Sermons 2022

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JANUARY 2022:
16-JAN, 09-JAN, 02-JAN
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2021, 2020

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16 January 2022 – Second Sunday of Epiphany

If nothing else, this week, we have learned that people like to have a party, even when they should not have been having one. Celebrations are part what we do as humans, they bring people together and they create bonds. Today’s gospel is of a wedding, an important ritual of the time, as not only did two individuals come together as a couple, but that also brought together the wider family and friend networks, creating new relationships, new alliances, turning strangers into friends.

Often at weddings, there will be many strange faces, people who (at the event) are unknown to others. People will try to second guess whether the strange group sat in the corner are actually “part of our family”, “part of their family”, friends or acquaintances of either of the couple, or people deemed “important to be seen at the event”.

Strangely, the wedding in today’s gospel doesn’t really provide us with much detail as such. It’s at Cana: though really we don’t know where that is. It is a wedding: but we don’t know the bride nor groom. And the only people we hear of are the unnamed mother of Jesus who was at the wedding; the servants and the dining-room chief; and Jesus and his disciples who had been called or invited to attend. Everyone else you would expect to be there are unnamed, unreferenced, invisible, in the storytelling.

Now of course that is the opposite of what we would expect. If you look back on weddings that you may have attended, it is not normally the waiting staff who you would recall. It is not the architriklinos – the duty manager responsible for putting the chairs and tables out and getting food to the guests – who is most memorable on the day. And unless there had been a real kerfuffle, words between one old woman and her son (who had turned up with several of his friends in tow) would have been a long-forgotten awkward detail in people’s reminiscences of the special day.

Last week, when James preached, he commented on the speediness of the telling of the Christ’s story in liturgical time. Two weeks ago, it was an infant Jesus whom the Wise men were visiting, but only seven days later, Jesus had already attained the biblically-significant age of 30 in the telling of the story, when he is baptised. That storytelling at high speed is also there in the gospel today – but we don’t see it: as the first four words of the story are cut from the reading, which actually begins “On the third day there was a wedding at Cana…”

Read the chapter before this story: Jesus is baptised, but in John’s telling there’s then no sulking around in the desert, but rather on the next day (Day 1) two of John the Baptist’s disciples jump ship to follow Jesus, one of whom – Andrew – goes and gets his brother. Then the next day (Day 2), Jesus recruits Philip who, like Andrew the day before, goes and gets another one – this time Nathanael. And the next day (Day 3), well it’s this wedding, with Jesus there and his small band of new followers recruited over the previous two days.

There is an urgency in this telling, there’s no hanging around, for there is no time for it. Even after Cana’s wedding, Jesus leaves, goes home to Capernaum for a day or two (probably dropping off his mothers and brothers there), and then hot foots it down to Jerusalem to cleanse the temple, casting out the money-changers. This is the story of Jesus, but not quite the story of Jesus as we know it from the other three gospels.

Two weeks ago, it was the Feast of the Epiphany – or as the old Book of Common Prayer calls it: The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Back then it was, by using Matthew’s Christmas story of the visitation of the Wise Men to baby Jesus, that the church’s calendar asked us to consider how was Christ – how is Christ – manifested, in the world and in our lives. And in these subsequent Sundays, these Sundays after Epiphany, that theme, that question, is posed again and again. How is Christ made manifest, or as our first hymn repeatedly put it, how is ‘God in man made manifest?’ How is God brought tangibly into our lives – through our thoughts, and actions, our beliefs, our emotions, our living?

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of depth in the story of Cana’s wedding, with echoes of the marriage banquet that would herald of the long-awaited Messiah, of how the old-things-that-have-been need to turn into new-things-that-are-now-required; of the superabundance and lavish outpouring of God’s gifts, God’s grace and God’s love; and, of course, of the hope and promise of the new beginning on the third day, of new life after death.

But that Epiphany question is a pertinent one here, not only about how God becomes manifest in the person of Jesus, but for us – in the current time – how God is made manifest in us, in humankind, on an ongoing basis. How in our lives and in our living, in our speaking, our moving, our loving, our giving, we and others experience and know the presence of God.

And these Epiphany-referencing stories give us a strong steer, no less than in today’s gospel. There is no time to sit around. Strategic planning models, action planning, and long-term missions and goals, may be the solution for an organisation that seeks success, building influence, increasing membership, and justifying its own existence. But what Epiphany tells us is it is no longer a matter of what is coming/what is needed but rather what is now/what should we be about.

The message of Epiphany lies in the ordinary and in the everyday, in the here and in the now. It is in the home where a mother copes with her new-born child in the midst of all the pressures that brings, with unexpectedly and potentially unwelcomed guests waiting at the door with presents; it is in the line of people of queueing take the next step in their lives, to drown their past mistakes, and to move forward as new people with new promise; it is in the celebrations and life-events, and in the relationships and friendships we share. And (as the stories of this Epiphany time continues) it is in our responses – in our care and reaching to others; it is in speaking out and challenging the strong voices that seek to divide and harm; it is in sacrifice, and living now without fear for the morrow.

Epiphany is a water into wine story: it is making the ordinary extraordinary, and contrariwise grounding the extraordinary in the ordinariness of life. Epiphany exposes God in our reality, in the weird group of people along the back wall at the wedding, whom no-one really knows who has invited them; he is a God that places the background overlooked characters centre-stage; he is a God in whose presence simple plain common water drawn from old wash-pots tastes better than the ‘bestest’ of best wines; he is a God whose wondrous signs are small yet significant, unnoticed but far-reaching, fleeting but impactful.

This is the exciting story of Epiphany, and what better than to use these remaining Sundays after Epiphany to surprise yourselves on how God is manifested in us and in our lives, and even in those persons and places we would not have expected him ever to have been.

Colin Setchfield

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9 January 2022 – The Baptism of Christ

Between Christmas and Easter we journey at a break-neck speed through the various important parts of the life of Jesus. It’s as if all the most exciting parts of the Church’s year were pretty much reserved for the nastiest time of the world’s year, weatherwise, or at least that’s the case here in the Northern Hemisphere. Maybe that was on purpose – a way of livening up a miserable time of year. Indeed, now that a greater number of Christians live in the Southern Hemisphere than the Northern, perhaps we ought to swap over and give them the chance to celebrate Christmas in June and Easter in September, but something tells me we won’t.

Because the time between Christmas and Easter is short, we do tend to hurtle through it all. Only last week, Jesus was being visited by the wise men when he was still a tiny baby. Well, he had to do a lot of growing up since last Sunday, because now we join him at his Baptism. Because this is the time of year where we celebrate the newborn King, the baby in the manger, there is always a temptation for the brain to confuse us and give us visions of the baby Jesus somehow being baptised in a font. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth! Firstly, Baptism wasn’t a thing back then when Jesus was a child – because of course there was no Christian faith to be baptised into, and we see that Jesus is an adult when he comes for baptism, by John the Baptist, as recorded in today’s Gospel.

John is the first person to baptise anyone, and it is his way of showing those around him that their sins are forgiven and that they can be born again in the Spirit. This has confused lots of people, who are wondering whether maybe John is the Messiah and I think you may remember we heard that reading just before Christmas, where John tells everyone that he is not the Messiah, but that there is one who is coming after him (who also handily happens to be his cousin), who is the Messiah, and today we hear that Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When writing this sermon it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of any actual instance where Jesus baptises anyone in the Bible, and I resorted to Google, which confirmed my thoughts – Jesus never actually does baptise anyone, yet he himself gets baptised.

Now, isn’t that a bit weird? I mean, after all, why do we get baptised? Well, there are lots of reasons. For some, it is a familial right of passage, of course, and I’m sure we’ve all been to a few baptisms where the party afterwards seems to be a lot more important than the ceremony itself. For others, though, it is the welcoming into the family of the Church – a sign that our sins are wiped clean and that we are born again – whatever you believe that means. Why would Jesus need to be baptised then? He was a man without sin, so we are told. He was God’s only son, the head of the Church.

I think the answer is, Jesus plainly didn’t need to be baptised at all. But, just like a good teacher does for their pupils or a good parent does for their children, Jesus did all kinds of things for us that he didn’t need to do, to show us what life was really meant to be like for us. I mean, you could even say the crucifixion was something that patently didn’t need to happen for our sins to be forgiven – if God is all powerful, he doesn’t need to do anything at all to forgive us, let alone send his own son to die on a cross, murdered by the ones he came to save. Yet, God did that for us. So, if Jesus was going to die as a radical example of God’s ultimate love for us, then Jesus getting perhaps slightly needlessly baptised, to show us a little hint of what God’s love for us is, is pretty small beer for him.

And it’s interesting that the Gospel of Luke, which is the longest and most detailed of all the gospels when it comes to giving us stories of what Jesus said and did, and it’s the gospel from which we get most of the narrative of Jesus’s birth – this gospel is oddly brief and taciturn about Jesus’s baptism. It just says all the people got baptised. And Jesus got baptised and was praying. It does not say ‘there was a grand ceremony at which Jesus, the Messiah, was baptised, and lots of people gathered to see the wonderous spectacle’. No! One must assume from the simple text, that Jesus just got in line with all the other men and women who were being baptised by John. And, when it was his turn he got down into the river next to his cousin John, and John did the business, and then Jesus got out and dried himself off, probably put his clothes back on and went off and had a pray. And it was then that the Holy Spirit came down as a dove, and God’s voice was heard saying ‘This is my only Son, in whom I am well pleased’. It was only then that the heavens opened.

Maybe the fact that Jesus just got in line with everyone else tells us something about Jesus’s personality and his message. I always remember at primary school there tended to be a long queue for dinners. And there was one teacher, whom none of us liked very much. As children we initially feared her, and then used to laugh about her being like Miss Trunchbull, of Roald Dahl fame. She would always sweep into the hall and jump ahead of the queue to get her dinner, carelessly swatting aside any child who got in the way of her ample frame and sensible shoes. Now, I’m sure that, as a teacher, this lady had plenty of work to be getting on with that meant she was probably more than entitled to jump the queue for school dinners, but the apparent unfairness of her doing so to the nine-year-old me has stuck in my memory now for almost another thirty years, and no doubt it will be there for good. And, it should be said that, when I myself became a teacher, minded of this memory, I never jumped the queue for dinner, because I didn’t want someone else to think of me that way, and I was aware of what it might teach the children in my care, if I had done.

Maybe that’s a pointless recollection, I don’t know. But what I’m trying to get at here is that Luke doesn’t have Jesus setting himself up as someone apart and above the rest of society – someone far too important to mingle with the hoipolloi. No – instead, Jesus is one of us. And he still is. He is sitting there on the pew next to you. He is there when you are at your best and at your worst, when you are happy, sad, angry, despairing, joyful, loving, hating. When your life is going brilliantly, and when it’s not. And that’s a real challenge for us as a church. Often in ministry I’ve heard people say- not just here but in lots of places – I need a bit of time away from church to sort myself out, I’ll come back when I feel ready for it. This can be completely understandable and if you’ve felt like that, this is by no means an attack on you. What makes me despair though, is I think, why is Church viewed as a place where you have to be someone perfect to show your face? Surely we need to be able to build church communities where people actively come to sort themselves out, not where people stay away until they can face us again. Because if we preach about Christ as seen in the Gospel of Luke – he’s someone who is one of us, and he’s with us. He loves you at your best but he also loves you just as much when you’re being a complete nightmare.

Jesus’s life was changed by his baptism, even though he got in line and did it fairly needlessly. It set him up for the life he was going to lead – and next week we will hear about the first of his miracles – the water into wine. But we also need to remember that our baptism has changed our life too. So let’s start this new year in a really positive way if we can. Maybe one thing we could do is to go home and have a read of the Gospel of Luke. If you need a copy of it, let me know. Have an explore of it, because it’s a great and a radical gospel, which might make you see Jesus a bit differently. It might change how you view your faith, even. And enjoy this Lectionary Year C, where we look at Luke in more detail, and hopefully come to show others what this faith of ours can really be about.

James Gilder

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2 January 2022 – The Epiphany

At one of the Nativity plays this Christmas, the baby Jesus had not appeared in the crib at the point in the story when he was due to appear, so an angel delivered him. This was followed moments later by one of the Wise Men throwing down his gift with some force, it certainly sounded heavy, must have been the gold!

Delightful moments in such plays and fortunately my face covering hid the huge smile on my face. Yet as so often those children had added a special dimension to the familiar Christmas story. As a child conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, the angel delivering the baby Jesus was perhaps rather apt as it made a very real theological point, that this child was different, this child was of God.

The giving of the gift by the Wise Man was certainly definite, you could not miss the point that this gift was well and truly given, and the more meaningful sentiments of the gifts underlined.

Christmas is the celebration of God, the light of the world, coming into the world to be with us, one of us, among us for all peoples, and that deserved a bang not a whimper.

Epiphany continues that celebration, as throughout the season we recall God is revealed to us, God’s people, in many and varied ways.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Wise Men, guided by a star, a star which had revealed to them that a new king had been born, came to pay homage to that king. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh show this king to be something out of the ordinary, well they did travel a fair distance to meet him and you don’t do that for a run of the mill king.

Gold to crown a king, frankincense for prayers to and in recognition of God, myrrh for healing and embalming. A manifestation, a showing of what was to come for this unusual king.

As those Wise Men came for afar to meet the infant, God was revealed not just to the Jewish people, God’s Chosen people, alone, but to the wider world, the gentiles.

And in this season of Epiphany, the season of revelation, we celebrate too that we have a wider mission and ministry to the whole world. We have the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and in 2022 the theme is the story of the Magi, ‘We saw his star in the east,’ and the needs of the church throughout the world to come together to work against poverty, injustice and need only exacerbated by the current pandemic. During that week we at St Edmund’s join our Methodist friends in their Covenant Service. A service that promises renewed commitment to our relationship with God, not just at an individual level, but as an act by the whole faith community.

In this same season we remember the Conversion of St Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the wider world, and one who’s conversion was after a manifestation, a revelation to him by God.

The Festival of the Baptism of Christ is when Jesus begins his ministry and is revealed to the world at that moment as God’s Son; and the first miracle at the Marriage at Cana shows Jesus power. Yet as always those manifestations are not to those we might expect. Just as the infant was not the king the Wise Men expected, Jesus’ baptism and his first miracle are not as expected, they are shown not to the authorities and spiritual leaders in the Temple, but by the river bank with a traveling preacher, albeit one related to Jesus, and those who followed John; and his mother and the steward at the wedding.

Paul is not the most obvious candidate to speak of Jesus, after all he has been persecuting Jesus’ followers, so in all God is showing that God’s way is not as we expect. God will reveal God in many and varied ways to all who are prepared to welcome God.

All of our readings today speak of God’s calling to the lost and dispersed, to those who have not wanted to know God, and to those who saw something and longed to know more. In that we have hope that God can and will reveal God to each one of us, be we lost, unsure, or longing to know more.

God in us, God with us, and as today we recall those first visitors who travelled so far, let us think of those gifts they brought as we too offer ourselves again to God.

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe:
to you be praise and glory for ever.
As gold in the furnace is tried
and purified seven times in the fire,
so purify our hearts and minds
that we may be a royal priesthood
acceptable in the service of your kingdom.

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe:
to you be praise and glory for ever.
As our prayer rises up before you as incense,
so may we be presented before you
with penitent hearts and uplifted hands
to offer ourselves in your priestly service.

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe:
to you be praise and glory for ever.
As you give medicine to heal our sickness
and the leaves of the tree of life
for the healing of the nations,
so anoint us with your healing power
that we may be the first-fruits of your new creation.

Blessed be God for ever. Amen.

© 2022 St Edmund, Chingford