ over death itself.

Amen

Reader Joe Pritchard

‘A man has to know his limitations’ – 27th August, 11th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Romans 12:1-8.

Tonight I’d like to preach on our reading from Romans.  When I started preparing the sermon, two things immediately came to mind. You will have almost certainly heard the words from verse 1, entreating us to offer our bodies as ‘living sacrifices’, at the end of our Eucharist services.

And the second thing that came to mind was a quotation “A man has to know his limitations.” To save anyone looking it up, it isn’t something from one of the normal theological thinkers or philosophers.  It’s a line from one of the ‘Dirty Harry’ films, starring Clint Eastwood, that were quite popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

“A man has to know his limitations.” I’ll come back to this…

In tonight’s reading, Paul, looking back over his previous words in Romans, and is looking at how we might practical use of his words.  If you get the opportunity, take a look at the whole of Chapter 12 – it’s not a big read – probably no more than 5 minutes tops. Chapter 12 is where Paul starts to pull the earlier parts of Romans together , showing how Jesus Christ needs to be Lord of all aspects of our lives for us to be true Christians.

Tonight I’m just focussing on the first section of Chapter 12, what we might call Paul’s introduction to practical theology.  And in these first 8 verses he focuses on not what we need to do, but what we need to be like.

In Verse 1 we are urged to offer our bodies as ‘living sacrifices’ – this is in direct contrast to the dead animal sacrifices that would be familiar to Paul’s listeners. There is also here the suggestion that we have new life to offer in the form of that given to us by the Holy Spirit.  And this is a transformation in us; we’re to look away from the restraints and expectations of the day to day world in which we live, and engage with it in a new way.

Paul then goes on to tell us how we should look at ourselves; “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement.”  This is exceptionally good advice for anyone – Christian or not.  I think we all ‘big ourselves up’ sometimes – whether to make ourselves feel better or to impress other people. But it really isn’t necessary, and isn’t useful – particularly for us Christians; if we can’t be honest about ourselves, what can we be honest about? And if we can’t be honest about ourselves, are we forgetting that as part of the body of Christ, by lying about ourselves are we not turning away from our God-given self?

We’re reminded in Verse 6 that we all have different gifts – in the Greek text ‘charismata’ – given to us by God’s grace.  These gifts are freely given to us by God to meet the needs of the body of Christ – we’re being equipped for the job of Kingdom building with the skills required.  And these gifts are all of great value. We’re also told that if people have these gifts, we should let them – no, encourage them – to use them.  Sometimes we may not realise what our gifts are – we occasionally have to try a few things out until we get to that place where we feel ‘at home’.  We may be graced with practical gifts of teaching or leadership, or gifts of character like generosity, mercy and compassion. All are needed. We might wonder why God doesn’t give EVERYONE ALL of these gifts so that we can all multi-task; but that would make it even easier than it is now for us to think that these gifts are something that we should be inordinately proud of, rather than something we should be thankful to God for.  And it would also make us less likely to collaborate and come together as a body.

But there is to be no FALSE modesty in acknowledging and using these gifts; If we have them, there is an expectation that we should use them, and, indeed, use these gifts with joy – see how Paul comments that in showing mercy, we’re to do it cheerfully.  We may end up with a couple of these gifts; indeed, the ‘Reader’ ministry is often referred to as the ‘Teaching and Preaching’ ministry, so I might be expected to be at least gifted by grace with abilities in these areas, having been licensed in to my ministry.  I like to think that I have SOME gifts here – but only others can be sure!

But like most people I know more about what I DON’T have.

“A man has to know his limitations.”  There, I told you that I would get back to this!  We’re given gifts by the grace of God – those gifts, when used properly, allow us to further the work of the Kingdom of Heaven. We know from our daily lives that people have different skills and gifts – even in my professional life, surrounded by software writers, we ‘in the business’ differ in the precise nature of our knowledge and skills, and in how we apply those gifts.

I often turn work away when it’s not something I’m an expert in; I know at least SOME of my limitations! Working on something without the proper skills would potentially cause the customer to spend more money with me than they would with a real expert; or they might lose confidence in me if I failed. Or I might make such a mess that nothing ever works again.

Why might I choose to work outside of my area of expertise or giftedness? Well, there’s greed. But also, and more relevant to tonight’s reading, there is pride. We might try to operate outside of our gifts because we are proud of ourselves, and thing that because we have been given one particular gift by God’s grace, we automatically have others ‘tacked on’ the side. That is flawed thinking; we think of ourselves as smarter than we actually are, and we disregard our limitations.

CS Lewis commented:

“When the subject is sacred, proud and clever men may come to think that the outsiders who don’t know it are not merely inferior to them in skill but lower in God’s eyes; as the priests said, ‘All that rabble who are not experts in the Torah are accursed.’

Elsewhere he writes:

There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. […] There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.[…]The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility.”

I think that this is why Paul starts with this focus on ourselves in Chapter 12; he wants to bang it in to our heads that whatever gifts of the spirit we have, we have been given them.  And that the gifts of the spirit that others possess are as valuable as those that we possess. And that we need them all to work together to allow the body of Christ – that is, us – to work properly.

“A man has to know his limitations.” And by knowing them, we will show right and proper humility before God as we use the gifts we have been given to further the Kingdom.

Amen.

Reader Joe Pritchard