Some sermon notes since November 2017
Canon David Atkins was speaking to us on a day designated as All Saints’ Day, but also Guy Fawkes’ Day. With November 11th only one week away, this was truly a season or remembering. As we get older there is a natural tendency to live on memories. They are indeed a treasure house, a resource, and also a strong reminder that differences of opinion are far better settled in discussion than in violence. All Saints’ Day underlines our conviction that all, not just some, are called to be saints, to live lives worthy of the sacrifices made by so many in the past (and present). David spoke about the ongoing witness of a particular three “All Saints churches” known to him, in Norway, in Samoa and in Maldon, where David had himself been in charge. We must give thanks for the great multitude of witnesses that no-one can number. (Rev 7 v 9 )
Recalling seeing a German lady in the congregation in tears on Remembrance Sunday many years ago reminded Revd Alan Bolding that she also had relations who died in the war. We have to embrace our enemies. Although Alan’s father had many memorable experiences in Italy before he was injured in Monte Casino, war is evil, with Christian values of gentleness, generosity and forgiveness virtually forbidden. It seldom ends in real peace. Faced with a choice between evils some became pacifists, but many of those showed their bravery in the dangerous non-combatant roles they undertook. Jesus focussed his teaching on individual morality rather than state politics, and Alan tries to follow his example by loving his German and Italian friends whatever their nations have done. As individuals and as a church we are called to take the lead in spreading peace, never deliberately hurting others and apologising to them and to God when we fail. We should treat others as we would have them treat us, and pray for those who offend us, hard as that may be. Alan’s father recalled how a soldier inadvertently pulled the pin out of a grenade in a crowded Bell tent. Rather than run away he was fatally wounded smothering it with his own body to protect his colleagues. We should remember people like that, for remembering the past enables us to live in the present and have a life for the future.
Mrs Jenny Dorman led us through a psalm of exultant praise, which contrasts the immense love and mercy and forgiveness of God with so much of the world’s attitudes today. Justice was satisfied on the cross when Jesus died after a completely rigged trial’. We like to think of ourselves as “nice people” But we “have all sinned and gone astray”. However, we can face this fact because we know we are truly loved, as we are. We don’t have to “deserve” God’s love, as Martin Luther so famously affirmed. Do we feel refreshed after worship? Yes, but not because all burdens or concerns have been lifted. Life is more complex than that. But we are sustained anew. God’s loving nature is deeply concerned for the oppressed, the marginalised. The psalm looks back on times when God has delivered his people, again and again when they strayed. We do look towards heaven but our faith is much more about building the kingdom of God on earth. God’s love can’t be “switched off”. Jesus forgave even the soldiers who were crucifying him. We are allowed to make our own decisions, and whatever they are God will not reject us.
HERE AM I, SEND ME
This Sunday was (amongst several other designations) a celebration of “Christ the King”. Father John Thackray had recently attended a nostalgic Scouts’ Reunion. He had been impressed that so many of the leaders had always understood their scouting as an expression of their Christian Faith. John’s chaplaincy and church ministry had drawn very much on his own scouting leadership experience. He recalled a particular scout camp in Guernsey when there was talk about “What we might do / be in the future.” No-one laughed when someone said to John, “He’ll be a priest.” It was one of those moments when God had spoken to him, often in unexpected circumstances. As with Isaiah ( Chapter 6 v 1 – 8 ) there is sometimes “unequivocal revelation”. Some receive a “born again moment”. Some don’t. Both are valid, and the response to these moments must be “Here I am, send me”. John recalled, amusingly, a speaker talking about the Israelites “laminating their sins”. Although “lamenting” was what he meant to say, there was nevertheless a sense in which we do laminate our sins, seal them neatly and then perpetrate them all over again. The Matthew reading (Chapter 25 v 31 – 46) was part of a series of absolutely key parables, the apogee of Jesus’ teaching, delivered after he had entered Jerusalem following the Palm Sunday experience. They make uncomfortable reading; Jesus, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, looks for a response based on unconditional love, like his. We dare to believe that he went through that terrible week for each one of us.: John summed up by quoting his favourite hymn:
My God, I love Thee; not because I hope for heav’n thereby,
nor yet for fear that loving not I might forever die;
but for that Thou didst all mankind upon the cross embrace;
for us didst bear the nails and spear, and manifold disgrace;
And griefs and torments numberless, and sweat of agony;
e’en death itself, and all for man, who was Thine enemy.
Then why, most loving Jesus Christ, should I not love Thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heav’n, nor any fear of hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught, nor seeking a reward,
but as Thyself hast loved me, O ever-loving Lord!
E’en so I love Thee, and will love, and in Thy praise will sing,
solely because Thou art my God and my eternal King
JUST BE THE PEOPLE OF GOD
Revd John Edwards reminded us that on the first Sunday in Advent, we are of course to look back to the birth in the stable, but also to look forward to the promised second coming in glory, the day of judgement. The early Church believed this was imminent, but today people rarely give it a thought. But if they do, they probably think (quite logically) that they should consider carefully the way they are living in order to be among the sheep rather than the goats. But what did Jesus say? He said that we must be aware, watchful, awake. In other words, we must simply (as John put it) “be the people of God”. He looks for “a right attitude” a more God-centred attitude; not one of worrying about judgement but of rejoicing in the ever-present God strengthening us and helping us truly to be the people of God. Available to be of service and loving help to others. We can think of Judgement as scary, and it is. But scary things can be good. St Paul in writing to the Corinthian church emphasised that those who “were waiting and alert” would be strengthened. The words of the ancient hymn of the Church, the Te Deum also underline this wider meaning of “the second coming”.
We believe that thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants :
Whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints : in glory everlasting.
John concluded his exploration of his theme by reminding us of the vastness of the universe, the unimaginable concept of thousands of light years. With this in mind it is not hard to grasp that all of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection for us, eternity itself, is happening now “ in the pain and joy of living”. All the benefits are there to renew us, available NOW. God moving through us because (amazingly) “we are infinitely precious to Him.”
Mark Lewis spoke about responding to change. Embracing new ideas, challenges, areas of growth: always best tackled when you are “on the up and have energy”. Just the time – as it happens – when you feel least inclined to make changes. It’s painful and it takes time. People have to be prepared for change, for transformation. Easier said than done. Why? At a personal level there is insecurity. We feel too small to make a difference. “no-one is listening, we have no control”. 2000 years ago John the Baptist was a harbinger of change. A social misfit, no refinement, no concern for material things or bodily comfort. Simpy a message that must be proclaimed. He would be called a lunatic if he turned up in Woodford. We may not be able to effect change on the world stage, but just living out the Gospel is what’s needed, allowing God’s transforming power into our lives. Being prepared at a deep level. Dark forces can drag us down. But we must not be demoralised into indifference or despair. Disciple-living, living out our Christian principles in the warp and weft of daily life. (I Thess 5 v 16 – 24 and John 1 v 6 – 8 and 19 – 28)
NOTHING SHALL BE IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD
Revd John Edwards led us through the familiar story of the Annunciation, warning us that familiarity can blunt its impact. God, not Mary, is the central figure in the story. The same spirit that cast a shadow of creation in the book of Genesis casts its shadow over Mary, so all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are present. When Mary questions how she, a virgin, can bear a son, God’s angel reassures her that nothing shall be impossible with God. Although we are all God’s adopted children, Jesus is his only begotten son, divinity ‘veiled in flesh’, coming into a broken world so that we could become children of heaven.
The Bible tells us noting about Mary. She was an insignificant girl in a remote town, giving us an example of how God bestows his blessings on people who have nothing. Jesus didn’t need a good start in life. The force that drew God to earth is the gravity of love, reminding us that life is about relationships, not things. Sending Christmas cards may reconnect our relationships with people we seldom see and giving presents reaffirms our love. John has once again been reading Charles Dickens’ “ A Christmas Carol”, and just as that story is about Scrooge’s redemption so we, by even small charitable gifts and deeds can redeem ourselves and put ourselves on Christ’s side. At Christmas let us try to fulfil our two-fold responsibility: to be aware of God’s love for us and as a result be a blessing to others. God can empower even a small church like ours, so let it be according to his word.
31st December 2017
Diana Newlands reflected that the character of the year that was ending could be summed up in one word – uncertainty. There have been lots of issues during the year whose outcome remains uncertain, including Brexit, terrorism, the economy, North Korea, refugees and the American presidency. The question of whether Christians are failing their God if they share these very human feelings of uncertainty was one that she had discussed over many years with Ken Bray. What if we have feelings of uncertainty about our faith? What if there are times when we have doubts?
On reflection Diana realised that there is a very close relationship between uncertainty and faith, almost like two sides of the same coin. Certainty is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” as the writer of Hebrews put it. It is “trusting in something you cannot explicitly prove,” and acting on it. Hymn-writers have not shied away from the subject: Through the night of doubt and sorrow, onward goes the pilgrim band. But the words “ Don’t be afraid” also echo through the Bible. We must accept uncertainty, rejoicing when we feel confident that “the Lord is near” (Philippians 4: 4-5), and hang on and trust when we waver, remembering the poem quoted by George V1 in his 1939 New Year’s Eve broadcast:
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.’
If at times we can’t seem to grasp the hand of God, praise him for the community of our fellow Christians, holding on to one another as we go through the ups and downs and joys and sorrows of another year.
A POINTING FINGER
Revd Fiona Thomas delved into Acts 19 v 1-9 where we see Paul arriving in Ephesus and quizzing the disciples there (disciples: people who learn by following) as to whether they had been baptised in the Spirit. They had received baptism from John, and not surprisingly been impressed by him, but they had somehow overlooked the fact that he was pointing the finger towards Jesus. (The Renaissance painters always depicted him with a finger pointing away from himself). The Ephesians were people willing to learn; they grasped the significance and were baptised into Christ. This distinction John made was threefold: Jesus had greater strength. He had worth beyond measure (no slave could be worthy enough even to loosen his shoe buckle) and his baptism was not just for forgiveness, as was John’s but it was for the pouring out of his spirit. Mark (1 v 4 – 11) makes this abundantly clear in his account of Jesus’ baptism where he is identified as “the beloved son of God”. It is by our baptism into Jesus, said Fiona, that “ we are released into cycles of grace”. We learn to love the people entrusted to our care. We learn to live more simply and to remove things that distract. As best we can we attend to matters of justice and peace. Pointing away from ourselves to the one who has saved us.
CHRIST IN A CHANGING WORLD
Prof David Hatch began by admitting that “most of us don’t like change”. Even in our own church more accustomed than many others to change, we still “have our comfort zones.” But change is inevitable; we see it in Nature: “ Change and Decay in all around I see”. David went on to list many of the rapid changes in our lifetime , for example: central heating, washing-machines replacing the washboard and mangle, air travel, electronics of every kind. Most of these were “welcomed as improvements”. But less welcome for Christians were the bewildering changes in “the moral compass”. Issues of right and wrong seemed “more black and white” in the past. The breakdown of the extended family network and the waning influence of the Church, and the impact of social media had “watered down old-fashioned traditional values”. Society’s attitudes to sex and marriage had changed dramatically: for example towards unmarried mothers, homosexuality, living together before marriage, same-sex marriage. David was “not saying that the old attitudes were better. There was certainly a lot of hypocrisy and often a lack of care shown to individuals”. Other equally challenging issues range from things like abortion, euthanasia and gender re-assignment to mass immigration and the role of women in the church. Christians have of course historically been courageous agents for change; David mentioned Newton, Fleming, Pasteur, Thomas Coram, William Wilberforce, William Booth, Thomas Barnado amongst others. So “where can this Christian voice be heard today? The Archbishop of Canterbury had recently been censured by the BBC for talking too much about God in his Thought for the Day! Christians themselves will have come to different conclusions about social issues; some have been sacked or vilified in social media for their views. Society has become far less tolerant. What should be our view on the huge increase in abortion rates? On primary school children as young as four being sent to gender reassignment doctors? Prayer and Bibles study seem obvious places to start, but they “aren’t without their problems” Many of our issues don’t arise in the Bible, and it’s possible to find passages from Scripture to support almost any moral position. David didn’t pretend to have the answer. Bible Study , Prayer, Lent Groups together, all enable us to learn from each other (I Cor 14 v 26 – 33). We owe it to our Lord to form our own responses since “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. (Edmund Burke). And finally, for Christians, “It’s all about Love”. Take another look at Colossian 3 v 12-17