‘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

‘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

‘Fatherhood’ 18th June, 1st Sunday after Trinity

Based around Romans 5:1-8 and Matthew 9:35-10:23

 

“Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

These are the opening words to the prayer with which we and many millions of others are so familiar. We call God our Father and as today is Father’s Day it seemed to me entirely appropriate that we should consider and celebrate fathers and father figures because they are important to us.

Having decided on the theme for this sermon I thought I ought to do a bit of research. Somewhere at the back of my mind I seemed to remember hearing that Father’s Day was a fairly recent invention which came about in order to mirror the fact that we celebrate mothers on Mother’s Day and a more cynical view is that it was dreamed up by the retail industry who wanted to sell us yet more cards and gifts and stuff. Without wishing to actually be cynical, I’m pretty sure there is an element of both involved.

Imagine my pleasant surprise then when I learned that in the Catholic parts of Europe Father’s Day has been celebrated since the 14th or early 15th century, usually on the 19th March which is St Joseph’s Day and it is now celebrated in many countries throughout the world although not necessarily on that date. Marking it on the third Sunday in June seems to have come from the United States when the tradition was established in the early twentieth century.

According to what I read, and this is a very concise history, the first recorded modern observance of a Father’s Day was in 1908 in Fairmont, West Virginia and was the idea of Grace Golden Clayton whose father had been killed in a terrible mining accident the previous year along with 360 other men. Apparently 250 of these men were fathers and their loss left around a thousand children fatherless. Imagine the impact this must have had on the community as well on the individual families concerned. Ms Clayton suggested that her pastor, Robert Webb, of what is now the Central Methodist Church, honour these fathers but this seemed to have been a one off event at that time. The next few years saw numerous attempts to establish Father’s Day as a regular celebration but for various reasons it didn’t work out. After this somewhat faltering start it seems it was another woman, Sonora Smart Dodd who after hearing a sermon about Mother’s Day suggested to her pastor that fathers should be honoured in a similar way. Her father, a veteran of the Civil War, had brought up his own six children without a mother. As a result, it was in 1910 that a number of local clergymen throughout Spokane in Washington, preached sermons honouring fathers. Again though the observance was local and not regular. Over the next four decades there were attempts to get Father’s Day established as a permanent national holiday but they met with resistance from Congress. Apparently there was a good deal of cynicism about the motives of the trade groups who were helping to promote the idea of a father’s day but in 1957, Senator Margaret Chase Smith accused Congress of ignoring fathers for forty years while celebrating the role of mothers and in 1966 President Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honouring fathers and set the third Sunday in June as the date to mark it. Finally it was President Nixon who in 1972 signed this into law as a permanent national holiday. We seem to have followed the same tradition and I for one am very glad that we do honour and celebrate the role of fatherhood as well as motherhood and in the broadest senses of these terms.

Going back to the idea of St Joseph being associated with the first celebrations of fatherhood, I can’t think of anyone more appropriate as a figurehead. He epitomises the good qualities we associate with being a good father: protector, provider, nurturer, teacher, and encourager to name but a few. I also think he is a great example because in Jesus case, he was not actually his biological father and yet he loved him and brought him up as his own son. He could have turned his back and walked away but he didn’t. He could have boasted and made much of his role in Jesus life but we certainly don’t hear anything like that in the Bible. He was an honourable, kind, modest and faithful man who was content to play the part God had given him in spite of what others may have thought of him. God chose well when he chose Joseph.

It always seems a shame to me that the men who day by day, quietly go about the business of being good, reliable, dependable father figures don’t always get the credit they deserve because fatherhood like motherhood isn’t always glamorous and fun. Sometimes it’s hard and frustrating and even painful and heart breaking and there’s a fair amount of self-sacrifice involved. All the more reason why the value of good fathers and father figures should never be underestimated. They are sharers in the shaping of the next generation and their influence is great and lasting so it needs to be good. We all need good male as well as female role models if we are to be balanced, compassionate and loving human beings. I am aware that unfortunately not everyone is blessed with having a good father and that there are damaging and destructive relationships that cause a great deal of lasting harm. But surely that is all the more reason to value, encourage and celebrate the good ones and hopefully there will be good father figures somewhere along the line for all of us. They don’t have to be perfect, none of us are.

Sadly my own dad died nearly ten years ago. I still miss him. But because he was a good father he left me with many things that have enabled me to go on making my way through life, able to appreciate the good and deal with the not so good. We used to work together and in many ways we were kindred spirits. We could inspire and encourage each other and keep each other going when things were difficult which they often were. I could talk to him about pretty much anything, we didn’t always agree but in the end there was always respect, understanding and kindness. But as with all of us there were things I kept to myself. I’m sure we all have thoughts and feelings at times that we are not proud of and wouldn’t want anyone else to know about fearing that they would think badly of us or reject us if they knew.

But with our Heavenly Father it is different. To Him we are completely known and in spite of all our faults and failings we are loved anyway. I don’t know about you but I find this knowledge very liberating. God is the only one I can say and confide anything to, confident that I will not be misunderstood and not being misunderstood matters so very much. How many of our problems in life, in society and in the wider world stem from misunderstandings and an unwillingness to forgive human imperfections and failings? How comforting to know that God sees beyond what we see and that his judgement is not the same as ours.

I recently re-read Psalm 139 and I think it expresses this close relationship with God far better than I can. Here are just a few of the verses and I hope they speak to you as they do to me.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord you know it completely.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Here’s to good fathers on earth and in Heaven. Let us value and celebrate them and let them know how much they mean to us. I think we all like to know that we are valued and loved.

 

Reader Kath Boyd

‘When Christ calls’ – 7th May, 4th Sunday of Easter

Calling of DicsiplesIn the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

These words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran Pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi activist who was executed alongside conspirators against Hitler on 9th April, 1945, in Flossenburg concentration camp.

As with many statements we encounter in theology, it’s not quite what it seems. Bonhoeffer went on to say “It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world.”  Basically, the death Bonhoeffer wrote about was the death of losing our attachment to the everyday world. We start to do this at the start of our journey with Christ, not at the end of our lives.

For Bonhoeffer there was a literality to this statement; his beliefs inexorably led him to a place where he engaged with plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and so to his own death. Despite his words, he had an attachment to the world that did not allow him to turn his back on what was happening in Germany in the 1930s.

The author of tonight’s second reading is Peter. Peter is mainly known as the chap who engaged with the political powers of the day by lopping off someone’s ear and then denied his relationship with Christ. This letter was probably written in the early 60s AD – 30 years after Christ’s death – and it shows that the hot-head of Gethsemane has matured in to a thoughtful man.

Tonight’s reading is a HARD one; it needs to be looked at in conjunction with the text that immediately precedes it, and that preceding text might bring us up sharp.

In Verse 2.13, Peter tells us:

“Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men…”

This is something quite hard for us to take on board today; there is, of course, 2000 years of history between now and when peter wrote these words; and Peter wrote in a culture still attached to the idea that kings worked with the authority of God; but it’s still hard for us.

But in Verse 2.16, Peter tells us to “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”

This brings us closer to where we are – and to where Bonhoeffer probably worked from.  Submit to those authorities – living as free as you can – but do not submit in such a way as disobeys the law of God. In fact, we’re being told to live as servants of God, and, where possible – that is, where it doesn’t impact on our relationship with God – ‘play by the rules’.  Peter’s saying that the need for Christians to abstain from common cultural practices of the day will raise eye-brows; no point in making things worse for yourself by behaving badly.

In Verse 2.18, we hear:

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only those who are good and considerate, but also those who are harsh.”

Again, we have to take this in historical context as referring to both slaves and ‘house servants’  – slavery is not actually frowned upon in the New Testament, and was incredibly common in the times that Peter lived in. And this is where we come to tonight’s reading; in verses 19 and 20 Peter is following on to the comments he made about the behaviour of slaves in verse 18. A good, well-behaved slave, he says, may suffer undeserved pain and punishment and in those situations it’s commendable that he bears the unjust punishment because he is aware of God – that as a good Christian he’ll submit to unjust suffering if it’s God’s will.  If you’re a bad slave – a concept that we might well have difficulty with today – then Peter states that you can expect to be punished, and that you deserve it.  Sounds incredibly tough.  But then he says

“But if you suffer for doing good, and you endure it, this is commendable before God.”

And he goes further – as a Christian – a servant of God and Christ – we’re CALLED to do this because:

“Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Christ – the total innocent – died a humiliating and painful death after taking the insults and abuse and betrayal of other men. He made no efforts to retaliate; he entrusted himself to God, and bore our sins so that we might DIE to sin.

Like Bonhoeffer said – when Christ calls us, he calls us to die.  The death may be losing our life, but it will certainly be death to sin in our lives.

And what about us? How do Peter’s words speak to us tonight?

Before becoming Christians, Peter says that we were ‘like sheep, going astray’. Now we are under the care and guidance of our shepherd, Jesus Christ. And this means that we are expected to behave like our shepherd would. We can be good citizens and good employees, but in order to be good Christians we must strive to do nothing that puts either of these roles ahead of our love of God and our compassion for our fellow man.

We may find ourselves enslaved in some way; maybe literally, maybe to we feel enslaved or in servitude to our work, maybe we’re literally imprisoned.  Again, as Christians we need to respond to that slavery by following the example set us by Christ.

To fail to do so would, in the words of our confessional prayer, ‘mar the image of God within us’.  We know we’ll fail; after all, we’re human; but we are promised our Shepherd’s mercy and grace.

I have a number of friends – and extended family members – who’re agnostic or atheist and who have been known to ask me to sum up Christianity for them.  I give them a short answer; “Love God, love one another, and don’t be an idiot.”  (Although I have been known to use stronger words than idiot…)

Peter – who, let’s face it had a few problems loving all of his fellow men and not being violently foolish in the Garden of Gethsemane – clearly developed in faith.

Maybe, just maybe, if Peter could develop like this, so can we.

Reader Joe Pritchard

 

Readings for the sermon and links:

Acts 2:42-end 1 Peter 2:19-2:25

‘Dem Bones’ – 2nd April, 5th Sunday of Lent

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A little question to start with; what do tonight’s reading from Ezekiel, Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes and Chapter 21 of the book of Isaiah have in common?

The answer? They’ve all provided inspiration to popular songs.  The verse from Isaiah gave us Bob Dylan’s ‘All along the Watchtower’, Ecclesiastes gave us the Byrds’ ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and Ezekiel 37 gave us the song ‘Dem Bones’.  And you’ll be gratified to hear that I don’t intend to sing any of these!

Our reading tonight is perhaps one of the most memorable and evocative stories from the Old Testament Prophets.  Ezekiel is one of the three major prophets of the Old Testament, along with Isaiah and Jeremiah, and his message is pretty straight-forward. The people of Israel – a holy people, of the holy temple, in a holy land – have yet again broken their relationship with God and they have been punished.

An interesting fact about the Book of Ezekiel is that the events and prophecies in it can be dated with greater accuracy than any of the other prophetic books in the Old Testament.  Ezekiel received his call from God to be prophet in 593BC, and his last dated writing was 571BC – 22 years which covered the period in which Jerusalem fell, the temple was destroyed and the people of Israel exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel was also widowed during this period, and as a member of the priestly class he must have been devastated at the events in his personal life and the life of the people of God.

There was a phrase used by the people when all seemed lost and there was no hope; they would say ‘Our bones are dried up’ – and so it’s perhaps no surprise that God gives Ezekiel this terrifying vision of a valley full of dead bones.

What do you have in your mind’s eye?

For me, I think of Ezekiel standing on a raised piece of ground, looking around him, down a long, wide, limitless valley. And bones. As far as the eye can see, a sea of disconnected, random bones – nothing holding anything together in the form of a skeleton. Bones that have been there for so long that every bit of flesh has been long since eaten or rotted away. Bones jumbled in to random piles – a skull here, ribs there, leg bones and arm bones, the small bones of the hands and feet disconnected and lying around like piles of pebbles.

This represents the current situation and possible future of the people of Israel – a dead people, shattered and rent asunder, disconnected from themselves, from each other, and God.

When Ezekiel had visions, they pulled no punches, and left nothing to the imagination.

God then asks him to prophesy to these bones – and as he does so, Ezekiel sees the bones start assembling themselves in to skeletons. The bones just don’t come together higgeldy-piggeldy; they come together with structure and form – in the words of that song I mentioned:

Toe bone connected to the foot bone

Foot bone connected to the heel bone

Heel bone connected to the ankle bone

 

And so on until the skeletons are reformed. And that’s not all – as he prophesied, sinews were laid upon the bones, joining them together, then flesh, and finally skin. The valley was now full of bodies – perfect in every way – except they’re still not alive.

And God urges Ezekiel to prophesy again – this time to the ‘breath’ :

“Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live”

Now this isn’t just God doing a massive exercise in mouth to mouth resuscitation; we’re not just talking about air being blown in to the lungs of these bodies to make them live.  The Hebrew word used here is ‘ruarch’, which has three meanings; wind, breath and the spirit of God – what we would call the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel is prophesying for the Holy Spirit to fill these husks and turn them in to living, breathing people.

In verses 11 to 14 God explains the vision he has given to Ezekiel; and despite the apocalyptic setting it’s actually good news.  Despite everything that’s happened, things will be OK;

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.”

The multitude of people raised in that valley will return to their homeland, Israel, and hence to the good graces of God. The relationship with God will be repaired; they will return home.

How often do we find ourselves in Ezekiel’s valley? Those times when our less than wise and perhaps even mean-minded – dare I use the word sinful? – actions and behaviour seem to have brought us to a place where one or more of our relationships is dry bones and devastation; our plans are dismembered and scattered around us, and all we can see is the skeletal remains of what was once our future, and is now just dry, lifeless ruin?  I know I’ve been there a few times in my 55 years.

There are times when we’ve done all that we can do, to fix the damage, but we’re still left with a valley of dry bones.  Broken relationships with friends, family, damaged careers, debts, misery and despair. All broken apart like those skeletons that Ezekiel saw in his vision.

We settle down and start trying to fix things; we might manage to get things looking good again. Rather than a total mess we get things looking sort of like what they were before we broke them; but they’re still not quite right. The bones are connected, sinew and flesh has been laid, but there is still no spark of life. Our relationships are not as they were – trust is not there. Love may not be there. The Holy Spirit is certainly not there.

And that’s when we need to be humble, and pray, and ask for forgiveness and ask that God’s grace work through us to properly repair these fractured relationships.

You may remember these words sometimes used in our morning prayers or at Communion;

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit : a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. “

And this is what we need to bring to God so that His breath may re-animate these once-dead relationships.  Things may not be perfect, but they will be way better than when we found ourselves plonked down in that valley with the mass of dead, dry, disconnected bones.

Amen

Reader Joe Pritchard

 

Readings for the sermon and links:

Ezekiel 37:1-14 Isaiah 21 Romans 8:6-11

‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ – 19th March, 3rd Sunday of Lent

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Ivan Martynushkin, Harry Oakes, Laurence Ward, Roger Dixey.

These are names that you may never have heard before, but these four men found themselves looking in to the closest thing to Hell on Earth that humanity had experienced in 1945.

These men were amongst the first Allied forces to enter the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.  Pope Benedict said of these places:

“In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.”

I wonder, when these men found themselves in these dark places, whether they ever thought “Is the Lord among us, or not?” Not just ‘Does God exist?’ – but is He with us in this place of suffering? Is He guiding us, comforting us, loving us, protecting us? Does our faith journey have meaning?

Tonight’s reading from Exodus is particularly suitable for this Lent period when we review our relationship with God and we reflect on Christ’s time in the wilderness and his preparation for His Passion.

The people of Israel, freed from Egypt, have been wandering in the desert prior to tonight’s reading, fed by the grace of God with Manna and quails. They don’t need to do anything for it; just go out and collect the manna they need each morning, and wait for the quails to come each evening and twilight. God provided the people with what they needed, day in , day out.  The people occasionally lacked faith, though; even when told not to gather too much manna and try and store it, they would do and sure enough the surplus rotted. They didn’t always have the faith that God would deliver the manna the following day.

In our reading the people are concerned that they are now going to die of thirst in the desert.  There is no water to be had at their camp-site, and despite the fact that they’ve been adequately provided for so far, they seem to go off the deep-end, demanding that Moses finds them water.

Moses rightly points out to them, in verse 2, that they are questioning and testing the Lord.  And I can almost hear him adding the word ‘again’ under his breath…

To be honest, the people DO seem to be singularly lacking in faith in God’s continued help.  They’ve seen miraculous experiences– the plagues of Egypt, the first Passover, the parting of the sea and the destruction of Pharoah’s army, Manna from heaven, the very fact that after wandering a desert they’re still in a fit state to whinge about things at all – would certainly suggest to me that God has this covered.

But the people continue to protest the situation, to the degree that they’re ready to physically attack Moses, and Moses speaks with God, requesting some assistance. God advises him what to do, and the immediate problem is resolved.

Moses rather pointedly names the place where God’s gift was given as ‘Massah and Meribah’, which means ‘Proof and Contention’. Once again, the people have put the Lord to the test, and have asked the question ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’

Faith is never easy; even for the people of Israel, who experienced a much more ‘hands on’ relationship with God than we do, they still found it easy to start doubting when things started getting a little tough.  If you think about how long we manage without water, no more than a few days or a week, then you can see that all this took place in a very short time-frame. Despite miraculous bread from heaven in their bellies, the people STILL end up questioning whether God is still on their side when they feel at risk or experience suffering – even when it’s for a short time, and even when they have had direct experience of the power of God.

I imagine that the inmates of Belsen, and the people who liberated and helped them back to health, must have also asked that question – ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’. After all, our relationship with God today is not so intimate and ‘hands on’ as was the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Very few of us have experienced directly physical miracles such as Manna from heaven and the parting of the Red Sea. We rely on faith; and I can imagine that faith was tested within the camps.

In our own day to day lives, I’m sure there are moments when we ask ourselves ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’  We see friends and family suffer from illness; we hear of cruel murder and rape on the news; we witness the inhumanity of men towards each other in war, and the see millions of people in risk of starvation due to drought and conflict.

I have asked that question many times over my life.  ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ More specifically, ‘Is the Lord with ME, or not?’

The Lord IS among us; it’s just that unlike our reading tonight, we don’t get the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. In the reading we hear how God tells Moses what to do. God works through Moses.  The God that put Himself in a Burning Bush to speak with Moses could just as easily made water cascade from the rock at Horeb without Moses being there. But God works with His people, with His servants, with US.

Was God amongst the people in the death camps?

Yes, he was. He was there in the presence of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved 6000 Jews from execution. God was there in the form of Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who ministered to camp inmates and finally took the place of another prisoner condemned to death. He came in the form of Ivan Martynushkin, Harry Oakes, Laurence Wand and Roger Dixey to liberate and help those inmates.

It may seem odd to us – almost cruel – that God works in this way; as an omniscient and omnipotent God it’s well within his capabilities to simply ‘deal with this’ directly. But He delegates; he responds to our unspoken questions and heartfelt prayers by letting the Holy Spirit work through humans. God isn’t just among us; God is within people around us at these dark times.

In our lives, God is among us in the form of what the American children’s entertainer Fred Rogers called ‘the helpers’: ““When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  I’m sure that we’ve all experienced these helpers – anonymous well-wishers, good samaritans, good friends, caring family. Folks who make things easier for us when times are desperate.

In a world that is increasingly hard and cruel for so many people, we should be ready to let the Holy Spirit work through us when God wants us to help out.  It’s doubtful that we’ll be asked to make the sacrifice made by Maximillian Kolbe, run risks like Schindler or witness the horrors seen by Ivan, Harry, Laurence and Roger.

But we can be ready and willing to let the spirit work through us, so that when people ask ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ we can ask that at this time, in this place, the Lord is indeed amongst us working through us.

Amen.

Reader Joe Pritchard

 

Readings for the sermon and links:

Exodus 17:1-17 Romans 5:1-11

I don’t need to go to church – Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, Psalm 136, Romans 8: 18-25 (19th February, 2nd Sunday before Lent)

“I don’t need to go to church.  It is easier for me to connect with God when out in the natural world”

How many times have you heard something like that from someone you know?  I expect you have had similar experiences when you, too, have been on a beautiful beach, or on a walk in the Peak District or maybe even in our local cemetery in the Rivelin Valley.

The natural world is awesome!  We can marvel at the size of mountains or trees, at the power of the waves crashing on to the shore at the coast, at the beauty of a bird, flower or insect.  It can make us feel small compared to the vastness of the land.  It can encourage us to respect the elements, realising that we don’t have control over the weather.  We appreciate that the natural world is beautiful but can be dangerous!  Our reaction to the natural world is “Wow!”  It can lead us to feel God’s presence.  It can lead us to worship God the creator!

Sometimes our response to experiencing the awesomeness of creation is to create something ourselves.  So we might paint a picture or make something from wood, clay or cloth for instance.  We might play music or sing a song.  We might write a poem or tell a story.  Creating something of our own is good.  We get a sense of joy from it.

And through creating something ourself, we can find that it helps us to make sense of the world about us.  It helps us to tell others about our experience too.  So for generations the world over people have told stories, created paintings and sculptures and made music and drama.  And so they have passed their experiences of the created world and human life on to each other.

Sometimes we build the stories into the fabric of our buildings.  You can see this in old churches.  When many churches were built, most people couldn’t read.  So the buildings themselves told the story of the faith.  Stained glass windows, carved stonework and wooden features all told bible stories or sometimes the lives of the saints.  If you look up at the roof of the church, it’s like the inside of a boat – a reminder perhaps of the boat Jesus and his disciples were in when he calmed the storm.  Or a reminder of the sea journeys made by Paul.  Or a reminder that we are all on a voyage of faith together.  The pillars represent the ordinary people of faith from the earliest Christians nearly 2000 years ago to us here today.

Some scholars think that the Jerusalem temple told a story too.  It told the story we heard this evening, of the very beginnings of time, the well-known and well-loved story of the 6 days of creation.  You may remember me mentioning it in passing a few weeks ago.  Here’s how the scholars suggest the temple told the story:

At the front of the temple was the “Holy of Holies” – the area no-one except the high priest was allowed to enter.  This contained the ark of the covenant.  This was where God and the Holy Spirit symbolically resided.  This represented Day 1 – or a time outside of time.

On the 2nd Day the story tells us that God separated heaven from earth.  The veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple represented this.

On the 3rd Day the story tells of God separating land and sea.  Plants and trees covered the land.  In the temple this was represented by the golden table for plant offerings – bread, wine and incense.

On the 4th Day the story tells that God filled the heavens with lights.  This is represented by the 7-branched lamp – the sun, the moon and the 5 planets known at that time.

On the 5th Day (and half of the 6th) the story tells of how God then filled the seas and skies with fish and birds.  He filled the land with animals.  In the temple this was represented by the altar of sacrifice.

And then on the 6th day, human beings, both male and female, were created to tend the earth and to take care of the animals.  And they were represented by the high priests.

The story itself reads a bit like a religious liturgy.  Notice how certain phrases are repeated…And there was evening and there was morning…the first day.  And God said:  Let there be…. And God saw that it was good.  You could imagine how as part of their worship, the people might move round the different areas of the temple, telling the story as they went.

So it seems that for ancient Israel, the temple “was” creation.  Worship in the temple protected and preserved the creation.  As long as worship was carried out in the right way, creation would be protected.  Worship and creation go hand in hand.  So we have those strange bits in some of the psalms where trees are clapping their hands, or mountains, hills and sea monsters are being encouraged to praise God.  The psalm we read this evening was a bit like that.

If the worship went wrong and the people sinned, it would have a knock-on effect on creation.  Much of the rest of the Bible focuses on this.  We are reminded in Romans 8 that creation has been marred.  God’s plans for the earth have not yet come to completion.  Creation is still going through the pains of labour, but God’s promise of new life and new birth is there.

Christians have sometimes had the reputation of not caring that much for the environment.  And this can mean that the people we try to share the Gospel message with don’t have much time for it.  Things have thankfully changed a lot over the past years – each Christian denomination now has its own environmental policy.  And today, this second Sunday before Lent, is now called “Creation Sunday”.  We are actively being encouraged to celebrate God’s work in creation.

So it’s not only ok to care for creation, it is part of our response to the God who is good.  You cannot worship God and neglect creation.  And as we care for creation, so we spread the Good News about God’s love.

Male and female, we are all called to care for creation

Male and female, we are all called to worship the Creator and to encourage others to join in.

Catherine Burchell – Reader

 

Readings for the sermon and links:

Genesis 1:1–2:3   Psalm 136   Romans 8:18-25

O Root of Jesse – Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13 (4th December, 2nd Sunday in Advent)

On 17th November the residents of Rustlings Road were woken up at 5a.m..  “Move your cars” said the police.  Then the men with the chainsaws moved in. Several mature trees were chopped down.  Trees that had stood for decades.  Three protesters tried to prevent it happening and were arrested.  It made the national press.  The council argued that it was essential for street maintenance and that double the number of replacement trees would be planted. Whatever the merits of the case, the situation could have been better handled.

There is something about a big mature tree that arouses deep emotions.  Perhaps it’s the size, or the fact that some trees are many times older than any of us.  Trees provide a haven for birds and other wildlife.  They make use of carbon-dioxide and produce oxygen in return and are aptly named the lungs of the planet.  They can provide shelter from the rain and a playground for children.  No one really likes to see a tree chopped down, however necessary it might be.  It’s sad to see a stump where a mighty tree once stood.

But sometimes that stump fights back.  Sometimes in the months following the felling of a tree you see shoots sprouting from the stump.  They generally look untidy as they spring up en masse in all directions.  But you can’t deny that they’re stubborn.  That tree wants to live.  It will not go down without a fight.

The image of a felled tree is a powerful one.  The people in Old Testament times knew this too, which is why it appears in the prophetic literature.  In this evening’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, it is used to describe the royal line descending from Jesse, the father of King David.  The kingdom has been thrashed by another, more powerful nation.  The last king and his sons have been killed.  Jesse’s royal line, once a mighty tree, is now but a stump.

And yet Isaiah tells the people to have hope.  There is life in this stump yet.  A shoot will emerge from it.  A shoot which has been given the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might.  A shoot which will judge the poor with righteousness.

This shoot is not fully grown.  It is fragile.  With enough determination, frequent use of the loppers and copious amounts of weedkiller it could be killed off.  But it took 10 years worth of attempts to eradicate a self-seeded sycamore that was growing out of our house!  That shoot is stubborn.  It grows where it is not expected and where it is not wanted.  It will never become the mighty cedar or oak or plane tree that once stood there.  It will not take the same form or shape as its parent tree even if you let it.  This new shoot is going to grow in a new and unexpected direction.

Powerful imagery.  And there was more imagery to come from our reading.  Before we move on to that, I’d like to share a little lateral thinking problem with you.  Some of you may have heard it before – it’s even older than some of our trees:

A man is on a journey.  With him he has a wolf, a goat and a cabbage.  They come to a river.  There is a boat, but only room for the man and one passenger at a time.  If he leaves two of them unattended, the wolf will eat the goat or the goat will eat the cabbage.  The wolf is not interested in eating the cabbage.  The cabbage isn’t hungry.  How does he get all three across the river safely and intact?

Verses 6 onwards reminded me of this puzzle.  In Isaiah’s mind, the problem would not exist, at least as far as the wolf eating the goat were concerned.  Because the prophet envisages a time when hunter and hunted will lie down together.  As in the very opening of Genesis, there will be a time when creation is once again vegetarian.  So the wolf will live with the lamb, the calf with the lion, and a little child will be in charge.  The little child will play near poisonous snakes and no harm will come to it.

This situation may not happen literally any time soon.  The traveller will still need to use his wits to get his 3 passengers across the river without eating each other.  It seems as though this very much an “in your dreams” passage.

And yet.  Isaiah speaks of a royal child leading the not only the domestic animals such as the oxen, but the dangerous wild ones such as the lions.  He lives among them and leads them.  It was more usual for such a prophecy to have him fighting and killing the lions – as David once killed the giant Goliath.  The reign of this new royal child will not be like that of the old order.  It will be different.

When Jesus came to earth, he came as a small, fragile baby.  When he became a man and became known for his healings and teachings many who followed him thought he would be the warrior Messiah that they were expecting.  They were expecting a leader in the old style – one who would, to paraphrase a certain American, “make Israel great again”.

But Jesus wasn’t like that.  He lived among the lambs of his people and he lived among the wolves and lions.  And because it wasn’t the right time for Isaiah’s prophecy to come to completion in its entirety, the lions and wolves were provoked and retaliated.  He was arrested, tried and executed.  Once again it seemed as though the tree had well and truly been felled.  But we know that this was not the end of the story.  The shoot was stubborn.  It lived.  It grew.  It continues to move and grow in mysterious ways.  And it will continue to do so until the time is right for the lion and the lamb to lie down together.  A time when the whole earth will know the Lord and the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the nations.

Sometimes in our lives it feels as though a large and beautiful, powerful and majestic tree has been felled.  Many feel like this about the Sheffield trees.  Many feel this way about Brexit or Donald Trump, about Syria, about the recent plane crash in Columbia.  Or about something that has happened in their own personal lives.

Sometimes all we feel able to do in times like this is to sit on the stump of despair.  That’s ok.  And God will sit there with us.  But we need to be alert to when God is nudging us to look at that little shoot that’s growing just there!  At some point the time will be right to stop counting the rings of the past, but to see where this new little shoot might be leading us!

Amen.

Catherine Burchell – Reader

(Some ideas used here come from Barbara Lundblad’s post for this passage on December 8th 2013 on the workingpreacher.org website)