‘What now?’ – 5th November, All Soul’s Memorial Service

Based around 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 6: 37-40.

We are here tonight because of our individual experience of loss, it’s the reason that has brought us together. We want to remember our loved ones who we have lost, in a special way. Of course we remember them in our own hearts in private or among our families & friends much of the time but in a way a service like this helps us to mark their lives and their passing in a more formal, more public way and perhaps by doing this in church we feel that we can draw closer to God & hold our loved ones before him in prayer. It also gives us a space where we can be open about our feelings of loss and hurt and sadness without feeling that we have to put on a brave face for the sake of others. It’s ok to feel miserable, it’s ok to cry.

Sadly the older we get the more likely we are to experience the loss of people we care about. It’s hard enough when those people are very old and have had a good life but even harder when a death is untimely or through illness or is sudden when we were unprepared and feel cheated out of the time we thought we’d have together or of the chance to say goodbye. This can leave us feeling pretty raw and unfortunately there is no set formula or ritual or time to get over our grief. Each loss is unique because we are all unique and the relationships we have with one another are unique. What we feel and how we deal with loss is personal to us, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. That said though, it isn’t good to shut others out totally or hide away for too long for their sake or our own.

I’m at the stage in life where I have already been to too many funerals, family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues, all people who one way or another mattered to me a great deal and some I loved very dearly. The losses I feel most keenly include people from opposite ends of the age spectrum, my little first granddaughter, Lucy, who I never had the pleasure of getting to know, three friends who died way before they should have done and my wonderful dad who I had known & loved my whole life. Ten years on I still miss him very much and often wish I could ask his advice or share my thoughts and ideas with him because he of all people would understand me.

All those we lose leave a gap in our lives that can never truly be filled and we can feel that loss very keenly for a long time. Sometimes we wonder if we will ever be able to cope with it, but cope we must.

Only a few days ago Ann, one of my sister’s friends attended the funeral of her first  granddaughter, Cali Jane, who died at just a few months old after spending much of that time in a specialist hospital. After Ann came out from the service my sister said she looked utterly heartbroken and distraught and said “what now?” It’s the awful question that faces us all. Its two little words that express so much. What do we do when all the formalities are completed and we are left alone with our thoughts and feelings still raw, like open wounds that won’t stop hurting?

One of the changes that I think helps us in more recent times is how we say goodbye to our loved ones. When I was little funerals were almost always sombre, sad, serious occasions which tended to follow fairly rigid rituals that left little room for personal expression. In this part of the world everyone wore black or dark colours, looked solemn and children were usually excluded from the proceedings for fear it might upset them. Thankfully that’s largely changed now and we are more likely to celebrate the life of the person we have lost. Even little lives barely lived or not actually lived at all can be celebrated. If in the midst of our feelings of loss we can look at the good things we shared with our loved ones then we are likely to find that there is indeed much to celebrate and even smile about.

It might sound like an odd thing to say but I’ve been to some amazing funerals where a lot of joy as well as sorrow was expressed. Laughter has its place among the tears and there is nothing wrong with that. I don’t think I’ve ever come away from a funeral without knowing a lot more about the person who has died, even when I knew them well, or so I thought. Crying and laughing together helps us take that first step into the “what now” that we all have to deal with after loss. It helps us to keep putting one foot in front of the other until we find our way to a new form of normality. As long as we hold our loved ones in our hearts we are not abandoning them.

We have come together tonight to remember our loved ones. They are lost to us here and now but I take comfort in knowing that they are not lost to God but are precious to him. A line from our reading from John’s Gospel reassures me if this. Jesus says “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of those he has given me, but raise them up on the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day”. I pray that you too will find comfort in this.

Amen.

Reader Kath Boyd

‘Reading the Bible’ – 29th October, 21st Sunday after Trinity

Based around Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22: 34-46.

Today is Bible Sunday, the Sunday when we’re particularly encouraged to focus on the Scriptures and give thanks for God’s Word. I wonder if any of you have ever tried to read the Bible from cover to cover?  How far did you get?  (I salute your superior sticking power)

Reading the Bible from cover to cover like we would a novel is not usually recommended.  Although fairly easy at first, with all the exciting stories in Genesis and Exodus it’s not long before you reach Leviticus.  And boy, is it tedious!  Repetitive (and rather gory) instructions on sacrifice. An obsession with leprosy – contracted by people, cloth, even houses.  Law after law.  Yawn!  You reach for the latest Dan Brown, intending to return to the Bible later, but it somehow never happens.

Christians react to Leviticus in one of two ways.  One is to regard it as a historical and religious curiosity – mostly a record of priestly laws and practices that have been superceded by Jesus and by modern science.  The other is to go through it with a fine toothcomb and insist very loudly that everyone follow most, if not all the laws there.

And yet, to do either of these things is to miss what is at the heart of Leviticus.  But let me digress for a couple of minutes…

Did any of you see the recent TV series about the London Fire Brigade? It followed the fire and rescue crews as they went about their work and gave a sobering insight into just what they face daily.  Quite often they can’t see a thing because of the smoke, so they rely on infrared detectors to find the seat of the fire.  They follow strict procedures to keep them as safe as possible whilst entering a burning building.  They wear special protective clothing and breathing apparatus.  They may only stay in the building for a set time, because their oxygen will only last 31 minutes.  They’re counted as they go in and out.  When they come out they must rest awhile before they are allowed back in again.    And you can’t necessarily just go in with a hose.  Sometimes you have to assess other safety issues first.  In one case, they first trained the hoses not on the fire itself, but on some gas cylinders nearby, cooling them so they wouldn’t explode.

Fire in itself is neither good nor bad.  It provides heat, light, energy.  It is attractive.  But it is undoubtedly dangerous.  If you don’t approach it in the right way you might be killed.  Fire must be respected.

For the people of Israel, recently rescued from slavery in Egypt, living with God in their very midst is like having a massive uncontrollable fire in the middle of the community.  God is attractive – full of life and power, awesome, protective, holy.  But God can be dangerous.  Like a fire, he should only be approached with extreme respect.

God cannot be tamed!  And so the laws of Leviticus enable Israel to live safely with God in their midst.  There are boundaries to be respected.  A specific cleanliness to be observed.  Rituals and sacrifices to be performed in the right way.

But throughout the book of Leviticus God says to Israel: “I, the LORD your God am holy.  Therefore you shall be a holy people”.  God is holy.  And God has given Israel the gift of holiness.  Leviticus, then, is all about how to live as a holy nation, with the presence of God living in the midst.  What does it mean to be a holy people?

Yes it’s about maintaining a right relationship with God through worship.  But just as importantly,  it’s about how you live your everyday life in community with each other, family, friend, neighbour, rich and poor, countryman and foreigner.  Treat any of your fellow human beings wrongly and you break boundaries, causing sin to pollute the land.

Chapters 17-26 of Leviticus are known as the “holiness code”.   And at the heart of everyday holiness is is the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.  A commandment repeated on many occasions by Jesus in the gospels and by Paul in his letters.

The holiness code spells out in detail what it means to love your neighbour as yourself.  So loving your neighbour means dealing honestly with others, not defrauding them, judging justly, not harbouring a grudge, but correcting a neighbour when they’ve gone wrong.  Loving your neighbour means leaving the edges of your fields unharvested so that the poor can glean what’s left.  It means paying your labourers at the end of a day’s work, not the following morning.

Peppered throughout chapter 19 is the reminder “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your God”!  When you go about your everyday life, God is there!  So live your life in a way that truly shows you are God’s holy nation.

When we read Leviticus, it’s obvious that parts of it are now mostly of historical interest.  We no longer sacrifice animals.  Understandings in science and medicine mean that the much feared so-called “leprosy” – skin diseases and mildew – can often be successfully treated these days.  And we have, for good reasons, dropped many of Leviticus’ other individual laws.

But we are still God’s people.  His Spirit lives among us.  And the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself is one that is as relevant to us now as it was to the ancient Israelites.  So let’s not forget that God wants us to be a holy people too.  And let’s use the very practical examples listed in Leviticus 19 of what loving your neighbour meant then to guide us as we work out what this means practically for us today.

Reader Catherine Burchell.

‘In the Image of God’ – 22nd October, 19th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Matthew 22:15-22.

Image.  For some people, many people, image is everything – wearing the right clothes, carrying the right accessories, owning the right car or house or possessions, being seen in the right places, appearing successful, having the perfect family or job.  All social groups can get drawn into the image trap – young men and women may ask “Am I seen as sufficiently good looking?” or “Do I come across as sufficiently tough or streetwise?”; middle aged people may ask “Do I seem adequately successful?” “Is my home creating the right image?” Even churches can be drawn into the image trap – do we present the right image to be seen as successful in human terms?

People have always been concerned with image – portrait painters used to make people look more like the ideal of the day rather than necessarily portraying them as they truly were. Henry VIII felt deceived by the portrait he was shown of Anne of Cleves which he felt was overly flattering and did not represent the woman he was to marry.  Oliver Cromwell insisted that his portraitist paint him “warts and all”, wanting to be seen as he was.

In this age of multi media, of photoshopping and airbrushing, of social media and the constant desire for “likes” or new “friends” – image seems to be more dominant in people’s lives than ever. When the only people you mixed with and compared yourself with were in your local community it was hard to maintain an illusion that was not true as everyone knew each others’ homes and families.  But in cyber space, creating the right image seems to dominate.  However, always striving after a particular image can lead to all sorts of problems – depression and lack of self-worth if people feel they can’t really live up to the illusion of success they feel they should; debt if people try to buy the image they want but cannot really afford it; or just a sense that “being me” is never enough.  Wearing a mask, creating an illusion is tiring and ultimately unsatisfying. Trying to live up to an image that is not really yourself does not bring true happiness.

Image is a the centre of our Gospel reading today – even if it does not immediately appear to be!

Jesus is approached by some Pharisees and Herodians determined to catch him out.   They begin by flattering Jesus and then ask their trick question – is it right to pay tax to the Emperor?  They are trying to trick Jesus into showing himself either as a bad Jew or a rebel against Rome.  Jesus sees through their intentions and replies with his own question: “Whose image is on the coin used for the tax?”   “The Emperor’s” is the reply – so Jesus says, “Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and give to God what is God’s”. That seems a neat and simple solution – pay imperial tax in the coin of Rome, obey Roman law in a secular context but maintain your religion and honour God as a separate part of life.  Keep religion and politics separate.

But Jesus was not presenting that duality.  We could say that Jesus’ question was a trick question as well.  Whose image is on the coin? The Pharisees and Herodians could only say, “The Emperor’s” as it was his relief on the coin.  But as every person is created in the image of God – it could be said that God’s image was on the coin (in the shape of Emperor) – but Jews were not allowed to make images of God.

If we go back to Genesis Chapter 1 we read: “ God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. And so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”  This is central to our understanding of ourselves in God’s Kingdom.

Most weeks we use the Eucharistic prayer that includes the words “For he is your Living Word, through him you have created all things from the beginning and formed us in you own image.”

We are all formed in God’s image – not in the shape of our features, the colour of our skin or hair, our level of intelligence or our physical perfection – but as human beings infused with the life and image of God breathed into us from the dawn of creation. As humans we all bear God’s image.

Thus the coin in our story bears the depiction of the Emperor’s head but therefore also shows a person created in God’s image – as every human is. We cannot separate  what is the Emperor’s and what is God’s – we do not live in a dualistic world. Every interaction we have with another human being is an interaction with another person made in God’s image, as we are.

This is not to say that there are not people who act in appalling and evil ways, who cause untold damage, distress and pain and who constantly seem to deny all that is Godly within them – but we believe it is possible for God’s word and God’s love to break in and transform and redeem and restore the centrality and sanctity of his own image. As our hymn “To God be the Glory” says “the vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

We are all made in God’s image – not the same, but each unique, different, special – each as valued as every other.  We never need to wear a mask or strive to conform to an image from outside – we only need to be ourselves, in the image of God, precious in the sight of God, loved as we are and for whom we are. The only perfection we need to strive after is our own in God’s eyes, and to make the most of our life among others.

Life is not compartmentalised into the “Emperor’s” (secular and political) and God’s (spiritual). God’s image is in everyone and therefore everywhere. We are first and foremost bearers of God’s image and so our primary calling is to honour God. Thus we can stand up for Kingdom values of justice in the world and values of truth, grace, mercy and love in every sphere of life.

This week a new series has started on TV – Bad Habits, Holy Orders – where five young women, self confessed party girls whose image conscious lives centre around clothes, make up, alcohol, casual relationships and having a “good time” have signed up for a spiritual exploration never expecting that they will end up spending four weeks in a convent in Norfolk. In the first week they have already begun to have their perspectives shifted on clothes, money, reliance on social media and much else and have learned to appreciate others more, It will be interesting to see how they progress as they are confronted by entirely different ideas of identity, image and self-worth. They are learning too that the spiritual is in everything from shopping and cleaning to basketball and prayer in the chapel.

Our Gospel story has tended to allow people to see a duality in the world – between “God’s” and “the Emperor’s” – the spiritual versus the economic and political. But we are all in God’s image – so every interaction is about God. The spiritual may be personal but the personal is, as it is said, political (and economic and social) – so the spiritual, God’s realm, encompasses all of life. Honouring God’s image in ourselves means honouring God’s image in others, in everyone, all the time. We don’t need to chase any other image.

Amen.

Reader Anne Grant.

‘Don’t worry, be happy’ – 15th October, 18th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14.

Note this sermon was preached at both the 10:30am and 6:30pm, but was written originally for the evening service where Isaiah 25:1-9 was one of the set readings.

When I’m asked to preach, I take a look at the readings that will be used, read them, pray around them and then put them on one side for a while to allow them to simmer.  Sometimes one will immediately leap out at me as being the one I feel moved to preach on; other times, it takes longer.

Until about 10 days ago, I was planning on preaching on Isaiah.

However, the Holy Spirit often has different plans for us.  I belong to a Facebook group for the US Episcopalian Church – our Anglican brothers and sisters in Christ in the US – and one morning I saw a post that suggested that worry was a sin.  My compassion was outraged; the exact words I posted were :

‘I’m sorry but ” please be aware that such emotions are considered a sin in the Lord’s eyes:” is, to me, spiritual abuse and may well deflect people away from a relationship with Jesus at the very time that they need it.’

And almost immediately after posting this I thought…hang on a minute…and returned to the readings for tonight.

And there, in Philippians, was Paul’s instruction to us:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Not quite explicitly labelling worry a sin, but enough to make me think that maybe I needed to think about Paul’s letter to the Philippians rather than Isaiah.

And to finally dive the point home, another article was bought to my attention from an email list I subscribe to that looked at Peter and worry.

I can take a hint, Lord.

And so, here we are.

The reading from Paul is part of one of his pastoral letters. Verses 2 and 3 refer to Euodia and Synteche – two prominent women leaders of the Church – who were having something of a disagreement that was causing problems.  Quite what the disagreement was about, we’re not told; but it was enough for Paul to exhort everyone involved – including the person he gave the letter to (the ‘loyal companion’) to try and resolve it.

We can look at the rest of the reading tonight almost as series of bullet-points that Paul provides to help with the dispute – whatever may have caused it.  And I think we can also apply these suggestions to quite a lot that happens in our daily lives.

We are told to:

  1. Rejoice in the Lord, and be known for your kindness and gentleness.
  2. Don’t worry; pray and allow the peace of the Lord to fill your hearts and minds.
  3. Think about the good things that you’re doing, that you’re experiencing, and focus and build on them.

Paul reminds us in Verse 4 to always rejoice in the Lord; I guess that if people ARE rejoicing in the Lord, it’s probably harder for them to have a good row!  And, thinking about it, why shouldn’t we all rejoice in the Lord; there is God the Father – the creator God….there is Jesus, who loves us despite ourselves….there is the Holy Spirit, that brings the Grace of God to us, that opens our minds and hearts to the works of the Father and the Son.  Why shouldn’t we rejoice in the Lord?

And then we come to the verse that I was reminded of on Facebook. Just to remind us:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

And it’s NOT just Paul – after all, we know that Paul can get a bit grumpy.  In the first letter of Peter, Chapter 5,, we read:

“ Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I get concerned and anxious about stuff. More than I should. Always have done; I started young, and even now I guess I’m something of a worry-wart, so you can see why I encountered this verse with some trepidation. Many people come to faith in the depths of worry; a good number even stay with Jesus when times get better! But to be told not to worry, but to pray instead? To cast our anxieties on God? Where does this leave us?

There is a famous quotation, attributed to Oliver Cromwell:

“Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry.” Wet gunpowder in a musket or cannon wouldn’t burn – the message here is that Cromwell trusted in God to deliver the day, but accepted that he had to play his part.  Think of Gideon, dealing with the Midianites. God basically prunes his army down to a few hundred men – God effectively telling Gideon that ‘I’m with you on this, you can do it!’ but Gideon still whittles AND God still expects him to do something towards winning the battle – to go and listen in the camp of the Midianites and to take to the field.

Now, back to me and my anxieties. I look at what I’m anxious or concerned about and ask myself the simple question: “At this moment in time, have I done everything that is within my power to deal with the situation I’m anxious about?”  If I answer Yes – so be it, that’s all I can do, I thank God and pray for his continued strength, guidance and grace.  If I answer “No” to myself – then rather than worrying, I look to identifying what I still need to do, then pray for God’s help in getting me through the task.

I think Paul is highlighting the difference between valid concern that can be acted upon, and that all-encompassing, paralysing, deep-seated worry that for so many of us stops us in our tracks and can, for a while, become something so big that it’s almost an idol – a negative, fearful, idol that deflects us away from God.

I’ve had moments in my life when worry has paralysed me; it becomes the most important thing in my life; it feels like it will never go away. I think that this is what Paul is actually warning about; when we feel that the worry itself becomes bigger than God’s grace in our lives.  Paul reminds us here of two things for dealing with worry:

  • That by prayer and supplication and thanksgiving we should put our requests and in God’s hands.
  • And that by doing so, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

This can sound a bit platitudinous, but when we are truly in that place with worry, where we have done all that we can possibly do, worry does nothing but get between us, our friends and family, and God.  When is there a better time to fall back on God’s grace to help us?

I can imagine that this sort of idolatrous worry wouldn’t have helped matters between Euodia and Synteche and the rest of the Philippi Church elders.

And it doesn’t help us.

And Paul’s final thoughts tonight? Keep doing the good stuff. Keep catching each other out in being good. Focus on excellence – now that sounds like a modern day management theory, doesn’t it? Give praise when praise is due.

It’s hard to imagine that those problems in the Philippi Church would survive such a strategy; Rejoice in the Lord, be nice to each other, don’t be paralysed and side-tracked  by worry and despair, focus on excellence and give praise where praise is due.

Perhaps our day to day problems and concerns might benefit from some Pauline management skills, summed up in the lyrics of the song by Bobby Ferrin:

“Don’t worry, be happy”

Amen.

Reader Joe Pritchard

‘Jesus is our example’ – 1st October, 16th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32.

I’m sure that most if not all of you have at some time heard the phrase, “Is the Pope Catholic?” As far as I’m aware it is in no way intended to be disrespectful to the Pope or to Catholicism & Catholics, it’s usually used to imply that someone has asked a daft question or one to which the answer is so obvious that it needn’t have been asked. For example on a Friday evening my dear husband might say to me “Dearest, would you like to go to the pub?” to which the answer is usually “of course, are you kidding, why do you need to ask???” This may similarly be applied to offers of chips or cake, but enough of my vices. The reason I wanted to mention this phrase, “Is the Pope Catholic?” is because of a little anecdote my sister shared with me a couple of weeks ago which at first made me laugh and then it made me think.

A friend of hers was at work among a group of women and someone asked a question, I can’t remember what it was, but the reply was “is the Pope Catholic?” A few seconds later a younger member of the team piped up “I’ve Googled him and yes he is. Why did you want to know? This made everyone laugh including me when my sister told me about it. Then I thought “Oh dear, religion really is in rather more trouble than we thought”. This young woman genuinely had no idea who the Pope is and I rather suspect that she is not on her own and that ignorance about religion and religious culture, customs and practices is getting more common, at least in this part of the world.

Now some might say “So what? Who cares? Why should it matter when so many people no longer regard themselves as religious in any way and many of those who do have some degree of belief don’t necessarily know much about religion and don’t think it’s important enough to pay any attention to? It’s a fair question. In my opinion it needs a meaningful and thought provoking answer because it does matter to all of us, the religious and non-religious alike.

It can be tempting to some to regard religion as out-dated and irrelevant because so often it seems to be about church that is constantly fighting with itself, a God they don’t believe in, reading bibles that they don’t understand, following rules that are inconvenient and putting up with rituals that often seem meaningless. What they fail to appreciate is that religion, or should I say religions, have been a very important part of our cultures for centuries and have been very instrumental in shaping the peoples we became and the ways and values we have lived by. While these have often been far from perfect they have to a large extent provided a framework that has enabled us to live and work together as societies far better than if everyone had been left to fend for themselves.

If we are getting it even vaguely right, faith in God forces us to look at ourselves critically and ask whether we are putting into practice in our daily lives the values we say we believe in and hopefully this makes us better people and collectively a better society. That’s what has been going on for hundreds of years and in so many ways most of us have largely benefitted from that culture.

However, for the past century, probably since the end of the First World War and largely because of it, increasing numbers of people have struggled with religious faith and left the church. They found it hard to reconcile the existence of a loving & all powerful God with the slaughter and cruelty of that war. I think it was from the 1950’s onward that this disconnect from church-going accelerated and in the last few decades, in this part of the world it has become very marked and worrying, for those of us who care.

Again it’s reasonable to ask why this matters because to a large extent the same standards that we value have been maintained. But again those who ask “Why does it matter?” fail to recognise that the generations from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, whether religiously observant or not, grew up in a society that was still strongly influenced by the values of the faith based culture that still existed. However, this can no longer be relied on. If you have not read Alan Billings excellent book “Lost Church” I would thoroughly recommend that you do so because he explains this process far more eloquently than I ever could.

I would never for one moment suggest that religions have a monopoly on good morals and values because they don’t but at their best, and I would stress at their best, they have played a big part in instilling and nurturing these. This brings me back to our young lady who didn’t know who the Pope is. As more people grow up without any exposure to or appreciation of religious faith I wonder where that leaves them when science and reason and hard evidence don’t provide all the answers. In a world where we seem to be being pushed to be more self-centred, self-absorbed, self-indulgent and self-important, without a strong moral compass what is there to encourage us to look beyond ourselves and our own wants and needs and to make us question what we think or believe? Why should we not be selfish when that’s how the world around us seems to be and the rewards for selfishness so plentiful? As I said, religions don’t have a monopoly on goodness but it’s a tall order for any parent to instil good values like humility, unselfishness & compassion when they are not a strong or valued part of the prevailing culture. Yes we need to be aware and savvy and streetwise in order to survive and get on in today’s busy world. We have to know how to develop and promote ourselves in our careers or in our day to day dealings with the many people and institutions we encounter or we will just get left behind or over-looked or worse still not even noticed and it isn’t good to be naïve about this but being all about the self isn’t enough.

Contrary to what some people think, being a person of faith doesn’t mean you have to be bland or a door mat. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy degree of self-worth, especially if you believe that God made you and values you. But hopefully our faith also encourages us to value others and their needs too including those we will never meet, never know and some we might not particularly like or agree with. I find it truly frightening how increasing numbers of people think it’s OK to attack and vilify and bully and intimidate those who don’t share their views and beliefs. Sadly we are all too familiar with this from extremists and fundamentalists of all shades but now it seems to be becoming more common in everyday matters such as gender, sport or politics and for some it’s become an acceptable form of behaviour. Well it isn’t acceptable, it never has been and we need to make sure we don’t get sucked into it or just as importantly, silenced by it. We need to hold onto our values and to valuing each other.

In our Gospel reading from St Matthew we hear how once again the chief priests and the elders try to trap Jesus and prevent him from teaching. They want to tie him and everyone else up with rules and laws of which they are the judges in order to keep them in line. They won’t tolerate anyone doing anything without their approval and they can’t bear it when Jesus ties them in knots with their own rules and won’t be cowed into silence. Humility, even after being proved wrong doesn’t seem to be on their radar. We can all make mistakes or misunderstand and get things wrong but lacking the humility to admit it and make amends is not good. How much trouble and grief is caused because people can’t say “I was wrong”. Why do we seem so incapable or unwilling to learn from the mistakes of the past but just go on repeating them because we can’t be seen to lose face? The chief priests and elders had evolved a very precisely prescribed regime which they used to retain a tight control of the people they tended to regard as lesser than themselves. They did this in the name of religion but somewhere along the line, because they lacked humility they ended up effectively cutting God out of the process and making themselves important. I fear that in our modern world the same sort of thing is happening but the ones doing the silencing and trying to enforce their own ideas of conformity are many and varied from the individuals who troll on the internet to the biggest organisations who sometimes abuse their power.

What does religious faith have to offer in the face of all this you may wonder? As ever, Jesus is our example. He had both strength and humility and used them to good effect. He stood against the prevailing culture and challenged what was wrong. St Paul encourages us to do likewise and I think it’s worth repeating what he says,

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.”

Let us pray that God will give us the humility, strength and courage to do this in our lives. Amen.

Reader Kath Boyd

‘The last word’ – 24th September, 15th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Jonah 3:10-end.

I’m a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  When I was a student I bought a building brick of a book published by Penguin that included all the novels and short stories.  I read through them happily until I was most of the way through ‘The Valley of Fear’ only to find the rest of the novel was missing.  It took me another 5 years to find out what happened….

I don’t know about you, but when I get to the end of tonight’s reading from Jonah,  I start flipping pages to see whether I’ve lost a bit.  God asks the question about Nineveh…

And that’s your lot. Nothing else; no reply from Jonah, that’s the end.

Our reading leaves Jonah pondering a question from God; what happened next? We have no guidance as to the fate of Jonah!   Was his mind changed? Did he live out his days in his scrappy little hut?

Your guess is as good as mine.

We have to assume that the writer of Jonah did this for a reason; that they felt that the ending was ‘fit for purpose’.  For us, the question tonight is ‘What is the purpose? Why does the book end with that question about the Assyrians?’

Let’s take a brief look at how Jonah got to this place.

Jonah had been tasked by God to go to the city of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians, and preach to the people, that if they didn’t mend their ways they would be destroyed.  Jonah, knows that God can be merciful, and feels that he would be wasting his time if he went to Nineveh. He disobeys God, and decides to run off in the other direction.  He takes a ship, the sailors believe him to be cursed and throw him in to the sea, where he gets taken in to the belly of a large fish, lives there for 3 days, prays to the LORD who causes the fish to vomit Jonah up on dry land.  Jonah is again told by the Lord to go to Nineveh – this time, he does what he’s told, and preaches the word of God so convincingly that the King of Nineveh says

All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

And that brings us to where we meet up with Jonah this evening. The fact that Nineveh is still standing at this point is quite interesting in itself.  The other Old Testament books about the minor prophets often involve states and cities that have been enemies of the people of Israel, that are then punished in some way by God. Nineveh was a major rival of Israel, and yet God has shown his mercy.  Jonah angrily prays to the Lord, telling God “I told you so!”:

“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?”

And he then goes on to tell God that he’d rather die than live.  This seems to me to be quite an over-reaction from Jonah.  The Lord has shown mercy to the city and it’s people – and because of that Jonah would like to be dead?

What’s this telling us about Jonah?

We know from earlier in the book that Jonah hated the Assyrians.  Jonah was prejudiced and something of a bigot towards them; he may have had good reason in his eyes – who knows.  And it’s very clear he’s angry – what my mum would have called ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ angry.

In the novel, ‘Moby Dick’,  Father Mapple  preaches a sermon on Jonah in which he says that Jonah’s sin is “wilful disobedience.”  Which is spot-on.  But we still don’t really get any idea as to why he is so angry.

God questions Jonah’s right to be angry; after all, we’re talking about Jonah being petulantly angry with God’s decision here.  But God doesn’t punish Jonah; he sets out to engage with him.  After Jonah leaves the city to sulk, and sits under a homemade shelter, God sends him a bush to offer shelter and respite from the sun.  This pleases Jonah; he’s less pleased the following morning when God causes the bush to die and sends a heat wave for good measure.

And again, Jonah says to God that it would be better for him to die.  God points out that Jonah’s concerned about the fate of a bush that he was given as a gift, which he didn’t work to grow, and that came and went within 24 hours.  And he goes on to say:

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”

That question isn’t answered by Jonah. It’s just left hanging there.

Can WE answer it? Looking at Jonah’s behaviour and concerns during his adventures, we see that whatever happens to Jonah, his main concern is whether it’s what he wants to happen.  If something happens that isn’t what he wants, he takes his bat and ball home and states to God that he would prefer to die.  The removal of a bush or the salvation of a whole city of 120,000 people are much the same to him; it’s not what Jonah wants; therefore Jonah throws a magnificent strop.

So, as well as having issues with anger management, being a bigot, he’s also self-absorbed and egotistical, self-important and self-centred. Proud, and, ‘wilfully disobedient’.  I don’t know about you, but Jonah sounds awfully like me on a bad day.

Maybe that’s why the writer of the book of Jonah leaves it as he does – to make all of us Jonah.  God is engaging with us – as he did with Jonah.

We all have our own versions of Nineveh – those people who we just don’t like, the things that make us angry.  At the back of our minds we know that God loves these folks just like he loves us, and that despite our best efforts God will continue to work through us – as he does with Jonah.

Jonah couldn’t deal with the God’s grace that was being manifested to Nineveh; that ‘undeserved and unearnable’ love that God offers us all.

I know I have trouble taking grace on board; like Jonah, I like things my way and sometimes God’s grace may push in to my life in ways I’m not ready for. God’s grace is something we just have to receive and accept.

And the other thing about the ending of the book of Jonah? As always, God gets the last word.

Amen.

Reader Joe Pritchard

‘It’s SO unfair’ – 24th September, 15th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Matthew 20:1-16.

One of the more enduring creations of the comedian Harry Enfield is the surly teenager, ‘Kevin’. Indeed, on more than one occasion I’ve heard a young teenage boy described with the word ‘He’s a right Kevin’. When we first meet Kevin, he’s a polite, 12 year old boy on the eve of his thirteenth birthday. Midnight chimes, and Kevin undergoes a transformation in to the grumpy, surly, bad-tempered, work-shy, rebellious teen whose main observation on life is that ‘It’s SO unfair!’

I hope I wasn’t too much of a Kevin; but I was known to say ‘That’s not fair’ to my mum when confronted by a maternal decision I disagreed with. At which point my mum would give me one of her ‘looks’ and say ‘No son, it’s not fair, it’s a circus.’  And that would be the end of the discussion.

This morning’s Gospel readings give us an insight in to how the parables of Jesus turned the generally accepted ideas of fairness upside down.

Prior to today’s reading we have the parable of the rich young man, in which a young man is told that to get in to the Kingdom of heaven he must give away his goods.  We’re told that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven. And ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’.  It’s generally a series of stories in which the world is turned upside down for the people listening to Jesus.

It should be pointed out that the parable of the vineyard is not a business management lesson, or a lesson in economics, but is more surprise twists and challenges to expectations.  Let’s take a look at some of the ‘high spots’ from the parable – follow it on the hand-out if you like!

  1. A price is only agreed with the workers who come in at the start of the day; we’re told that the labourers agreed the usual daily rate. The later groups of workers are simply told they will be paid ‘whatever is right’.
  2. The landowner goes to the market place each time during the day – the landowner – not a foreman or a messenger, but the fellow that actually owns the vineyard.
  3. Why do people stay there all day and not go home?
  4. We see truly extravagant generosity in how the labourers are paid – the same rate – the whole day rate – goes to a man who has only just arrived!
  5. The landowner pays in reverse order – so that the early comers get to see what the latecomers are getting! The last are first in getting their reward, and the first are last.
  6. And as for the grumbling workers – It may appear unfair to the chaps who started the day – but they agreed the terms. This would be a direct challenge to the legalistic arguments raised against Jesus; law doesn’t matter; what matters is what is right.

What can WE draw from this? I’d suggest the following :

  1. Christ’s immediate followers – the early workers at the vineyard – were told explicitly the way to the Kingdom – their wages, if you like. Those of us who have followed are told that our rewards will be based on whatever is right. And for Christians, that will depend upon our faith.
  2. God – like the landowner – comes to find us where we are. Just as the landowner came to where he could find workers for his vineyard, God comes to where he can find us. We may not be found by God immediately – we may not have faith, or have heard the words of the Gospel – but He will keep coming back in to our lives until we hear Him.
  3. Whenever we come to God – no matter how late on in the day – whether at our birth or in our dying moments, whether 2000 years ago or now – we all have the reward of the Kingdom of heaven to look forward to provided we have ‘done the right thing’ in our lives – that we have shown faith.
  4. If you begrudge the generosity of God, you don’t belong in the Kingdom. Those grumbling workers, with their legalistic arguments have missed the point. Because of God’s grace, his generosity, we are all on the same footing – whether we were first or last to the party, so to say.

 

The disciples – who were first – would soon be followed by many other believers – other Jews, gentiles, freemen, slaves – all the way down to us here in St Mary’s this morning.  Right now, we’re amongst the last in a long line of workers pulled in to the vineyard, and we will be given God’s the same portion of God’s grace as those who sat at Christ’s feet to hear the parable when it was first told.

There is much in life – in God’s creation – that we might consider to be unfair. Earthquakes and storms devastate already poor communities. A mother is killed when she’s driving to work one morning and her car is struck by a stolen car driven by a couple of teenagers who flee the scene, leaving her to die. A toddler develops an inoperable cancer and his parents have to watch helplessly whilst he dies. Each one of us can look at our own daily lives and find things that may make us question ‘Why them? Why now? Why me?’  And when we look out in to the wider world – well, enough said.

It’s hard for us as Christians, with faith in a loving God and belief in salvation through Jesus Christ, to come up with an answer to others – and to ourselves – about our life experiences that doesn’t sound like platitudes or excuses.

But this parable isn’t about our daily life here in the world; it’s about the coming Kingdom of God. It’s not about being spared from sudden and tragic death, natural disaster, the cruelty of our fellow man or sickness and lingering disease.  Our faith in Christ offers us no ‘Gold Ticket’ to a better life, no angelic ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card.

What our faith does give us is the knowledge that despite what is happening, God is with us, God is in our lives, that we may be assured of his generosity and grace.

Whatever befalls us, God is with us. We may feel that it would be helpful if the yoke we carry were lighter, that our life were easier, that those around us suffered less – but God is with us, and in the end our entry in to the Kingdom of Heaven by virtue of our faith and God’s grace is assured.

In Psalm 103, we read : “If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?”

Can any of us turn to our Saviour and say ‘I’ve lived a sinless life; I’ve done everything you asked of me.’ – I know I can’t.  But by His generosity and grace we will be forgiven and receive our reward.

As my mum might have said – and as I had shared with me recently as part of my ministerial development –  “No son, it’s not fair, it’s grace.’  Thanks be to God!

‘Peter, Paul and Jesus’ – 27th August, 11th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Romans 8:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20.

For quite a long time now I’ve been aware that when I’ve been preaching I’ve made reference to finding some of the readings challenging or difficult to get into and it has bother me a bit. So I’m very happy to say that when I looked at the readings set for today I was really pleased because I liked them both, even the one from St Paul! I was particularly pleased because someone I have long wanted to consider in a sermon is St Peter and the passage from St Matthew’s Gospel provides exactly that opportunity. We hear Peter mentioned a great deal in readings but he isn’t usually the focus of the sermon. I really like him because to me he represents us, the common people. With all his faults and failings he is one of the central characters in Jesus’ life and ministry and that gives me hope that we too, however flawed we may be, can also have a part to play.

For anyone who reads or hears the New Testament stories I don’t think there can be any doubt that Peter loves and believes in Jesus. But he keeps getting things wrong. He’s always opening his mouth and putting his foot in it. He’s a classic example of opening mouth before engaging brain and Jesus has to keep putting him straight. He is so full of enthusiasm that he at times gets carried away with his ideas. In the story of the Transfiguration when Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain with him and is transfigured before them and Moses and Elijah also appear, Peter wants to build three dwellings for them. He rather misses the point of what he is witnessing. He tries almost too hard but what cannot be doubted is his sincerity and above his love for Jesus.

How heartbreakingly sad then that next to Judas it is Peter’s failure to stand by Jesus when it mattered most that is so well known. Jesus has warned all his disciples that they will let him down at the end but Peter is adamant that he will not. When Jesus said to him “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times” Peter couldn’t believe he would do such a thing. In his own mind he was ready and willing to give his life for Jesus; in so many ways he already had. And yet when it came to the crunch, for the most human of reasons, he did fail. He was scared, just as most of us would be.

We all like to think or at least we hope that in bad situations we would do the right thing, whatever that might be, but how often in reality do we, in the moment, lack the courage to do so, only to regret it bitterly afterwards as Peter did.

And yet it is this man, Peter, who is frequently impetuous, who goes off half-cocked, who gets overrun with enthusiasm and doesn’t think things through properly or fails to understand, this man who makes so many mistakes, it is this man that Jesus describes as his rock. It is this man on whom he will build his church. It was not until I looked at our reading from Matthew again and again that I began to realise just how powerful and meaningful that paragraph is. Jesus is entrusting the future of his church to this person who he knows to be flawed in so many ways. Just take a moment to think about that.

We are very used to considering the notion of putting our trust in God or in Jesus and perhaps, for all sorts of reasons, finding that very challenging at times but how often do we consider this the other way round and see that God has put his trust in us? If we really take that on board it can be both humbling and terrifying, what an awesome responsibility. But in Peter we have a guide to rescue us. Who better than the one who so often got it wrong but who did indeed go on to be the rock on whom Jesus built his church, who better to show us the way and give us the courage to keep going, especially when things are hard.

Just like many other people, I have never been overburdened with self-confidence. I want to believe that I can do various things and I’ll work hard to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to accomplish them but so often fear and doubt get in the way. When it came to my path into reader ministry there were so many times when I could have talked myself out of it, convinced myself that I didn’t know enough or I was not the right sort of person or I just couldn’t do it. And yet somehow I was given the wherewithal to get past all the obstacles. People like Peter give me hope and courage to keep going. He shows what God can do with whatever we have and sometimes he does it in spite of what we think we haven’t got. So often he has more faith in us than we have in ourselves.

Originally I wasn’t intending to use the passage from St Paul’s writings but then I realised that he did have a contribution to this sermon and that it ties in with what we can learn from St Peter. I think Paul’s advice that we should Not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think is worth listening to. I take it to mean that we shouldn’t become self-important or think that we can work everything out ourselves without God because we’re not and we can’t. That is, we’re not supremely important and we can’t do everything alone. Next he reminds us that we are not just individuals but that we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. In other words we all have our part to play but we all benefit from the contributions of each other and working together. It’s how society works. The final part of the reading describes some examples of the roles we might have and the gifts we have been given to enable us in these roles; “Prophesy in proportion to faith: ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” We could easily add a lot of modern day examples to the list. A role doesn’t have to be overtly religious or spiritual to have value. Practical stuff will always need to be done. Whatever we do in building and sustaining a good society is part of “Loving our neighbours as ourselves” and is what God commands us to do. Cooking and cleaning and building and repairing and farming and the making of music and artworks and all sorts of other roles are mentioned in the Bible and Jesus himself both worked with his hands and he fed and healed and cared for people in practical as well as spiritual ways.

So whatever your calling is, whether it’s an up front, public role or a quiet, behind the scenes one or perhaps a bit of both, learn to value it and allow God to work through you. We don’t have to do it all on our own. As Both Peter and Paul have already shown us, God will give us what we need for the work he asks of us.

Jesus said “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” His trust in the wonderfully imperfect Peter was not misplaced. With God’s help we are still here (and with his continued help it is our calling to go on passing the baton to the generations to come for as long as it takes).

I would like to end with a short prayer that I have used on previous occasions and I think it’s rather apt for the message of this sermon.

Father, take the little that I have to offer this day and use it as only you can. (Based on a prayer by Douglas Cleverly-Ford)

Amen.

Reader Kath Boyd

‘Inclusion’ – 20th August, 10th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Isaiah 56:1-8.

The other evening I watched a documentary about the Beatles; there was some footage of the time when they played a short set from the roof of a building, and I found myself thinking ‘Where have I seen that before?’ Only to find myself answering “Oh yes…The Simpsons.”

In an episode where Homer and his friends form a Barbershop Quartet, they do their farewell performance from the roof of Moe’s bar, after finding out in a magazine ‘Are they hot, or are they not?’ article that they are now most definitely ‘Not’. They were no longer part of the ‘In’ crowd; no longer ‘beautiful people’, no longer part of what CS Lewis called the ‘Inner Ring’ – those folks that seem somehow materially blessed and separated from the rest of us. Mundane life was calling them home.

CS Lewis wrote in an essay the following:

“Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. … As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

In the Old Testament there existed a particular covenant between God and the people of Israel; one that excluded foreigners; one that even excluded some people who were maimed. Some people in Israel – who may have been there for generations – were excluded from worshipping God. The exclusive nature of the relationship between God and the people of Israel would last until the coming of Jesus Christ, but as is often the case, Isaiah prophesies the changes that are to come when the Messiah comes.

Things are going to change; that a new covenant between God and man will make all of us God’s chosen.

Tonight’s reading from Isaiah reminds us that with God there is inclusion; no one will keep us away from God. There are no ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘style arbiters’ – just a desire from us to be part of His kingdom.

In Verses 1 and 2 we’re given a pretty simple reminder of what we need to do to be blessed by God.

We need to be just; to maintain justice. This can be hard in our day to day lives – but it is required of us.

We need to do what is right, and not commit acts of evil.

We need to keep the Sabbath – putting regular time aside for the worship of God, time in which we re-centre ourselves and make God the centre of our world.

The observant amongst you will have noticed that the reading tonight is what I call a ‘book end’ reading – there are a couple of verses, then a skipped section of the Bible, then the reading finishes with a couple more verses.  Let me share with you the words of Verses 3 to 5 of tonight’s reading.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Verse 3 and 6 both mention ‘foreigners’ – those people who were not of Israel, who were not Jews, but who had bene living in Israel for several generations in some cases and who had been forbidden to worship God.  Not any more; God is saying ‘Don’t feel that you’re separated from me because you’re not of my people’.  If they serve God, love the name of the Lord, worship God and keep the Sabbath – most likely meant to describe the religious observances of the day – they too are welcome in God’s all inclusive Kingdom.

The rest of this excluded section deals with a particular section of society – eunuchs – men who were typically servants or soldiers who had been castrated. This group too were traditionally ‘outsiders’ and were excluded from worship under one of the Deuteronomic Laws that excluded any who had been emasculated by cutting or crushing.  They were indeed regarded as ‘dry trees’ – as branches of the Jewish nation that could not produce children, at a time when the family history and family lineage were important.  This group too would be welcome as long as they follow the observances required and worship the Lord. The eunuchs are being told that within God’s Kingdom – within the Temple and it’s walls – they will have a memorial and an ongoing name as God’s offspring that will be better than sons and daughters.

As an aside, the Hebrew for “a memorial and a name” is Yad Vashem; this was chosen from Verse 5 as the name given to the main Holocaust monument in modern Jerusalem.

Verse 6 reminds us that that we come to the Lord to serve him, to worship him, to enter in to a covenant or relationship with him, and by doing so we will be blessed by Him.

In Verse 7 we’re told that God will bring these people – now His people –  US – to His Kingdom. He will guide us, bring us to prayer and worship and then bring us joy. We may come to God mourning, damaged, broken, hurt; but through Him we will find joy.

We’re told that our sacrifices and offerings will be accepted on God’s alter – that we will be accepted by God.  And God’s house of prayer will be for all nations – not just the Jews of the Old Testament; not just the Gentiles and Jews of the New Testament – but all people, everywhere.

God wants to include us all in His plans; He wants all of us – Jew and Gentile, ‘foreigner’, the whole and the broken. Those excluded previously by tradition; those who have been in our lives and communities for generations and yet who still feel excluded.

We are all offered the opportunity to be ‘In’ with God and His Kingdom. We can all be hot; we can all be within the Inner Ring for all eternity, and God has not finished bringing us all in to His Kingdom yet.

Amen

Reader Joe Pritchard

‘Love is the True Miracle’ – 13th August, 9th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Matthew 14: 22-33.

For the last few years it has seemed that anywhere you may have looked at merchandising aimed at children you have been found items featuring characters from “Frozen”.  Last Sunday this film, “Frozen”, was shown on TV and so I decided that I ought to know what it was about.  I had heard of the character Elsa (and knew that “Elsa dresses” were popular for dressing up) and of the song “Let it go”, that has apparently become fashionable with some people as a mantra for not getting hung up on things in the past. I had also come across the rather oddly shaped snowman who I now know is Olaf, but that was about all I knew.

However, I very soon realised that the real heroine of the film is not Elsa, but her feisty sister, Anna. Elsa might be older and have special powers to turn things to ice but Anna is the sociable, vibrant and caring sister.  When Elsa turns her whole world to ice and flees to a solitary ice castle, it is Anna who courageously sets off alone to find her sister, to confront her, determined to undo the icy spell and restore life to the world. Anna is determined to do whatever it takes to save the world and her sister. Ultimately it is Anna’s love and self sacrifice that save the day when, even though mortally wounded by Elsa, she throws herself in harms way to save Elsa’s life and break the spell.  Elsa has extraordinary powers but it is her life-loving, courageous, impetuous and feisty sister who is the real heroine. It is Anna’s actions that restore life to the world, achieving the real miracle of restored joy and harmony.

So what has this to do with our Gospel for today?  Last week and this week our Gospel stories are known by the miraculous events occurring within them – Feeding the Five Thousand when Jesus makes 5 loaves and 2 fish feed more than 5000 people and Walking on the Water when Jesus walks across the lake to reach his disciples struggling against the wind in their boat.  These amazing actions are not party tricks to dazzle or even the main event. The underlying importance of these stories is Jesus’ compassion and love for the people who followed him and his trustful dependence on prayer to his Father.

In last week’s story Jesus had set off across the lake to find a quiet place to mourn John the Baptist who had been killed by Herod but the crowds rushed round and crowded the shore where he arrived.  Jesus did not turn them away, even though he may had wanted to, but had compassion on them, healed the sick and spoke to them. Later in the day he was concerned for their physical needs and when the disciples urged him to send them away to buy food he told them to give the people food.  But they said they only had 5 loaves and 2 fish.  So Jesus blessed what there was and had the disciples distribute it and there was enough for everyone and to spare. There was no drama – food did not fall from the sky or pop up from the ground but there was enough for all as the distribution progressed.

Jesus then sent the disciples away by boat, dismissed the crowds and went off alone to pray.  During the night the disciples, even though some of them were experienced boatmen, were still in the boat struggling against the wind and Jesus came to them, walking on the water. The disciples were terrified but Peter asked if he could walk on the water too and Jesus called him but fear overcame Peter’s faith and Jesus had to restore both of them to the boat.

But it is not the miraculous that should hold our attention – it is rather Jesus’ care for all the people in whatever circumstance, and his willingness to act to make life better.

We can get hung up on the miraculous and forget that the mundane is often the place where real miracles happen, as demonstrations of human love, kindness, compassion, courage achieve amazing things.  And human love backed by prayer and deep faith in God can achieve spectacularly amazing things.

But we sometimes have to let go of our fears and step beyond the familiar to make things happen.  Anna had to leave what she knew and venture far away to find Elsa and reverse the wintry curse on their homeland.  But is is Elsa who sings the song “Let it Go”. I have heard people quote that song as an ideal of putting the past behind and stepping out into the future.  But that is not the context of the song in the film.  Elsa has turned her world into an icy wasteland and fled.  She is now saying “Let it go” and trying to tell herself that she likes living in the cold.  She is letting go of warmth and life, turning her back on a world she has cursed to icy winter and adopting a cold, solitary existence in a lonely ice palace – hardly a liberating “letting go”.  Anna releases her from this self-imposed exile and breaks the wintry spell on the land by her acts of love and positive giving.

We need to let go of the negative things that hold us back and take hold of what gives life to ourselves and others.  By our trust and faith in God we can do that – and go beyond what we could achieve alone.

In my prayer time this week, all the meditations have been about St Columba and the monastery on Iona.  This was fitting really when thinking about the disciples in their boat as the monks largely travelled by sea in coracles at a time when land travel was very difficult.  From Iona, Columba and his missionary monks travelled far and wide taking the Gospel to many places, founding churches and monasteries along the way in Scotland and the Western Isles.  On the way they encountered many storms – real wind, waves and rain as well as spiritual ones and they trusted in God and pressed on, driven by a desire to share the Gospel and bring God’s love and life to more people.

One reflection included this poem by St Columba:*

Alone with none by Thee, my God,

I journeyed on my way:

What need I fear, when Thou art near

O King of night and day?

More safe am I within Thy hand

Than if a host did round me stand.

 

The child of God can fear no ill,

His chosen dread no foe:

We leave our fate to Thee, and wait

Thy bidding when to go.

‘Tis not from chance our comfort springs,

Thou art our trust, O King of kings.

 

Placing trust in God, and reaching out to others, Columba and his monks achieved extraordinary things. And we can be assured that Jesus is by our side at all times, knows what we need and loves us through it all.

It is not miraculous powers we should be in awe of or hanker after.  Rather we should affirm life, reach out to others, believe in the good, trust in God and see what amazing things come from that.

Let go of past fears. Turn away from bad habits. Seek God’s heart. And may life and love flow in us and enrich us and those around us. Choose life and love, and trust in God. Believe in Jesus by your side and may you see desolation turned into richness, desert wastes turned into verdant spaces and frozen hearts freed to overflow with joy.  And may we all travel safely through all the stormy phases of life!

Reader Anne Grant

 

 

* As quoted in “Celtic Daily Prayer”, from the Northumbria Community, Collins 2005, p.482