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15 May 2022 – The Sixth Sunday of Easter
I recently went to a service in the very old church, 12th century, in East Ham, where I served as a curate. The priest there was retiring after 27 years, and it was an uplifting as well as emotional leave taking.
In our gospel too there is leave taking. Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples his death is imminent, and he wants to ensure that they have the strength and courage to carry on. Unlike us who know how it all turns out, they don’t.
Rather like cramming before an exam, Jesus knows that telling them all they need to know will not be enough, they will not retain the half of it, so he reassures them, again and again. At the start of this discourse he says to them, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubles, believe in God, believe also in me,’ and as he ends he repeats this. ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not let them be afraid.’
But naturally the disciples have questions. How is that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world, asks one of them? Because through you the world will know me is the answer they receive now, as on so many other occasions in this preparation, and Jesus returns to the theme we explored last week of love and service to the wider community.
In loving Jesus by serving others the disciples will need God’s constant presence, and Jesus assures them this will be so. We, the Father and the Son will come and make our home with you, he says, and the Holy Spirit will be there to teach them everything and he will leave his peace with them so that their hearts need not be troubled. This peace is not about inner tranquility, but strength to meet the days to come. This indeed is a phrase I often use at funerals as an encouragement to those who mourn that they do not face the future alone.
A number of times during this long discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus promises them that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate will be with them. And in all this the message is about encouragement, guidance and strength. We may think of comforting as a gentle caring word, and indeed that is one interpretation certainly today, yet in earlier English its’ main meaning was to be strong or brave.
Jesus is therefore saying the Holy Spirit will come to teach, to prod, to incite, to move the disciples on, this is not about gentleness. In that same church in East Ham I mentioned earlier, the churchwardens staves, their badges of office, are in fact sticks known as prickers. They date to 1805 and were used to prod members of the congregation who were not listening or paying attention, perhaps during the sermon! Comforters indeed!
In the Bayeux tapestry, that pictorial record of the Norman Conquest in 1066, there is a section with King William marching behind his soldiers with a drawn sword. The words underneath say ‘King William comforteth his soldiers.’ In other words he prodded, incited and urged them – comforting here is neither gentle or especially caring! But it clearly succeeded in strengthening the troops as William won the Battle of Hastings and became William the Conqueror.
It is the Holy Spirit that directed and guided Paul and his companions as they travelled to Macedonia to spread the gospel, the same Spirit that has prevented them from going to areas they thought they should visit, as this was not the right time. God’s time as we know is not always our timing. The writer of Revelations is carried away by the Spirit to see the vision of the new holy city, the unexpected, and it is the Holy Spirit that we too look to for direction, strength and courage to do God’s bidding.
When Paul arrives in Philippi his mission is successful, he meets, converts and stays with Lydia, a dealer in purple (and thus expensive) cloth. She and her household are the beginning of the Church there, and at the end of their stay, and indeed imprisonment for their teaching, Paul and his companions return to Lydia to again encourage and incite the Church before departing to other parts on their mission to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Encouragement, strength and perhaps occasionally prodding is something we all need, both in our daily lives, and in our journey with God. The Holy Spirit is there to do that, to guide us and move us on so that we continue to grow in our faith and feel God’s presence in our lives, nurturing and inciting us to be the people God calls. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
15 May 2022 – The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Recently I went to see the film Operation Mincemeat. It is about a very clever, indeed stranger than fiction, true event that took place during the Second World War.
The war was beginning to turn in the Allies favour, and an invasion in the southern Mediterranean was the next stage. The Allies needed to convince Hitler that the invasion was to take place in Greece, rather than Sicily, the actual location, and a team of creative, inventive people, including Ian Fleming who later used much of his war experience in his James Bond spy stories, was put together.
I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice it to say, this fake news worked! We hear much about fake news today – fake reviews and experiences, fake medicines and qualifications, scams to elicit money, and of course in both politics and war, with a prime example at present with the war in Ukraine and the view of this portrayed in Russia. Fake news is nothing new, but increasingly sophisticated.
So how do we tell the authentic from the fake? It is not always easy, it takes discernment, time and even then we can be fooled, or taken in, perhaps only for a short while, but even so that can be enough to damage trust and cause hurt and pain.
Love is one of those areas where trust is required and an area where we can be misled and indeed hurt. Love is a risky business.
In our gospel today Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another, as he has loved them. This is not the only time he gives this command, but as always, the context is important. This comes at the Last Supper after he has washed the feet of his disciples, and he has just foretold his own betrayal – Judas has literally just left to do that when Jesus gives this command. Immediately after he will tell Peter that he too will fail as he will deny his friend, so the commandment to love is set against a background of betrayal, hardly the love that Jesus has commanded.
Yet Jesus knows all this, and still he gives the commandment, because this is how people will know that these are his disciples, his followers. He is preparing them for their future mission, when they will see Jesus no more, and are required to go out and give the good news, the authentic news of God’s love.
I am often amused that in Morning Prayer, just after we have read a particularly difficult passage of scripture, usually in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, about God’s frustration and anger with God ‘s people, that the response is either, ‘The Lord is full of compassion’ or ‘in your unfailing love.’
Because love is not a pushover, love includes saying something is wrong, yet still loving the person. Love covers practical service, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, to risk taking – laying down one’s life for another. Love is giving of self and continues what may. (I am of course mindful that ‘love’ can be used in a coercive way but that is not true love, as I said love is a risky business, and can be used in unloving ways.)
Perhaps the best description of true, authentic love comes in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which says
‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends… And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’
God knows that we will fail in living up to this, just as Jesus knew the disciples would fail, yet still loves them. He gives bread to Judas as he goes to betray him, he still loves and forgives Peter who will deny him, and God continues to love us too.
God encourages us to try again and again when we fail to live up to this commandment to love one another, because it is not through learning or morality, but by our simple loving acts that we point to the love of God made known in Jesus.
Jesus tells his disciples to love one another, yet this is not just love for the community of faith, this is to show God’s wider love. That wider love that Peter recognised when he reports to the Church in Jerusalem of his ministry beyond the Jewish community to the Gentiles. Initially the Church is critical of him, but come to understand that this is God’s work.
God is doing a new thing, God has provided a new heaven, and a new earth open to all who want to know God, and God’s unfailing love, God’s compassion and mercy, even when we fail.
The new commandment that Jesus gives is for all his followers, then and now. Love one another as I have loved you, and in this way people will know you are my true, my authentic disciples, and that God’s love is good and authentic news for all. So let us love one another as God loves us, and show that authentic good news in this troubled world. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
8 May 2022 – The Fourth Sunday of Easter
- I saw standing in the very middle of the throne, a Lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him. I heard the voices of countless angels, myriads upon myriads there were, thousands upon thousands, and they cried aloud: ‘Worthy is the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain, to receive all power and wealth, wisdom and might, honour and glory and praise!’
Just over three weeks ago, we recalled how – as the light of the first Good Friday died – the disciples, and first followers who had pinned all their hopes on Jesus, were confronted by the stark reality of a dead Messiah being removed from his blood-stained gibbet.
And Easter is a ‘making-sense’ of that experience, not only just in the continuing story of Jesus himself, but also how the Church moved forward, how Christians understood themselves and the world in which they lived, in the shadow of the cross.
In the past weeks, understandably, we have focused on the gospel stories of the empty tomb and appearances of the risen Christ. But in our other readings, particularly those from the Book of Revelation (which may have possibly gone under our radar), we have been presented – though rather scantly – with a different and challenging take on the significance of what has happened: with Jesus being portrayed as the Paschal lamb, through whose sacrifice humanity is freed from the bondage of sin.
The image of Christ as a sacrificed lamb is probably as difficult to fully understand as the Book of Revelation itself. This is particularly so for us living in the 21st century, where the concept of animal sacrifice is rightly abhorrent (even though it still occurs in parts of the world), and the image of a blood-thirsty God who ruthlessly needs to be bought off by shedding blood is perhaps one that many would be happy to consign to the realms of myth. (It is particularly difficult for me, as a vegetarian who disagrees with using animals for food, medical research, and human gratification.)
But despite all of that, the symbolism is important. The eagle-eyed among you may have had a sense of déjà vu during our gradual hymn today (before the gospel): ‘The lamb’s high banquet called to share.’ You may have asked yourselves, ‘Actually, isn’t this just simply the same hymn as the first one we’ve just had?’ And the answer is (kind of) ‘yes.’ They are both based on the same early sixth-century hymn, with our first one ‘At the lamb’s high feast we sing’ based on a later seventeenth-century revision of it. But I thought that doubling up might subliminally prepare you for what we are looking at today.
Last Sunday, the Archdeacon risked a versicle-and-response gamble, both at the beginning and at the end of his sermon. The gamble was that, when he pronounced ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen,’ we the congregation would automatically respond, ‘He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ The first time, the response wasn’t immediately forthcoming and had to be prised out of us (which to be honest is something that actually happens most years), but the second time it worked slightly better.
So, let’s try another. It should be doable, as it is another versicle-and-response that we use throughout Easter in this our communion service. ‘Alleluia! Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.’
(INTENDED CONGREGATION RESPONSE: ‘Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia!’)
Well, that didn’t quite work as expected but at least you are consistent! That versical-response is a phrase that comes from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, probably written about 20 years after Jesus’s death. And you’ll notice even by that time a link between his death and Passover had been established. Jesus was not only just killed at Passover, but Christ himself is our Passover.
So, let’s briefly unpackage that term ‘Passover’. It is pivotal to the story of the Exodus, of the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. On the eve of the Exodus, when the Hebrews stepped out of slavery and into freedom: they dressed appropriately to be in readiness for the journey ahead, and they quickly prepared meals – a hearty lamb supper – to be eaten by the whole community. None of the food was to be wasted, they paired individuals and families: so that all (no matter how great or lowly, rich or poor, numerous or single) had sustenance for what lay ahead. This meal was to provide them with the nourishment required, as they took their first steps in a mass migration: fleeing persecution, hardship and poverty, as they searched for security, for safety, for a home. And as the darkness of their last day as a subjugated people settled across the land of their enslavement, the blood of those consumed lambs was smeared on the homes of those to be liberated: a sign of protection, a sign of hope, a sign of life, a sign for keeping them safe from death. And though a remembrance and re-enactment of that meal came to be later established as part of Jewish cultic worship, the actual event to which it ostensibly relates is one rooted in hope and liberation, in nourishment and protection, in feeding people and saving them from death.
And so, with Jesus dying at the time of Passover, those same themes come to the fore. But, in writings like The Book of Revelation, it is not in the heroes and leaders that the representation of Christ is found. Christ’s representation is in the hapless lamb whose young life is taken, with never the chance of seeing out its potential 10-, 12-, 20-year lifespan. It is unfairly and tragically sacrificed, in order that through its dying others might have life, bringing them liberation, securing protection, keeping the flame of hope alive.
In the bizarre imagery of Revelation, we are given a mystic vision of heavenly worship. Here, alongside the worship of God, the young lamb whose life was sacrificed is also worshipped. The suffering and death of the lamb are transfigured into a narrative of glory. And that challenges us to consider how what we celebrate at Easter cannot simply be a glory-story that does not take account of the real lived experiences, suffering, and abandonment of the most vulnerable, and of the victims of our community, society, world and biosphere.
Later in the service today, just before we receive communion, we will sing the Agnus Dei. The version that we use was written in the 1970s by the liturgical scholar Geoffrey Cuming; but it is a free rendition of a much earlier Christian chant, addressing Christ as the sacrificed Passover Lamb. In its original usage, as the bread was prepared for communion, broken and divided into pieces so that all could share in the one bread, the petition ‘O Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us’ was repeated and repeated and repeated. And this continued (not just for a nominal two times but) until the whole bread made been broken, the oneness of the loaf sacrificed. And only then could its unity be restored, through its consumption by every member of the body of Christ present. And the Agnus then resolves itself in its final petition, ‘O Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace.’ Only by each member sharing in the brokenness of the bread, sharing equally the experience and fellowship of the weakest and the most vulnerable among them, could wholeness come, and it was then that Peace was shared.
Now all of that can become just simply an idea, a theological fancy, unless we follow through and believe its reality. Belief in the redemptive work of a God who has stepped and continues to step into our life, our pain, who empties himself, self-sacrificing for others, sanctifying the most vulnerable, seen in the victims of each injustice, with our worship not simply the remembrance of something past, spiritual comfort (as and when we choose to attend), but a memorial of the present and ongoing and regular call for us to share in all of that redemptive work, as Christ ‘easters’ within us.
1 May 2022 – The Third Sunday of Easter
The most important thing of being a Christian is finding God’s call in your life. I once assisted on a Christian sailing project in Wales teaching children to sail. The person in charge was a very senior medic who was head of anaesthetics at Papworth Hospital; he wrote about keeping people alive during heart transplant operations. I was very impressed he was spending a week teaching these young people to sail and telling them a little bit about Jesus.
At the time, I was working for the Inland Revenue, as a tax man. (I wasn’t a very good tax man.) My vague plan was, after I’d done a few years of that, as you did in the 1980s, I would go into the private section, where I would make lots of money in the City and retire with a Porsche with red braces. At the end of the week, this man told me what he did and he said to me what do you do, and I said that I was a tax man but was hoping to go in to the private sector, and make lots of money. And he said ‘Are you going to do that for the rest of your life?’ And it was a good question, it was as if a light was switched on, and I knew that I wasn’t going to do that for the rest of my life. Within four months I moved and went to a job working with a Christian GP practice in Bethnal Green as practice manager. I did that for five years during which my calling developed. I can look back and see that as a light bulb moment when something someone said to me changed my life. I can see that was God’s call at that particular time.
Now we don’t always respond immediately to God’s call in the right way. Think of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go and speak to the people of Nineveh but he ran away in the opposite direction. But I know that one of the privileges of being in my position is that I’ve heard so many good stories of people who have felt called by God at different times in their lives. I invite you to think about God’s call in your life and how you have responded and may need to respond again.
I wrote a piece in the Newham Recorder this week about David Moyes, who is the manager of West Ham. He was reasonably successful at Everton for some time; he was head hunted to be the new manager of Manchester United – it all fell apart (the first of many managers of Manchester United who failed – including the current one). He then went to Sunderland and failed there, and was recruited by West Ham and he saved them from relegation at the end of the season but left. However, he was invited back for a ‘second coming.’ He arrived back at West Ham and the team were doing brilliantly (so much so that some of the fans have started calling him the ‘Moysiah’).
Even David Moyes will know (particularly as he is a Christian) that – time and time again in the Bible – people are called, and called again and again. And even when things have failed the first time, God calls them again. There is room for repentance, for forgiveness, for second chances, for second comings in life. I’ve known so many people who have known that God is calling them, and then things go a bit difficult or things go sour. So, think of God’s call on your life afresh.
In these two readings, we hear two traumatic moments, two traumatic types of call. The first concerns Saul, a man who was going around with letters from the high priests to round up those who were following Jesus Christ, and bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. Their prospects following being captured weren’t going to be very good. It was going to take something very big from God to stop Saul in his tracks. So, it was big: a light from heaven flashed around him, he fell to the ground and heard a voice calling him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And Saul is left blinded by that experience and left needing the help of others. Maybe the loss of sight made him think. When we are used to using our eyes to navigate the world around us, and lose the ability to do so, we become dependent on others. And Saul wouldn’t enjoyed being reliant on others, it was he who had gone to the high priest and was probably the leader of the group of men on the way to Damascus to persecute Christians. He wouldn’t have liked to be dependent. Eventually, one of the followers of Christ Ananias – someone who Saul had come to capture – comes to visit him and restores his sight. And, perhaps because at the time he was thinking of what had happened on the Damascus road (we talk of a Damascus road experience), it resulted in a complete change of mind: he goes into the synagogue saying that Jesus is the Son of God. He becomes the most influential figure in the early Christian church, spreading the good news. We know that people were wary of him, it took Barnabas to persuade the others to welcome him into the group of Christian leaders. The key thing is how he responded to his call: the change in his life, the change in what he did, and the energy he put into what he did after that point.
People who have a conversion experience, whether a big one or a quiet still small voice of God, have a choice at the end of that to act on what has happened, to turn to Christ, to seek out the will of God, to carry out immediately and sacrificially, or to carry on ‘business as usual.’ It is up to each of us to chose how we respond to God’s call in our lives, sometimes in response to a moment like that, sometimes day to day, as we think and pray during the day. How we use the gifts that God has given us, the situation we are in, matters.
And, just finally to say, in the Gospel reading, we had the story of Jesus’s third appearance to the disciples following his resurrection. They had gone fishing, and caught nothing. Jesus appears on the beach, and tells them to try fishing from the other side. They do that, and suddenly – after having a disappointing time – it is turned into a joyful time, with a great abundance. At that point, Peter realises who it is who has been speaking to them, and his response is one of joy. But of course, he is the one who didn’t have the courage to admit to the servant girl during Jesus’s trial that he knew him. It was Peter who denied Jesus three times. In the remainder of the Gospel reading, we have how he was allowed back, forgiven, rehabilitated. He was shown in that three-fold forgiveness that he was accepted; it took those three times to make it clear that he was forgiven.
How we hear God’s call, it doesn’t matter: there’s no hierarchy of call, it can be something quiet, something from scripture that speaks to us, something that someone says to us, it could be a thought that we understand as probably from God, or it could be a traumatic thing. What matters is how we respond to what we know to be God’s call on our lives: what we do as a result.
God calls you and me to follow him day by day. Sometimes he calls us to make big changes, sometimes his call is simply to be faithful to model our lives on Kingdom values. The key question, as Easter people, is to decide today if you will respond to that call, and tomorrow and in the days ahead. Peter was responding to the risen Jesus Christ, everything was changed by him, by the fact that Jesus was alive. Peter lived the rest of his life in the light of that fact, and you and I can too. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
Elwin Cockett (Archdeacon of West Ham)
inspired by a sermon by Caroline Harding
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24 April 2022 – The Second Sunday of Easter
Have you ever been required to be a witness to an event?
As such one is required to recall in detail, without subjective input, exactly what one saw and heard. If the incident is an accident of some kind that can be very difficult to do, as by the very nature of what happened one is taken by surprise, and in that moment some things may be crystal clear, but others hazy, and however hard we try, we cannot remember the detail.
Sometimes our lack of recall may be our brains trying to protect us from difficult sights and sounds. I think of those who have experienced traumas through the atrocities of war, where they may have constant recall, as post traumatic stress, or a complete blank. But often it is because the events happened so quickly and in such confusion that important details are lost. Of course nowadays, if we are thinking clearly, we can record much on our phones as video or pictures, but in the heat of the moment that may well not happen.
At other times we might be witnesses to important or exciting events, and we prepare ourselves to retain the memory with diary notes, pictures or photos. I find music and smells are also wonderful memory joggers of places and people too.
In the time of Jesus much of what was seen was passed on by word of mouth, and some cultures still retain this way of remembering their history in ancient stories passed from generation to generation.
The early disciples recognised that it was important that the details, not only of Jesus’ teaching, but his death and rising again were known and shared, so that the good news came to share was known. Not only known but kept to faithfully and not changed or embellished over time.
No matter that they are persecuted by the Jewish leaders, that is why the apostles cannot stop speaking. We are obeying God is their response, we are witnesses of who Jesus was and is, and importantly his forgiveness of our sins by his own death.
Jesus the faithful witness, the first to rise and ruler of kings of the earth, the one who freed us from our sins by the shedding of his own blood is to be spoken of, so that all understand and believe.
In John’s gospel Jesus appears to the disciples on a number of occasions after his resurrection, to underline exactly what they are witnesses of. Yet he knows it will not just be sight that spreads the good news.
Thomas will not/ does not believe until he not only sees the wounds of the cross, but touches them too. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And they come to believe through the testimony of those who have seen and witnessed and speak of what they have seen and heard.
Tomorrow we remember Mark the Evangelist, writer of one of the gospels. John Mark was a Jew and accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, and later went to Cyprus with Barnabas, and Rome with Paul and later Peter.
Mark’s gospel is generally regarded as the first of the four, written around 66-74 AD. It is the shortest with a sharpness and urgency and the writer is certainly not impressed with the understanding, or lack of, of the disciples when it comes to Jesus and his teaching!
Mark is perhaps harsh in his assessment of the disciples, who were not learned men versed in the Hebrew scriptures, after all hindsight is a wonderful gift. The disciples came to realise who and what Jesus was, after his death and resurrection, and understood that sharing in the glory of his resurrection, means sharing in the giving of self. Many, including Peter, died for speaking of the good news, sharing the gospel was both generous, as they obeyed God, and also sacrificial.
Today it is still both generous and sacrificial as we offer ourselves and our belief to others, generous because the gospel Jesus offers to all is indeed generous, as an inclusive welcome to God’s kingdom of love. Sacrificial as it is not seen as the obvious way to live in this self-seeking and self-centred world that we now inhabit.
But giving is always a blessing and encouraging others to seek the love and welcome of God is a real blessing. We may not know whether the seeds we sow will germinate, only God can enable that, but sharing enables others to know there is that opportunity for a different and more fulfilling way of life.
So are we a Thomas doubting until convinced by what we see and hear for ourselves, not sure or confident about speaking of our faith, or do we say I believe and I will obey God in sharing that faith so that others too may know the love of God? Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
17 April 2022 – Easter Day
We live in a world of sound bites, and I have a wonderful one I was given for today. When asked why Easter was special to Christians, a young child replied, because Jesus died and got up again!
Out of the mouths of babes and infants comes such insight. As a summary it is perfect and quite takes one’s breath away. The stark simplicity of the answer, no great theological arguments, just this is it, this is the message, or rather we might say this is the good news, this is the gospel that we believe in, this is our faith. Jesus died and got up again.
In a world of pain and darkness the hope and joy within this deceptively simple, but also amazingly complex, statement of what we believe, is as much needed today as it was over 2000 years ago.
Yet this is always a surprise, we can still find something new each time as we ponder what the resurrection means to us. Jesus had told his disciples at various times of his own rising from the dead, but they had not heard, or if they had they had not understood. When the women went to the tomb, they had no thought, other than to anoint Jesus’ dead body, which they had been unable to do at the time of his death. They had been there, they had seen him die, slowly and painfully on the cross. They had heard him draw his final difficult breath, they had seen his body taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb they were coming to visit. The last thing they expected was to find that he had got up again.
Although Jesus had told them, both explicitly and implicitly, that he would return, this was not what anyone expected. Dead people remain dead. His disciples had seen Jesus heal the sick and bring back the widow’s son and the young girl from the dead, but this was not the everyday. And to add to all of this it is the women who are witnesses to this, and women were not seen as credible witnesses. Indeed Peter goes to the tomb to look for himself, and finds it empty, although the messengers who spoke to the women are no longer there, and he too leaves the tomb none the wiser. Some translations say he was amazed, others that he was perplexed, as well he might have been, either way this was not the expected outcome, and he goes away to try and make sense of it all.
We too are left in suspense, where is Jesus, what has happened? He died and he got up again is so fantastic as to indeed appear like the idle talk that the disciples accuse the women of. When we want something so badly does the mind play tricks on us, is that what is happening?
Because the resurrection is amazing, and perplexing, it was a real act of faith then, and it is now. The gospel, the good news tells us things we don’t expect that we find it hard to comprehend and require us to believe the apparently unbelievable. No wonder we are amazed and perplexed.
The resurrection is the start of something new and different, and although Jesus has tried to prepare his disciples for what has come to pass, they needed to process it all in the light of what has now happened. The resurrection enables each one of us to start anew, to celebrate a new beginning with the God of surprises.
God surprises us again and again with God’s love and perseverance with humanity and our lack of understanding. God is God of the unexpected, the unknown and the new, and God uses the most unlikely people to share that good news. You would not put women into leading roles in this story if you were making it up, because women did not have authority or power. But by doing so God is saying again, what I am doing is the unexpected, it is different, my kingdom, says God, is different. This new life is based on love, not power, it is not at all what is expected.
The women coming to the tomb expected and believed that all hope had gone, the hope they had in Jesus and his teachings, had died with him on the cross. But what they found was indeed hope. Jesus had risen, just as he had told them all, and if this was true, so much else that he had promised could be true too. There was still the possibility of the new opportunities, the new beginnings that he had offered.
At Easter we celebrate new beginnings, new life in Christ, and because these new beginnings are not what is expected, they take some believing, because God is offering new hope for us and for our world.
On the cross Jesus said ‘it is finished’ but he didn’t mean this is the end. What was finished was the beginning, the way of salvation, of being reconciled, of being in relationship with God is open. As Jesus opened his arms on the cross, he opened them in love and welcome so that we can participate in God’s love and welcome because we are on that journey with God.
He is risen, Alleluia, and what we do next on our journey with the God of the unexpected is up to us, the offer of God’s companionship, of God’s love is there. We are asked to accept that the amazing, the fantastic, the unexpected does happen, in this case, Jesus died and got up again and opened the way to new life for us, do we want to take that opportunity? Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
14 April 2022 – Maundy Thursday
The writer and theologian Henri Nouwen in his book Reflections on Christian Leadership was struck by the three temptations of Jesus and how these related, in his mind, to temptations to be relevant, to be popular and to be powerful. He believed that God does not call us to be any of these things, much as they may speak to our feelings of self-worth, and this struck me as very apt after our Lent sermons on self -examination. In the world there is a demand for all three, and if one does not exhibit at least one of these traits we are judged as a failure.
Knowing ourselves is crucial to who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Theresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, said that the more we know ourselves, the more we know our limitations and our true home in God.
In the desert temptations Jesus was tested by the devil who tempted him to be relevant, popular and powerful, and in each case Jesus had a strong riposte as he knew himself, and his ministry and his mission for God was a different calling to that shown to him by his adversary.
When called to turn stones into bread, to show he could be relevant to his and the world’s needs, to solve problems, his response is that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. No matter how good we may be at doing, it is in our being, our actions as directed by God that we succeed.
As he is invited to be spectacular by throwing himself from the roof of the temple so that God’s angels can rescue him from death, Jesus understand his mission. His mission is to die, to give up his life. In Gethsemane Jesus accepts that it is not his will, but God’s. So his response to the temptation to be spectacular was to say, do not put the Lord your God to the test. It is God who will decide what is needed and when spectacular is required.
Power, Jesus knows is not about earthly power, because God’s power is about love and service. As we have reflected in our service tonight already, Jesus states that he is giving his followers a new commandment, that they love one another as he has loved them. And if that were not enough, he also serves them reminding them that he came not to be served, but to serve, and that is what is expected of us.
The way of Jesus is not the easy way – enter by the narrow gate, that way leads to life. Jesus knew it wasn’t easy when he said to his followers, the wide gate is the easy way, but not the way to fulfilment, and so it is for us, easy is exactly that, easy, but to face challenge is the hard part.
One of our (human) temptations, when faced with fear or difficulty, is to ignore it or run away, but the issue still has to be faced and we don’t do this alone but with God by our side. Jesus knows this in his prayer in Gethsemane, when he knows what is ahead will not be easy, and he would much rather run away, but whilst it must be faced, he won’t be alone. ‘Let me not come into the time of trial, but your will, not mine, be done.’
We may face many challenges in our life, sometimes we may indeed be tempted to be relevant, to be spectacular or powerful, but God does not call us to be any of these for their own sake. God calls us to be ourselves. That may mean we are relevant, spectacular or even powerful, but with each of these come a responsibility to use them in God’s service.
This morning at the cathedral, lay ministers, deacons and priest were called to renew their commitment to ministry, in leading prayer, in service to others, teaching and ministering of the sacraments. Whilst some roles are specific to an ordained ministry, we are all called to servant leadership. Such leadership can be hard, as God’s presence can often feel distant or hard to hear. To listen to the soft, gentle and loving voice of God will help us to do God’s will in a world that still does not always understand that God’s way, God’s kingdom, is not of our making, but God’s and is about love and service. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
13 April 2022 – Wednesday in Holy Week
Christ walks to death.
Amid the crowded heaving city, with people shouting out and pressing flesh, he journeys to his cross alone: in isolation.
Throughout the long, silent, unrecorded years of an ordinary life lived, unregarded, in workshops and on building sites, a man labouring for a living: singly and among many, …
Through the forty long long testing days, wandering in the wilderness going nowhere, walking in the dust kicked up by long-dead prophets and wild men of years long past, …
In the heady short time of his ministry, always on the move, a man on the run in a hostile landscape, where power and unpower, hope and fear, vie, …
… Christ was always journeying on his way to the cross.
The cross is always there: waiting at the end of the journey, with its arms outstretched to claim him, to raise and to hold, exposing the loneliness of his journey in this solitude of death and dying.
- ‘Are you the Son of God?’
- ‘You say that I am.’
- ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’
- ‘You say so.’
- ‘If you are the King of the Jews save yourself.’
- ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.’
We look for a God of our own making: a God who will snatch us from the danger-infested roads on which we walk, that we may pass through the world in safety. We push past the cross in a rush to find an empty tomb, a happy ever-after. But the God of the cross is he who himself walked along those same desperate, perilous paths in which we lumber and stumble. The tears we cry have ‘already blinded the eyes of Christ;’ the aching we feel in our hearts has already constricted his own.
He hangs there exposed, offering us the option to share in his loneliness – in the loneliness of God. We are called, like him, to be emptied, so that we may enter into a new relationship: not only with this lonely God, but with all the lonely souls in the Kingdom of Nobodies over which he rules.
To live his life, as he dies our death: in that sharing, all the loneliness is sanctified, and our personal journeys of life become – not safe – but God-shared.
12 April 2022 – Tuesday in Holy Week
Our theme over Lent this year has been on Journeys. Last night Lesley reminded us of some of the many journeys found throughout the Bible. We had the dramatic conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus through to Jacob’s story and he being sold by his brothers.
In our Lent group this year, one of the first stories we looked at was Noah’s remarkable story and his calling by God to build an Ark. He was chosen by God as he was a righteous man and only he and his immediate family were to be saved from the flood. Noah, we are told, obeyed right away and built the Ark. Whilst reading and listening to the story, I note that he wasn’t conflicted with any worries and doesn’t appear to be filled with any angst and just gets on with it. I think about the emotional journey that he may have undergone in responding to God’s call. I think of his immediate acceptance, his courage and his strong faith.
As with many great stories Noah’s Ark has been made into a Hollywood film. There have been many versions. I would like to refer to a later edition called, Evan Almighty, which was set in a modern day America. Noah’s character doesn’t obey God. In fact he does everything in his power to avoid the call. However, after many signs and images shown to him, he relents and has to do what has been asked and build the ark. I mention this as unlike the original Noah, how many of us are like this fictional character needing many gentle prods, messages to do what the Holy Spirit is guiding us or leading us to. I have found when the Holy Spirit wants us to do something, no matter how long it takes, how many excuses we find, ultimately we will have to do God’s bidding.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is preparing us for his own death. Jesus knows that his journey on earth is coming to an end and provides words of support and comfort to us all. He wants us to prepare ourselves as he knew what lay ahead.
Jesus’ journey is often described as the greatest act of love because he gave his life for us all so that our sins will be forgiven. As we prepare ourselves to walk with Christ, along this path spiritually, let us reflect upon our own personal journeys in this most holy of weeks. Let us ask the question ‘what is God calling or guiding me to do in my Christian journey’.
In our final Lent meeting, we were asked ‘What is God leading us to do as we stand before the cross?’ I reflect on the Gospel reading where Jesus tells us to use the light and believe. For me this means using our time when we can, when we are able to because all too soon the light dims and darkness enfolds us.
And so I pose that question to us all, as we look at the cross, what is our spiritual journey during Lent? Is God leading us or calling us to do something, perhaps something that is out of our comfort zone? Are we listening to the Holy Spirit with our whole heart?
Will we be like Noah accepting and believing immediately or like the fictional character requiring many, many prods and messages before we accept?
Therefore let us walk with faith, courage and belief to answer the call as we travel along our Christian journey.
11 April 2022 – Monday in Holy Week
During our Lent group we have been looking at various journeys in the scriptures, some well-known and others perhaps less so, as we moved towards the journey into Jerusalem and the cross.
In the Bible there are so many journeys – Noah and the Ark; Joseph taken into Egypt; the Israelites led by Moses out of Egypt; Paul traveling around the Mediterranean, to name but a few of the more well known. And of course Holy Week itself, is a journey, as we travel from the excitement of Palm Sunday, through the darkness of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and crucifixion, to the joy of the resurrection.
All of these journeys had purpose and an urgency. None are easy and all entail risk, and possible failure.
In the past two years travel in person was heavily curtailed, borders and countries were closed to try and contain a global pandemic, and we took to ‘journeying’ via technology using phones and computers instead of physical movement.
This week we focus on our spiritual journey as we too share the excitement, hope, despair and joy of Jesus’ mission to reconcile God and God’s creation. Our spiritual journey is of course not just this week, it is one that starts with our first being open to God, working in our lives, and continues as we walk, perhaps sometimes even run, with God and discover what it means to be a child of God, valued and loved for who we are, not what we are.
All journeys involve change. It may be a change of scenery or even culture, but each journey in our life will change us in some way.
All those in the scriptures whom God called, were changed, and in turn implemented change around them. Noah’s story about new beginnings and a new covenant with God. Joseph’s story starts with hatred and anger as his jealous brothers sell him into slavery, but in Egypt he instigates change, and saves many from famine and is reconciled with his family as a result. The Exodus was a new start for God’s Chosen People in a new land, and Paul travelled to spread the good news that God is there for all who turn to God.
So how were the disciples feeling after the high of the journey into Jerusalem as Jesus was hailed as the new king? The next day the road was still strewn with the palms and detritus of a large crowd. The world has gone after him say the Pharisees, because of the signs they have seen, including the raising of Lazarus, change is indeed afoot.
But amongst Jesus and his disciples it is business as usual, Greeks wishing to meet Jesus, as they tell Philip, and many following Jesus around. Yet Jesus is talking about his death and the crowds cannot believe this. They have lauded him as Messiah, he cannot die, yet he knows that is his next journey. He has come to be light in a dark world, so that everyone who believes in him should not remain in darkness, and his death, his own darkness, is part of that journey to a new life.
Easter is a time for new beginnings, an opportunity to try a new way of being with God. So this Holy Week will we allow ourselves to take the risk of journeying with Jesus to the cross, leaving our darkness at the foot of the cross, and turning to the new light, and new beginning of the resurrection? It is a risk and we will be changed, but standing still is not the route God has in mind for us. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
10 April 2022 – Palm Sunday
3 April 2022 – Lent 5
One almost feels, listening to our gospel today, that the theme music for one of the dramatic soaps on television will suddenly cut in.
Imagine the scene, a convivial dinner party to celebrate Lazurus’ return from the dead, Martha is in the kitchen preparing the food (a place we find her in another gospel too) Lazarus we assume is relaxing, as is Jesus, and in to this comes Mary with her hair uncovered, something women did not do in public, and carrying an expensive jar.
She then proceeds to pour out a most costly, and pungent, perfume on Jesus’ feet, and most scandalous of all, to wipe his feet with her hair! You could no doubt cut the atmosphere with a knife. Judas complains, and Jesus says don’t; she has carried out a wonderful thing, she has prepared me for my burial. Aghast looks all round and cue dramatic cliff hanger music.
So let’s unpack this, is this Mary yet again upstaging everyone else? Her actions may at first appear like that, and Judas is possibly voicing the thoughts of many present at the supper, particularly as such a strong perfume would have ruined the food, but Jesus, as so often sees beyond the obvious.
Mary is taking a huge risk. Sitting at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching, as she did before, was unusual and excited comment, not least from her sister. But now cleansing his feet in such a way and wiping them with her hair, an act of submission and servanthood, leaves her open to shame and ridicule. She has not undertaken this task in a modest way, or on a one-to-one basis, but in a crowded room in front of many. Her love and worship are there for all to see.
Jesus recognises this act for the offering of herself that it is, this is break with the past, the holding back, this is setting a new path. And Jesus too is about to set out on the next stage of his journey. After this supper he will turn towards Jerusalem, his triumphal entry and ultimate death in his own act of sacrifice and servanthood.
And yet those around him fail to see so much of this. Shortly after he will offer to wash the feet of his disciples, and Peter, will initially deny Jesus this act. Not you, this is not your role, says Peter. But it is my role, says Jesus. You may not yet understand, but my ways are not of the past. Jesus is living out the scripture from Isaiah. ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; do you not perceive it?’
And no they don’t see it, not until after Christ’s journey to the cross, his death and resurrection.
But quiet Martha has seen. When she speaks to Jesus about her brother’s death, she says that she believes that Jesus brings new life, she knows he is the Promised One, the Messiah. Mary in her anointing of his feet marks Jesus out as someone special, one she worships and wants to serve; just as he, when washing his disciples’ feet indicates his servanthood and submission to God’s will.
Jesus is setting out on his final journey, the road that will take him to a rapturous welcome into Jerusalem, and then the pain and rejection of his arrest and humiliating and painful death on a cross. This is drama indeed, and Mary’s gesture, her extravagant gesture, sets the scene for what is to come.
It is interesting how so often it is those on the margin, the excluded, and women were in that category, who perceive what Jesus’ mission is. Here the two sisters recognise who and what Jesus is. At the cross it is the women who predominantly keep watch when others have run away, and it is to Mary Magdalene that the risen Christ first reveals himself.
This is no accident, God’s new kingdom is one that will turn the world upside down and continues to do so. A world where those on the margins are welcomed, are valued and invited to be part of the good news that is God’s plan.
Anointing Jesus’ feet with a costly perfume was an act of worship and sacrifice by Mary. Worship by the very revealing way in which she anointed him; and sacrifice because the ointment, and the jar, were both expensive in monetary terms, and how they were used. Judas’ complaint that the money could have been better spent on the poor was a reasonable one, but sometimes the extravagance is important.
This gesture was one of those, it was part of the recognition that all was about to change. I am about to do a new thing. Jesus is indeed pressing onwards and breaking with the past, as Paul reminds his readers. And in that change Jesus was to upset many, overturning the tables in the Temple, being proclaimed as a new king by the people, and not giving in to the religious leaders and Pilate.
As we begin Passiontide and turn towards Easter, do we recognise something new and exciting? Are we prepared to make extravagant gestures in our service, note it is service not for the sake of the gesture, to God and make all things new? Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
MARCH 2022: 27-MAR, 20-MAR, 13-MAR, 06-MAR, 02-MAR
PREVIOUS MONTHS: FEBRUARY, JANUARY
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2021, 2020
27 March 2022 – Mothering Sunday
As we continue to emerge from the Global pandemic we are needing to reimagine much in our day to day lives. Much has changed and we will not return to how things were before, and in so many ways we would not want to.
The last two years have hastened the use of technology for many things, some positively and some more challenging, especially if you are not comfortable with the changes. Appointments for many needs in our lives such as doctors, banks, shopping and indeed meetings are via our computers and phones. This has made access easier for some, but for others it is leading to ever more isolation. The importance of relationships has been emphasised in so many ways, as has care for one another, yet if we are not careful it is relationships that will suffer with the continued use of technology rather than people. It always amuses me that a security question on many online applications is a section that says ‘I am not a robot!’
As we reimagine our lives many areas need rethinking, societies’ attitude to women and those of different backgrounds still has a long way to go, and our ideas of motherhood have changed considerably since I grew up and mothers were still very much encouraged to put their own lives on hold to look after the family. Today we recognise that mothering is something beyond one person.
We all need to take care of one another, to mother one another, and that means being unselfish and loving, caring about others and our relationships with them. We see that in our readings today
Moses’ mother had seen her son born and flourish and then she had to hide him because his life was in danger. His sister watches over him, she mothers him until he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Then she brings his mother to nurse him while Pharaoh’s daughter adopts him as her own.
Mary nurtured and cared for her son Jesus, enabling him to grow and develop contributing to his ministry and authority. But she also saw him suffer hurt, agony, he was hated, and she suffered misery and anguish, as her son, Jesus tried to show others how to care for God and for one another.
Both Moses’ mother and Mary had to trust and allow their sons to go forward alone. One of the hardest things to do is let those we care for free to make their own decisions, to let them stand on their own two feet, and sometimes fail and get hurt. But we have to do that so that they can become their own person. Risks are part of that.
Because mothering should not be about smothering, ie, stopping us from taking risks, from growing and developing. God, as Father and Mother, wants us to grow, not to stay as children, but also not to lose the simplicity of childhood, God encourages us to live our lives, and to have faith that God will be alongside, as we grow and develop in our daily lives and in our spiritual life too.
God encourages and guides us. God comforts us when we fall. If we go and do something bad, or stupid, God comes to find us, God wants us to be part of this wider family.
Woven together, rather like that basket for the infant Moses, we can be strong, we can support, we are a community. Moses’ mother put her son in a basket and entrusted him to God’s care. As Christians we are all part of one body because we all share in one bread, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
The basket, woven together, is also a symbol of God’s loving embrace. God’s motherly love that holds all in joy and sadness, like the mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing, an image used by Jesus himself.
Jesus, as he died, entrusted his friend and his mother to one another. He knew that together they would support one another, he started a new relationship, as he recognized that we are all sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers in our Christian lives.
What brings this all together is love; the love of those who care for us throughout our lives, and the love of God. Love holds no boundaries, as we are woven into one in God
Today we celebrate those who mother us now, or have in the past, as well as mother Church, where we come together as the wider family of God. The family that Jesus started on the cross as he gave his life for us, and gave his mother into his friend’s care, and his friend to his mother in a new bond.
Together we are a family that celebrates in times of joy, a family that supports one another in difficult times, a family that grieves when part of the family is hurting and a family that shows God’s love in a world that is hurting and never more in need of God’s healing love. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
20 March 2022 – Third Sunday of Lent
- Be sure that you act on the message and do not merely listen; for that would be to mislead yourselves. A man who listens to the message but never acts upon it is like one who looks in a mirror at the face nature gave him. He glances at himself and goes away, and at once he forgets what he looked like.
James 1.22 & 23 NEB
On Ash Wednesday, as part of the liturgy, Lesley invited us ‘in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination …; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’ And this Lent, the theme for our sermons is ‘Self examination,’ and on that basis I’ve taken a bit of a liberty by using a passage of scripture that we didn’t hear today, as a starting block for our thoughts. That passage came from the Epistle of James in the New Testament: a letter bearing the name of Jesus’s brother – though it’s uncertain whether that means that he wrote it or that someone else wrote it in his name. But whatever the case, there are many parallels in this letter to the sayings of Jesus that we find in the gospels, despite it having been unfairly categorised, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, as ‘an epistle of straw’ in comparison to Paul’s letters, on the basis that ‘it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.’ It’s a practical letter focusing on what we do and how we act rather than what we think or what we believe; and we hear in its pages a condemnation of pride, of hypocrisy, of favouritism, of slander. And this letter and its warnings are written to the Christian church. Perhaps that is why historically some elements of the church haven’t looked upon it so favourably.
Each day we use mirrors: when we wash and groom ourselves, when we dress ourselves. But often we associate looking into a mirror with narcissism or feelings of inadequacy, or (at least for me) feeling it’s all a bit of a faff. But the desire to be seen and reflected is basic and innate, and mirrors can often help to change our perspectives and expose parts of ourselves that are sometimes hidden, as we look out into the world. They bring us face-to-face with our own selves and help us in our understanding of who we are.
But often the Bible is seen more like a window on to the world, helping us to see – through its stories – how the world is and how the world could or should be. However, seeing the Bible simply as a window is perhaps just a little too safe. The people, the events, the lessons, that we view through this window of the Bible are ‘out there’, we are not part of it; what is written and related has little impact on us: we stand comfortably behind its safety glass.
The 19th-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard argued that, actually, instead the Bible should be used as a mirror – we ourselves are part of the picture, there in the middle of what is going on and of the stories being told. We are not merely spectators of the stories, viewing them simply as drama of or lessons for someone else, but we need to directly involve ourselves into the stories. He believed it was not good enough only to ask questions of what is going on in the stories, but the questions should be of ourselves. It is us who should be called into question; the stories should make us question ourselves.
He says don’t look at the mirror, don’t behold the mirror, but rather see yourself in the mirror that is ‘God’s Word’, and in everything that is read to constantly say to ourselves: that’s me who is being addressed, it is to me this passage speaks.
Recently, you may have caught the BBC documentary ‘Stacey Dooley Inside the Convent’. (It’s still on the BBC iPlayer if you haven’t.) It follows the presenter as she spent ten days living alongside the 23 nuns of St Hilda’s Priory in Whitby, and allowed the viewer to learn of the new insights into her own life that confronted her during that time.
In the programme, there is one scene where the sisters meet together for their weekly bible class. After listening to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the prioress Sister Jocelyn asked ‘[so] how do you relate to any of those characters?’ And one of the older devout sisters – Sister Allison – responded that she knew, in herself, that she probably would be somewhere in the company of the priest and the levite, those who passed by on the other side and failed to engage with the person in need on the road. And another, Sister Grace, who sat two from her, expressed relief as she was feeling shame for thinking exactly the same. Stacey, who had joined the sisters in this activity, shared her thoughts: that their study group gave opportunity for the sisters to dissect biblical passages, to work out how they could be related to modern everyday living. The stories were not simply fossilised in the age in which they were written, but they reflected our own selves to back us.
But we need to be careful that, in all this self-examination, it does not in turn into all become self-absorbing and self-indulgent. Lenten discipline has always focussed on the church calling individuals to examine their self, that is each individual’s own person. But ‘self’ can also relate to our wider social, family or religious group. It is not good enough simply for the church to ask its members individually to see themselves in scripture’s mirror. The church itself is a community …, a society…, a family… of God; and, therefore, there is also a need for self-examination in a collective approach.
Going back to Stacey and those sisters in Whitby, they recognised – in the Good Samaritan story – how often in life they too could simply pass by on the other side of the road when need and danger presented itself. But they didn’t seem to see beyond that: to see their own faith and church was also reflected. The priest and levite pass by on the other side, as they go up to Jerusalem, to the Temple, focussing on their duty to God. The implication isn’t necessarily that they are hard-hearted in failing to empathise and step in to help, though that may be in play as well. But as religious people, they would realise that to stop and help would place this person in need above their call to put God first in all things and keep to the word of God in scripture. Going across, to check if the man on the road was still alive, would have made them ritually unclean if, when they touched him to check, he turns out to be dead. And in that situation, their faith told them they would not be allowed to continue to the Temple to worship God.
How often, in looking in the mirror of that story, do we also see reflections not only of ourselves – in how we act and think and do – but also of how our church may react and respond? How our faith, our beliefs, and our scripture are also starkly reflected back to us in its telling? How piety, prayer and practice, with their focus on our relationship with our God, may blind us to being open to finding God incarnate in our neighbour, in the stranger on the street, in the situation that challenges our belief and takes us away from our religiosity?
As we continue through Lent, particularly as it turns darker – as we begin to anticipate the story of Christ’s suffering and death in Passiontide, hold up the passages we hear in the Bible and look, to find in them ourselves and our faith and our church staring back out at us. As we check the ‘mirror’, allow that mirror to keep us in check. And beware of Christ’s own warning that in focusing in on the failings of others, both in those stories and in our living, the speck of sawdust that we criticise in another’s eye is not simply the whacking plank of wood in our own, seen in the convex mirror of that story or that other person.
But importantly, don’t allow your self-examination of ourselves, our community, society and churches, become tiring and fruitless, simply an exercise of introspective concerns. Allow the focus of self-examination to make us more understanding, more forgiving, more welcoming, more accepting of others and their perceived shortcomings.
Remember, like any mirror, the bible can only reflect back to ourselves, because of the light in the space where the mirror is. In a room that is dark, you won’t see any reflections in a mirror. An image is only ever formed when the light gets reflected. Reflection is nothing more than a phenomenon of light.
So, the bible only works as a mirror if we ‘open the curtains’ and allow the light of Christ to break in to the darkness. There is no point straining our eyes in the dark; no matter how much time and effort we expend, the mirror won’t work, there will be no reflection.
The reflection of ourselves and our groupings, of our churches, no matter how unexpected or uncomfortable or unwanted or shocking, are exposed not to condemn but to change. It is the light of God’s love, of God’s acceptance, of God’s inclusion, of God’s embrace, that allows us to see our reflection, that allow us to adjust, that allows us ourselves in turn to become a mirror of the light of that love, acceptance, inclusion and embrace.
13 March 2022 – Second Sunday of Lent
What does Jerusalem mean to you? Maybe you think of Jerusalem the Golden that we’ve just sung about. A place of plenty and peace for everyone. Or heaven, in other words. Or maybe you think of the William Blake poem that has become the hymn Jerusalem, when we sing about building God’s kingdom among the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution.
Jerusalem is both a metaphor for heaven and a real place. It has always been a troubled place. According to Wikipedia, Jerusalem has been been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.
I was lucky enough to go to Jerusalem when I was a teenager. We went to visit family who live in Tel Aviv. I remember it as a busy, sunny place with a lot of ancient brick walls. Our tour guide had a gun on his hip, which was a shock.
My mum had been ordained as a deacon, and possibly even a vicar, by that point. Because of that, the guide was very keen to show us all the places where Jesus had been. And there are a lot of those in Jerusalem! Me and my younger brother got bored towards the end and I remember my mum looking a bit sheepish that it was taking so long.
In our gospel reading, we find Jesus in Jerusalem and in a tight spot. Herod wants him dead and for once the Pharisees are trying to help by helping him to leave. But he says no. A Jewish man, who is given a way out of a dangerous situation, who chooses to stay and face the music. It’s funny how a book written thousands of years ago can still feel relevant today.
Jesus is despairing – not about his circumstances but that Jerusalem keeps turning him away. He longs to take the city under his wings, like a mother hen. If you have ever seen or touched a real life hen, you’ll know that they are gentle, calm creatures. Their feathers are soft to the touch. They take their time when they walk.
When life is hard, who wouldn’t want to be sheltered from the world? And yet, like Jerusalem, we turn God away. We try to do things on our own and don’t ask for help. Well, I can’t speak for any of you but I know I do sometimes. When Lesley asked me to give this sermon, I was a bit taken aback. I haven’t got time, I thought. And since then I have had Covid and now my husband has it too. I have an essay due in this Friday for a course I’m doing. I have a full-time job and a dog to walk.
And in any case, I’m no Bible scholar. There are many people here today who know their Bibles much better than me. And yet here I am. Sometimes God asks things of us that we don’t even know we can do. They can be small things, like getting to know a neighbour who we don’t like. Or they can be the bigger things, like becoming a server here in church, or standing up to a bully who wants to put us down.
Of course, God can only ask us to do things if we are ready to listen. We have to make time to talk to Him and it’s not always easy. Like any relationship, we get out what we put in. Last week Lesley talked about the self examen prayer, where you bring the day before God and how you feel about it. I find that a good way to let God in.
And even if we do manage to pray, we don’t always get a big loud reply. The other day I was walking the dog and had something on my mind I couldn’t shift. I felt something click into place and like God lifted a small weight. It didn’t solve the problem but it was enough to make getting through the day easier.
Prayer can also be hard because it sometimes feels like we are talking to ourselves. It can also feel a bit pointless to pray for Ukraine when hospitals have been bombed. Why can’t God stop wars, people ask, as they look at the horror unfolding in Europe and many other places. I suppose the answer is that we have free will and we can use it for evil as well as good.
So as we think about what we will do during the week ahead, let us do our best to carve out a few moments to sit with God. To put aside what is on our minds and troubling our hearts. It is in those moments that we can feel the wings of God, as a mother hen, soothing us and giving us strength for things we didn’t think we could do. Strength to do good in whatever way we can.
6 March 2022 – First Sunday of Lent
Lent is one of those times in the Church year that is very much about a space to reflect, to take time to think about our relationship with God, and this year we have taken as our Lent theme, self-examination.
An opportunity to take stock, to think about our faith and what God might be saying to each one of us, and what that might mean in our daily lives and our spiritual journey. Perhaps after the disruption and changes of the past 2 years our lives have moved on and so now is a good time to take that space.
So what do we mean by self-examination? There are plenty of television programmes and articles encouraging us to look after our health, to ensure we know our bodies, to check for unusual signs and symptoms and seek help if things are not right. That is one form of self-examination and very important.
Another is where we are in our lives. In many roles in life, especially study and careers, as part of our self-knowledge and growth, we are required to look at our strengths and areas for development. There are many tools to help us do this. Self-assessments that identify skill sets, management or learning styles, and others where we seek feedback from others who know us well. One I found particularly interesting was called the 360 degree assessment, and for this people who worked for me, as well as those who worked with me, all gave feedback on my management style. The results, as the name suggests, gave a view from all perspectives. Some were not a surprise, but some insights were fascinating, because we think we know ourselves, but how others see us can be completely different, depending on the role that we are in, also means that we will be seen in different ways.
But what about our spiritual self-examination? What are the tools for that, and where do we start?
Well prayer is always a good beginning, but that in itself can be difficult for many, how do I pray? Even Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray, and he gave them a structure which we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
When praying, a good way to begin is with space to think, to be still and set aside the buzz of everything around us. It is why people go on retreat, to leave the daily ‘to do’ list behind and focus on wellbeing, in this case our spiritual wellbeing. Be still and allow yourself to feel God’s presence, and sometimes that very presence can come to us in the most unexpected places.
Structure may be helpful, and the Self Examen Prayer might be the place to start if structure is for you. It enables us to remember that our relationship with God needs intention, time and attention. The prayer was introduced by Ignatius of Loyola, who was born in the 15th century, and it is now part of the Ignatian Spirituality. This is a spirituality for everyday life, which insists that God is present in our world and active in our lives. It is a pathway to deeper prayer, decisions guided by keen discernment, and an active life of service to others
Ignatian spirituality is rooted in the conviction that God is active, personal, and, above all, present to us, and this prayer helps us to see God’s hand at work in our lives and to discern God’s direction for us. Ignatius recommended that it should be used at noon and the end of the day, many nowadays use it at the end of the day as a helpful way of reflecting on the day.
In this prayer we take time to become aware of God’s presence, we are still; and then review the day with gratitude, note finding the positives not immediately looking at what did not go so well. As we pay attention to our emotions, our feelings, we then choose one feature of the day and pray for it. That may be facing up to a challenge or what is not so positive in our lives and leaving this with God, and then we leave the prayer as we look toward tomorrow.
Ignatius thought this prayer was a gift from God to be shared as widely as possible. It reflects on the positive, not the negative, and given the darkness that we have all experienced in recent years that emphasis is a helpful one. Whenever we look at ourselves, be it in a work role, our daily life, or our life with God, giving thanks for the good, thinking about what has worked and being thankful is always a positive way to begin, and will encourage us to look at those areas which are not going so well in a different light. Whenever we receive feedback, if the first thing we are given is the negative, we will not hear the positive, so think and reflect back to others the positive first, then reflect on what may need changing or improving.
Lent too is like that. So often it is seen as a negative season, rather than the opportunity to step back, reflect and make space. Space to reflect on our life, our relationship with God and how that might be transformed.
Our Bishop, Guli, is encouraging us all to use Lent as Holy Sabbatical, a time to rest and be in the presence of God. A time to be open, to listen and to seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, as we seek to be transformed. In the desert Jesus was seeking that space, that opportunity to rest in the Lord, to understand his own identity and to seek to know the will of God in his coming ministry and journey with God. It is that will that we all seek as I so often return to those words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, your will not mine be done.
But to do that will we need to take time to examine ourselves and to rest in God. ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11.28) I encourage you to take time to go into the desert within, that inner soul, to confront our doubts and distractions and move to a new place with God, a place f growth and joy.
This Lent do not dwell on the negatives and the temptations, but set aside time, perhaps using the Examen Prayer to give space to God, to listen to what God is saying to you, and to look at ways in which you can draw closer to God. And above all take time to rediscover the joy in our lives, as I leave you with poem from the 14th Century by the Persian Poet Hafiz.
I sometimes forget
that I was created for Joy.
My mind is too busy.
My Heart is too heavy
for me to remember
that I have been
called to dance
the Sacred dance of life.
I was created to smile
To be lifted up
And to lift others up.
O’ Sacred One
Untangle my feet
from all that ensnares.
Free my soul.
That we might
and that our dancing
might be contagious.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
2 March 2022 – Ash Wednesday
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season–a season that begins with dust and ashes–an ancient tradition, symbolizing our humility before God. The Ash Wednesday liturgy calls us to see ourselves as we truly are; to reflect on our attitudes, actions, and priorities; and to return to God through penitence and prayer. This is the beginning of a 40 day journey, a journey from brokenness to restoration; from darkness to light; from fear to love; from mourning to celebration; and from ashes to joy.
In some ways the past 2 years have felt like a long never ending season of Lent. It has been a time of fasting, self-denial, and giving up; a time when people and things have been lost or taken from us; a time that is continually pointing to our mortality and the fragility of life. What are you doing with all that, and also what is all that doing with you? Our mental wellbeing has been highlighted as never before, yet there is also our spiritual wellbeing too.
In one of the readings appointed for Ash Wednesday, from the Prophet Joel, God proclaims; “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Joel 2: 12-13)
In her sermon on Sunday, as she reflected on the mountaintop meeting with God of Jesus and three of his disciples, Hilda posed the question, how are we going to discover new ways to meet with God and help to grow in faith? She went onto say that she feels that God is more interested in what we have the potential to become, rather than what we have been, a thought I agree with and in that I see echoes of our reading from Joel. God calls us to turn away from the past and to turn to God, and Lent is the perfect time to reflect on that. Lent is all about returning to God, a God who desires to be in relationship with us.
But after all the uncertainties of the last 2 years, and the concerns about world peace now, are you feeling distanced or disconnected from God? Are you as close to God as you want to be? Do you need to draw closer to God? Do you need to return to God this Lent? All of these questions, as well as those I posed earlier, about our mental and spiritual wellbeing, invite us to think about ourselves and our relationship with God, a theme we will explore in more detail in our Lent sermons. Such reflection requires us to be open and honest with ourselves, not always easy or comfortable, yet God will be there to listen.
This Lent, God invites us to come home to God, to receive God’s restoring grace and feel God’s loving embrace. The choice is yours. How are you going to spend the next 40 days?
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
FEBRUARY 2022: 27-FEB, 20-FEB, 13-FEB, 06-FEB
PREVIOUS MONTHS: JANUARY
PREVIOUS YEARS: 2021, 2020
27 February 2022 – Sunday next before Lent
Let’s get a bit of context
This morning in our Gospel reading we come to a pivotal point in the life of Jesus, and that’s his transfiguration. It comes at the end of his Galilean ministry and points ahead to his passion. After the transfiguration, Jerusalem becomes the only direction of travel.
At this point in the story the disciples have been with Jesus for nearly three years. And after all that they have seen and learned; Christ brings them to a moment of decision by asking them a question. In Luke 9 and verse 20 ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter responds, ‘you are the Messiah sent from God.’
Shockingly for the disciples, Jesus uses Peter’s profession of faith as the occasion for announcing his own upcoming passion – he says…‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’
Jesus goes on to tell them that not only will he suffer but anyone who follows him should be ready to suffer too. That must have come as a real shock to the disciples.
We know that they struggled constantly with trying to understand Jesus’ identity and his mission; and if we are honest, so do we.
But we know that afterwards they looked back and reflected on the things Jesus said and did, and it all started to make more sense. So, let’s try to make sense of it today.
What is the Transfiguration?
A few days after this conversation, Jesus takes Peter, James and John on a prayer retreat to the top of the mountain. While they are up there Jesus gives these frightened men, a glimpse of the future, and reveals to them his heavenly origin. And that’s our subject this morning.
What happened essentially is this, the appearance of Jesus changed, so that he looked as he would look in the future. Peter, John and James may have seen a few miracles until now, but this time they see something completely other worldly.
This is a glimpse of how Jesus will look after his death, and after his resurrection and ascension. In V29 we are told that ‘…the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.’ You see it’s very similar to the description of Jesus that we have in Revelation chapter 1. In Revelation, John said that ‘his face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.’ The descriptions are essentially the same. It’s something indescribable, mystical, heavenly, which is why we might find it hard to understand when we read it in the text.
You see, human wisdom alone will not help you to see and understand Jesus – we need a revelation from God. We see earlier in Luke 9, the disciples struggled to understand the fact that Jesus was the Son of God, and we see now Peter is completely at a loss when he is immersed in the heavenly reality of it.
But the disciples needed this. Because in the next few days, they were going to see the face of the Christ they loved battered and bruised, as he was beaten. In fact, Isaiah says that the face of Jesus was so disfigured that it was beyond recognition. And before they get there, God is saying to them, ‘look what lies beyond the cross. Yes, there is going to be a lot of suffering in Jerusalem, but I want you to see what it will look like in the end because the Christ that you love, is going to be exalted in glory. The kingdom you’re investing your life in, is not some lost cause, it’s not going to dwindle away into failure. You’re part of the kingdom that will never end.’ We are all part of God’s kingdom that will never end.
We serve a risen Christ, who sovereignly moves history towards its climax, and on that day, he will be revealed in glory. As disciples we need this understanding, otherwise we get discouraged when we look around and see the state of our world. If we’re going to sustain lifelong devotion to Jesus, we need this glimpse of the future. This should inspire us to live on a higher plane in the face of life’s difficulties.
Luke tells us that what Jesus was discussing with Moses and Elijah during the Transfiguration was concerning his departure which he was going to fulfil in Jerusalem.
And we know now that the departure is going to involve a journey through rejection and death to exaltation. And it would bring freedom to many, as the exodus from Egypt had done, but on a cosmic scale.
But what does it mean?
I can’t imagine that at the end of that awe inspiring experience the disciples just shrugged their shoulders, put their coats back on and went back to business as usual. From now on, the disciples are more committed to Jesus even if they don’t understand fully what Messiah means. That experience changed them forever, it left an impression on them. We know that because later on they recalled the experience and now it all made sense. And we know that later on in their ministries both Peter and John went on to mention it in their letters. It was a life defining moment for them.
Many of us have our own equivalent of mountain top experiences, those life- changing moments, every now and then, that alter our perspective. For us it may come as a fleeting experience in worship or prayer, or even here at church. Of course, we know too well that life isn’t all mountain tops. There’s valleys too.
Transfiguration experiences may encourage us to a fresh vision, but they do not rescue us from the realities of life. Real life is where the vision must be worked out. It was the writer C.S. Lewis who pointed out that while heaven may be beckoning, you still have Monday morning to get through.
And for us living in this part of London, our equivalent of mountain top and back to earth are very close together.
This ‘mountain top’ of St Edmund’s is yards away from Morrisons and other shops where the tills will start to ring in a few minutes, if they haven’t done so already, and they are surrounded by places where work is done, money is made, jobs lost. How unstable our economy is now, we struggle with the idea of ever-increasing fuel bills, inflation fast rising yet wages remain the same. We have many in our communities who are finding it hard to make ends meet.
What does that say to us? How might our mountaintop experiences make a difference in the realities of life?
We know from the Bible that when Moses went up the mountain, he had his own encounter with God. In our Epistle reading, Paul says that, when Moses came down the mountain with the ten commandments, his face shone with reflected glory. You and I are called to be up there with Moses, with Peter, James and John, gazing on the Lord’s glory with unveiled faces. And if we catch just a glimpse, then the Spirit of God will begin to change us, so that what we have seen of God we start to reflect in the world; and that will begin to make the world a better place. That is God’s call to each of us.
I’m going to New Wine conference tomorrow. I know that spending time in God’s presence, listening to his word, worshipping, and praying with others, I’ll come back transformed. I know that because this is my experience of New Wine. It’s a way of recharging my spiritual batteries. A kind of transfiguration experience that gets me equipped to continue my Christian life and ministry in a more useful way and helps me avoid running on empty.
There’s obviously that buzz that I feel from being around other people and other Christians, and prayer, and worship, preaching and sometimes some really special moments of encounter with God. But after a while, the buzz kind of fades, but what you’re left with is solid growth, better prayer times and a maturity of faith that you can draw on come Monday morning when the gas prices have gone up again.
Whenever we meet with God, we are changed. And, like Moses, we may not notice any difference, but others will, and do.
The bottom line
So, here’s the question: How can we discover new ways to meet with God and help us grow in our faith? And how can we use that growth in everyday life and bring heaven down to earth? It may help to ask yourself: ‘How do I make space for my own times of transfiguration?’ And how can I make sure that those moments make a difference afterwards?
Well, here’s an idea, Jesus’ transfiguration takes place during a time of prayer. Lent begins on Wednesday, it’s a good time to seek more of God, as we follow Christ on his journey to the cross and beyond. It’s a time to listen to Jesus; to see in what ways our lives can be transformed by his life. You might want to get to grips with the Bible, join the Lent course, learn to pray more regularly, how about fasting, the ideas are endless.
Too often, I worry that Lent has been used to induce guilt and make us feel bad about ourselves. I believe God is more interested in what we have the potential to become rather than what we have not been. I wish you a meaningful and life transforming Lent. Amen.
Hilda Gilbert (Associate Minister: St Andrew, Walthamstow)
20 February 2022 – Second Sunday before Lent
You may not be familiar with Rembrandt’s painting of the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, for it was stolen back in 1990 (probably the biggest art theft in history). Its empty frame still hangs in a museum in Boston (Massachusetts), but the painting’s whereabouts is still unknown. If you don’t know it, google it after the service. It is very striking, and depicts the disciples panic-stricken, amid a sudden violent storm, struggling frantically to regain control of their fishing boat. As the sky darkens, the clouds glower and the sea churns, a huge wave beats the bow, dramatically tilting the boat, filling it with water. It rips the mainsail – the rope lashing the boat, which veers perilously close to nearby rocks, on which it could founder. In terror, one disciple (holding on to his hat) tries to steady himself clinging on to a rope; another vomits over the side. Whereas some react in total panic gathering around a somewhat-tranquil Jesus seated at the rear of the boat, five others stick to the sail and work, attempting to hold the boat together. Yet despite their efforts, nature appears to be winning and it would seem that all are to be likely to drown.
The story appears in the each of the first three gospels, and today we heard Luke’s telling of it, which probably is the one with slightly less detail. But in each, it is Jesus who instigates the sea crossing. Matthew states and Mark implies that Jesus was already in the boat when he calls across to the disciples ‘’Ey up! let’s go across to the other side of the lake.’ (Like a child or dog who jumps into a car, intently staying put there, in order compel the parents or owners to take him where he is determined to go.)
Things prior to this had been going pretty well. Jesus had definitely made some impact and had got quite a crowd travelling around with him, including (importantly) some wealthy women who had sufficient money to finance the group. There’s an implication in the gospel that things weren’t particularly smooth between Jesus and his family, but (hey-ho) the disciples were probably heartened by Jesus’s rather cutting sideswipe that at the end of the day his family are those who actually act on what God is saying through him. A point emphasised in the story of the sower, told earlier in the chapter.
So! not surprisingly, they show this by acting on what he says. They clamber on board, leaving the hooked crowds behind. (Well, not quite so: Mark says other boats set out with them, perhaps packed with some of their most fervent groupies.) And Jesus settles down at the back, in the stern, and – as the disciples sail the boat – he falls asleep, drowsing with his head on a pillow.
This is a detail provided only in Mark’s gospel, but an interesting one, nevertheless. It was beneath the stern deck, in the storage area, a cramped tiny space, that this reading implies is where Jesus curled up asleep, with perhaps one of the sandbags (used for trimming the boat) as his pillow. Very much a different picture to that conjured up by Rembrandt: where Christ sits on the stern deck, in a haven of calm, far removed from the harsher reality: of exposure to the weather, with the helmsman struggling there, in charge of the rudder.
And the predicament in which the disciples find themselves may seem like how some (perhaps less traumatic) twists and turns in our lives can seem. How many times, when things are going particularly well, when our lives are cruising along across placid waters, that – out of the blue – we are hit (as it were) by a freak wave? One day, all is fine, all is good, all is as desired, when unexpectedly, without warning, all that comes crashing down. It might be an intentional attack; a chance event; a realisation that what we assumed – isn’t actually as it really is; an illusionary deep-held belief that no longer sustains us; a relationship that dies; a friendship that runs out of steam; actions that surprise; words said that cannot be retracted. And perhaps for us, for those who trust in God, it can sometimes feel that danger or difficulty hits exactly as a consequence of living a life of faith or responding to God’s call and challenge. And when that does happen often it can feel that we are left standing in a very God-empty place.
The disciples, when confronted by the danger of the storm, knew where to find Jesus. They go over to the stern, lean into his sleeping cubby-hole, and shake him out of his slumber, berating him ‘Don’t you care we are perishing?’ Their faith in him dissolves. His presence in the boat seemed to have guaranteed nothing. They risk losing everything, they face drowning, and their Messiah is hidden away below deck, dormient and inactive.
A hidden God is a hard and difficult concept to understand and to accept. But that is the God we often find in Christ – hidden … but hidden in plain sight. In past weeks, in the Sundays following Epiphany, we have been looking at how Christ is manifested to the gentiles, manifested in the world. And yet, despite his public ministry, his life has a hiddenness to it. Christ is hidden in his mother’s womb during his gestation. Christ is hidden abroad as a refugee as his family flees the wrath of a fearful king. Christ is hidden for thirty years in an ordinary life lived without notice. Christ is hidden as he hangs among a forest of hanged men on crosses, struggling not to breathe out their last and final breaths. Christ is hidden deep in the tomb, in the darkness of death. Christ is hidden when he returns to his Father. Christ is hidden here among us sacramentally.
However, being ‘hidden’ does not mean ‘not being there’. The danger that the disciples faced might be seen as brought upon them by the decision of Jesus, to overlook the changeable nature of that beautiful deep-blue inland lake nestling surrounded by the hills of the Galilee. (Its very location creating this real threat of such sudden and violent storms.) But he is there in the boat with them when the storm hits.
Seemingly hidden, silent, aloof on his cushion, as all others worked and struggled; in this situation, he becomes as vulnerable as them. The disciples’ accusation ‘Don’t you care’, echoes throughout history, whenever people struggle to understand and make sense of situations and tragedies and evils that hit them in life.
And when God feels hidden or remote or absent, or we feel abandoned by God, Jesus’s retort: ‘why are you afraid?’ ‘why are you so timid?’ ‘why such scant belief!’ ‘how little is your faith!’ may seem harsh or accentuate those feelings. But the story and the rebuke challenges our simplistic understandings and picturing of God, as a power-based deity, as some type of superhero Bob the builder, who will always responds to the question ‘can you fix it?’ with a ‘yes I can.’
The God we meet in Jesus is much more nuanced than that. The emphasis is on the presence of God. In the danger confronted on the lake, Jesus – though seemingly hidden – is there; he is with his disciples and remains with them until the danger has passed and beyond. He is there by their side; he is there in the danger of drowning; he is not distant nor indifferent – but emerges and stands in the midst of the terror, confronting it, shouting ‘be still!’
In every person, in every event, God is present, even if we only perceive God’s absence. Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) put it this way, ‘God is no longer merely a God up there, but God surrounds us from above, from below, and from within: [God] is all in all.’ And our other readings today remind us of that: for the God of creation is the God who is before we were; the God of Revelation is the God who is after we have been; and the God revealed in Christ is the God who is being here with us – ever present, and not just a God of the good times.
13 February 2022 – Third Sunday before Lent
Last week I spoke about feeling worthy, and this week our readings are focusing on faith and how this is important to our lives. Life is not about earthly goods and power, but belief and faith in God.
If you think about the huge history and the future of planet Earth as a long line and randomly pick a point on that timeline, the overwhelming likelihood is that you will not be alive at that point. We do not live in the time of the dinosaurs; we will not live in the 23rd or 24th century like the heroes of Star Trek. We live now. For good or ill, this is our time, and time not to be wasted, because extraordinary though it is, we are made in the image of God, and God wants us to use the time we have well.
Every human life is exceptionally precious, and is filled with value, meaning and purpose. And somewhere in our planet’s timeline there is a brief spark that is you, but if that is all we are, just a brief spark why bother doing anything worthwhile, why not just live our lives for ourselves? Philosophers down the years have promoted the philosophy of living life to its fullest extent because there is nothing else than this life. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” is the phrase used, and yet our readings today are very much advocating that there is more to our lives than this.
As Christians, we believe that there is much more, that this life is only part of our being, and how we live our lives now will lead onto something bigger. But the mysteries of God, such as the Virgin Birth, the nature of the Trinity or the resurrection of Jesus can’t be explained or understood by reason alone, faith is involved.
When people say that they cannot believe in God and that the Christian faith makes no sense, it’s often because they can’t get their heads round the mysteries of God and the presence of undeniable evil in the world. Human beings are capable of such terrible things and good people often suffer at the hands of others who use their power to hurt and dominate. Why does God let the sun shine on good people and bad people alike? Why do the wicked people prosper at the expense of others? Why doesn’t God do something to force the world to be more equitable and just? I am sure questions many of you have posed at some time.
These questions are not new and are part of an age-old reflection on why the world is as it is, and what our part is in all this.
One of the most mysterious things about God is that God gives us free will to decide for ourselves how to live and even to reject God’s love. Yet we are also given guidance about how to choose wisely and well. In all his teaching Jesus looks at what brings us closer to God and what will distance us.
When Jesus teaches his followers how to pray, he specifically includes the words: lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, because we all get tempted and tested. We need to think about our freedom to choose what kind of path we will take.
In the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), we sometimes hear about God as utterly beyond human comprehension and experience. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55.8-9).
This makes God sound essentially unknowable, so far beyond human reason and imagination that the mystery of God is impenetrable, so that we can only respond with awe, wonder and silence. What could we have to say to God, whose thoughts and actions are so far beyond us?
One who tried this was Job who challenges God, and God stuns him with the amazing miracle of creation, so much vaster and more incredible than a human lifetime: ‘where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ We can only ever scratch the surface of the mystery that is God.
In other places in the Hebrew Scriptures though, we come across different ways to describe God. Sometimes God’s power comes to the fore as a king or a judge or a warrior, but in other places God is imagined as a nurturer, a shepherd or a gardener, or as a parent, as a woman in labour or as a father.
One of the most extraordinary things Jesus did in his life and ministry was to tell his friends that they could relate to the mystery that is God, by going beyond such likenesses to being in immediate, intimate relationship with God.
But God’s love goes much further than this. It’s not just about learning how to live and how to understand the world, it is about turning ourselves around to be people who actively work with God to create God’s kingdom and to be with God after our lives are done. We have to learn to die to ourselves and our selfish wants. We have to learn to sacrifice. Yes this may mean that at times life does not go the way we either expect or planned, and that we will face challenges and difficulties that seem neither fair or justified.
At those times our faith may well be tested as we ask why me? A question that has echoed down the centuries, and like Job we too may not receive an answer that we expect, the mystery of God is that God who loves us is there and will be there for us, all we need to recognise that, is faith. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
6 February 2022 – Fourth Sunday before Lent / Accession Day
Today is the anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne seventy years ago. She was 25 years of age, and her father’s health was failing when she left the UK for Kenya on a tour, but one suspects she did not feel ready, or expect to become Queen at such a young age.
Initially of course during her childhood, unlike her own son and eldest grandson who have grown up knowing their destiny, she was not expected to become the monarch. Her grandfather was king and when he died her uncle Edward became king. Yet as we know Edward gave up his throne and Elizabeth’s father, a shy man with a stammer, who had never thought, or been prepared for the role, became Head of State. From that date Elizabeth’s pathway in life changed forever. At the age of 21 she made her now often quoted speech, in which she dedicated her life, be it short or long, to public service. This year she celebrates becoming the longest reigning monarch in our history.
There must have been times when she felt completely overwhelmed by the task, not least that day in February 1952, when not only was she taking on a new role but her beloved father, who knew what the role entailed, had died. But she has made no secret of the fact that her Christian faith has been a major part of her life, guiding and sustaining her as queen and in her life.
Thinking back over your own lives can you think of an occasion, or indeed a number of occasions, when you have felt overwhelmed, and not worthy of the task before you, or the trust placed in you? During those times what has guided and sustained you, what has given you the strength and courage to take the road ahead?
Perhaps it has been the support of those closest to you, encouraging you and reminding you of the talents and skills you have to offer, and perhaps it has also been prayer and your faith in God too.
There is a definite theme in our readings today, of all those called by God, that they were not worthy. Isaiah in the temple who sees that action is needed, but judges himself as a sinner and thus unworthy of God’s calling, yet is strengthened by God and says “Here I am, send me.’
Paul recounts the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection to many, and adds that Jesus appeared to him too, but says that as one who had persecuted the early Church, those followers of Christ, he was the least worthy. But God had a role for him, and called Paul, interestingly like King George VI, a man with a speech impediment, to spread the gospel. In mercy God thought that Paul was worthy of that calling.
Peter and the other fishermen knew what they were good at, fishing, and yet the day Jesus calls them from this role, according to Luke’s gospel they had had one of those days in this case, nights, where nothing goes right. They had spent all night fishing in waters they knew well and had caught nothing. They are no doubt tired and dejected, no fish meant no income, when Jesus turns up, commandeers the boat so that he can teach the crowds and then tells them to try again with their nets. Possibly more in hope than anything else they do let down their nets, and this time they are successful, in fact so successful their nets are in danger of breaking. Peter is fearful of Jesus’ power and begs him to leave him in peace, he is a sinful man and not worthy. Echoes here of Isaiah and indeed many others in the Old Testament.
Do not be afraid says Jesus, I have a role for you, sub text here being, I, Jesus, do consider you worthy. And in all this we see simple people called to do extraordinary things by God, as God continues to call simple people to do extraordinary things in today’s world.
During the last two years we have seen this in the everyday people who have done amazing things for others. Some have received accolades and awards, most have not, but their deeds have nonetheless made a real difference to the lives of those around them and often beyond as they inspire others too. Their love and kindness have been exactly what God called for. Did they say leave me in peace, I am not worthy? Possibly but they decided to go ahead anyway.
One of my favourite prayers is the Prayer of Humble Access. It says ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy.’ God recognises in each one of us the potential to be worthy, to do wonderful and extraordinary things, when we believe and trust in what God sees in us.
That does not mean everything will be plain sailing, it never is in life. We see that many times in the scriptures, Abraham leaving his family and homeland, Moses struggling with the leadership of God’s People, Jonah running away when God calls him to deliver bad news, and the Queen with all she has faced in the last seventy years would certainly echo that thought, that life will have its challenges.
What faith and belief does offer is the hope that we do not face all that is to be alone. We do not need to feel overwhelmed; fear may be there, as with Paul and Peter, but it does not need to paralyse us.
None of us is worthy of God’s calling, but God knows that, and calls us nevertheless, because God has work for us to do in letting others see and understand that God values and loves each one of us, and in that we have hope and strength for when that call comes. We may still want to say leave me in peace, and I am not worthy, but listen, as God has a role for each of us, and often more than one role too. God uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
30 January 2022 – The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)
The feast of Candlemas marks a bit of a turning point in the Church’s year. Whilst the rest of the world kissed goodbye to Christmas long ago – some people of course taking down the decorations and banishing the tree as early as Boxing Day these days, keeping the Feast of Candlemas is a bit of a reminder to us all that the good news of Christmas doesn’t stop after the presents have been opened – here is truly a gift that keeps on giving, and the really hardcore churchgoer might have actually kept their decorations up until today, which is officially the end of Christmas!
The strange thing about this is that, no sooner do we stop thinking about Christmas, than we start thinking about Lent – it feels way too soon yet for Easter eggs (now readily available in the shops, of course – but who eats an Easter egg in January?) but it won’t be long at all now before thoughts turn to pancakes, to what to give up for Lent, and to the forty days and forty nights where things become markedly less festive again. So, in many ways, Candlemas is a bit of a turning point for us all.
And that’s quite appropriate, because it was something of a turning point for pretty much everyone in the story too. It is rare to see in the Bible an assembly of people of various different ages and both sexes coming together – but here we have the infant Jesus, the young Mary and slightly older Joseph, and the comparatively ancient Simeon and Anna, both of whom we know fairly little about. For Simeon and Anna, today – where they see Jesus and Simeon recognises this little baby as the Messiah – today is for them, a day where their destiny is completed: and Simeon breaks forth into song to God saying ‘I can depart in peace’, effectively, ‘I’m happy to die now’, because he has seen the salvation of the world.
For Mary and Joseph, this must have come as another shock – I mean they’d had a few already hadn’t they! An angel visiting them, a virgin birth, wise men and shepherds turning up out of the blue, having to flee to Egypt. They were probably ready for a quieter life and no doubt were probably trying their best to forget some of the stranger things that had happened, in an effort to get on with bringing up their son and making a living. And yet, once again, here’s someone telling them their son is the Messiah. I wonder if Mary was tempted to reply “he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”
This was yet another reminder for Mary that she was no ordinary mother and her Son would grow up to be no ordinary Son. And for her, the elderly Simeon points Jesus towards his own future – away from the coziness of the crib and towards the pain and challenge that would be his birth-right. So the day must have been bittersweet for Mary, even if it was wondrous for Simeon and Anna.
It must have also been a strange day for the others in the Temple, who were there worshipping amidst gloriously plush surroundings. What was Simeon doing? Has he gone senile, singing and shouting over a little baby? How could such a tiny, feeble infant represent the salvation of anything? He had no might, no ability even to speak. Yet Simeon rejoiced and sang to God – he didn’t look to the grandeur of the Temple, but to the simplicity and wonder of the tiny baby, for his salvation.
What words of wisdom might I offer you as I myself seek to depart in peace, hopefully not to shuffle off this mortal coil, but at least, to cross the border into Redbridge? Well, perhaps sometimes we forget to be like Simeon. Unlike him, we will not see the baby Jesus in the flesh, but there is always a danger in getting lured in by the flashy lights and enticing beauty of grandeur. And you know what that looks like in your own life – because I might be able to define the things that lure me in, in my life, but they’ll be different for you. Have a think about it – what is it that really sometimes makes you want more, what is it that you get cross about other people having, that you don’t? We’ve all got stuff in our lives that we worship after all, and most of the time it’s not actually God at all, it’s all the other stuff – the stuff of worldly success. The sad thing about that is that it doesn’t ever actually bring proper happiness – because worldly success is a drug that is really alluring and addictive, we need ever more of it to satisfy our craving. Whereas, if we put even half the time into our faith as we do into the other stuff, I’m pretty sure we would be absolutely transformed people, and I very much include myself in that challenge.
See God in the small wonders of life. See God in the world around you. See God in the person next to you. Even, I dare you – see when God is at work in yourself, and just go with it. Maybe God is asking you to go and see that person down the road you know is lonely. Maybe God is asking you to be more generous with your money. Maybe God is asking you to leave something behind in your life. Maybe God is asking you to try to laugh more. Maybe God is asking you to forgive someone, or even to forgive yourself for something. Maybe God is asking you to be on the PCC, or to do coffee after church, or to help run children’s work. Maybe God is calling you to ordained ministry. What is God doing in you, in ways small or large?
Walking the pavements and cycling streets of this borough, you see an awful lot of people who look unhappy. Maybe they are just concentrating on getting somewhere – to Sainsbury’s then to Superdrug, maybe ten minutes in Costa before a trip to get the frozen stuff from Iceland and then on to the bus stop. Maybe they are actually deeply unhappy, I don’t know. We don’t spend our lives being happy, necessarily. But we do spend our lives being loved, whether we know it or not, by God who made us and who cares for us so deeply that he sent his own Son to die for us. And that, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, is why we come here. It’s why I’m a priest. It’s the essence of the Christian faith – and it needn’t be a secret from those who you see outside Greggs, or the Wishing Well, or Ladbrokes. In fact, it needn’t be a secret from anyone. And for all our sermonising and what have you, the message is surprisingly simple in what it boils down to. Because ultimately, no matter what dreadful stuff life has to throw at us, love wins.
23 January 2022 – Covenant Service (preached at joint service at South Chingford Methodist Church)
Epiphany is not just one day, when we celebrate one element in the story of Jesus’ birth, the visit of the Magi, but a whole season where we also pray for the worldwide mission of the Church.
As part of that we have the week of Prayer for Christian Unity which is coming to an end this week, and it is an apt time, we always think to share this Covenant Service as both Methodists and Anglicans, Christians united in our commitment to one God.
Covenant is primarily used as a legal term, a binding contract, but the covenants in the Bible are rather different. Covenant here is used as a way of describing the relationship of God and the people as one of mutual interaction. Yet so many times we see that the people get it wrong and view this relationship as one sided, they can do what they like and ignore God when it suits them, but that is not true relationship.
Time and again God offers something wider and it is clear in the prophecy of Jeremiah that this is not just a legal agreement. Yahweh, I Am, says I will be your God and you will be my people. This is a new covenant where all will know God, a God who will forgive and love each one, this is of the heart, it needs real commitment.
The Covenant Service is a renewal of our individual commitment to our relationship with God, but also as faith communities. It is relationship, not a contract, that underlines all, because God made humanity to be relational, and it is one of the reasons the lockdowns have been so difficult as they curtailed that coming together as communities in so many ways, we are not hermits by nature.
The intertwined nature of our relationship with God is one where God loves us and encourages us to abide, to stay or remain in that love. By following and accepting that we are not just called to act in accordance with that love, and care for God and others, but it is a commandment from God.
Relationships are not easy and can need work, so often if a relationship become too uncomfortable, we leave, be it a job, a personal relationship or even a church. And sometimes that may be the right decision for our own wellbeing. But overall tor Christians relational life is not casual – we are made in the image of God, even others who we can find it hard to like, let alone love, but all are loved by God.
A covenant is a solemn and mutually binding commitment, and in our covenant with God it is love, on both sides that is the commitment. The Covenant Renewal Service is about celebrating God’s commitment of love to us since the beginning of creation, as we commit ourselves to God. God has promised, and given and continues to give unfailing love, and as we enter into these solemn promises today we offer our love in return.
To abide in the Lord means that we continually believe and trust and remain steadfast as we walk with God, as we depend on God, yet do we?
Time and again we find in the Bible that those God has chosen do not obey and trust God. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s one instruction, that they not eat from a specific tree. Moses certainly had a few wobbles both in his early relationship with God, and as the leader of God’s Chosen People, David gets it wrong on many occasions, and Jonah runs away from the role God has called him to; you get my drift.
Because there are always two parts to this promise, and like all covenants in the Bible, it is God who instigates the relationship, and we can choose not to accept, we can even try turning away. But why would we refuse such a wonderful gift, when all we have to do is accept it? Well not quite all that we have to do. We need to understand that in committing ourselves to God and God’s love, we have a part to play in loving God, trusting God, and all that God has created. Not always so easy, just as those earlier Biblical characters found.
Many in the Bible got things wrong, yet God forgave them, as God forgives us in our wrongdoing and offers us the chance to start again when we recognise our error.
Ultimately Jesus died for us so that all our broken promises could be mended, in that new covenant, the cross promises us that God loves us, and loves us so much that God‘s Son died on the cross to save us from ourselves. As he died he declared, ‘it is done,’ the broken relationship with God was restored. In the garden of Gethsamene Jesus had momentarily hesitated, but vowed your will, not mine, and in this Covenant service that is what we say too.
‘I am no longer my own but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things.’
That promise goes on to say that we offer ourselves in all times, good and bad, challenging and clear cut. That is a lot to promise, but God does not ask us to do this on our own, but with and through God, who walks alongside us, yes sometimes even carries us, because God is always there.
God’s love for us, God’s creation is a promise we can rely on now and always, and how many other promises can we say that about? So let us renew that wonderful relationship, which offers us so much, with God and one another in our promises today. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
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 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.
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.
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